One half of Masters At Work and iconic NYC house DJ and producer, Louie Vega, steps up for the 44th edition of the Phonica Mix Series. What better way to start 2018?!
One of house music’s most prolific figures, Louie Vega is a man who needs little introduction. Having dedicated the majority of his life to music, Vega has cemented himself as one of the most accomplished DJs and producers within the dance music community over the course of his thirty-something-year career. With a penchant for Latin, Funk, Soul and Freestyle, Vega has crafted his own, unique brand of soulful house under his various aliases and band associations; Nuyorican Soul, Elements Of Life, Hardrive and, of course, the legendary Masters At Work collaborative project with longtime friend Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez.
Ahead of Louie’s Phonica in-store event on January 3rd, where a very special 5×12″ pack featuring all kinds of unreleased gems will be sold exclusively on the night, we caught up with the man himself for an in-depth chat about his formative years as an up and coming DJ in The Bronx, his works with Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and much more. Check the mix and interview below!
Hey Louie, how are things? Did you have a nice Christmas?
Hello, things are great and I had a wonderful Christmas although a little sad to be away from my family since I was touring all throughout and still am touring now (December 23, 2017 – Jan 8, 2018). Lucky to have FaceTime, so I saw my family and had fun with them on the phone, seeing them was the best!
Been touring in Italy and now in London. Italy loves to have parties during the holidays, so it was a busy one out from North to South of Italy. I played in the following cities: Milan, Naples, Reggia Emilia, Vicenza, Basilicata / Campania & Assisi near Perugia and London. Happy to be in London for the get together at Phonica Records!
So let’s start from the beginning; it’s no secret that your formative years in the New York Bronx and the presence of Latin freestyle music had a great impact on you. Can you pick out one or two key records from this period that initially inspired you to start DJing?
Well the music that inspired me to DJ was not Latin Freestyle, that came later. Actually, it was fusion disco, music that came out of the streets from all the dancers that frequented the Loft, Paradise Garage, The Gallery, Zanzibar, The Funhouse and a few others. My sisters went to all the clubs, at the time I was too young to go. I would drop them off at clubs with friends who drove them and saw all the frenzy in front of clubs, hearing the baselines through the walls, lol. They would talk about all this music that I wouldn’t hear on the radio, then the mixtapes came from their friends who were DJs and went to those clubs too. There I would hear this music.
At the same time it was the birth of hip-hop, I was there in the projects at the jams checking out Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay (who eventually heard my mixtape and took me under his wing for a bit, I was even at the Roxy with him checking out the filming of “Beat Street”), Red Alert, Afrika Islam and all the breakdancers e.g. Rocksteady crew, etc.
Then in my family, I have an uncle who is one of the greatest salsa singers of all time, Hector Lavoe. I would see him in Madison Square Garden performing to thousands, I would be with my Mom. That was truly inspiring as well him coming to my Mom’s home at wee hours bringing over a test 7” of one of his latest hits for her to hear. I wish I could have kept those that my Mom had 🙂
My dad being an accomplished jazz tenor saxophonist, he would play Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Fania Records, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie’s music all through the house while he ripped on his tenor sax live over the tracks playing. He also reads music and played in local bands for many years to this day!
My neighbours, two, in particular, one had a big disco collection and DJ equipment, I would help him with sweet 16 parties and events, he was a mobile DJ, I then gravitated towards borrowing his equipment and practising my craft, picking out the music I liked from his collection. The other neighbour was my childhood friend, he had an older brother who had equipment (turntables and a GLI mixer) and an extensive collection of breakbeats. I then heard the ones I used to hear at the Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Red Alert jams in the projects and I used to practice cutting up the breaks and extending them with blends too.
All the above was part of the inspiration.
So If I picked out four songs that were part of the inspiration, they would be:
If I had to pick early latin freestyle which happened in the mid-80s, they would be:
New York is well known for having some of the finest nightclubs in the world – both historically speaking and in the present day. Can you tell us a bit about some of your favourite clubs/spaces from over the years and what made them so special?
Oh wow, there are many:
Paradise Garage – I first went there in 1980, my sisters got me in because of a cousin who was a bouncer there. I was in awe watching Larry Levan play records like “Thousand Fingered Man” by Candido, “Streetplayer” by Chicago, “When You Touch Me” by Taana Gardner and so many more, I heard those songs the minute I walked in. This inspired me to play music the way I do today. The sound system was top in the world!!
Zanzibar – I went there in the early 80s, Tony Humphries was the man behind the decks, he rode records, blending away like no other creating new songs and versions with his mixing. I loved his approach to mixing records and telling his stories with his music. The sound at Zanzibar was impeccable!
It became apparent that all these clubs had one thing in common besides great DJs , it was the sound designer of the sound systems. Richard Long was his name and I eventually found out a little history of his talent. So I started looking for clubs with his design, if I knew it had a Richard Long sound system, it was sure to have a great DJ behind that huge sound. The magic was that each DJ had their own quality music choice and style, as well their personalities, which we somehow knew about them through word of mouth then finally the experience through their performance and hanging at the clubs they played. Musically their choices were so innovative and became our history of dance music!!!
There are various other clubs and many DJs that had really special qualities, I ended up going to many NYC clubs and created my style of djing from some of these masters.
1. Larry Levan had a one of kind ear for sound and music. He also used acapellas, effects, even had the Peech Boys playing keyboards live over his djing, created his own group Man Friday, took you on countless journeys conversating through his music. He broke so many records and even had Frankie Crocker (number one air personality on one of the biggest stations in the country) of Wbls frequenting the Garage to see what Larry was playing so he could play some of these hot tracks on the air the very next day. Larry could talk to you through his music and knew how to make a record his own and sound damn good!! He also produced countless hits and records that would become today’s classic jams. You could play for days if you had to play only Larry remixes or produced records. He is the DJ’s DJ!, My DJ!
2. Tony Humphries, when he played he mixed really heavy as in riding two records for even 5 minutes and let those two records speak to you in a different way than if you listening to just one of those songs. He had his dance floors going mad, I was one of those on the dance floor along with my sisters and friends at Zanzibar. Mind you, this club was 40 minutes away from where we lived and in another state. We were from the Bronx, NYC, this was in Newark, New Jersey. But we didn’t care that’s how good it was, we’d get there about 2 am or 3 am and stay at least 6 hours or more until morning.
3. Bruce Forest played at a gay club in New York City called Better Days. He could mix his butt off and also cut up records hip-hop style but on club records, house, r&b, soul and disco. He had a homemade sampler which he installed in the booth, and he would manipulate samples that he would emulate on the spot. There were also magical moments with David Cole on keyboards while Bruce DJ’d.
These three DJs became the base of the styles that came to be for me as a DJ. I developed my own taste in music, I always knew what I wanted and what kind of music I liked, which I would play in my sets. I then started telling my own stories, broke records, and made my very own classics with my crowd.
Then came listening to David Morales at Lovelight, Red Zone and Better Days, Frankie Knuckles at the World, Kenny Carpentar at Bonds, Jellybean at the Funhouse and so many more. They had unique talent as well which I absorbed like a sponge.
You earned your stripes in and around some of NYC’s most legendary establishments, such as Studio 54 and The Devil’s Nest – was there any particular moment that made you realise people were really starting to pay attention and invest in your sound?
I think all throughout I realized it starting from the Devil’s Nest into Heartthrob (the old Funhouse), Studio 54 and eventually the Underground Network Parties at the Sound Factory Bar. I had different sounds at each of those venues that arose but I would always take with me what I learned over the years, so those records from the previous became classics that people would associate me with. I started producing music in 1985 when you make music, people not only associate the djing, they now associate pieces of work you create with yourself, which then in turn after playing them in your clubs they would also become classics if the records were big in that particular club. I started making latin freestyle records in 1985 til 1989. In 1989 I started mixing house records for Todd Terry (DMS, Black Riot, SAX on Warlock Records) and I eventually started producing house records on my own. One of my first house records that I produced was “Take Me Away” by Two In A Room, and one of my first house remixes was in 1989 “Love Me True” by Kimiesha Holmes on Big Life Records. By 1989 I had already produced many latin freestyle records, easily over 100 records, then moved heavily onto house music. One of my first artist projects with house was Freestyle Orchestra “Don’t Tell Me” on SBK Records which at that time I was managed by Patrick Moxey, he then brought me out to London / UK first in 1989 and booked me at Sunrise, Energy, High On Hope, Heaven, I mean I came to London for the first time and I was in shock with the scene, it was an incredible movement, house music caught on like wildfire. Once I played those gigs in London, everything just snowballed, then Masters At Work came along with “Little Louie” Vega & Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez.
All this above helped create my sound in a club and on countless dance floors!
How well received was this new brand of house music in a community that was dominated by the hip-hop culture at the time?
At the time it was house music and hip-hop together. I played in clubs in 85-90, in NYC where art and music were so close together. NYC was very open-minded and you had clubs playing both styles. I actually started in 1985 – 1990 playing latin freestyle, disco, early house music, reggae, hip-hop and DOR/ New Wave. By the time 1990 came when Kenny and I started Masters at Work you could hear the influence from my DJ sets in the music we made. We did a few singles where we would put a house track on one side and a hip-hop track on the other side. An example of this is “the Ha Dance” on one side and “Blood Vibes” on the other by Masters At Work. And on the hip-hop tracks, you would hear a reggae influence as well which came from what I was playing in my sets at clubs like Roseland and Studio 54. Later from 1992, hip-hop dominated the scene but we kept to our style of house music and disco funk fusion classics, with occasional hip-hop jams like Tribe Called Quest, Jungles Brothers, Premier Produced Jams at clubs like The Underground Network. But Masters At Work were very strong on musical releases as well artists like Kerri Chandler, The Basement Boys, Def Mix with Morales & Knuckles, and many more which created an entire movement for house music in NYC. The house music was so strong that even some of the hip-hop genre in NYC would come hang at our clubs too e.g. Queen Latifah, Mc Lyte, and even pop music icons e.g. Janet Jackson, Jazz icons e.g. George Benson, latin icons e.g. Tito Puente. The key was that we had a dance culture, fashion and style that related to the music, and the young generation dancers were poppin’ on the house sound. There you had labels like Nervous Records, Strictly Rhythm, King Street Records, and many more releasing quality house records and the scene flourished. Once the NY style house was licensed overseas it was a wrap, great things happened internationally.
Not long after you made the transition from DJ to music producer. What was your early studio set up like? Were there any pieces of gear that helped create that signature ‘Vega’ style?
My early studios (lol), at home I only had a sp1200 and a Korg M1 keyboard which I used heavily on the early 90s productions. But I used to work in big studios in NYC with SSL boards (Right Track Studios, Sound Track Studios, Sigma Studios, Battery Studios) and lots of analogue synths and great keyboard modules. The sp1200 and the Korg M1 definitely helped create a signature Maw and Vega-style. You could hear them on lots of the 89-91 productions.
It is indisputable that your releases with Kenny Gonzalez under the Masters At Work moniker were hugely influential in your musical ascendancy – a partnership which has developed into one of the most illustrious couplings in the history of dance music! We were wondering how things work between you two in the studio… can you tell us about your production process
The process for Masters At Work happens in several ways. One way is I’m on the keyboard and Kenny is on the beats, either he would create a beat and I would play a chord progression and baseline over it or I would play a chord progression and bassline and he would create a beat on the spot. It is all based on our connection in the studio, we compliment each other perfectly and we are honest with each other. If one doesn’t feel something we will move on or if one feels strongly about something we would support each other. It goes so much deeper, we will save that for the next interview!
In your own opinion, what do you think it was about these Masters At Work releases that gave (and continue to give) such a vast appeal?
Masters At Work has a mystery to it, you see those two heads with the Maw and you want to know what it is, there is something appealing about it. When you hear the music, first of all, its all about a good song and melody and we know how to pick them. The way we recorded these records and the way we record now has created music that stands the test of time. We spent a lot of time on these records and we also did some in a few hours, but it was that spirit and energy that went into it whether for long hours or short. For us, it was about creating music you could hear ten years from now and you’d still feel its new. We have a great sense knowing when a track is complete and ready, we create lots of hooky parts and know how to pick sounds, the arrangement is our forte as well and we know how to get the best out of musicians and singers. This all goes into producing a track or full song.
We are grateful that people appreciate our music today.
Where does the inspiration for your modern day work come from? Your recent albums, including your latest ‘Louie Vega Starring…XXVIII’ feature a plethora of highly talented international artists – how do these partnerships come about and where do/did you find these people?
Louie Vega Starring…XXVIII, I wanted to do my first solo album, from my travels I decided to reach artists and slowly bring them into the studio or begin collaborations with them. Before you knew it I created over 50 tracks so it was rounded off to 28 songs with 28 artists. When in the studio especially these last few years I’ve been in a highly creative state and I made so much music. I was then able to place the music with select artists and started tailoring it for them. Some artists I’ve had musical relationships with for years and others I just contacted out of whim and wala’ we created this huge landscape of music that was eventually nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance Electronic Album. I have a great team as well from engineer to musicians, to singers that put in a great deal of work on the project.
We are really happy to be hosting your ‘White Label Jam Party’ at Phonica on January 3rd (what an amazing way to start the year!) We will be stocking your exclusive and unreleased 5×12” pack, which was originally released in accordance with ADE. Can you please tell us about this collection of works? When did you record these tracks and what made you decide to release them now and in this ‘White Label’ format?
The White Label Jam Party I did over at ADE in the Rush Hour Record Store last Oct 2017. I’ve been doing their store for the past three years during ADE and we’ve had successful events. This time in Oct 2017 I wanted to do something different, I have lots of music at my studio that is unreleased, I said to myself why not release a 5 pack vinyl white label special with unreleased music. Created a simple label with just my logo in different colours for each vinyl and the title/artist, black sleeves for each and a plastic see-through sleeve to fit all. I thought why don’t I do an all vinyl set playing these tracks mostly on the set so people get a taste of it live. It was a huge hit!! We only made 225 limited copies and they sold out! The magic of these sessions at Rush Hour was that the set was streamed live so many people around the world were able to experience the event through Facebook live and streamed live with our stream partner. Many people from the UK had written to us saying they were not there and would love to have the white labels, so by this strong demand, my distributors Above Board UK and I decided to make another 250 5 pack unreleased white labels and do the same event at one of my favourite records stores Phonica Records! In the world, there are only about 450 of these 5 pack white labels after Jan 3rd’s event!! We are very happy as well that FACT Mag will be our stream live partner, so this event I feel will be just as strong as our previous one. Hope you can get there!
Can you please tell us a bit about your wonderful mix? Where was this recorded and was there any particular theme/thoughts behind it?
This mix I created was recorded at my studio Daddy’s Workshop in New Jersey. It’s the same studio where all the magic happens in our productions. Look out there are some brand new exclusives on this mix as well that you’ll hear.
2017 has been another incredible year for you and you were even nominated for another Grammy! What’s in store for 2018? If you can, please tell us a bit about what you have coming up next…
We are looking forward to the Grammy Experience on January 28, 2018 !! We are already winners in our minds just by making it to the Grammys two years in a row, and this time with our icon Loleatta Holloway. This track was produced by the great Yvonne Turner and I’m grateful she brought me this track. Feels like it was meant to be!!! Lots of new music coming your way this year, I’ve collaborated with the Martinez Brothers on a project that has turned into an album. We have our first single coming out on Cutting Headz on January 25, 2018, its called “Que Paren La Puerta (Shut The Door)” – The Martinez Brothers & Louie Vega Featuring Hector Lavoe. 3 generations coming together and we are both from the Bronx, its a deeper project than a usual single, this means a lot to us. The album will have a diverse array of sounds. I’ve also produced two remixes for Luther Vandross for Legacy Records with one of the songs featuring on guitar the incredible artist/musician /composer/producer Nile Rodgers, these songs were never released and were songs Luther recorded when he was working on one of his greatest albums “Never Too Much”. He sounds immaculate on the new tracks as if he sang it yesterday. I’ve just finished a new production on a Bebe Winans song “He Promised” which is a club scorcher! A new collaboration with Techno Artist Joseph Capriati I’ve finished and will come on his first album. From the Two Beats One Soul album where EOL Soulfrito (my band) recorded in Cuba, we have the next single with remixes of “Music & Life” featuring the songstress/artist/DJ Anané Vega, which was remixed by yours truly with Keyboards & Lyrics by Josh Milan. We are off to Cuba with Josh Milan, Anané Vega, and the Eol Soulfrito band to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival along with the Two Beats One Soul Ensemble headed by Ray Chew. For this summer The Ritual with Anané & Louie Vega signs up for a residency in Ibiza at Heart for its second year and this time twice as long throughout summer 2018! Much love to all who appreciate what we do!! See you at Phonica Records 7pm – 9pm on January 3, 2018, for the live vinyl set and pick up your 5 pack unreleased vinyl on Vega Records!
Interview Credit: Rob Thomas