Happy Sanchez keeps the secrets beneath the noise in Secret Studios
Downtown was a major competitor until the summer of 2000, when Koch attempted to evict all of his tenants without notice in an attempt to flip the property for a huge profit. In the process, he instigated a musical community revolt, resulting in a large cash settlement and the formation of a then-hopeful, now apparently stagnant nonprofit, SoundSafe. At the time of the turmoil, Secret Studios was still expanding to its current size of 130 units. "I basically opened my units and saw a huge influx of bands," Sanchez says.
Sanchez has had many models for what Secret Studios should — and shouldn't — be. He recalls that Francisco Studios, a Turk Street basement space, had a bathroom out of Trainspotting. He's quick to admit that since he's taken over the business, there have been mistakes and failures. A plan to start the International DJ Academy in the front offices of the building, with a partner who managed Invisibl Skratch Piklz, fizzled. "They never could quite get it off the ground," he says. "It was a good concept, but I think they needed someone to run it as a business." Along with a rap studio that was going at the time, the academy devolved into something that included a barber shop and a night club before Sanchez had to shut it down.
Which, technically, makes two rap studios Sanchez had to end. Back in the late 1980s, at Secret's old location, there was a lot of money to be made from hip-hop. "These rappers were coming in and you could pretty much just charge them anything," Sanchez says. "I think there was always the drug dealer in the background financing it. I swear, we had like three clients over time that got murdered. The first time it was kind of a shock. They found the guy in a trunk in Oakland. The second guy got murdered on the night of the earthquake in 1989. The scene just got too crazy. Gangster rap came out, and the whole vibe changed. It got really hardcore." After a hold-up occurred at the studio and an expensive keyboard was stolen, Sanchez stepped away from the rap game in 1991.
Many artists have come through Secret Studios, but it's not something Sanchez brags about. In part this stems from his respect for overall security, a high priority when theft is a concern. But it also has to do with his respect for confidentiality. The music business exposed him to a lot of drugs in the '80s, and he himself struggled with addiction. From 1989 until 1992, he hosted a Narcotics Anonymous gathering — the Straight Edge Rockers meeting — in the studio on Sunday nights. "There were a couple people there that you would definitely know their names," he says. "I'm actually thinking about getting it going again. It's not as easy to pull off, but I always thought that meeting was so cool. There are a lot of people in the music industry that need that."
Sanchez is desensitized to stardom. He'll say that no one really big has ever been at Secret Studios, then rattle off a long list of names: the Dead Kennedys, Michael Franti, the Go-Gos, EPMD, Romeo Void, Chris Isaak, Mike Pistel, Toots Hibbert. Some of these connections are long relationships, some are incidental. MC Hammer rehearsed at Secret before he was big (but had the parachute pants). Gene Simmons came down in a limo.
Sanchez is happy with his success so far and grateful for the freedom to be a musician with a stable business. With another 10 years on the lease (which he hopes to extend to when his two-and-a-half-year-old son reaches adulthood), he's satisfied with assuming a more administrative role at Secret. He does the books, handles the day-to-day issues, and makes his own music, composing for movies and television as the Latin Soul Syndicate.