With a career spanning over twenty years at the forefront of global dance music, it’s safe to say Louie Vega has firmly earned the titles of legend and pioneer. Starting his musical adventures as a DJ in his native Bronx, Vega was a resident at historic clubs like Studio 54 and the Devil’s Nest by the time he was just about old enough to attend them. The ‘90s saw him form Masters at Work with Kenny Dope, and together they became one of the most sought after production teams operating on the dance floor, going on to work with esteemed artists like George Benson and Roy Ayers.
Vega’s solo career is just as impressive, from world touring with his live band Elements Of Life to winning a Grammy and performing at the Super Bowl. The recent release of his debut solo album – Starring…XXVIII – sees him continue this legacy. We recently caught up with him for an extended conversation that took in a wide scope of his storied musical journey – from New York’s early club scene to the famous MAW dubs to the state of house music today.
Hey Louie, let’s start from the beginning. Coming from a musical family and the Bronx, what were your early musical experiences and when did you discover your passion?
As a child my father was always listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, he loved all the jazz greats and a lot of jazz music was in my house because my father played saxophone. My mother’s younger brother was a famous salsa singer, his name was Héctor Lavoe and he was part of the Fania All-Stars, so there was definitely a lot of the Fania sound. You had Afro-Cuban, Puerto-Rican, the New York street Latin sound, a lot of that was in my family. Then later on my sisters were 14 to 18 and going to the clubs, they were disco queens. So I think a combination of all that really put a lot of music in my head.
You became a prolific DJ in your hometown and had residencies in historic clubs like the Devil’s Nest and Studio 54, what types of music were you playing at that point and what music scenes were thriving in NYC?
Well growing up in New York I was also there at the birth of hip-hop. In the late ‘70s there was Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Red Alert, and Afrika Islam who used to throw parties in the projects. I used to check out the jams and hear them play and it was actually Jazzy Jay, in my very early years, who took me under his wing and heard some of my cassette tapes of me mixing. I started following them around and I would be at the Roxy when Beat Street was being filmed, which is probably one of the most famous hip-hop movies of all time. I was there when they were coming from the projects and going into New York and playing for the trendy crowd downtown. It was when hip-hop crossed over and mixed with punk. Fab 5 Freddy was around introducing all of the cultures to each other and all the different styles of music. A lot of artists were around in New York, it was a great time.
I also had a friend who had an older brother with a DJ set up, I was about 13 years old. He had a lot of the breakbeats that Jazzy Jay and Afrika Bambaataa would play, so I’d try to cut up the same breakbeats and extend them and do all that stuff. Then I had another neighbour who had a big disco collection, from there I started blending a lot and I think that’s where it kind of all started.
So as far as house music, having emerged from Chicago in the ‘80s, how did it come into New York and make its way into the clubs?
Chicago of course created the term “house music”, and the sound, but Detroit and New York were all making their versions of that style of music. When Chicago had Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard and all the greats – the pioneers – New York had Boyd Jarvis, Timmy Regisford and Winston Jones. There was definitely a sound coming from New York, it was just never termed house music. Everybody had their scenes and stuff but when Chicago came in and all those guys came from Trax Records, we were blown away, it was a great movement happening.
Was there a term for what you guys were doing over in New York?
I think it was kind of named after the clubs. If you went to the Paradise Garage a lot, it was like, “that’s a Garage record”. If you went to Zanzibar and Tony Humphries was playing, it was a Zanz record, or if you went to the Loft with David Mancuso there, then they were Loft records. That’s the way we kind of categorised the music. We used to go to all of those clubs. I first went to Paradise Garage in 1980 because of my sisters, and ever since then, I fell in love with the whole club scene in New York. After that I started going to the Funhouse to hear Jellybean Benitez, then Zanzibar. They were different sounds and every DJ had their own sound, it was very special.
The meeting points were places like Vinyl Mania, Rock & Soul, Downtown Records. Those were the record stores where everyone socialised and talked about music, the clubs and what each DJ played the night before. As all that was going on, I was a mobile DJ in the Bronx and eventually in the early ‘80s, I started doing my own parties with a friend. He promoted them and I would DJ, we were doing parties at a place called the Chez Sensual in the Bronx. The special thing about that place, and all these great clubs in New York, was that incredible designers did the sound systems. One designer we all loved was Richard Long; he did the Paradise Garage sound system, and the Zanzibar. Chez Sensual had a smaller version of those sound systems and that’s why I was intrigued by that space. I did three events there, and at that time I played anything from disco to breakbeats to groove, this was about ’84, so it was the early stages.
Later on I had a residency at the Devil’s Nest through releasing a Latin hip-hop record on Fever Records who had Fever club, a hip-hop club in New York. They wanted to do a dance club, which turned out to be the Devil’s Nest, so when I went there it blew up. Kids that used to come to the Chez Sensual followed me there and we had about 1200 people a night, it was great.
A lot of the producers used to hang out there too, Andy Panda, The Latin Rascals, even David Morales came up there. People were hearing about this young Latin DJ that was rocking it up in the Bronx so they started coming up town. There was a whole movement created up there and I was a big part of it.
So how did the transition go from DJing to production?
I started getting my first experience of making records whilst I was around that scene. I was asked to do a remix of a record by the A&R person from Tommy Boy Records, who was Joey Gardner, and also managed TKA. The record was special because it combined the element of new wave from the UK with the sort of electro planet rock, Kraftwerk beat, and at the same time had this appeal to the Latin and Afro-American audience that I played for at the Devil’s Nest. The record was called ‘Running’ by Information Society. When I remixed the song I brought up a lot of elements that weren’t in the original, I made it very DJ friendly. Then the Latin Rascals did an edit of it, it came out amazing and it ended up being one of my first remixes and a huge record.
Was that your first big break as a solo producer and remixer?
As a remixer, yes. It kept going from there. If you look up this music and a song named ‘Silent Morning’ by Noel, that was my remix as well, and also The Cover Girls. When I did that style of music some of the really “pop” artists started coming by, and Atlantic Records approached me about remixing Debbie Gibson, who in those days was like a kind of Britney Spears or Taylor Swift. I did her first three singles and it was huge, it went platinum, but at the same time I was this street DJ who played anything from Latin hip-hop to disco to soul.
After I left the Devil’s Nest they offered me a job at Heartthrob, which was originally Funhouse, so imagine the kid that used to hang out at one of his favourite clubs and watch Jellybean and Madonna, to then playing at the club for two years from ’86 to ’88. We had about 2500 people a week there, Fridays and Saturdays. Then I was offered Studio 54 and it grew even bigger, it could be like 4500 people there a night, it was huge. The talent for that night was crazy; you could have India and Public Enemy playing on the same bill. People like Fat Joe, Mike Tyson, they were all coming out to see what was going on in this club. That was it, that was the early days right there.
You met Kenny Dope around 1990 and formed Masters at Work, how did your paths cross and what was it that sparked a connection between you both?
Well by that time I’d already mixed about 150 records, freestyle, pop, even Erasure, I mixed all kinds of music. Then Atlantic Records, who I had a relationship with because I’d done all those records with them, reached out and told me they wanted to give me an album deal. I signed a contract and I really wanted a singer. I was thinking back to when I was young and my uncle was always with Willie Colón, who to me was the greatest producer that Latin music had. Colón was my uncle’s partner for years and ended up producing him to the end of his life, he played the trombone and my uncle sang. So I thought, “Wow, why don’t I do something similar to that in the dance world?”. I went to a singer called Marc Antony, who was a young skinny kid that used to hang out at Heartthrob. He could sing and everybody knew his voice, so we became partners. I produced the record for him and I ended up being in the studio for six months.
See, at the same time of the tail end of the freestyle music, I was playing house music too. Kenny Dope used to release music on Dopewax Records and he did a record called ‘A Touch Of Salsa’. I knew Todd Terry at that time as he used to come and bring me the house music he was making. It’s funny, the first time he came to me in ’86 he gave me a cassette of some music he wanted me to play at the clubs and I was like, “Yo my man, I don’t play cassettes”, because in those days, when you made a record, you made it on a reel-to-reel.
I used to mix on 3 turntables, a Urei mixer, my crossovers and a reel-to-reel with a pitch control. So I told him to go back and put it on reel and he actually did it, he came back. Next thing you know, I was the first to play all the Black Riot stuff, all the house stuff – ‘Party People’ – I was marinating the kids with all this music. So by the late ’80s Todd was doing so much music, once he’d blown up he asked me to help him mix his records and arrange them. If you look at the late ‘80s you’ll see my name on a lot of his records.
By 1990 when I was doing the album with Marc Antony, I was already seasoned as a remixer and producer. I really liked that Kenny Dope track and Todd then introduced us. Once I met Kenny we hit it off so well, we started sharing music, talking about beats and creating things here and there. I told him I was working on this album and said he should come to the studio and make beats for the record. He was there for those six months. Kenny was doing the beats and I was playing the keyboards and suddenly, the light bulbs turned on.
As I was finishing that album Atlantic were hitting me up and asking me to do remixes for a lot of pop artists. I told Kenny, let’s use this as a stepping-stone to get this new style of music we were making out there. It didn’t make sense to do it on the original songs because it would have sounded corny, so we put the tracks on the B-sides of the records. We needed a name and Kenny had “Masters at Work” from when he used to throw parties. He’d given Todd Terry the name for a few records, but took it back and that was it, we were Masters at Work. So while we were doing these pop records we took the B-sides. We would take the hook, a vocal, something that caught our ear, and we’d mess around with that and make grooves out of them. If you look at our early records, you’ll see a Debbie Gibson record called ‘One Step Ahead’, we did the B-side and started calling them “Masters at Work dubs”. Next thing you know, you’d have Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, playing a Debbie Gibson record. That would have been unheard of, I mean, if you love house, that’s like you playing a Taylor Swift record in your set. Within a year everybody wanted an MAW dub, like major pop artists, we couldn’t believe it.
So how did you choose which projects you would do dubs on? Did you get a choice or did you have to remix what your label wanted you to?
We were very picky. We got a lot of stuff thrown at us but we didn’t take it if we didn’t feel something. We’d listen to the song and if we heard a hook we liked, we’d do it. The dubs would have nothing to with the artists other than the sample we would take and make a groove out of. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’… If you listen to those tracks you can hear what I mean.
The artists were getting a lot of attention from those dubs, and so were we. A lot of work was definitely thrown away but we never did anything we didn’t want to do. We were working like 16-18 hours a day non-stop. I guess that’s why, when you look at that body of work from MAW in those 10 years, it was powerful, man. We were driven!
You also both recorded under several aliases like Kenlou, Sole Fusion and Hardrive. What was the reasoning behind these aliases and did you take a specific focus for each project?
Well when we did MAW we kept it really special. We were remixing so many records and that was the focus at that time. We also did one album in ’91 in the beginning. In order for us to do things with other labels, we were really concerned about getting signed and not being able to go anywhere else, we’d seen some of the nightmares that our friends went through. We got this idea from Todd Terry to create these group names. He had all these aliases like Black Riot, Royal House, you could never trap Todd in a record deal, I’ll tell you that. So we created our own aliases for the same reason and you got Hardrive, Sole Fusion, you know.
So the aliases were really for you to not be tied down and release elsewhere?
It was to not be tied down, and also so we could create different styles and identities. Sometimes we were offered deals separately because we had always made records solo before we were together, there were always people approaching us. When Strictly Rhythm approached me that’s when Hardrive, Sole Fusion and River Ocean came along, whilst Kenny had the Bucketheads. We had so many different aliases between us – you could probably count 10-15 of them. It was great because we were able to create a different style and feel for all these aliases we came up with.
Your work under the Nuyorican Soul project saw you release an album with live musicians such as George Benson, Roy Ayers, and Jocelyn Brown. Having been released on Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label, how influential was he on this project?
Well in ’93 or ’94, when we came up with ‘The Nervous Track’, that was the beginning of Nuyorican Soul. When we put out that record it just crossed a lot of genres. People who like D&B, hip-hop, house, jazz, they all liked ‘The Nervous Track’. Gilles was one of the early influencers for that, he took that record and he played it. Even Funkmaster Flex, all these guys were playing it.
Gilles would reach out and he started getting us to do remixes of artists on his label, like Incognito and Roni Size. He was telling us to do an album of Nuyorican Soul stuff and Kenny and I had already been talking about it a lot. We wanted it to be our next thing together and that’s where it started. We reached out to a lot of artists we’d worked with and known, people like Roy Ayers, Jocelyn Brown, India. We were signed to Talkin’ Loud, that was the European deal, whilst in the US, it was Maurice Bernstein from Giant Step. He was sort of doing what Gilles was doing over here. He was a great promoter, label owner and visionary.
Maurice introduced us to Tommy Lipuma over at Blue Thumb Records, and next thing you know we signed a deal with Giant Step, through Blue Thumb and Universal. So that’s how we got the intro with George Benson, because Tommy had produced Benson for many years and when we got in a room with him he was looking at us like, “what are these kids going to show me that I haven’t done”. We played him stuff and he liked it and that was it.
Did the Nuyorican Soul project open up a lot of doors to contact artists you wanted to work with?
Oh, for sure! When we did that album, everybody called, from Janet Jackson to Jamiroquai. All the labels were calling us to work with artists. All those records we did between ’97 and 2000, a lot of it was due to them hearing Nuyorican Soul and seeing that. That’s when we really got the “oh these guys are producers” vibe.
On the topic of working with musicians, you’ve also released albums with your live orchestral project, Elements Of Life. Could you tell us more about how that started?
Well when we did Nuyorican Soul it was really difficult to do the shows because there were so many superstars. Some of them we had access to and we could call, but for the others it was really difficult. We ended up doing four big shows, two in New York, one in London and one in Switzerland.
I’ve always wanted to have a band and that was my upbringing, from watching my uncle and my father and their bands. I thought a band was perfect to bring all this music we were making to life. So after Nuyorican Soul, I’d always wanted to work with Blaze. They were friends of ours from the club scene and it wasn’t until ‘99 that I got in touch and said I wanted to do something with them. They came into the studio and I created this track that was the basics to the song ‘Elements Of Life’. When they heard it, they really liked it. They had this notebook full of lyrics and a song called ‘Elements Of Life’. I loved the title and the song; it was so poetic and positive. At that time Josh Milan was singing a lot of leads for Blaze. He went in and sang the demo over the track. It came out so good that I told them I wanted to keep the voice over it, he reminded me of Donny Hathaway. I brought in one the background singers I’d worked with for a long time and that was Cindy Mizelle, she laced that track and just fed off him with ad libs in one take.
When I did EOL it was with musicians from Nuyorican Soul. I experimented with a lot of drums from different parts of the world and found a really cool way to record percussion, making it feel very thick and drive the whole track. Instead of having snares and hi-hats like in house music, I would let the percussion drive everything. The percussion would do the snare patterns, then I’d add shakers instead of hi-hats, and that kind of sound became EOL. It was a world sound; you heard jazz, African, Latin, all these different flavours.
I’d been with my wife Anane about 5 years from there, so it was like 2002. One day she told me she writes lyrics and can sing, I was like, “Are you serious? We have to get in the studio right now!” So I called a guitar player from a band Kenny and I were producing, he was called José Luis. I got him to write a song with Anane and she ended up writing in her native tongue, which is Cape Verdean. She wrote a beautiful song called ‘Nos Vida’. I recorded and produced it, then she became the female lead of EOL, whilst Josh Milan was the male lead. We had a world thing going on because we had different languages and cultures coming in from all the talented artists we had. From there we created the first EOL album together.
Your new album ‘Starring…XXVIII’, will be your first solo album and features 25 artist across 28 tracks. What was the thought process behind the album and how did you make it possible?
I really wanted to make a record that brought together all the styles of music that have contributed to house and dance music. With all the artists, it gave me the vehicle to tailor these styles to them. The first thing I did was bring in the family. I had Josh Milan, my wife Anane, Lisa Fisher, Cindy Mizelle, who I’ve been working with for so many years since Nuyorican Soul, and back before that. Then I reached out to all the dream artists that I wanted to work with. It took about two years to put together, some of the tracks I had come up with a couple of years before, but the bulk of the project was those two years. My thing was I wanted to make 28 songs… real songs that are powerful. For so many years the DJ has taken the forefront and been the star in this sort of music, where the artists would take a step back. So for me it was important to bring these guys back out front where they belong and still keep the integrity of what I do as a DJ, producer and musician.
Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the return of house music and its dominance in underground music, especially in the UK now. How do you view the return as one half of Masters at Work and a pioneer of the genre?
Well, I think it’s a great thing. We embrace it and Kenny and I are excited about it. A lot of the music that’s being made is influenced by MAW, Kerri Chandler, and a lot of us that made music back in the ‘90s. You have to look it as the normal cycle, when we were making music in the ‘90s we were listening to music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now we’re in 2016, what are people listening to? The 90’s. And we happen to be all up in that – we’re lucky.
It’s really cool and it’s the way new things come about. Everybody gets influenced by music from the past but people are still trying to create for the future and present. We fit right in because I feel a lot of our music was definitely before its time. It works now and it’s really nice that our records get played by a lot of the DJs, whether you’re into house music, tech-house, tech-soul, whatever you want to call it, I think it’s in a good place. We’re definitely doing a lot of festivals and playing in a lot of clubs around the world. It’s nice to see that house music came back to that place, but today! It’s nice that a lot of the young generation is embracing that sound and getting inspired by it.
It’s a good time for this album, you have good songs and you’re always going to be able to remix these songs. There are 20 originals on the album and 8 re-makes and of course I wanted to pay homage to the greats like Stevie Wonder, Stevie Rufus, Chaka Khan. One of my goals is to get a lot of the producers today and inspire them to want to make songs and want to produce artists of that caliber; I want people to really think about the song, that’s what I’m trying to do here.
Starring…XXVIII is out now on Vega Records. Order it here.
Words: Callum Wright
Featured image: Steven Benson