This is an interview with Masters At Work, “Little Louie” Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, that I wrote for the promo issue of Revolution magazine. Revolution was scheduled to be launched at WMC 2000 in Miami. A month or so before (or maybe longer) I got hold of Louie on the phone, interviewed him and then contacted their label to schedule an interview with Kenny. The Masters At Work label people said that they couldn’t find him. I suggested looking under the sofa cushions — Kenny ‘Dope’ is not a small guy btw. A few days later they tracked him down and I interviewed him also. Our launch was in conjunction with Master At Works’ ten year anniversary party, which was a daytime shindig at Amnesia South Beach (modeled after its namesake in Ibeefa). Thank you to Paul Craven (of “On The One” fame) for making that happen.
My most vivid memory of that party was standing out in the courtyard of the club with Andy ‘Andyman’ Reynolds — who, at the time, was manager of Mel Cheren’s (RIP) legendary West End label — and looking around the outdoor area, seeing Armand Van Helden at the bar, Arthur Baker leaning against a wall, Roni Size and co. knocking about, and Daft Punk casually walking in. It felt like America to me. It was. (Editors note: Miami is actually in America). The magazine was short-lived, but that Miami sojourn was a laugh, and I even got to lug bales of magazines around with Kenny Dope for an hour and meet Mel Cheren (thanks to Andy for that). Happy days. Love can break your heart, but music journalism can break your balls. Ha ha!
House is a feeling. You’re heard that before. So much so that the phrase has become cliché. But nonetheless, house is a feeling. And Masters at Work have been creating this feeling for the past ten years. Hailed as two of the dance industry’s most innovative DJ/producers, “Little Louie” Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez have built a decade-long career upon their ability to engineer emotion on a dancefloor. The New York-based duo have lots to be proud of, releasing milestone albums like 1997’s acclaimed Nuyorican Soul and remixing a slew of big-time artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Kenny Lattimore and Tito Puente.
They’ve been twice nominated for the Remixer of the Year Grammy (1999-2000), a new category implemented to recognize outstanding achievement in dance music production. But MAW’s road to mainstream recognition began at the heart of house’s underground scene. Their story is truly the story of house music itself. House, a harder-edged production variation on ’70s disco, came of age within New York and Chicago’s gay, predominantly black nightlife during the early ’80s. The term itself was coined in response to DJ Frankie Knuckles’ legendary sets at Chicago’s Warehouse club. Weekly revelers abbreviated the venue name to simply “house.”
From here house’s flavor has spread the world over, its four-on-the-floor beat structure encompassing deep house, tribal house, Latin house, percussive house, progressive house, tech-house, trance, garage, speed garage, among countless others. But no matter the terminology, the intrinsic essence of house – its feeling – remains unbroken. MAW have been a part of house’s growth and prosperity since the beginning. After a chance meeting through a mutual friend, Vega and Gonzalez soon joined forces, gigging around town and subsequently hitting the studio. Their overwhelming ability to produce and present new and amazing music set them apart from the rest.
The distinct MAW sound blended thumping electronic programming with sexy Latin grooves, tribal drum sequencing and jazzy melodies. Their crowds responded, swelling in number as the word spread across Manhattan and now, around the world. With ten years under their belt, MAW have remained a constant driving force both within and beyond house’s four walls for one very important reason — their vision. Specifically, they’ve helped reclaim disco from the late ’70s backlash, sculpted standards of quality and style, and shared their organic-yet-progressive sound with a broader audience — all without compromising their underground roots or losing touch with the demands of the dancefloor. This is their legacy.
You were there in the beginning. Making beats, putting out records. And now you’re celebrating 10 years on top. So what’s new?
LOUIE: The music has finally reached the masses. A lot of different styles have evolved and it’s grown into something big, something that exists worldwide. It’s amazing how far the DJ concept has become a part of peoples’ lives, especially in Europe and Japan. But there’s a problem — a lot of today’s records that could take the music to the next level don’t get enough airplay or DJ play.
KENNY: The labels that are putting out this music domestically just aren’t promoting it. Meanwhile they complain that they don’t get the respect that hip-hop and r ‘n’ b gets! We want to change that. There are good house records out there that are radio-friendly, have soul and could appeal to a black audience. Radio ain’t trying to hear that because there are no dance acts with good albums. This music is not being taken seriously.
So perhaps hip-hop and house need to get to know each other a little better…
KENNY: Back in the late ’80s and early ’90 there wasn’t a divide. When I used to go to [New York club] the Tunnel, you could hear house and hip-hop played together. There were times when Louie played at the Sound Factory Bar and Pharcyde were there, Latifah was there, Jennifer Lopez, Wesley Snipes — he really likes house music. There’s more going on in hip-hop than house at the moment, I mean the commercial hip-hop is kinda stuck. Now hip-hop people regard house music as just something exclusively for the gay community.
LOUIE: Yeah, all the hip-hop kids hear these days is the cheesy, commercial house and they don’t like it. They prefer the soulful stuff. I feel that hip-hop people are really starting to get into house music. I get a lot of them at my Wednesday night club, Dance Ritual at Vinyl. I play a more soulful flavor that hip-hop people would like and I don’t stick to a straight four-on-the-floor beat, There’s a hip-hop record out at the moment that samples Pal Joey’s “Dance.” That’s great because subliminally they’re feeding house to the hip-hop crowd.
Your music seems inextricably linked with New York. Perhaps Billy Joel was right when he crooned about a “New York State of Mind…”
LOUIE: We were brought up in a place where we were exposed to hip-hop, Latin music, disco, r ‘n’ b classics, and jazz. So our slogan was that we were into all kinds of music. We’ve always taken chances and tried different things, and I think that’s what kept us going and has stopped us getting bored. Nuyorican Soul came from that feeling. We wanted to make an album that combined all these different sounds and it had lot to do with growing up in New York.
KENNY: We came into the game wanting to do dub mixes. So we remixed the corniest records out there and made them work in clubs. From there, we expanded to using musicians and we kept on trying to conquer different styles in dance. Bringing in jazz, bringing in funk, bringing in hip-hop, we just kept experimenting — that’s how we developed Nuyorican Soul. Now it’s time to deal with Brazilian and African music.
MAW remixes are almost sacrosanct in the house community —some DJs even consider them revolutionary. Be modest.
LOUIE: In the early days I was making a lot of freestyle and remixing a lot of pop artists. So Kenny and I decided to put dubs on the b-side, mixes with an underground feel, using hooks from the song to give them a whole new twist. We wanted to take it to another level, to show people that we could make underground house with our own style. I guess a turning point was hearing Frankie Knuckles playing the dub of Debbie Gibson at the [another A-list Manhattan joint] Sound Factory — that was like wow! Then we started working more with singers like India and Barbara Tucker, and a lot of the remixes we were getting were soulful songs.
KENNY: We were trying to mess with the sound that was out at the time. We were just buggin’, basically, trying different things. I always get amazed by the reactions.
Who’s making good house music these days?
KENNY: Kerri Chandler’s got a good vibe to his music. And I like some of the Basement Jaxx stuff, it’s not really house music but it’s got some hip-hop influence. But to be honest, there aren’t many people I’m into right now. There’s a lot of one-offs but there aren’t many remixer teams that have longevity. They drop one record and miss on six.
LOUIE: Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx make great music. They have their own style, they combine a lot of different flavors and they experiment a lot.
You’re analog heroes. You spin on four decks. But the future is digital…
KENNY: Sonically, there’s nothing like the warmth of analog. But I think it’s amazing how you can get a laptop or a computer and just touch so many people. Something I want to get into is the radio aspect of the Internet. You can do mix shows and go worldwide. In terms of production, I don’t program using a computer. I just use a drum machine. I’ve never really liked programming with a computer. There’s no feeling to it. On that end of it I hate technology. It’s very locked. A lot of people sample my beats then remove the sounds and replace them with their own sounds, and leave my groove, but that doesn’t sound right.
LOUIE: It’s so good that our music gets spread around the world via the Internet. Even this little underground scene, which is not that significant compared to the mainstream music industry, can produce records that will sell a million copies around the world. That’s the way it will be in the future.
TEN MASTERFUL MOMENTS
1) DEBBIE GIBSON – ONE STEP AHEAD (Atlantic): 1990 the year Louie and Kenny hook up. An excellent year for house, with 15 year-old Ron Trent’s cosmic “Altered States,” then David Morales’ amazing remix of Pet Shop Boys’ “So Hard” detonating the British progressive house sound. The Masters At Work mix of Debbie Gibson defined how New York house music would sound for the next 10 years: minimal yet full, lush, soulful, and most of all, funky.
2) MASTERS AT WORK – OUR MUTE HORN (Cutting): Their 1991 tribute to Miles Davis: atmospheric house with a melancholy horn line and soft keyboard textures flowing over a trademark MAW rhythm section. A blueprint for the jazzy house that would become prevalent in the mid-’90s.
3) SAINT ETIENNE – ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART (WARNER BROS): 1991: American vocal garage records like CeCe Peniston’s “Finally’ storm the Top 10 on two sides of the Atlantic. MAW take Sarah Cracknell’s rendition of the Neil Young paean to love lost and turn it into a bass and keyboard-heavy floor devastator that would be shamelessly emulated by two of 1992’s dancefloor smashes, Raiphi Rosario’s “An Instrumental Need” and Chez Damier’s “Can You Feel It.”
4) LOUIE VEGA, MARC ANTHONY – RIDE ON THE RHYTHM (MAW DUB) (Atlantic): Louie Vega and Latin singing sensation Marc Anthony: unforgettable scat, contagious keyboard line, bassline from the depths of a continental shelf. The sounds hurtled around dancefloors in New York’s Sound Factory and Manchester’s Hacienda, and remains the all-time top tune of Sir Henry’s in Cork, Ireland. A definite step up for MAW in terms of production and profile.
5) MELI’SA MORGAN – STILL IN LOVE (Elektra): 1992: while progressive house gains momentum in the U.K., the popularity of U.S. house and garage continues globally thanks to tracks like this slice of”nouveau soul.” An anthem much beloved by Sasha and countless other DJs thanks to pristine production, unfath-omable bass textures and Meli’sa’s beautiful vocal performance. The U.K.’s speed garage community still worships this record.
6) MADONNA – EROTICA (Maverick): MAW provide house and downtempo remixes for the first lady of pop. To hear what atmospheric hip-hop sounded like in 1992, check out the Kenlou B-Boy Instrumental. Dreamy synths and strings draped over a mid-tempo breakbeat and a signature MAW bassline with a heady peak and unforgettable break-down. This was trip-hop before its time.
7) TOWA TEI FEATURING JOI CARDELL – LUV CONNECTION (Elektra) The MAW mix of this track produced by ex-Deee-Lite member Towa Tei indicated the funkier direction house would take in the late ’90s. Compared to the usual 4/4 beat that was dominant at the time, this densely bassy and soulful dub featured scattered, off-kilter percussion. These elements predicted the percussive Latin influence that would later surface in their work with India and as Nuyorican Soul.
8) MONDO GROSSO – SOUFFLES H (Nite Grooves): 1996: deep house and garage undergo a distinctly jazzy phase with house producers like Lenny Fontana and Kerri Chandler using live horns, guitar and keyboards. This track by Japanese acid jazz group Mondo Grosso gets a radical workover becomes one of the definitive jazzy house tracks of the ’90s along with Eric Kupper’s remix of Groove Collective’s cover of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
9) NUYORICAN SOUL FEATURING GEORGE BENSON – YOU CAN DO IT (GRP): 1997: the global dance market has been taken over by the drum ‘n’ bass sound coming out of the U.K. Kenny and Louie rediscover their soul, jazz. disco and Latin roots with their Nuyorican Soul album project. The instrumental version of this cut sees MAW successfully fusing the fluid drum ‘n’ bass of LTJ Bukem with Latin syncopation and a house feel, once again demonstrating an alternative to the 4/4 beat.
10) FREESTYLE ORCHESTRA – ODYSSEY (MAW): 1998: deep house and garage have been re-energized thanks to new interpretations by artists like Kevin Yost, Salt City Orchestra, Faze Action and Anthony Nicholson. Kenny and Louie storm dancefloors with this organic-sounding mix of Philadelphia Soul, disco, bass-heavy house and an Art of Noise sample; tapping into a renaissance that many would claim they had initiated many years before.