The dance floor just may be the most egalitarian place on earth. All differences are neutralized when we start moving our hips and sliding our feet, preferably surrounded by swaying bodies locked in the same ecstasy of movement. For generations public dancing has offered a form of communion with family, friends and even strangers. In a way, the dance floor becomes an almost holy space ... and that makes the people who inspire us to get out on the floor High Priests and Priestesses of Groove.
This week we spend time with Louie Vega. He is one half of the highly influential musical production duo, Masters At Work. It's impossible to overstate just how much of an impact "Little" Louie Vega and his musical partner Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez had on popular music. Since the early 1990s, their fusions of house, hip-hop, soul, reggae and Afro-Caribbean rhythms has inspired dancers around the world. The duo elevated remixing to a high art, taking songs that inspired them and re-imagining the beats and rhythms to create something new and unexpected.
Hardly one to rest on his prolific laurels, Vega is still a force in dance music, having been nominated for a Grammy this year. His interpretation of Loleatta Holloway's "Can't Let You Go" was shortlisted in the Best Remix category. I spoke to him about his childhood in the Bronx, his recent collaborations in Cuba, and what we can expect from Masters At Work in the future.
The following interview can be heard in its entirety in the latest edition of our Alt.Latino podcast. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Felix Contreras: Louie Vega, welcome to Alt.Latino. How are you?
Louie Vega: Thanks, man. Thanks for having me.
The idea behind our interview series is to go deep on an artist's work, and in your case that includes a lot of music, but we're going to be selective because we also want to talk about some of your latest projects, which include a Grammy nomination, so we've got a lot of stuff to talk about. Let's start by talking about one of my favorite albums, the Nuyorican Soul album from 1997, and the track called "Habriendo El Dominante," which features Eddie Palmieri. Tell us a little bit about this album and what you guys were doing with this particular combination of Latin jazz and your old stuff.
We started with the artists we already had relationships with ... that was Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, La India, Jocelyn Brown and Roy Ayers. You know, for us it was about creating an album that kind of gave you a little history of New York City and us growing up in New York City. We happened to create a wonderful masterpiece that stood stood the test of time, because a lot of people, like you, really enjoy it now.
The mix of musical and social cultures just come together seamlessly, and always has from the beginning. Where did that inspiration come from?
It came from growing up in the Bronx in New York City. You know, for me, it was like walking through a neighborhood and you'd hear jazz music, you'd hear Latin music, you hear gospel music, you know? We heard it all. And R&B, soul, funk. I think that really stuck with me as a child, and later when I became a DJ: my record collection, going out to clubs at an early age, doing the roller disco thing. I was just a kid with a dream in the Bronx and I think listening to everything that was around me — watching my uncle Héctor Lavoe as a child at Madison Square Garden — all those things really affected me, you know? Him coming to the house in the middle of the night, like 2 in the morning, to see my mom and bringing 45's of test pressings, of his huge hits that became hits a couple months later. You know so, all that and my sister being a disco queen and going to the Paradise Garage, The Loft, and Studio 54 really meant a lot for me and my DJ world. So I think all those things, as well as watching my dad, who's been playing saxophone, tenor sax, for over 50 years. He always listened to Miles Davis, you know, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, all the music of the greats, and I would hear that as a child as well as hearing the whole Fania sound. Being in the Bronx at the birth of hip-hop, and going down the block, just one block, and seeing Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Red Alert, Afrika Islam, all the break dancers, the Rocksteady crew, everybody, you know? I think if I was born in any other city it would definitely not have happened. I blame it all on New York City!
The music we heard back then was about the streets, about, you know, what people go through, and of course having fun — and they were the kings of that. It's really wonderful how now there's a resurgence of interest in Fania Record's salsa sound — people want to hear it, the young people want to hear it. You know, I run into a lot of people that are in their 20s, early 20s, and, you know, and they're loving Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón. I mean, perfect example is The Martinez Brothers: I was working with them in Ibiza, and every time I would go to their studio, I'd walk in and I'd hear Héctor Lavoe. I'll never forget when Fat Joe told me he loved Héctor Lavoe. And Jennifer Lopez. And Marc, we started together-
Yes, he always loved my uncle. i actually brought Marc to meet my uncle back in the day.
Now you mention The Martinez Brothers. Let's go back to that just for a little bit. Tell me who they are and what is this new project you have with them?
Well, The Martinez Brothers are from the Bronx, and they are DJs, producers traveling the world, touring and playing to huge audiences. They come from the house scene and now they're playing anything from techno to house, and everything in between. Their dad went to the Paradise Garage and the Loft, and all these great clubs, so they were born with that music in them. They went out, spread their wings, found their sound and their thing, and they're just doing amazingly. I'm very proud of them. I've known them since they were starting. They started when they were like 14 or something like that, a really young age. Ten years later, boom, we see each other in the clubs, and when we saw each other in Ibiza, they said "Hey, why don't we get together and make some music? It's always been a dream for us to connect with you." We went into their studio in Ibiza and it just locked in. We came up with a track together and it was hot, and we said "We need like a Latin kind of vocal on it." And they said "What about something from your uncle, like a hook?" I said "You know what?" I was doing a project for Fania records, so I had a lot of the masters. I said "Let me see what I could dig up." I said to myself, if I was to do something with the guys, it has to be special, so I'm going to give them something that nobody has. And it was some outtakes of my uncle in the studio.
So, the sample was him having fun with everybody. You could hear all the guys in his band and whoever was hanging out in the studio that night. It was really wonderful, so it worked out perfect to use that track. When we put it together, it just worked really well. It was nice because it mixes the worlds. I mean, you have three generations there: you have my uncle, Héctor Lavoe, you have myself, Louie Vega, and then The Martinez Brothers. It was really a match made in heaven and that was it. And now we created all this great music, and our first single is coming out on February 16.
You've been keeping that thing happening on the dancefloor for a very long time and we understand and we recognize your successes, but I want to ask you: How difficult was it for you in the early days? What did it take for you guys to keep your names out there and stay on the cutting edge? What were those early days like for you?
It was adrenaline, you know? I just loved doing what I was doing at that time and for me, I was very ambitious. The opportunities that I had, to be in the studio in New York City with the greats — Arthur Baker, Jellybean Benitez, Latin Rascals. They opened their arms and said, "Louie, if you want to sit in the back and observe and learn, you're more than welcome." And I took advantage of every moment that I had, even with my friends like Ray Vazquez, who was a DJ that lived out in Williamsburg. I used to live in the Bronx and would take the train there. He would tell me about all these disco records and R&B and soul records, and where they came from, where they were played at, who played them, and who played on them. That was like school right there. For me, it was a fun time. I would borrow my friend's equipment in the late '70s in the Bronx; he was a mobile DJ. He did a lot of Sweet 16 parties and weddings, and I would go and help him and then say "Hey, could I borrow something for a few days?" and I would borrow the turntables, and two crates of vinyl, let's say, of my choice of music from his collection. You know, that's how it kind of started. It was a happy time. It wasn't like I was struggling and unhappy. I was struggling and happy.
I was working hard, going out to the clubs, and going to studios when that opportunity came, and then I started doing high school dances in the early 80's and doing parties with the YMCA. I mean, it was like that. We started on the raw tip and from there I got my first club at the Devil's Nest in 1985. Things just kept on coming in. Eddie Rivera gave me my first opportunity to do a street jam with 98.7 KISS.
What song would you play to bring you back to those early "struggling and happy" days?
"The Mexican" by Babe Ruth!
We can spend hours talking about the past, but let's fast-forward to now, right now. Tell us about this Grammy nomination you have coming up this weekend, January 28, at the Grammys in New York.
Yes, we are nominated for a Grammy for Best Remix, and the song is "Can't Let You Go" by Loleatta Holloway. It is the Louie Vega Roots remix. It was a song brought to me by producer Yvonne Turner, she was Loleatta Holloway's producer. And she brought me one of the last tracks she recorded. Loleatta Holloway is no longer with us and she left us an incredible legacy of music. And when i heard this track, I thought "This track is amazing!"
You're still a very busy man.
Yes, I do DJ. I do a lot of DJ gigs and I also have a band. It's called E.O.L. Soulfrito and I have a bigger band called Elements of Life. With E.O.L. Soulfrito, we actually just came back from Cuba. We played at the jazz festival on January 18 in a beautiful theater, and it was for the Two Beats, One Soul project. It's a new project, an album that I'm on and a documentary that's coming out by Vivian Chew and Ray Chew. A lot of great artists are on this project; there's Eric Benét, Sergio George, Jean Rodriguez, Jon B., all the Cuban musicians... I ended up doing four songs. So we went out to Cuba to perform the songs. They asked me to come in and produce two songs, and a few weeks ago we just went out and performed in this beautiful theater called Teatro Mella. You know, I got to see the whole scene in Cuba, it was amazing. I played in a club called F.A.C. — Fábrica del Arte Cubano — wow, it was really wonderful. I had a great time. I think we might be touring that project in the U.S.
You know, about a year-and-a-half ago we did a show after my trip to Cuba, and it was all about how while the politicians argued, the musicians jammed, and that cross-influence between the United States and Cuba that never stopped. And this is another example of how it just continues, no matter what the politicians decide or don't decide, or any kind of pendejada they come up with, it's always the musicians who understand human nature and what it's all about.
Oh, yes. You know, when I was out there we were in a studio, and when I brought the track over — along with Josh Milan and Anane Vega, my wife — we showed them the track and they were all listening to it. They listened to the lyrics, and even though it was in English, they were getting it, you know? It was wonderful. And anything I needed — like, "I want a string section," boom, we got a string section. "Who here in Cuba is like, your Ursula Rucker?" — who's one of my favorite poets and performers here in the U.S. — and they said, "It's Telmary Díaz." And I said, "Can you get her in here?" And boom, an hour later she was there. So she's on the record, too.
You're traveling in a really creative circle, bro.
Yeah, I mean, I love surrounding myself with a lot of talented people, and when we get together in that studio, I gotta say, "Daddy's Workshop," that's the name of my studio...
Is it really?
Yeah. There's this magic that happens in there, man, and I can't explain it, but every time we go in and do something, it becomes something really wonderful. I think it's just the aura and the feeling in the room — all the music, all the vinyl, all this wonderful analog and studio equipment, DJ setups... It's a really positive atmosphere, and I think a lot of people that come in there have a good time.
Let me ask you a bigger picture question: How do you interpret the success of the single "Despacito"? What kind of lasting impact will it have on music and culture?
First of all, it was a very powerful song. It was very simple for people to sing along to. The groove is in a very danceable pocket for people to have a good time to. Like it or not, that song is going to grab anybody. It's grabbed hundreds of millions of people, and when they brought in a pop artist, you know, Justin Bieber, to come and sing on it — I mean, that right there is crossover, man. That right there brought it to a whole other audience, you know what I mean? So I think records like that are phenomenons, you can't stop a record like that. Just let it be. You know, I think it's just opening doors and getting people into Latin music and getting people into Spanish-singing music; they're gonna want to hear more. So I think people should be a little more excited that it's opened doors, you know? And whether it's pop, or whatever it is, or whatever people may say about it... you know, because people say different things. I hear musicians talk, and everybody, and I'm like, look, that record just brought hundreds of millions of people into a music that they probably never even had interest in.
That's a good way of putting it.
Yeah, it's opened a lot of ears that would probably not listen to that style of music in the first place, and now they want to hear more of it, or now they want to hear more Spanish-hooky records, you know? For me, I embrace things that lift.
That seems to be your main philosophy.
Yeah, I mean, I make a different type of music, but I have an open mind and an open ear for all kinds of music, you know? I listen to rock and roll, I listen to jazz, I listen to funk, soul, disco, gospel. I've worked with artists in all different genres and brought them into our world of house music, or whatever style of music that I'm doing, but I obviously create a lot of dance music and the base is the house rhythm, but I bring a lot of culture and I bring a lot of styles into house music. And I've done that for many years. Kenny [Gonzalez] and I, we've had that model for many years, and we always wanted to take house music to that next step, and that's when we started bringing in lots of culture into the music and rhythms.
Louie Vega, thank you so much.
You're welcome, man. We're about to go into the studio in the next couple months and just get crackin' and finish some more great music that we've been working on, and just see what's inspiring us at the moment, because that's where you get more music coming in, you know? I'm doing a lot of producing and some remixing, so it's really nice that we can work with all these different artists that have different styles and are from different genres. Right now, I'm working on a remix of two songs from Luther Vandross, and it's two lost songs that never came out that he recorded in '79 when he did the Never Too Much album, and Nile Rogers is putting some rhythm guitar on it, Patrick Adams is going to do a string arrangement... so you know, we're all doing different things. We're all creating a lot of music. Kenny and I are going to do Masters At Work, we've produced a couple of KenLou tracks that we're putting out in the spring, and KenLou is our more street version of Masters At Work style music, and we're gonna hopefully lead up to a Nuyorican thing, so we're really excited as well.