By Michael Atkinson
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By Brian McManus
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For nearly a third of his life, this has been Tim Sweeney's Tuesday night, week after week, semester after semester, year after year. Shortly before 10 o'clock, he trucks in from his Brooklyn apartment to the WNYU radio station situated in the basement of the New York University commons building, lugging a DJ bag full of records and a handful of CD-Rs through hallways reeking of frosh and French fries. He says his hellos to an intern, to his guest(s) this evening, to the departing DJ who preceded him. He enters the control booth, the Merriweather Post Pavilion leaf pattern pinned to one wall, belying the room's 9-by-11-foot measurement. He cues up disco progenitor Hamilton Bohannon's 1974 cut "Rap on Mr. DJ," wherein honeyed female vocals insist you "listen to what the DJ has to say." And with that, Beats in Space is aloft in the Gotham night sky and throughout the world.
Sweeney has straight brown hair that slides over his ears and across his glasses. In the studio, he laughs readily while juggling both conversations and his output levels, all the while nonchalantly mixing whatever records he scored earlier that day alongside rarer, unreleased material. In just such a low-key manner, he has spent 10 years broadcasting new and underground dance music either by his lonesome, with fellow New York record geeks, or alongside globe-trotting DJs stopping in before club dates. And now he's reached his 500th radio show this past Tuesday, a feat that surprises his fans and friends, but not him. "I loved doing radio from the beginning," Sweeney says, recalling his high school years, weaning himself on early Warp electronic music like Aphex Twin and Black Dog. "I came to NYC one summer between 10th and 11th grade and ended up DJing on WNYU then."
Hooked, Sweeney began planning his own show on the student-run station the moment he enrolled as a music technology major. He never left. "When I started, it was 800 AM, only broadcasting to the dormitories. Now more people listen online in other countries." Inspired by an internship with hip-hop collage heavyweight and former WFMU DJ Steinski (appearing on Beats in Space episode #28), Sweeney took to the radio as a platform for "turning people onto what you're into—weird or more mainstream, you're just pushing good music."
His timing was impeccable as well. While spinning at the old Plant Bar, he passed a homemade mix to bartender and Rapture frontman Luke Jenner, who brought Sweeney into the fold at the nascent DFA Records, where he assisted on some of the imprint's earliest sides, including the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" and LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge." "My claim to fame is convincing James (Murphy) to play that bassline" on the latter, Sweeney recalls, laughing. "Tim was a shy studio intern," adds label head Jonathan Galkin. "But it was exciting to see him make a difference with his own endeavors at so early a start."
An unabashed fan of trip-hop in the early days, Sweeney did both Beats in Space hours by himself for years, eventually convincing a stream of visiting DJs to come in and perform a live mix over the air, offering a platform distinct from the demands of a dance floor. Just perusing the playlists—all free and online at the Beats in Space website—one can find acts as far-flung as Aussie collagists the Avalanches (#88), mash-up wunderkind Diplo (#181), Norwegian discoteers Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas (#269), the revered Carl Craig (#286), and, just two weeks ago, Detroit techno godfather Juan Atkins (#499). "To be honest, I am surprised Beats in Space has done so well," Galkin admits. "Not for lack of talent, but for the fickleness of media and music fans in general. It's a tremendous amount of work to keep it running as neatly as he does." For his part, Sweeney believes the formatting of WNYU has more to do with keeping it vital: "There's really no other radio station in the U.S. that is so free-form in that regard."
Ironically, while he has lined up 10th-anniversary celebrations in far-flung locales like Sydney, Paris, and Jakarta, he has yet to figure out where to throw the party in New York: "Whenever I travel, people ask about the New York nightlife scene, and I'm always telling them, 'Your city has more going on than ours does.' " Yet Sweeney still manages to stay busy here. In conjunction with New York's RVNG label, he has made limited-edition tees listing every guest to ever grace Beats in Space; next year, he hopes to kick off an affiliated label promoting new tracks from his favorite producers, as well as his own remixes. And while he just landed Atkins, he still dreams of bringing Detroit legends like Jeff Mills and Derrick May onto the show, and perhaps the Loft's David Mancuso, whose four-decade party still embodies what this city's nightlife once was.
Still, Sweeney can't imagine another place he'd want to be. "I like being in New York and doing a live radio show. The idea that a guy in a taxi or someone from Rikers Island is going to call you up still exhilarates." As if on cue, the red light of the telephone blinks and Sweeney fields a call from a guy who says he'd like to "tickle your chest." Sweeney's smile never recedes, nor does his laugh sour; he brightens, in fact, when the caller reveals himself to be Metro Area producer Morgan Geist, just calling to chat and make sure the DJ plays the new track he'd sent. Later, Sweeney tells me that despite the listeners worldwide and the guests in the studio, Beats in Space remains a solitary endeavor: "Mostly it's just me in there. It's always been this place for me to go and do my thing by myself—just play music and hopefully have people like it."