As countries go, Suriname is tiny. Its smallness is particularly apparent when measured against the enormous size of Brazil to its south and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to its north. In this former Dutch colony, dense jungle drapes most of the landscape, rugged banks of sand and clay take the place of cultivated beaches -- and the airwaves were once as unpredictable as the Atlantic swells that pummel its shores.
Imagine that: growing up in a country without radio formats, where you could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd, Herbie Hancock, Bunny Wailer, the Steve Miller Band and James Brown all within the same half hour, all on the same station. For the first 13 years of his life, Andre Sam-Sin knew nothing else.
"I never understood that Crystal Gayle was country and western music until I came to this country," Sam-Sin says. "I was exposed to a wide range of music -- country, reggae, salsa, funk, jazz, rock, our own native music [a salsa/African hybrid called kaseko] -- so when I came to the States, I was a bit disappointed. I gravitated toward the soul stations, but I also looked for anything that was connected with the Caribbean, especially reggae."
To say the least, Sam-Sin is a diverse product. He's part Asian, part Caucasian and part black, with a white mother from New York and a mixed-race father who's a native of Suriname. Sam-Sin was born in Holland, moving with his family to Suriname as a child and then to Texas as a teenager. Anywhere else such a diverse background might be seen as exotic, but in a city as racially heterogeneous as Houston, Sam-Sin is merely one of the multicultural masses.
But to his credit, Sam-Sin has never been content to remain just another face among the multitudes. He is among the multicultural few who have plumbed their sundry parts to create a sound that's as broad-based as they are. Over the last few years, beginning with the nightclub Soulstice, then moving on to Soular Grooves (Saturdays 9 p.m. to midnight on KPFT/90.1 FM), Soular Cafe at Rockefeller's and, most recently, 8.0 at 8:00 at (of course) 8.0, Sam-Sin has tried to create for his listeners the same undifferentiated wash of music he enjoyed as a child hooked on Suriname radio. His instrument of choice has been the DJ's turntable; his nom de guerre DJ Sun. Sam-Sin has had help along the way, primarily from friend and occasional business partner Andrew Chong, editor of Urban Beat magazine, but it's been mainly his baby. Finding an audience for his record-spinning vision hasn't been all that easy, but neither has it been as difficult as he'd been warned.
"I was told when I first started doing this that you can't really get a mixed crowd in Houston, because the city is so segregated," Sam-Sin says. "That's false. [I have] achieved it."
At 31, Sam-Sin could be considered a late bloomer. He was 26 when he bought his first DJ's rig, two outdated turntables and a worn mixing board he discovered at a Houston pawn shop. "[The turntables] were belt-driven, so I had to keep replacing the belts," he recalls.
Like most DJs, Sam-Sin got acquainted with the skill by making mix tapes for friends. Soon after he landed his first gig as DJ Sun, spinning at a party for an attorney pal, he updated his equipment -- though his standard setup remains little more than a pair of record players (albeit the best available) and a two-channel Gemini mixing board. From laying grooves for lawyers, he moved to a regular Friday night spot at the short-lived downtown nightclub Soulstice. DJ Sun's sets focused on acid jazz, and often drew the craziest, most diverse crowds.
But then, to Sam-Sin's dismay, Soulstice folded. New Year's Eve 1994 was his last at the club, so he moved his act to the radio, where he was heard by Chong. The pair decided to return the Soular notion to the clubs with a music/lifestyle event known as Soular Cafe. One night every few months, Sam-Sin and Chong would clear out the clutter of cocktail tables and chairs at Rockefeller's, transforming the somewhat staid Washington Avenue club into a way-hip enclave for "cool urban grooves" and wash-over-you, full-body stimulation. In the process, they hoped to encourage the sort of uniquely '90s, cross-cultural mingling one can experience in the trendier nightspots in Chicago, New York City and London.
But it was the music, as much as the mingling, that inspired Sam-Sin. Acid jazz's roots can be traced to London, where a DJ named Gilles Peterson coined the phrase in the late '80s. At the time, Peterson had been growing increasingly bored with the sterile acid-house beats he was spinning. To him, their sampled repetition and special effects were soulless. To liven things up a bit, Peterson began to wedge slivers of vintage jazz recordings among the frenetic electronic grooves.
"The way the story goes, [Peterson] nudges a buddy of his when he sees the kids are still dancing, and he goes, 'acid jazz,' and the term stuck," says Sam-Sin. "It was kind of an inside joke."
Peterson soon took his joke in a serious direction, founding the Acid Jazz label. It wasn't long before live musicians, singers and rappers got involved, and acid jazz quickly became something not only danceable and trippy, but worth taking home for a listen on its own merits. Soon enough, the acid jazz movement was nurturing its own poster bands, among them US3 and Brand New Heavies.
By 1994, New York had carved out its own niche in the acid jazz movement, thanks to the wildly creative, communal vibe generated by Giant Step, a roaming contingent of fans and promoters that many credit with single-handedly creating a scene on this side of the Atlantic. Giant Step, in turn, spawned Groove Collective, a multiracial outfit that offset the more traditional strains of big band and bebop with reggae, funk and hip-hop beats, with results that are distinctly urban and definitively American.
Much of that found its way to Houston via DJ Sun, even though Sam-Sin winces a bit at the term "acid jazz." "It's kind of a misnomer, and unfortunately it's not a very attractive one," he says. "People attach a lot of negative connotations to it -- drugs and all that. Now, you see a lot more going away from the term. When I went to New York, I mentioned the term acid jazz, and [people] were like, 'Man, there is no acid jazz.' "
To the ears, the so-called acid jazz experience contains elements so far-flung that an additional listing of genres -- namely hip-hop, funk, soul, reggae and Latin -- is necessary before any sound can be defined. But lists, says Sam-Sin, are confining, and the very restrictions he tries to avoid in his work.
For sure, restrictions are hard to hear on Soular Grooves, which, while it devotes considerable time to showcasing the latest talent, also delves into a kind of musical archaeology, uncovering artists who enjoyed only modest popularity in their day and placing them in a fresh context. Such rarity mining -- dubbed "rare groove" -- is Sam-Sin's passion, and is a major component of acid jazz.
"[People] started discovering these records out of the '70s that really didn't get a whole lot of exposure -- jazz/funk records by Roy Ayres, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, a slew of musicians," he says. "All of the stuff that was, at the same time, being sampled by hip-hop musicians."
As sometime partner Andrew Chong notes, "Soular Cafe is our attempt to establish an acid jazz scene here in Houston, like the scenes in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. It's happening; it's growing."
But not fast enough, it seems. For now, the Soular Cafe ritual at Rockefeller's has been abandoned indefinitely, as the hype over acid jazz has died down to be replaced in the hearts of clubgoers by the hype over the electronica craze. Even so, Sam-Sin is confident that acid jazz will continue to thrive as an "ongoing scene" -- and for a very good reason.
"That's because of the live musicianship," he says, "which allows it to grow."
Though the audience for acid jazz has been waning, the audience for DJ Sun hasn't. Sam-Sin remains in regular demand at clubs throughout Houston, and he has also taken his mixing skills on the road, turning in fully improvised performances on music festival stages from Austin to Toronto.
When Sam-Sin transforms himself into DJ Sun, he becomes a vinyl-packing ambassador of sounds both sparkling new and long neglected. His 8.0 at 8:00 series was begun to plug the latest releases from some of the more progressive artists making ripples nationally on the dance and hip-hop scene. Attendance at the CD release parties has been up and down, but Sam-Sin remains optimistic.
"We look for very open-minded people," he says. "We try to do stuff that's on the fringe -- those artists that people aren't normally exposed to."
Sam-Sin's DJ Sun persona features little in the way of image enhancement: no piercings or visible body art, no odor of hemp trailing him around, no die-hard street slang or expressions of dazed indifference. Dressed nondescriptly in a solid green T-shirt and jeans, his dark hair trimmed in a short, conservative style, Sam-Sin lays out few surprises -- he is, after all, an auditor by day, with an accounting degree from the University of Houston. But watching him go to work at 8.0, spinning copies of the latest release from Ambersunshower, the new-jack soul diva of the moment, it quickly becomes evident that Sam-Sin's liquid touch has as much to do with instinct as it does with the serious work he's put into his craft. Gingerly cuing up a track from Ambersunshower's Walter T. Smith with a pair of fingers on his right hand as another copy of the same release plays to his left, a headphoned DJ Sun is buried in his work, lost in the task of lining up the smoothest, most creative shift from one record to the next. From the way it sounds, he's found it, as the croaking, low-speed sway of Walter T. Smith's jazzy leadoff tune, "Look Around My Window," scratches briefly then melts in a rubbery cascade into the peppy, candy-coated psychedelic bliss of the album's fifth track, "Rhythm Child," which is now rotating free on Sun's right. It's like the two tunes, though different in almost every way, were never meant to exist apart.
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Of course, nary a soul among the scatter of humanity at 8.0 this night seems to appreciate the sweet transition, and that's pretty much the point.
"No one should ever turn their heads toward the DJ," Sam-Sin says. "Everything should blend -- be inconspicuous."
Sam-Sin, after all, is not there to be noticed. True to his own credo, he's there for the music.
DJ Sun hosts the next 8.O at 8:00 release party, for the James Taylor Quartet's Creation, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 27, at 8.0, 3745 Greenbriar. Free. For info, call 828-6183.