15 Years On, Tim Sweeney Looks Back at Beats in Space
The host of New York's most seminal radio show looks back at 15 years in the game—including one listener who was "more ornery than a one-legged man in a bucket-kicking contest."
Say what you will about the long line of "death" in the history of media—Internet killing the video killing the radio killing the telegram killing the cavepainting star, and so on. The truth is, Internet-dwelling radio stations like NTS and Rinse FM, as well as their close cousins, live-streaming sites like Boiler Room, are currently dominating the dance music game. These platforms are the most easily accessible places to find underground sounds from far-flung corners of the globe; these platforms represent the future.
What they all have in common: an ethos derived from Tim Sweeney's seminal radio station, Beats in Space. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary since Sweeney hit the airwaves of WNYU 89.1 as a New York University freshman in 1999. The show has been rightfully celebrated for its shockingly long lifespan; every Tuesday night from 10:30pm to 1am, Sweeney has doggedly used his slot on the airwaves to showcase the newest and oddest talents in the electronic music world, with a strong leaning towards the sounds of disco. Everyone from Jacques Greene to San Soda, DJ Harvey to Juan Atkins have stopped by to chat with Sweeney over the years.
So how does he do it—without getting tired, bored, or just plain running out of steam? Sweeney claims that the secret to his show's longevity is the music itself—always a mix of things you'd normally never hear on the radio. That ethos came directly from listening to pirate radio shows as a kid. "I remember my brother coming back from Europe and having recordings of mix shows from London. I really loved that," he says. "Every city will have its own little scene, and these [pirate] radio shows are like tunnels into those scenes."
The pre-streaming world was a dark place for people who didn't have access to record stores or the means to buy music, which is why Beats in Space was such a seminal site of discovery to so many. "I started out recording sets to cassette tapes and then to DAT tapes, to mini discs, to CDRs, and then to portable hard drives," Sweeney remembers. "The show has gone along with what's happened in the industry."
With such a long history, it's inevitable that Sweeney has attracted his share of friends—and foes. When Beats in Space switched from AM to FM on WNYU, Sweeney opened a hotline to handle the higher volume of calls. That's how he met one (now infamous) listener, simply known as "Victor from Washington Heights." Victor just might take the cake as Beats in Space's biggest critic. Described by another listener as "more ornery than a one-legged man in a bucket-kicking contest," Victor was notorious for flooding Beats in Space's hotline with angry messages, criticizing Sweeney for his "lack of consistency"… or just threatening to cut his balls off. Sweeney and Victor finally had a conversation, live on air, in January of 2013.
"I've been afraid that I'll walk out and he's going to shoot me in the back of the head," Sweeney confesses. "It's okay though. He's toned down his rhetoric a bit since I did an interview live on the air with him. He's a real character, a true New York City character."
Another "New York City character" that has been influential to Beats in Space, albeit in a very different way, is James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. As an intern for DFA Records in the early 2000s, Sweeney got to know Murphy and his crew just as the iconic label was starting to pick up steam. At age 18, he started mixing records on the Lower East Side's now-defunct Plant Bar—a regular haunt for the DFA crew. Sweeney eventually earned a reputation for his formidable DJing skills, and became a mainstay at the label's parties. (You can also hear Sweeney playing the saxophone on the DFA remix of Radio 4's "Dance to the Underground.")
After years of playing unreleased material to an international audience, some of which got signed by other labels, Sweeney decided to launch Beats In Space Records in 2009. Having his own label was the next logical extension of the radio show, and a handy outlet to release tracks he loves. From the art direction to the A&R, Sweeney manages all of the label's operations from his apartment in Brooklyn. But he's quick to point out that "it's not all cocaine and prostitutes. More tears than anything."
"Definitely when you get the finished product, that's when you look at it like it's something special. Especially with vinyl where you can touch and feel the work you put into it. It's about having this 'thing,'" Sweeney says. With two new 12" from Lauer and Guiddo, and a 15th anniversary mix CD on the way, the future of the label certainly looks rosy.
To celebrate Beats in Space's 15th birthday, Sweeeny is also planning on a global tour, with stops in Japan, Mexico, Europe and finally, Brooklyn, New York. In the end, Sweeney says that the main reason why he's able to keep up the unflagging enthusiasm for Beats in Space is because the show keeps moving in new directions. A few weeks ago, for example, he had Daniele Baldelli, one of the founders of cosmic disco, in the studio during his first trip to New York. "He just killed it, it was awesome," Sweeney says with a grin. "It's kind of like that all the time, something new."
More proof that dance music radio is alive and kicking:
The World's Best Dance Music Radio Shows
Five Mix Series You Need To Know
Radio's New Tastemakers, Beatmakers, and Troublemakers