The show he's referring to is Sweeney's seminal mix session Beats In Space, which just turned 15 years old, making it perhaps the longest running college-radio show in history. Sweeney himself graduated back in 2003, but the show still airs on NYU's station, 89.1 on your FM dial, as well as at beatsinspace.net. Sweeney's marking the occasion with a world-spanning series of anniversary gigs—a Berghain date here, a Boiler Room session there—and the release, on the Beats In Space label, of a double-disc mix-CD.
Earlier in the night, Sweeney is sipping a Sapporo at a Japanese restaurant just down the block, attempting some mental mathematics. "I think my counting is a little off," he says. "Right now I think it's up to show number 754…but I think it's really a little bit more than that." Whatever the exact number, it's huge—especially considering that Beats In Space is essentially a one-man operation. It's longevity is a testament to Sweeney's dedication to the show, and to its place in the rejuvenation of New York City's clubbing scene. But the show transcends the city's borders and has grown into an international presence, as its guest list, which features everyone from DJ Harvey, Prins Thomas and Horse Meat Disco to James Holden, Trentemøller and Four Tet, attests.
Sweeney caught the radio bug at an early age. He was living in Maryland, a few hundred miles south of NYC, a teenage DJ with big dreams. "I always knew I wanted to do a radio show," he says. "I think I found out about WNYU around 1997. I was still in Baltimore, and I looked at the WNYU website and found this show called BPM that I thought I could play on, and so I just sent some cassette tapes to [show host and former Chez Music label head] Neil Aline. And he let me play on his show!" Two years later, Sweeney headed to NYU as a student. "Once I got into NYU in 1999, I contacted the program director and asked him how I could have my own show," he says, "and since I had already played on the station and they figured that I knew what I was doing, they kind of fast-tracked me in there."
These days Sweeney has a reputation as one of the sweetest guys in clubland, but he's got a tough and determined side to him as well. Soon after Beats In Space got off the ground, Sweeney approached Steve Stein, who is better known as Steinski of the groundbreaking hip-hop-collagist duo Double Dee & Steinski. "Tim just walked up to me at some event and just said, 'Hi! I'd like you to be on my show!" Stein recalls. "'And also, are you looking for anyone to work in your studio?' I was like, 'Jeez! That's a deal—you're on!' I gave him the kind of stuff that you would give to an intern—jobs that needed to be done that I didn't really want to do. 'Here's a stack of 500 records. Get the speeds of all these things.' He was probably the only person, other than the people I was actually making records with, who I could stand to have in the studio with me."
At first, Beats In Space was a relatively down-to-earth affair, a mix show featuring Sweeney playing beats-heavy downtempo music of the era. "I was playing a lot of Mo' Wax and stuff like that," he says. "I don't think I even had any guests at all in 1999." That changed in early 2000, when DJ Food's Strictly Kev and PC paid a visit. "That came about pretty much the same way most of my guests have," Sweeney says. "I just e-mailed them and said, 'I see you are playing in New York. Do you want to come on my radio show? And they said, 'Sure!'"
Still, Beats In Space was largely a solo affair, with only the occasional visit from local friends breaking up Sweeney's monastic DJing existence. Then, in 2001, Sweeney started working with a nascent New York label: DFA. "I started as the studio assistant to Tim Goldsworthy and James Murphy," he explains. "I was helping with things like cutting up drum loops, going to the mastering studios and setting up microphones for recordings." But what he was doing hardly mattered. DFA was on the verge of dominating New York's dance floors, and he was now part of the label that helped rejuvenate the city's nightlife.
"Very little of the attention that was on the DFA crew was on me, but being part of the early DFA crew was big," he says. "But that's when Beats In Space really started taking off, I think. I suddenly started having this access to all these DFA records to play. I can remember playing the Carl Craig remix of Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom's "Revelee," and I had to talk over it, and people were getting pissed off because of that. I was like, 'Wow, people are really listening! And people want to hear the music!'"
The DFA connection also kicked off Sweeney's career as a traveling DJ. "They took me along on their first world tours that they did as a group—it was James, Marcus [Lambkin, AKA Shit Robot], Tim and I, with Tim's wife opening up. We went to London, Paris and Berlin." Not bad for a guy who, up to that point, had considered gigs at the East Village's intimate Plant Bar to be a major coup. "And it was amazing," Sweeney says, "doing those shows and getting to travel got me hooked, for sure."
Being hooked on DJing is one thing; heading to a studio for 15 years, week in and week out while managing a DJ career is another. But Sweeney's devotion to Beats In Space borders on obsession. "It really has to be a new show every week," Sweeney says. "I made that commitment from the beginning. There are absolutely no repeats." That sense of duty led him into the studio during the city's darkest days, in the aftermath of 9/11. The resulting show, featuring tracks like the dub of DJ Food's "The Crow," the Black Dog's "Shadehead," Radiohead's "Idioteque" and Flora & Fauna's "Without Hesitation," conveyed the overwhelming sense of loss and confusion that had swept the city better than words ever could.
Most editions of Beats In Space are breezy affairs, interspersing mixed sets with chummy banter. A recent night featured a set from frequent guest Gerd Janson, the DJ and producer behind the Running Back label. "He still is so amazingly enthusiastic about it," Janson says with a hint of wonder. "When I told him that I had made it into town and had arrived at the hotel he was like, 'Oh, sorry, I can't meet you yet, I'm busy looking for records for the show.' I was thinking, 'This is crazy—he actually still takes the time to go through his record collection to find just the right records for each week's show?' I mean, a lot of people might say, 'Big deal, he's looking through his records.' But he's a busy person and is touring all the time—and he still cares, which after this long is really unusual."
Janson's pal Morgan Geist of Metro Area, who in his Baby Oliver guise appears on the anniversary release, also visits the studio that night, though seemingly more to tease Janson than anything else. ("Watch this," he says, sitting down behind a drum set sitting in the corner and starting to bang away. "I'm gonna mess up Gerd's mix.") "For a guy who has been around for this long, Tim doesn't seem to ever get jaded, which in this day and age is pretty rare," Geist says. "I'm living proof of that! But that's one of Tim's best qualities. There are not many people like him, and I think that's why a lot of people want to be on the show."
As Mister Saturday Night's Justin Carter says, "You definitely want to be on your A-game when you play on Tim's show. He's created this environment where you're encouraged to be free."
The list of DJs who have appeared on Beats In Space would put most underground clubs to shame. In addition to the aforementioned artists, there's Ben UFO, Todd Terje, Prosumer, Kindness, Gui Boratto, Voices From The Lake, Hieroglyphic Being, Marcellus Pittman, FaltyDL, Tiger & Woods, the Emperor Machine—we could keep going here. "Nowadays, people who are coming to town are actually asking me if they can come on the show," Sweeney says with a hint of disbelief. "I'm actually getting too many people who want to do it! I hardly get to DJ myself anymore. It's crazy. The show is booked up for four or five months ahead." But he's still got a wish list to take care of: "Theo Parrish, for sure. I would love to get Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Omar-S…oh, and the Basic Channel guys. There are plenty of New York people who I would love to get but haven't so far, too—people like François K, Danny Krivit, Tony Humphries and David Mancuso."
As you can tell from that list, Sweeney has pretty all-inclusive tastes. "The show's just a place for underground dance music," he says. "Of course, 'underground dance music' can mean many things, and that's kind of on purpose. I didn't want it to be too specific, as far as the exact genre goes. If I had, it would have gotten pretty boring by now. It's been fun to have all these different kinds of guests, even if it means annoying Victor from Washington Heights sometimes."
Ah yes, Victor from Washington Heights. He's a frequent (bordering on obsessive) caller to the Beats In Space hotline, though not necessarily as a fan. "I've had crazy callers from the beginning," Sweeney says. "But that's New York radio, you know? No one's been as threatening as him, though." For example, there's this Victor tidbit: "Living in New York with an attitude like that, you'll be getting your ass kicked every single night. And I don't think you can prepare yourself for that, to be honest. And you wouldn't come up to Washington Heights, because little girls would beat the crap out of you." Or this golden oldie: "Tim Sweeney, and whoever your DJs are—you can take a bus, a rowboat, a subway back to wherever you came from. You don't put out stuff like this…WHAT YOU GONNA DO? Nothing? Didn't think so. Have a very nice night."
It would take more than the occasional naysayer—even one as creepy as Victor—to slow the Beats In Space juggernaut, and by 2011, Sweeney had enough confidence to launch the Beats In Space label. "Doing the label is hard," he admits, "But it's worth it. It's sort of like when I started the radio show; it took a while to really get going. The challenge is to find high-quality music, music that's going to last. And it's just great to have a product. After you do a show, there's nothing to really hold. You have the memory, and that's it. But with a record, you have a thing." So far those things have been fantastic, with releases (complete with first-rate cover art) coming from the likes of Tornado Wallace, Secret Circuit and Lauer, who's recent Hands & Feet EP is one of the best Beats In Space releases yet.
The label has just released the double-CD 15th anniversary compilation, with one disc largely given over to exclusives from artists who have appeared on the show, and the other brimming with what Sweeney's deemed to be Beats In Space classics. The selection process was simple: "It was just a matter of looking back at what's been played on the show over the years," he says "and deciding which of those tracks I really, really loved.
As for the next 15 years? "I love doing the show, and it's not boring, so why not?" Sweeney asks. "Of course, it would be awesome to get paid for it…" But in today's music market, where every song ever committed to ones and zeros is only a click away, is there still a need for a show like Beats In Space? Steinski certainly thinks so. "This might be a function of my age, but I'm not a mad fan of having my music chosen for me by algorithms," he says. "They shepherd you in predictable directions, and there are none of the fabulous accidents that might occur through other means... That's why we need people like Tim."
"There's a validity to just settling in and listening to someone play records for you," Geist says. "It's just an enjoyable experience; there doesn't have to be a reason. And Tim obviously enjoys doing them, which is why the show is good. I mean, sure, he's doing it to get chicks and gigs, but he's also doing it because it's important to him."
Sam Valenti IV, founder of Ghostly International and Spectral Sound, has never been on Beats In Space, but plenty of his labels' artists have, and he's a long-time Beats In Space supporter. "People under a certain age won't get this reference, but I feel like Beats In Space is like our American Bandstand," Valenti says. "It's a pivotal rite of passage for the electronic-music community. Tim's been able to cultivate and maintain this high-taste lineage, one that's exclusive but not at all snobbish. And though he's the one who's built it, it feels like we're all a part of it. Everybody who loves this culture feels like they have a stake in the show. Tim infuses it with a real graciousness and joy, and he transmits that to the world. It's a great lesson for anybody who wants to do something—anything—with a sense of passion, without having it polluted or diluted by the passage of time. Tim's an inspiration for us all."