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Masters At Work 1990-2000
Masters at Work: 10th Anniversary Pt.2 (1996 - 2000) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Masters at Work: 10th Anniversary Pt.1 (1990 - 1995) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
IntroBelow the liner notes to two BBE compilations, written by Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves the Day (2004), the history of seventies American dance culture.
Masters at Work: 1990-95 by Tim Lawrence
They met when dance music was beginning to sound stale and injected it with a decade's worth of inventive vitality. They surfed through the category-ridden nineties as if the confining notion of genre was just an illusion. They transcended fashion by remaining true to an eclectic musical A-to-Z that opens with Africa Bambaataa and ends at the Zanzibar. And even though they've been collaborating for ten years, they're as prolific today as they've ever been.
'Little' Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez are New York's original Masters at Work. A unique urban species, they have listened to and absorbed the cross-cultural sound waves of Roy Ayres, John 'Jellybean' Benitez, George Benson, Jocelyn Brown, Chic, Celia Cruz, the Fania All Stars, Bruce Forest, Larry Heard, Loleatta Holloway, Tony Humphries, Jazzy Jay, Marshall Jefferson, Fela Kuti, Hector LaVoe, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Red Alert, the Salsoul Orchestra, Todd Terry and many more. Their record collections may have been hellish to organise, but by bringing these variegated pasts into an avant-gardist present Gonzalez and Vega have managed to negotiate the precarious sand dune of the dance music industry with such ease and originality that they must now be considered alongside the elite of contemporary dance music remixers.
The canon begins with Tom Moulton, the original remixer, whose work with B.T. Express, Al Downing, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Joe, MFSB and the South Shore Commission helped redefine the dance floor experience. Walter Gibbons — tiny, shy and ingenious — followed with a string of seminal reworkings that included Double Exposure and Loleatta Holloway. Jellybean, François Kevorkian, Larry Levan and Shep Pettibone dominated the eighties, with the powerful David Morales appearing as a key figure at the decade's close. And then, descending from the Puerto Rican quarters of Brooklyn and the Bronx, came Gonzalez and Vega, whose names will forever be associated with the nomadic nineties.
Vega's early years revolved around a series of events and relationships that compelled him to assume the role of musical alchemist. Born in June 1965, the Bronx baby grew up in an environment where Latin music was as common as bread and water. Vega's Puerto Rican father, Luis Vega, Sr., was an accomplished jazz and Latin sax player and Uncle Hector — Hector LaVoe, a singer with the legendary salsa ensemble the Fania All Stars — was a consistent inspiration. "Fania was ruling," recalls Vega, "and my uncle was at his prime in the seventies and early eighties."
At the same time the sound of the emerging New York underground was always within earshot thanks to two of Vega's older sisters, Myrna and Edna, who were regulars at David Mancuso's influential Loft parties, as well as derivatives such as the Gallery and the Paradise Garage. "They were heavy party girls," says Vega. "They loved the scene and they taught me about club music." Illicit recordings came to play an important role. "They'd come back with tapes. I started listening to all of these records and I was like, 'Wow, this music is great.'"
The multidimensional reality of the Loft, the Gallery and the Paradise Garage began to come into perspective in the mid to late seventies. "I would see my older sisters going out all night, driving my mother crazy," recalls Vega. "I used to go with people to drop them off and I would see the excitement in front of the club. They wanted to take me in because they knew I loved the music, but I was too young — plus I was really small for my age." Thus the prefix 'Little' that was attached to Louie Vega.
Seeking an alternative, Vega hooked into the local roller-disco scene in 1979. "That's when I first heard 'Good Times'," he remembers. "I was like, 'Forget it!' I was a heavy roller skater and it gave me a big feel for R&B." At the same time, Vega also immersed himself in local hip hop culture. "I used to live on Stratford Avenue and the Bronx River Projects were down the block," he says. "That's where Africa Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert used to throw jams. I loved the hip hop stuff." Then, in the early eighties, Vega started to go to the Funhouse, where he witnessed Madonna snuggling up to Jellybean as the DJ juxtaposed the likes of Freeez, Rocker's Revenge, Shannon and the Soul Sonic Force.
Yet none of these musical environments quite compared to the awesome experience of Michael Brody's cavernous club on King Street. "I first went to the Paradise Garage in 1980," says Vega. "My sisters worked me in and I was totally blown away. I just stood there with my mouth open, watching Larry go off." Levan's sense of adventure knew no boundaries. "I loved Larry because he wasn't afraid to play different kinds of things. He would be in a groove and before you knew it you'd be dancing to Pat Benatar's 'Love Is a Battlefield' or Sting's 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free'. Larry was a big influence."
With role models coming out of his ears, Vega honed his "style and flavour" alongside a mobile jock called Raul Socia before joining forces with DJ-promoter John Rivera, with whom he organised a series of one-off neighbourhood parties for crowds of up to seven hundred. "Myrna had a hairdressing salon and we used her place to give out flyers and sell tickets," says Vega. "My sisters would always come along with their friends, so I learnt to mix the tracks that the young people liked with the music that the older, Garage heads liked."
In 1984 Vega began his first club residency at Chez Sensual on Zerega Avenue in the Bronx, and by the following April he had been lured into a larger venue called the Devil's Nest. "It was packed as soon as we opened up because I already had a crowd," he remembers. "I played all different flavours. I played freestyle, Latin hip hop and Garage-flavoured stuff. I even played dance-oriented rock such as U2 'Pride' and the Smiths 'How Soon Is Now?'"
'Running' by Information Society was another favourite, and when Tommy Boy executive Joey Gardner witnessed the diminutive DJ caning the track he asked him to do a remix. The fact that this was a freestyle project was no coincidence. Along with Jellybean, Vega had been credited with introducing the genre to a wider market, and the young Bronx upstart had even managed to establish himself as a Jellybean protégé. "I'd started to work for Eddie Rivera's record pool and that's where I met Jellybean," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time with him in the studio and he let me do some edits." All of which was good preparation for 'Running'. "I knew what I wanted. I didn't do any overdubs. It was more bringing up stuff in the mix. I just enhanced what was there."
At the same time, Leslie Doyle of A&M introduced Vega to the black gay club (Better Days) where her straight white boyfriend (Bruce Forest) was mixing up a storm. "I was like, 'Damn! This boy is bad!'" says Vega. "Eventually Bruce took me under his wing." Never more so than when the Better Days mixmaster, along with Kiss FM DJ/Salsoul remixer Shep Pettibone, hired Vega to work in their new club, Heartthrob, which they had opened —with the backing of Better Days owner Dave Fisher — on the site of the now defunct Funhouse. "We hired Junior Vasquez to play," says Forest. "He did all of these house dubs and people hated it. The Funhouse was the ultimate Latin hip hop palace in the mid-eighties and the crowd still wanted Latin. I had to fire Junior. He was a friend of mine and it wasn't fun."
Cue Vega. "I had heard of this young Latino guy at the Devil's Nest and I went to hear him," says Forest. "I said, 'This guy's smokin'! Let's get him!' He was competent. He was inventive. He was playing to the crowd rather than to himself. I thought he was brilliant." Initially Vega played Heartthrob on Fridays and the Devil's Nest on Saturdays, but before long he was invited to play both nights at the new venue. "My Bronx crowd was dying for me to go to Manhattan," explains Vega. "As soon as I started playing in Heartthrob there was a line around the block."
But if they were queuing for freestyle then they were in for a surprise. "I went more into house at Heartthrob," acknowledges Vega. "We hired Larry Heard, Robert Owens, Marshall Jefferson and Liz Torres to perform. I was known for freestyle, but when the house stuff started coming in, I loved it." The DJ saw the new sound as continuous with the music he had grown up with. "It was like classics with harder beats. It was a little more repetitious and raw, but it had a feeling to it, and there were songs that meant something."
At the same time, Vega never descended into a homogeneous house sound. "I was playing freestyle, hip hop, classics. I'd jam up the house records and then all of a sudden I'd break it up with something else. I'd be thinking, 'How you all feel out there? You all ready for this?' And then whhhp! I'd bring in a different flavour." A futuristic siren drawn from a German sound effects record provided Vega with a signature transition track. "If a record was breaking and the beat came in strong then I'd put that siren over it and the crowd would just go crazy. It became my trademark. I got a lot of DJs looking for that siren."
It was into this exciting and transitional environment that a young, would-be producer walked up to Vega and handed him a cassette. "This guy came up to the booth and said, 'My name is Todd Terry. I just wanted to give you these new jams.'" The night was drawing to a close, so Vega had a quick listen to the track that was about to turn Terry into New York's hottest house producer. "I was like, 'Wow! This is powerful!'" With its quick-fire sampling techniques and harder beats, 'Party People' introduced an edgy, hip hop aesthetic to the Chicago house sound, and Vega wasted little time in securing a reel-to-reel copy. "There was an instant reaction on the dance floor," he remembers. "I was playing 'Party People' six to nine months before it came out, so I got everybody into that sound."
While Levan was something of a late convert to house, he remained a commanding figure for Vega, who would regularly head down to the Paradise Garage when Heartthrob closed at five-a.m., and in 1986 the ubiquitous Jellybean introduced the two DJs to each other. "I'd stand in the booth and watch him work the crowd," says Vega. "He probably saw me as a young kid out there playing." If he did then he had changed his mind by the summer of 1987. "Larry said, 'I'd love for you to do a guest spot,'" remembers Vega, who suddenly found himself on the verge of joining an exclusive coterie that included David Depino, François Kevorkian, Danny Krivit, Joey Llanos, David Morales, Larry Patterson, Victor Rosado and Tee Scott. "He told me at the Garage. I couldn't believe it."
By the end of the year the Little Prince was playing in the same booth as the King of the Night — but not at the Garage, which had shut up shop when its ten-year lease expired in September 1987, and not at Heartthrob, which closed in the same period. "Heartthrob came to an end when an aggressive owner reopened Studio 54 for a younger clientele," explains Vega, who was immediately headhunted to play at the infamous West Fifty-fourth Street venue. "My crowd from Heartthrob followed me there. I was playing freestyle, hip hop, reggae, classics and more and more house. Friday nights there would be twenty-five hundred and Saturday nights four thousand." The vacant Thursday night slot was filled by Levan. "Larry needed a new home. He was doing different spots here and there. His Studio night was packed. The Garage crowd came out to support him."
The following year Vega's recording alter ego caught up with his DJing persona when, having worked on over a hundred freestyle records, he produced his first house track — 'Take Me Away' by 2 in a Room on Aldo Marin's Cutting Records. "I sampled Loleatta Holloway's 'Love Sensation'," says Vega. "It was a simple track that people could recognise. Junior Vasquez liked it and did a mix." Another, unrelated Vasquez — Richard, who had temporarily taken over the Third Street Loft when David Mancuso went on a sabbatical — gave heavy rotation to Vega's next house concoction, 'Don't Tell Me' by the Freestyle Orchestra, which included a hook from 'How to Be a Millionaire' by ABC and First Choice's 'Dr Love'. Then, after a series of mixes and arrangements for Terry, Vega cooked up his first genuine underground house hit — 'Got to Keep on Pumpin It Up' by the Freestyle Orchestra featuring D'borah on SBK in 1990. "Tony Humphries played it a lot at the Zanzibar and I asked him to do a remix on the B-side of the record," says Vega. "That was my first big house record."
Louie's choice track, however, was 'Salsa House', a Nu Groove release that combined a sample from Celia Cruz's 'Kimbarra' with a fragment from 'I Need You' by Sylvester. "It had this nice Latin house groove," says Vega, "and all of a sudden it went into these great R&B disco changes. I really liked the song, but I also wanted this one part to run longer." The prospect of doing a remix became a real possibility thanks to Terry. "I told Todd that I liked the track and he said, 'Hey, I know the guy who made it. I'll introduce you to him.'"
The "guy who made it" was Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez, who had actually spent more than half of his life cursing the likes of Cruz. "I wasn't into Latin at all," says Gonzalez, who was born in 1970 and grew up in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. "My parents were playing Eddie Palmieri, Blades and the Fania All Stars all the time, so I didn't really want to hear that stuff. I didn't like it and I didn't understand it." By the early eighties the would-be Brooklyn B-boy had discovered an alternative rhythm in the local street parties. "That was my first experience of hip hop," says Gonzalez. "I was basically a thirteen-year-old kid sneaking out of the house and watching these DJs working these records. That's where I started to learn about breaks and beats."
In 1985 Gonzalez started doing some part-time work at his local record store, WNR Music Centre. "That's really where it all started," he remembers. "It was an all-round store. There was rock, dance music, freestyle, soul and hip hop. I ended up becoming a buyer, so I was bringing in music for all of these different types of people. That's when I first got into house — the material from Trax and DJ International. Mr Fingers and Marshal Jefferson were selling like crazy." The owner of the record store also became a major influence. "He was a rock 'n' roll head," says Gonzalez, who started to work full-time in 1988. "He turned me onto Led Zeppelin and all of that kind of stuff. That's when I started learning about rock breaks."
Around the same time Gonzalez, along with his partner Mike Delgado, stepped into the DJing arena, organising neighbourhood parties under the pseudonym Masters at Work. "There were two halls that we used to rent," says Gonzalez. "One was on top of a Tom McAn shoe store that would hold two hundred people, and the other was called Widdi Catering that could hold about four hundred people." The Masters at Work gigs became the site of Gonzalez's introduction to Brooklyn's latest local hero. "Todd came along because he was friendly with Mike," explains Gonzalez. "Mike used to edit records for Todd and I used to be around all of that stuff, so I learnt about the structure of a song." When Terry asked if he could use the Masters at Work alias for two new releases — 'Alright, Alright' and 'Dum Dum Cry' on Fourth Floor — Gonzalez was only too happy to help out his new friend. "I was like, 'Go ahead. Use it.'"
Terry — who was still in regular touch with Vega and had used the DJ's favourite siren sample in his dance floor classic, 'Can You Party' by Royal House — gave Gonzalez a crucial helping hand when it came to making records. "I borrowed drum machines from Todd and started experimenting," he says. "In 1989 I really started making beats." His first four releases — rhythm tracks recorded under the Powerhouse alias - all appeared on Frank Mendez's cutting edge Nu Groove label. "I said, 'No advance!'" remembers Gonzalez. "It was a small label and I just wanted my records out there. Frank gave me my first break. He bought me my first sampler and he gave me royalties later on. I'm really grateful to him for that."
Gonzalez's Nu Groove work culminated with 'Salsa House' — and heavy rotation from DJ 'Little' Louie Vega. "Louie wanted to remix the record," says Gonzalez. "He knew Todd and he was like, 'Who's the kid?' Todd told him I was from the neighbourhood and Louie was supposed to ring me. He never called and so I got his number from Todd. I was bugging out because he was the big guy at the time and I was just this little kid from Brooklyn. I ended up going down to the Bronx and we met at his house." In the end the 'Salsa House' remix never happened. But that was only because there was too much other work to do.
When Joey Carvello, acting on Jellybean's tip-off, asked Louie Vega to come up with an album concept for Atlantic, the DJ-producer-remixer acted on his collaborative instincts and created a powerful Latin-oriented team. Marc Anthony, a club kid from the Heartthrob era who was "the unsigned act on the freestyle scene", was invited to work as the lead vocalist and co-artist. Long-time partner India, along with Derek Whitaker, was brought in to co-write the songs as well as perform backing vocals. And Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri were hired following a gentle nudge from the unsung hero of the project, manager David Maldonado, who had previously worked with Hector LaVoe. "David knew everybody from the scene," says Vega. "He was the one who used to tell me, 'Look, man, you should bring these Latin legends into your music! They're your roots and it'd be a great marriage!' He's a mentor figure who always came up with different ideas."
Then there was the new kid, Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez, who Vega regarded as a potential long-term partner. "Kenny was young and I saw something special in him," he explains. "I had the vision of working with him as a team and so I brought him into the studio for the Marc Anthony album and got him used to matching beats to different songs." Vega was drawn to Gonzalez's rhythmic flair — even though he was more than capable of laying down his own beats. "Louie did 'Take Me Away' and it was hot," reasons Gonzalez. "I guess he was looking for a way to spend more time with the keyboards." The transition, however, needed to be a gentle one. "It was my first time in a big studio," Gonzalez remembers. "I was kind of scared and I held back. Louie did everything he could to make me feel comfortable."
Everything came together on the tenth track of the album, in which Palmieri and Puente, egged on by Anthony, jammed over a series of Gonzalez beats (one of four cuts that the twenty-year-old worked on). "We called it 'Masters at Work Featuring Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri'," says Vega. "It was the first time we used the name on one of our productions, although in this case the masters in question were Tito and Eddie."
As acetates of the album began to seep through the bloodstream of New York's nightworld, Carvello asked Gonzalez and Vega to reconstruct Debbie Gibson's 'One Step Ahead'. Vega had already worked with Gibson, remixing 'Only in My Dreams' and 'Out of the Blue', but now he had a new agenda. "Louie was coming out of the freestyle era and he didn't get respect from the more underground DJs in New York," says a still-incredulous Gonzalez. "They considered freestyle music to be too commercial and that made Louie a bubble gum DJ. Apart from Larry Levan, who showed him a lot of love, I don't think they understood where he was coming from or what he was capable of doing. He had a point to prove. And I had a point to prove because I was just starting."
The duo decided to redeploy an old name in order to forge a new identity. "'One Step Ahead' was our first Masters at Work track," remembers Vega. "We said, 'Let's make a dub on the B-side so we can start creating a vibe out there.'" That vibe began when Vega sent a reel of the dub to one of New York's most respected DJs. "Frankie Knuckles was playing at the Sound Factory and he loved it. He was playing this reel all the time. It became a big underground record. The Debbie Gibson gave us our notoriety."
More Atlantic commissions — and special Masters at Work dubs — ensued. 'Hip Hop' by Chris Cuevas was given extensive play by Kiss FM/Zanzibar guru Tony Humphries, and 'You Should Know by Now' by Chrissy I-eece became the first collaboration between MAW and Todd Terry. But the next major noise was created by Gonzalez and Vega's first Masters at Work production, a Cutting Record twelve-inch that included 'Blood Vibes', a murky, low-frequency concept that combined the harsh beats of hip hop with the bottom heavy bass of reggae, and 'The Ha Dance', a ferocious, insurgent recording that merged powerful house beats with a series of terrifying samples — exactly what you'd expect from the Gonzalez-Vega combination, except that it was the street-oriented Gonzalez who came up with the house and the club-friendly Vega who devised the hip hop. "'The Ha Dance' was big in the clubs and became a vogueing anthem," recalls Vega, who was playing the tracks on reel-to-reel at a club called Roseland while the Atlantic album was still being recorded. "'Blood Vibes' was big with hip hop DJs like Red Alert."
MAW expanded their already significant repertoire with the release of 'Our Mute Horns', a jazz-inflected deep house groove that featured Ray Vega's trumpet and Marc Anthony's background vocals. "I was developing relationships with musicians in the Latin scene and Ray had played with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri," says Vega (who isn't related to the trumpeter). "We always loved the muted horn sound and we dedicated the record to Miles Davis." Appearing around the same as Danny Tenaglia's classic 'Harmonica Track', which sampled an anonymous twenty-year-old harmonica solo, 'Our Mute Horns' showed that house producers could work alongside professional jazz musicians — and that each party could bring a new relevance to the other's music. "We had the track laid down and Ray played on top of it," says Vega. "He thought the house track was interesting and ever since then we've been jazzing up the house."
A Leslie Doyle commission to remix Tito Puente's 'Ran Kan Kan', which had featured in the Mambo Kings movie, enabled Gonzalez and Vega to take their experimental work with session musicians into a Latin framework. "When I heard Tony Humphries play 'Ride on the Rhythm' at the Zanzibar it blew my mind," says Doyle, who had moved on to Elektra. "I hadn't thought much of Louie when he was a freestyle DJ, but after the Marc Anthony album I hired Masters at Work to remix the Tito Puente. I thought they were something else: new, fresh, hard and original."
Gonzalez and Vega rearranged the vocal and horns around a new track and invited Puente to add an extra layer of timbales. The result was a percussive, chant-heavy monument to contemporary cross-cultural pollination, and Larry Levan, who had developed a fierce commitment to hybridity in the mixed environment of David Mancuso's parties, wasted little time in declaring his admiration. "He came up to me while I was preparing to do a guest spot at Richard Vasquez's Loft," says Vega. "He said, 'You're the only person in this industry who could have made that record happen.' He didn't know Kenny, but he understood that we had made a house record out of this 1951 mambo song and that it worked."
Keen to tap into MAW's innovative sound, Warner started to pass work onto Gonzalez and Vega, and the remix of Saint Etienne's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' became their biggest underground hit to date. "The Saint Etienne was bigger than Debbie Gibson," says Vega. "With that track we really developed what Todd Terry had done with house. We combined sampled sounds with something a little more musical, and Kenny developed this swinging syncopated beat that felt like it was four-on-the-floor but was also something else."
The beat was literally something else. "I never used the same sound twice," says Gonzalez, who, in contrast to so many of his contemporary rhythm generators, refused to work with the stock house beat produced by the Roland 909. "I would filter out certain parts of the beat to make a different sound. I used four or five different kick drums in different frequencies to get what I wanted. It was a lot of work, but it enabled me to capture the feel of two drummers playing at the same time and feeding off each other." The Saint Etienne was the first time Gonzalez brought this trick into a Masters at Work release. "It was on a whole different wavelength and it took people two or three years to figure out those beats, by which time I had moved somewhere else."
By the end of 1991 Gonzalez and Vega were being trumpeted as the 'next big thing' — and for once this couldn't be dismissed as yawn-inducing journalistic hype. While other, similarly lauded acts proceeded to evaporate as quickly as dry ice on a crowded dance floor, MAW continued to enhance their reputation in 1992, working on a series of high-profile projects that included 'Wishing on a Star' by the Cover Girls, 'Runaway' by Deee-Lite, 'Gonna Get Back to You' by MAW & Company featuring Xavier Gold, 'Photograph of Mary' by Trey Lorenz, 'Carry On' by Martha Wash and 'Work to Do' by Vanessa Williams.
For underground diehards, however, the highlight of the year came with the production of 'Comin' On Strong' by Desiya on Elektra, another Doyle commission that brought together the mixing skills of Masters at Work, Todd Terry and Tony Humphries. "Junior Vasquez was playing it, Frankie Knuckles was playing it, everybody was playing it," says Vega. "That's how the Magic Session in Miami started. Leslie arranged for the four of us to play together and it's become a religious thing."
Miami reintroduced Vega to his beloved wheels of steel — the DJ having taken a leave of absence from the club circuit for some eighteen months. "I wanted to stop playing in the freestyle clubs," he explains, "so I took a little time off." Then, in the spring of 1992, Don Welch and Barbara Tucker invited him to become the resident DJ at the Sound Factory Bar. "Don and Barbara were running these Wednesday night Underground Network parties at a club called Savage," remembers Vega. "Don had invited me to do a guest spot because he loved the records I was making. It went well, I did a couple more, and when they moved to the Sound Factory Bar they asked if I would become the resident."
The parties got off to a slow start, but when it became clear that the Underground Network was offering, along with the soon-to-close Shelter, a window into the fading world of the Paradise Garage, the dancers began to flock in. "The Sound Factory Bar was a big turning point for me because I finally had a home where I could create a whole scene," says Vega. "It was the same vision that Larry had. The music didn't have a colour and if it was good I played it. The crowd became very multicultural, very open to different sounds. I'd play a Tribe Called Quest record, I'd play a Latin record, a rare classic, house, whatever."
As planned, the Sound Factory Bar successfully established itself as an industry night — Vega having proposed that the Underground Network should bring together DJs, dancers, singers and record label people with the regular crowd — and it was into this record-swapping environment that Gladys Pizarro, A&R executive at the hot new dance label Strictly Rhythm, started to hand Vega her latest releases. "The most influential club for me was the Sound Factory bar," says Pizarro. "Louie was my hero! I followed Louie throughout. He was like, 'Get away from me already!'"
Eventually a combination of talent, persistence and charm enabled Pizarro to persuade Vega to follow Gonzalez, who had already recorded for Strictly under his Untouchables alias (largely because the money was so much better than it had been at Nu Groove). The result was 'Sindae' by Hardrive featuring LG, a groovy dub that featured a rap artist who had been uncovered by Lem Springsteen and John Ciafone (the future Mood II Swing). Hardrive was so successful that the four producers reconvened to work on 'Helpless' by Urbanised featuring Silvano, which went on to become one of the year's underground anthems. "It was sung by this kid who came from the Latin scene and he had an incredible vibe," says Gonzalez. "That shit is amazing to this day."
If anything, 1993 was even more spectacular than 1992, with MAW remixing and producing the likes of Björk ('Violently Happy'), Kathy Brown ('Can't Play Around'), Tia Carrere ('State of Grace' and 'I Wanna Come Home with You Tonight'), Neneh Cherry ('Buddy X'), Double Exposure ('Ten Percent'), House of Gypsies ('Sume Sigh Say'), Jack and Jill ('You Make Me Feel (Mighty Fierce)'), Soul II Soul ('Back to Life'), Ten City ('Fantasy'), Titiyo ('Back & Forth' and 'Tell Me (I'm Not Dreaming)'), Ultra Naté ('Show Me'), Joe T. Vannelli ('Play with the Voice') and Freedom Williams ('Groove Your Mind'). Yet for all of their employment, the year effectively revolved around two key releases - 'The Nervous Track' by Nu Yorican Soul on Nervous and The Album by Masters at Work on Cutting Records.
'The Nervous Track' came out of a classic MAW itch — the desire to do something different. "We came out with Nu Yorican Soul at a time when we were becoming frustrated musically," remembers Gonzalez. "I was tired of this four-on-the-floor beat and felt that nobody else was trying to change things." Searching for an alternative to clubland's regulation rhythm, the Brooklyn beats supremo turned to his now huge record collection and picked out a rare jazz sessions drummer record. "The artist was Shelly Manne and the record featured four drummers — Louis Bellson, Willie Bobo, Paul Humphrey and Shelly Manne himself," says Gonzalez, revealing his source for the first time. "It was recorded on Phillips."
Ever resourceful, Gonzalez used his street sense to dissect his favourite part of the record. "There was this track where two drummers were playing different rhythms at the same time, one out of the left speaker, the other out of the right speaker," he explains, "so I pulled one of the jacks out of the back of the mixer and recorded the side I wanted." A complementary section was lifted from another track on the album, before Gonzalez got busy with his own beat box. "I ended up adding a lot of other stuff," he says. "I just took their ideas and made my own beat out of it."
Presented with a stunningly original dance groove, Vega set to work on adding his magic to a potential classic. "Kenny's beat had hip hop elements and jazz elements and I just played a bass line groove under it," he remembers. "I also wrote these eerie sounding chords, which I played at the top of the track. They had a jazz flavour to them — the fourth progression — and I thought they worked perfectly together."
Finally there was the question of the artist title. "India and I came up with Nu Yorican Soul specially for 'The Nervous Track'," says Vega. "We had to create something that described the marriage of these different kinds of music. We were all Puerto Ricans from New York, and because we had grown up in New York we had also listened to all kinds of music, which had given us soul. So Nu Yorican Soul was perfect."
The track only sold some ten thousand copies, but it received widespread critical acclaim and became an anthem in the Sound Factory Bar. "It was huge in the club and it also crossed over into a lot of other scenes," says Vega. "The acid jazz DJs loved it and the club DJs loved it. It even influenced people in the jungle scene." Crossing genres and crossing clubbing populations, MAW had drawn on the interracial musical experiences of New York's ethnically diverse population in order to create a contemporary gem — as well as the germ for their future.
The Cutting Records album followed— even though the bulk of it had been recorded a couple of years earlier. Organised around two separate LPs, the first half — the raw side — revolved around a Gonzalez-inspired journey into hip hop rhythms, while the second half — the club side — focused on the house tip and included a classic dub track ('The Buff Dance'), a Jocelyn Brown number ('Can't Stop the Rhythm') and a couple of songs by India ('When You Touch Me' and 'I Can't Get No Sleep'). Once again, MAW were bringing together ostensibly different music cultures, and, once again, the philosophy proved to be compatible with a number of diverse dance floors. "To me the music was all coming together at that point," says Gonzalez. "David Morales was definitely playing both parts of the album at the Red Zone."
India's performances created the biggest stir, even though she had already worked with Vega on a number occasions. Their musical alliance had begun when the then Devil's Nest DJ introduced the young diva to Jellybean and helped her win a deal at Warner Brothers. "Her first single was called 'Dancing on the Fire' and it was the first record I ever produced," says Vega, "but Jellybean just gave me a remix credit." In 1990 Vega did a house mix on an India track called 'You Should Be Loving Me' — which was never released — and a couple of years later he co-produced her debut album, Llegó La India Via Eddie Palmieri. Yet despite the starlet's success on the Latin circuit, she was keen to make music for the clubs, and 'I Cant Get No Sleep' became the hottest track on the MAW album. "India just ad-libbed over one of our dub tracks," says Vega. "It wasn't a song, but it still made sense. She kept building and building until she went in that incredible scat at the end of the track."
But if 1993 belonged to India, then she had to share 1994 with Barbara Tucker. As it happens, the Underground Network promoter had already made an impact on the dance floor via the earlier release of Hardrive's 'Deep Inside', a Vega dub track that was released as an appetiser to the momentous 'Beautiful People'. "I wrote 'Beautiful People' with India, Lem and Barbara and when Barbara did the demo she started singing, 'Deep deep inside, deep deep down inside' in the ad-libbed vamp," says Vega. "I thought it'd be a good strategy to introduce her voice to the scene before the actual release of 'Beautiful People', so I took that little hook and it became 'Deep Inside'." The track was engineered by a diehard Louie fan called Eric 'More' Morillo, who had just set up a tiny studio, and the resulting acetate was sent straight to Strictly. Yet while Tucker was ecstatic with the outcome, Vega had his reservations. "It felt like a demo," he explains. "But Gladys loved it and the EP went on to sell thirty thousand copies on Strictly alone."
There was nothing unfinished about the final release of 'Beautiful People', a nine-minute tribute to Tucker's dance floor population which included the infectious and rightfully popular 'Deep Inside' hook as one half of a double-headed chorus. Yet if the backing vocal credits are anything to go by, 'Beautiful People' was also an inadvertent tribute to Tucker herself, delivered from an appreciative New York dance music community. India, Michael Watford, Byron Stingily, Karen Bernard, Carol Sylvan, Connie Harvey, Earl Robinson, Eddie Stockley, Kenny Bobien, Terry Wright and Pierre Salandy — all are listed, along with Tucker herself, under the title 'All Star Background Vocals'.
Michael Watford — number two to India in the Tucker chorus — had already established himself as an important vocalist within the MAW orbit when he recorded the impassioned, pounding 'My Love' in Morillo's cramped premises. Watford returned, along with co-vocalists India, Carol Sylvan and the rarely credited Biti, to work on the underground gospel explorations of 'Voices in My Mind', which eventually appeared on the fledgling Ministry of Sound label. "We were working on a remix for Freedom Williams and we had all four of them in the studio," recalls Vega, who had already recorded the track with Gonzalez. "They were all in different booths and each time I pointed to one of them they knew it was their turn to ad lib on the theme of freedom. I loved letting the artists go off like that."
Yet for all of the extraordinary tracks that were produced and remixed by MAW in 1994 — and these also included 'Listen (Just Listen)' (Urban Species on Talkin Loud), 'Hot' (Willie Ninja on Nervous), 'I Like' (Shanice on Motown), 'Hold On' (95 North featuring Sabrynaah Pope on King Street), 'Good Time' (Jazmina on Kult), 'Watchugot' (Groove Collective on Reprise), 'Nite Life' (Kim English on Nervous) and 'Curious' (Sun, Sun, Sun on Strictly Rhythm) — for all of these wonderful releases, nothing could quite rival 'Love & Happiness (Yemaya Y Ochún)' by River Ocean featuring India.
On the surface, 'Love & Happiness' was another addition to MAW's expanding tribal catalogue. Gonzalez and Vega, following the innovative examples of Craze's 'Voodoo Drums' and KC Flight's 'Voices', had already dipped their feet into this heavily rhythmic aesthetic with Tito Puente's 'Para Los Rumberos' and 'Sume Sigh Say' by the House of Gypsies, and the fact that 'Love & Happiness' had been subtitled 'The Tribal EP' indicated that they were about to serve up more of the same. About which nobody would have complained.
But the uplifting, mesmeric and multidimensional music of the River Ocean vinyl told an altogether different story — a story of identity, spirituality and multicultural negotiation. "India and I wanted to explore the Yoruba religion," says Vega. "We had just done the album with Eddie Palmieri and we took our inspiration from a track called 'Yemaya Y Ochún'. I took a couple of the rifts from there and then we decided on a prayer. My underlying idea was to put a song over tribal beats because nobody had really done that."
Gonzalez laid down the rhythm, carrying out Vega's instruction to "keep stacking the percussion", and then India went into the studio, ready to sing her heart out to Yemaya Y Ochún — the Yoruban gods of Love and Happiness. "First she sang the real prayer," remembers Vega. "Then in the vamp she gave her interpretation of the prayer. That whole section was improvised, and what she did with her voice was amazing. I'd never heard anything like the melodics she sang at the end. They sounded so beautiful with the music."
Tito Puente's inspirational timbales ensued. "We already had a relationship with Tito," says Vega, "and I thought that he would sound great on such a percussive song." Puente listened to a rough mix of the track and was told where he should play, but in the end Vega took just one rift and turned it into an integral and memorable part of the rhythm. "I used a millionth of what he did. I took just four bars and looped them, so they became another hook in the song."
Puente's contribution was special enough for Vega to produce a couple of rhythm tracks — 'Tito & India' and 'Conga Drums' — and these provided the DJ with an ideal way of presenting 'Love & Happiness' to his crowd at the Sound Factory Bar. "I played the bonus beats for a while and people were saying, 'Wow! These are powerful!'" explains Vega. "As soon as people were into the rhythms I introduced them to the song. They crowd reaction was instant. They were totally blown away."
The crest of River Ocean's wave came at an Underground Network gathering. The occasion was India's birthday party, and when Vega discovered that Puente was playing at the Blue Note on the same night he asked if the Latin guru would be prepared to put in a surprise late night appearance. Puente agreed, but when India took to the stage and sang a five-song set all by herself, it looked like the Sound Factory Bar would have to make do with a solo performance. Until, that is, the diva called on the effervescent percussionist to take to the stage. "The crowd went wild when Tito walked out," says Vega. "They played 'Love & Happiness' and then at the end of the song he kept playing like crazy. He was going mad, and India started singing with him. After a while nobody could take it any more. The club just blew up."
There was no let up in 1995. Donna Summer asked for Gonzalez and Vega to remix the seventies classic 'I Feel Love'. 'Close to You' by the Brand New Heavies inspired the duo to write one of their best ever dance grooves — the maw mood dub. Vega continued an already productive relationship with Morillo when the two of them released 'Reach' (Lil' Mo' Yin Yang) and 'Carnival 95 (Pride)' (Club Ultimate). Another extraordinary joint collaboration was hatched when the Sound Factory Bar DJ phoned Chicago house producer Lil' Louis at 3-a.m. and the two of them went into the studio to record 'Freaky' by the adroitly named Lou2. Barbara Tucker continued where she had left off with the impassioned 'Stay Together'. On the world tip, MAW remixed Baaba Maal's 'Gorel' and 'Après La Pluie' by Les Negresses Vertes. The Ministry of Sound invited the two DJs to hook up four turntables and record Sessions 5. And 'Mondo Grosso' by Souffles H was immediately touted as the underground jazz anthem of the year.
Yet for all of the work that was coming their way, Gonzalez and Vega felt that they weren't releasing enough music. "Our discography must come to at least three thousand five hundred records," says Gonzalez, "and out of that total probably two thousand have come out. In the end we just decided to form our own label." MAW Record's debut release was 'Moonshine', an explosive Kenlou rift that revolves around a couple of jazz-inflected samples drawn from 'Home Is Where the Hatred Is', and within a matter of months the dance world had been treated to the hypnotic beats and disco bleeps of 'The Bounce' as well as the driving rhythms of 'What a Sensation'. To cap it all, the label also established itself as a forum for breaking new artists when 'Everybody Be Somebody' by Ruffneck featuring Yavahn became one of the hottest dance records of the year.
Nothing, though, was as big as 'The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)', a Kenny Dope production that appeared under his Bucketheads alias and was released on Johnny 'D' DeMairo's Henry Street Music. "Since the beginning of MAW we've both had separate recording careers and I wanted to do something raw, something that was fun," says Gonzalez. "One night I was driving from Manhattan to Brooklyn with Johnny 'D' and we were listening to all of these terrible records. I said, 'Fuck that! I'm going to make to make some music!'" Gonzalez went home, pulled out a series of classics and produced "a whole album in three days."
The ensuing twelve-inch turned out to be a bit of a sleeper, in part because 'I Wanna Know' was released as the A-side. "That's the track that everybody was playing in New York," says Gonzalez. "But for some crazy reason, the Europeans were loving the B-side." Not crazy at all. 'The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)' is an incredible track — driving drums and a screeching sound effect build to a crescendo and then wittily break into an extended sample from Chicago's melodic 'Street Player' — and before long it was shooting up the charts in several countries.
"That shit sold so fast it was unbelievable. We were like, "Yowww! We got a problem! Sample clearance!" For which Gonzalez blames the European Trainspotting Association. "Everybody was saying, 'He sampled Chicago!' The press didn't realise it but they were destroying me! They were like putting handcuffs on me and saying, 'Take him!'" Chicago didn't mind, but then they hadn't written the record. "The shit ended up costing me thirty thousand dollars," says Gonzalez. "And that's a lot for dance. There was a lot of drama behind that record! But it was a good turning point." And a fitting climax to an extraordinary first five years…
Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, published by Duke University Press. Available from amazon and good bookstores.
--Tim Lawrence via email [Apr 2005] See more of Tim Lawrence's writings at www.timlawrence.info or email Tim at email@example.com
Masters at Work: 1996-2000 by Tim Lawrence
The Underground Network, New York, 1996. 'Little' Louie Vega takes to the turntables and begins to prepare an autumnal surprise. For the first couple of hours the mixmaster plays a string of classics from the seventies and eighties, casting the Sound Factory Bar's knowledgeable crowd under a magical spell. Next, he delivers a trademark mix of sweet songs and driving tracks, engineering a series of seemingly endless peaks for his definitively diverse dancers. And just when it appears that the point of maximum energy has been reached, the diminutive DJ looks up, smiles and interrupts the fading reflections of a garage diva with the celestial sound of a jazz guitar.
The radical juxtaposition induces screams of excitement and, in a gravity-defying development, Vega's disciples resist the bar. Freeform movements take centre stage, with the Wednesday night aficionados inventing angles that rewrite the rules of geometric possibility, and the acrobatics only intensify when the vocalist's smooth and silky scatting comes in, followed by the injunction: "You can do it, baby! You can do it, baby, yeah! You can do it, baby! You can do it, baby! Mmm-hmm!" Clubs kids start running up the walls.
When the beat kicks in I try to take a peak over the booth in order to make a mental note of a record that I simply have to find, but the barrier is too high and I can barely see Louie from such close range, let alone the record's small print. Fortunately an insider eventually spots my bobbing head and leans over. I ask him what Louie's playing and he replies, slowly, "Geooorrrge Bennnsonnn!" I'm destroyed. Yet another slab of vinyl from the Vega archives that I'll never find.
I don't bother to search for the record: not even when I make my weekly Friday-night pilgrimage to Dance Tracks, the downtown record store where, every now and again, Mr Vega buys a bit of vinyl. After all, I don't have a title and I can't sing. But a month or so later I walk into Joe Claussel and Stephan Prescott's East Third Street listening lounge and there, lining the right-hand wall, are row and rows of sky blue records that carry the title 'You Can Do It (Baby)' by Nuyorican Soul featuring George Benson. Yes!
Nuyorican Soul was already a familiar name. 'Little' Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez — also known as Masters at Work — had used it as an alias for 'The Nervous Track', a 1993 release that had permeated nightworld like few others, becoming a club anthem for a range of hip-hop, house and acid jazz DJs who otherwise protested that they shared nothing in common. A long three years later, MAW released their second Nuyorican exploration, the explosive and aptly named 'Mind Fluid', which flowed across generic boundaries as if they didn't exist, blowing everybody's brains in the process. The cover announced that the track was going to appear on a forthcoming Nuyorican Soul LP, and the Benson production proved that it was really happening.
The idea to develop a whole album around the Nuyorican Soul project came from the ubiquitous Gilles Peterson, head of the Talkin Loud label, which had already established a cutting edge reputation with acts such as Galliano, Incognito, Urban Species and the Young Disciples. Peterson had been slamming 'The Nervous Track' at his new club night, That's How It Is, which opened at the same time as the Nuyorican debut, and when the DJ-mogul heard that MAW were playing at the Southport Weekender he made his move.
"Kenny and I were playing and Gilles came up to us," remembers Louie. "He was like talking into our ear while we were DJing. He said he'd love it if we came up with a whole album project from Nuyorican Soul." Not for the first time, a London enthusiast of the New York scene was generating lucrative work for a transatlantic cousin. "Gilles had this vision before anyone else," confirms Kenny. "He realised that if anybody in the dance sphere was capable of this then it was us."
Yet while the visionary initiative belonged to Peterson, it was Gonzalez and Vega who realised that the album ought to be more than an extended version of 'The Nervous Track'. "It's very rare for us to do the same thing twice," says Kenny. "You've got to move on and do something different." Which is putting it modestly given that, in this particular instance, something different involved the musical legends Roy Ayres, Jocelyn Brown, Vince Montana, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente featuring on a single album. "Nobody could understand what we were doing," says Gonzalez. "Everyone was saying it didn't make sense. But we had the whole record sequenced in our heads."
Jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayres was the first to make his way into the studio. "Roy was one of the first inspirations for us," says Vega. "'Running Away', 'Mystic Voyage', 'Everybody Loves the Sunshine' and 'Sweet Tears' — they were all really big releases." Having hummed along to his records for years, Vega finally met Ayres at the closing night of the Shelter in August 1993. Timmy Regisford and Kevin Hedge had invited the jazz-funk guru to perform and, luckily for Vega, guest DJ Joe Claussel rotated the Nuyorican Soul record for some twenty consecutive minutes. Seizing his opportunity, Vega approached Ayres and asked if he would be interested in contributing to the Nuyorican Soul album. "He heard 'The Nervous Track' and saw everybody jumping to it," recalls Vega. "He said, 'Yeah! I like that vibe!' Let's talk about it!'"
They talked a year later and decided to redo 'Sweet Tears'. Once again, the Shelter played a formative role. "'Sweet Tears' was an album cut that had also come out as a B-side on an import," explains Vega. "I didn't hear the disco version until Timmy Regisford and Joe Claussel started to play it." The selection was perfect for Nuyorican Soul, with the versatile Ayres symbolising the MAW team's eclectic ambitions, and the rarity of the groove providing the album with its first injection of old school education — one of the key aims of the project. "Kenny and I felt that people should hear 'Sweet Tears' again," says Louie, "and Roy loved the idea."
Establishing a working model that spanned the entire album, the basic track was pre-recorded at Kenny's house. "I laid the foundation to all the beats," explains Gonzalez. "Then I had a drummer play on top of them." The man-machine combination created the desired effect. "If you hear the album in a club it has the strength," says the beats maestro. "A live drummer was never going to sound that big. The engineers who recorded the old James Brown stuff used to get bottom out of their drum kits. Their kick drums sound like 808s. They had that shit down pat. I don't know how the hell they used to do that, and I didn't want the album to sound tinny and small."
By the time Ayres hooked up with Gonzalez and Vega at François Kevorkian's Axis studio, 'Sweet Tears' was no longer item number one on the Nuyorican agenda. "We wanted to give something to the hip-hop kids as well as the club kids, so we wrote another little sample track," recalls Louie. "I had played the bass and Kenny did this little sample groove. It had an 'Everybody Loves the Sunshine' flavour." The producers asked Ayres if he would start scatting and the multitalented jazz-funkster obliged, singing three minutes worth of shabby-dabby-ya-yas alongside background vocalist Richard Shade before overlaying a set of shimmering vibes. With 'Roy's Scat' down pat, the sweetest of tears duly followed. "We did the slow one first and then the fast one," says Vega. "It was all done in one day. Roy was great in the studio."
But Gonzalez and Vega — specialists in creating the kind of connections that DJs love to explore — weren't finished. 'Sweet Tears' had originally been released in 1972, the same year that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had written the groundbreaking 'Back Stabbers', in which the instrumental intricacies of jazz were coupled with the swooping grandeur of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. So why not introduce Ayres to Philadelphia by giving the subtle strings of 'Sweet Tears' an elevated position in the mix?
The Philadelphia-born producer and jazz devotee Vince Montana, who had played vibes on 'Back Stabbers' and went on to employ the PSO in his capacity as the head of the New York-based Salsoul Orchestra, was asked to arrange and conduct the strings. "He did it the old school way," says Vega, "just writing down the music for every single part." Montana also reassembled the PSO for the occasion, bringing together fifteen violinists, six viola players and a flutist. "We had a lot of the musicians who used to play back in the days with Vince," Louie recalls. "It was amazing to watch because we were in Gamble and Huff's home, the place where 'Love Is the Message' was created. Vince was definitely excited."
Montana was also hired to perform on 'Runaway', having co-written, arranged and produced the 1977 original, which featured a flu-stricken Loleatta Holloway and appeared on the third Salsoul Orchestra album, Magic Journey. "Her voice was a little nasal," remembers Ken Cayre, the Salsoul boss, "but she still had the power and the knowledge how to pull it off." Indeed by the end of the session Holloway was even beginning to enjoy herself. "She had to do an ad lib before Vince played the vibes, which had already been laid down on the track," says Cayre. "At the end of the ad lib she said, 'C'mon Vince, play your vibes.' So she really captured the feeling of the song."
'Runaway' received its comeback call some twenty years later when India, a long-term MAW accomplice and an integral part of the Nuyorican Soul project, was invited to pick her favourite song from the seventies and ended up selecting the Salsoul classic. The selection was bold — and utterly justified. Bold because Holloway was the most celebrated underground diva of the disco era, with 'Runaway' one of her most popular performances. And utterly justified because, following the release of 'I Can't Get No Sleep', 'When You Touch Me', 'Love & Happiness (Yemaya Y Ochún)' and 'Voices in My Mind', India had left dance aficionados praying for more.
The remake managed to remain true to the spirit of the original while subtly injecting the Salsoul Orchestra — which had always been more notable for its 'soul' than its 'salsa' — with a dose of Nuyorican magic. "Vince did a spectacular solo on that record," Louie notes. "He gave us a flavour of what he did before and then he went somewhere else." India also melded the old with the new. "She gave her rendition of the song and at the end she went into this Spanish thing on top of the 'Runaway' groove," says Vega. "It was great. She took the original to another level."
South American influences were set to permeate the album. Thanks to a spectacular string interlude from Montana, 'Runaway' segued seamlessly into a Latin rendition of Mark Levine's 'Shoshana' that showcased the late and deeply mourned Tito Puente on vibes, Hilton Ruiz on piano, Dave Valentin on flute, Marc Quinones on timbales, Richie Flores on congas/bongos, Luisito Quintero and Bobby Allende on percussion, David Sanchez on saxophone, Steve Turre on trombone, Charlie Sepulveda on trumpet and Gene Perez, a long-standing MAW secret weapon, on bass. Eddie Palmieri's 'Taita Caneme' and 'Habriendo El Dominante' intensified the cross-cultural Latin journey, and 'MAW Latin Blues' and 'Gotta New Life' — which were written by Gonzalez, Ruiz and Vega, and featured the above suspects plus Andy McCloud on bass, Tony Cintron on drums, Bashiri Johnson on percussion and Starvin' T. Cordero, another musician from the MAW stable, on congas — completed the transatlantic voyage.
Of course Masters at Work had been exploring their Puerto Rican roots ever since Vega had invited Gonzalez to lay down some beats on his collaborative album with Marc Anthony, which featured Latin legends Palmieri and Puente. Nevertheless Nuyorican Soul marked a new level of engagement, and once again the unlikely key to this shift lay in the eclectic tents of the Southport Music Festival. "One night we were listening to 'Journey to the One' by Pharoah Saunders, and people were dancing to it, which fascinated us," Vega told journalist Carol Cooper. "We came back really worked up to do something like that and those two tunes, 'MAW Latin Blues' and 'Gotta New Life', both came out of that experience."
The Southport-Peterson coalition made another contribution in the form of 'I Am the Black Gold of the Sun', a Jocelyn Brown number from the days of the Rotary Connection. Along with Lisa Fischer, Brown had already performed the background scatting vocals on 'Gotta New Life', but Gonzalez and Vega knew that they wanted a more central role for the dance floor diva who had delivered hits such as 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough', 'I'm Caught Up (In A One Night Love Affair)', 'Make It Last Forever', 'Moment of My Life' and 'Somebody Else's Guy'. Compared to these hits, 'Black Gold of the Sun' was unknown, but Peterson had fished the song out of nowhere and suggested that the Nuyorican producers integrate it into their dance retrospective.
"When we heard the Rotary Connection we were like, 'Wow, let's get Jocelyn in and have her sing really low,'" says Vega. "Everybody was used to hearing her wailing and everything, so we thought we'd do something different with her." Brown, who had already worked with Kenny and Louie on their debut LP, was captivated by the idea. "'Black Gold' was the strangest part on the whole album," she remembers. "Wow, baby! You were really going into an avant-garde, Thelonious Monk kind of sound, which was deep. I mean, why would you want to go there? But Louie and Kenny were feeling the groove of this song from years ago and once the music started we knew where we were going. It was like an automatic switch."
The result situated the sun within the solar system. The ex-Inner Life songstress wrote some addition verses, fleshing out the bare lyric line of the original. The mesmeric drums of Vidal Davis and the haunting string arrangement of Vince Montana retained the psychedelic soul of the Rotary Connection recording. And Lisa Fischer generated the final glitter via a stunning background arrangement that also featured Bennie Diggs, Paula McWilliams and Cindy Mizelle. "I definitely preferred the Nuyorican Soul version," says Brown. "It gave substance to the song. It gave a definition to what we were singing about."
'It's Alright, I Feel It!' was recorded the next day. "We wanted to write an uptempo song that wasn't house music," says Vega. "Kenny came up with this incredible syncopated rhythm that had a hip-hop breakbeat flavour, and I played a bass line around it." Jocelyn Brown and Bennie Diggs wrote the lyrics, with Brown creating the immortal 'It's Alright, I Feel It!' hook, and Terry Burrus provided the song with its irrepressible gospel drive. "If you want to take it to church, you've got to bring in Terry Burrus," notes Vega. "He played all the way down. It was great." Brown was equally blown away. "The recording session was magical," she remembers. "There was such a wonderful spirit. We were all in tears. It was a very magical night for us."
'I Am the Black Gold of the Sun' became the first song on the album and, reflecting the narrative sequence of the recording studio, 'It's Alright, I Feel It!' duly followed. On the surface, the juxtaposition didn't make sense: the pensive explorations of 'Black Gold' hardly prepared the listener for the joyous incantations of 'It's Alright'. But this was the Nuyorican Connection, not the Rotary Connection, and the search for concealed conversations lay at the epicentre of MAW's imaginative map. The underlying links — which went way beyond the album's beautiful strings-to-piano bridge — duly emerged. Featuring the same singer, the same background vocalists, the same drummer and even the same — if somewhat simplified — riff as 'Black Gold', 'It's Alright' tapped into a related, though not identical, sonic. And developing the spiritual meditations of 'Black Gold' into a transcendent and uninhibited celebration, 'It's Alright' also explored a similar, though not identical, thematic. The juxtaposition did make sense.
With the hip-hop-inflected 'Nautilus (Mawtilus)' and 'Jazzy Jeff's Theme' already wrapped up, the recording sessions were over. All that remained was for the Nuyorican Soul team to find a US equivalent of Talkin Loud, whose ambit was restricted to Europe. An 'American Gilles' emerged in the person of Maurice Bernstein, chief of the jazz-dance-party-turned-label Giant Step, which was part of the MCA empire. Bernstein was already an active member of the Masters at Work fan club, having asked Kenny and Louie to remix the Groove Collective's 'Watchugot' in 1994, and he jumped at the opportunity to sign what he describes as "brave musical statement".
Bernstein soon had a brainwave. The mini-mogul knew Tommy LiPuma, the head of GRP Records, which was also part of the MCA family, and LiPuma was tight with George Benson, who he had produced since the release of the breakthrough Breezin' album in 1976, so why not ask LiPuma to invite the jazz guitarist into the Nuyorican studio? Bernstein set up a listening meeting with Benson and LiPuma, Gonzalez and Vega played the album, and the GRP duo gave them the thumbs up. "Tommy had already heard it and he kept telling George, 'You've got to hear these cats, they're doing some good stuff,'" remembers Louie. "By the end of the session he said, 'Alright, man. Let's find a day when we can try something.' We were so happy!"
Gonzalez and Vega recorded a track, found a free day in the Benson diary, and spent hours preparing the studio so that everything would be perfect. However it quickly became clear that something was wrong. Not with Benson, who delivered four takes plus vocal hooks, but with the MAW demo. "It was a lot like 'The Nervous Track' and 'Mind Fluid'," says Gonzalez. "It was real dark, and when I heard him play I was like, 'Shit!' What he did just drew me in a whole different direction." Two takes and that was it. "I knew I had to redo everything. The original track was good, but it could have been that much better, and I wanted to make something that was going to have a crazy impact."
Vega laid down a fresh chord progression, Gonzalez punched out some new beats, and Benson's rich and silky takes were wrapped around the new structure. All that remained was for the MAW team to create the perfect intro. "We wanted to put a guitar solo at the top so that when people heard it they knew that it was George Benson playing," recalls Vega. "He came up with this incredible intro and then said that he was just kind of exercising! After that he was like, 'Alright, let me put it down for real!'" The recording made a huge impact. "Everybody was telling us that they hadn't heard George Benson play like that in a while," says Vega. "He was working with these young people, we had this new flavour, and maybe he just vibed on it." The Sound Factory Bar and anyone with an open ear vibed on it too.
The album was ready and duly notched up sales of two hundred thousand — although that was hardly the point. "We didn't do the album to make money," says Bernstein. "We did it because we wanted to respond to the fodder that was dominating the dance floor. It was a labour of love." The album was also an audiobiography for hundreds and hundreds of dance music aficionados — including Bernstein, who had arrived in New York a week before the closure of the Paradise Garage and was fired up by the King Street club's final parties. "Nuyorican Soul was a journey," says Bernstein. "The album showed how Louie and Kenny got to where they are musically. It's a testament to their musical roots, and this history rang true for a lot of people. It was very much influenced by the Garage."
The Larry Levan link is fascinating. Not because, somewhat obviously, songs such as 'It's Alright (I Feel It!)', 'I Am the Black Gold of the Sun', 'Runaway', 'Sweet Tears' and even 'You Can Do It (Baby)' would have slotted nicely into one of Garage DJ's famously eclectic marathon sets, but because Nuyorican Soul represented the material fulfilment of one of his most ambitious yet unrealised dreams. "Larry's biggest idea was that all the singers and all the DJs should get together and do a triple album," remembers Brown, a regular Garage performer who used to cook supper for Levan. "The DJs would choose an artist to perform a song that they've always wanted to remix. I was like, "C'mon! That's so farfetched! And now Masters at Work have practically done it. Larry was right again!"
Unfortunately a handful of anonymous industry insiders sniped away at what they perceived to be the album's lack of originality, totally misunderstanding MAW's broader retrospective intent. After all, Nuyorican Soul wasn't just for the oldies: it was also designed for kids who were interested in experiencing dance music's equivalent to A Brief History of Time. "We were trying to create an album that would be an education for young people," says Vega. "There are a lot of people who don't know about this stuff." Even if this agenda is put to one side, it's notable that only seven of the seventeen tracks were covers, and most of these received some sort of significant reworking. "People are going to talk," reflects Gonzalez. "But there's not another album that comes close to it in terms of sound, the way it's put together, the way it's mixed, the way it flows. You name me another album that can touch you in so many different ways. There's nothing."
Crucially, Nuyorican Soul wasn't driven by nostalgia. Instead the album forged a powerful manifesto for the present, calling on ethnically and musically segregated clubs to come together, recognise their commonality and create a contemporary version of the melting pot practices that had become nightworld's unwritten constitution thanks to David Mancuso's foundational Loft parties. Here, at long last, was an archaeology of sound that recognised the importance of a cross-cultural, non-static tradition, retaining a sense of its core while always being open to change. "We came together to make music and fulfil something that wasn't happening," concludes Brown. "We came together to unify the elders with the young ones, to unify the old knowledge with the new knowledge, to unify the respect of cultures, to unify so many things that make such a big different to our day-to-day lives."
The coming together continued long after the release of the album. First in line was India, who took time out from her increasingly hectic Salsa career to record 'To Be In Love', a slow number that was written by Joey Lazzanzi and Vince Montana. The song had already appeared on India's collaborative album with Tito Puente, but Masters at Work wanted to inject the love song with a cool pop sensibility, and a dash of Nuyorican sophistication was provided courtesy of Mr Montana's vibes. The result was an epic recording that ran for just under thirteen minutes and sold forty thousand copies, establishing itself as the MAW label's best selling release.
George Benson also wanted another dose of the KenLou treatment— although this time it was Gonzalez and Vega's turn to contribute to his album. Originally produced by Tommy LiPuma and Ricky Peterson, 'Song For My Brother' was transformed into an eleven-minute sensation, with Benson revisiting the studio in order to provide the MAW duo with some crucial material. "He was great," says Vega, remembering Benson's rich scatting and mesmeric guitar playing. "He didn't give us a million tracks and leave us to work it out. He gave us really good quality takes."
But who was Benson's brother? A blood sibling? A close friend? An African-American cousin? Or Louis Salinas, South America's answer to the GRP maestro, who had emerged as the next musician on MAW's collaborative wish list. "Tommy LiPuma always talked about this guy called Louis Salinas and I asked if we could record a tune together," recalls Louie. "He was like George Benson, but with a Spanish flavour." Once again the Nuyorican Soul boys composed a track before inviting Salinas to play his part and improvise a Spanish hook — 'Pienso En Ti (I Think of You)'. Luisito Quintero, who lugged a batch of South American wooden boxes into the studio and recorded an incendiary percussive set for the top of the track, rounded off the Latin circle.
The Nuyorican Soul network continued to generate ground-breaking work when Gilles Peterson asked Louie and Kenny to remix Roni Size's 'Watching Windows'. The Bristol artist had delivered a ferocious drum and bass version of 'It's Alright', and Vega and Gonzalez were only too happy to return the musical compliment. "I was amazed at what the early drum and bass kids were breaking, and then Roni Size and his crew took it into a whole new direction," says Gonzalez. "They had their own sound. The upright bass and live drums really opened me up. We saw them at a Giant Step party in New York and they were amazing."
'Watching Windows' was given the ultimate Nuyorican treatment. "The bass line reminded us of Latin music," says Gonzalez, "so we went that way instead of doing a house mix." The radical Nuyoricanstruction opened with Mind Fluid-style beats, a dreamy synth and a wavering vocal before shifting into a mellow tribal section that was drawn from the Salinas session. An extended Latin jazz groove followed, featuring Nelson Gonzalez on guitar, Albert Menendez on keyboards, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Luisito Quintero on timbales/percussion, and the stupendous fourteen-minute recording closed with a Salinas rumba. "In the end we just kept the vocal samples and sound effects from the original mix," says Vega. "We were inspired by a Fania All Stars album called Spanish Fever. Gilles went crazy when he heard it."
However MAW weren't only ruling the underground. The commercial success of Nuyorican Soul had attracted the attention of megastar Janet Jackson, who told MTV that India's storming rendition of 'Runaway', which had reached number one on the Billboard dance chart, was her favourite record. Jackson tracked down Gonzalez and Vega, who jumped at the chance to remix 'Go Deep', and this time they headed down the house highway, creating a deep and moody track that featured the flying flute of Dave Valentin. "He just tore it up," remembers Vega. "That record was huge at Shelter and Body & Soul."
As were MAW's powerful productions of BeBe Winans and Luther Vandross. Johnny 'D' DeMairo, a close friend who also happened to be the head of Henry Street Music and an Atlantic executive, came up with the suggestion of reworking Winans' gospel-oriented 'Thank You', and Kenny and Louie converted the song into one of the biggest house anthems of the nineties. The Masters ended up installing a completely new instrumental track — thus the production credit — and Winans re-recorded the vocals, bringing in a friend called Luther to perform the backgrounds.
Vandross was impressed and contacted the MAW office a couple of months later. Would Mr Vega and Mr Gonzalez be interested in doing some work on his new album? Kenny and Louie were stunned: all of a sudden they were being chased by top-of-the-notch artists who had no obvious connection with the dance market but wanted to receive the Masters treatment. In the studio, Vandross knew he had some explaining to do. "Wait a minute," he began, preparing his listeners for the burst of energy that was about to unfold. "Let's try something different! This is Luther with the Masters at Work…" The "something different" became 'Are You Using Me?' — one of the grooviest and most uplifting MAW productions of the decade.
Yet for all of their new material, Gonzalez and Vega were still committed to excavating their past. Half way through the nineties they had reinterpreted Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's 'I Feel Love', providing the futuristic seventies sensation with a more organic, live feel. An opportunity to remix and reproduce Incognito's version of 'Always There' followed, with the boys calling in Jocelyn Brown and Vince Montana to lay down the vocals, vibes and strings. Atmosfear's 'Dancing In Outer Space', a 1979 underground smash, was next on the list of classic retrievals, with Gonzalez and Vega meticulously tightening up the shifting rhythms of the original before they added a fresh synthesiser and a heavier bass beat. And then came Louie and Kenny's special tribute to Fela Kuti, 'MAW Expensive'.
The Masters had hoped to feature Kuti on the Nuyorican Soul album, and when it became clear that the king of Afrobeat was too ill to appear, they persuaded Eddie Palmieri to perform 'Expensive Shit' — although the Latin pianist eventually decided he wanted to play 'Taita Caneme' and 'Habriendo El Dominante'. The Afrobeat hole was never filled and, following Kuti's untimely passing in August 1997, MAW decided to rework 'Expensive Shit', bringing in a trademark team of diverse and talented vocalists and musicians that included Kunle Ade, Mojisala Adeagbo, Tony Kadleck, Folorunsho 'Foly' Kolade, Abiola Olaniyi '77', John Scarpulla, Luisito Quintero, Dave Valentin, John Wheeler and Wunmi. "We knew that we couldn't top the original, but we had ideas" says Vega. "It was another epic."
If anything, Gonzalez and Vega were even more prolific between 1996-2000 than they had been during their first five years, producing and remixing hundreds of other records — too numerous to describe in detail, yet too important to go unmentioned. Highlights included: Mel B 'I Want You Back', Ballistic Brothers 'Marching On', Bel Canto 'Rumour', Black Magic 'Dance (Do That Thing)' and 'Let It Go', Black Masses 'Wonderful Person', Kenny Bobien 'Rise Above the Storm', Brand New Heavies 'Sometimes', Braxtons 'The Boss', Jerald Daemyon 'Summer Madness', Daft Punk 'Around the World', Eternal 'What'cha Gonna Do', Lisa Fisher 'When You're A Woman', 4 Hero 'Star Chasers', Freestyle Orchestra 'Odyssey' and 'Twi-Lite', Funky People featuring Cassio Ware 'Funky People', Grooverider 'Rainbows of Colour', Gypsy Kings 'Ami Wa Wa', Incognito 'Nights Over Egypt', India and Nuyorican Soul 'I Love the Nightlife', KenLou IV 'MAW War', KenLou V 'Thru the Skies', KenLou VI 'Bangin'', Kenny Lattimore 'Days Like This' and 'If I Lose My Woman', Lilliana 'Brazilian Beats', Lood featuring Donell Rush 'Shout-N-Out', Stephanie Mills 'Latin Lover', Nu Colours 'Desire', Ruffneck 'Everybody Be Somebody', Sinnamon 'I Need You Now', Sunkids 'Rescue Me', Towa Tei 'Love Connection' and Ultra Naté 'Divine Love'.
Throughout all of this work and more, Kenny and Louie retained a level of sophistication and integrity that is almost scary to contemplate, and these qualities were never more evident than in 'The Ghetto/El Barrio', a recent collaboration with George Benson that the Masters co-wrote alongside the jazz guitarist and co-produced with Tommy LiPuma. Featuring a familiar line-up that included Vidal Davis on drums, Carlos Henriquez on bass, Luisito Quintero on timbales/congas/percussion and Joe Sample on the Wurlitzer/B-3 organ/synthesisers, as well as the backing vocals of Claudia Acuna, Roy Ayres, Lisa Fischer, India and Richard Shade, the release revived Donny Hathaway's early seventies classic, injecting the original with a more overtly R&B feel before picking up the syncopated Latin rhythms in the second half of the cut. "It was just dream after dream coming true," says Vega. "Whenever George Benson needs us, we're there, because it's special when we get together."
Of course Hathaway has a special resonance for Kenny and Louie, who were growing up in the tightest of tight communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx at the time of the song's release. Nevertheless the MAW duo have long since left behind any traces of a ghetto mentality, displaying an insatiable appetite for different varieties of musical culture. Their hunger reminds me of the moment when Walter Gibbons, arguably the most influential remixer of the seventies, became the first DJ to be entrusted with a multitrack — of Loleatta Holloway's 'Hit and Run'. "Walter just took it and said, 'Ooh, did you hear her do that!'" recalls Denise 'Sunshine' Chapman, Salsoul's promoter. "He was like a child in a candy store. There were so many choices." Masters at Work display a similarly refreshing enthusiasm. They, too, want to grab at everything, from Afrobeat to disco to dub to garage to hip hop to house to jazz to Latin to soul. The world has become their ghetto.
The Masters also deserve to be compared with Larry Levan, the most influential dance music practitioner of the eighties. For sure, the Garage guru was a more influential DJ — although Vega's four-and-a-half year residency at the Sound Factory Bar provided the dance music underground with a crucial lifeline given that the Shelter was about to close and Body & Soul had yet to open. But in terms of remixing and production, MAW's efforts in the nineties have matched and even surpassed those of Levan in the eighties. Like Levan, they have survived the cutthroat climate of the studio for a long ten years. Like Levan, they have revolutionised the way people listen to music, introducing a series of sounds that have become so entrenched in the dance psyche that it's hard to remember that nightworld didn't always sound like this. And like Levan, they have made the rarest of rare leaps, moving from the world of remixing to the universe of production.
Most importantly, 'Little' Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez have maintained an elaborate and unswerving eclecticism at the heart of their work. As with Levan, this hybridity has nothing in common with the superficial skimming of multicultural tourists, whose level of engagement begins and ends with the casual flick of a download button. No, MAW's diversity is grounded in a set of serious musical roots, and it has evolved in conjunction with the melting pot populations of New York's night network. The Loft, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, the Shelter and Body & Soul lie at the heart of this vision, and, more than any other remixing and production team, Masters at Work have provided this creative cultural community with a relentlessly varied soundtrack. The first ten years have been extramawdinary, and we look forward to the next ten with huge anticipation. Kenny and Louie have demonstrated that we can still dance together, even if today's increasingly factional market demands otherwise, and the wonderful music on this compilation embodies that vision. For this we can do little more than refer back to BeBe Winans and say 'Thank You'.
Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, published by Duke University Press. Available from amazon and good bookstores.
--Tim Lawrence, via email, [Apr 2005] See more of Tim Lawrence's writings at www.timlawrence.info or email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org
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