New York, 1999. The world was hurtling towards the close of the 20th century, gripped by the Millennium Bug, ballad-y rock music and Britney. In the studios of WNYU 89.1, Tim Sweeney, a freshman at NYU with a clutch of DFA promos and a few classes in computer music under his belt, was broadcasting to the immediate campus area with a fresh, unmistakably New York but characteristically undefinable sound.
With an added booster signal, Beats In Space grew and evolved. For 20 years now, it has broadcast weekly to an international audience, providing a snapshot of the week that was in left of centre dance and party music. The radio show has sprouted a record label and Sweeney has become a known and considerable quantity DJing in clubs the world over.
To mark 20 years in the game, Sweeney’s lined up a string of anniversary shows (including a party at Berlin’s Else next week), not to mention some commemorative releases plucked from the hordes of guests that have featured on the show. We caught up with him to discuss BIS, it’s history and place within electronic music today and, of course, you can’t have a conversation about it without mentioning Victor from Washington Heights.
What were the events and circumstances that lead to the start of the Beats In Space radio show?
I played on a couple different college radio shows when I was in high school and I think that really lit the fire for me to start Beats In Space when I started studying at New York University.
When you started out, could you see the show lasting 20 years? How do you think the show has changed over the years?
There weren’t any big 20 year plans with BIS when I started. I just wanted to be on the radio in New York and play my music for people. It’s basically stayed like that over the years. There are more listeners now and there’s more of a focus on guests than when I started but things haven’t changed too much. I always want to try and make things bigger and get more listeners, but never at the cost of playing music that I’m not interested in. Musically, styles come and go, so that’s always going to be changing from week to week.
BIS is one year off the legal drinking age in the US. What’s it ordering at the bar?
BIS deserves a nice whiskey and a strong martini after making it to 21. Definitely time to get a little drunk.
Is there something specific about radio that keeps you returning week in, week out, to host?
There’s always this drive to find new music. That hunt. I want to be able to find those golden records and play them for people. The same goes for the guests I have on the show. I want to find the best DJ’s and get people to support them. And those DJ’s help keep me inspired every week with new music too.
Radio’s function and place within the music industry, even its place in the audience’s home has changed a lot, and very recently. In what ways have you noticed this? What’s the effect been on the show?
There aren’t as many callers into the show as I had 10 years ago and I think that’s because people are mostly listening to the online archive of the show and not the live FM broadcast. I’ve always enjoyed callers and it’s why I started the BIS Hotline (+1-646-481-8189), so I do miss that change. Now the communication is mostly through social media, which is fine, but not quite as personal as the phone was.
Victor from Washington Heights – about time he got a DJ slot of his own, no? Have you guys talked or met up since you talked on air? Do you have any idea what he might play, given the chance?
He’s gone missing! Haven’t heard from him in over a year. I don’t know what happened! Maybe he got tired of complaining? Honestly, I think he’d DJ some shit music if he was ever given the chance. Which is why he won’t get the chance on BIS. Just stick to shit talking.
Can you remember what the first track played on BIS was? If BIS was to end tomorrow, what would you want the final track to be?
I believe it was Sun Ra ‘Space Is The Place’. That’s a good one to end with too.
Where did the impetus to start the label come from?
That came about with the 10th anniversary of the radio show and trying to figure out what to do. I was talking to Tim Goldsworthy from DFA about it and he was really championing the idea of starting my own label.
Do you think there’s a definitive, overarching ‘sound’ tying the Beats In Space show and label together?
Just me enjoying the music.
Although BIS’s appeal and audience is worldwide, I always hear the show as being unmistakably ‘New York’ in character – it’s like a beacon visible everywhere but stationed firmly from the USA’s East Coast. Do you agree?
Yes, I still see it that way too. I think there’s still the focus on it being broadcast live in New York City, so guests have that in their head when they come on. That might change what people play a little bit. You’re walking around in New York before you play on the radio show, so you can’t escape its influence.
Do you think BIS’s place within the city has changed throughout the years?
For me it hasn’t. I’m still broadcasting from New York University. I’m not sure on what other peoples perceptions are though. It has a more global reach now than in the beginning, that’s for sure.
How did Powder In Space come about? Was there something about her mix that moved you to plan a release with her?
Yeah, seeing her DJ and hearing her on the radio show made me know she could do something special to start off the series. She just has a special magic when DJing. It’s hard for me to describe but she puts in a lot of work to her DJ sets and just powers over people with something they haven’t heard.
Who has been your most memorable guest on BIS? Who’s the elusive guest that always gets away?
Honestly, I forget about most of the DJ’s after a few weeks. It all blurs together after 1000 shows. There are a lot of Detroit people I’d love on the show. Electrifying Mojo, Moodymann and Theo Parrish to name a few.
Did you have aspirations of being a club DJ before you started the radio show? Has the opportunity to travel and play across the world shaped the show in anyway? How?
For sure DJing in the club has always been an important thing for me. I was going to raves at 14 and seeing someone LTJ Bukem come over from London and destroy it in Baltimore and Washington DC was a big deal. It was one of those “I want to do that!” moments. Playing in a club is great because you get to interact with people and everything changes with the crowd that’s there. I feel like there’s a bit of a yin and yang aspect to DJing in the club and the radio. It’s really nice to have the balance of both. On the radio you don’t have to worry about any crowd or if a song won’t go over well, but at the club the crowds reaction can make you fall in love with a song or hate it.
20 years from now, Beats In Space… In Space? You down?
Tim Sweeney joins Powder, Optimo, Tornado Wallace and others to play 20 Years of Beats In Space at Else, Berlin on June 30th – buy tickets here.