Artist of the Month: Masters at Work

With the complete Masters at Work remastered catalogue, including unreleased material, soon to be released on Beatport for the first time — including the first brand new MAW release in 20 years — Harold Health speaks to the duo about their influences, journey and longevity.

19 min
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Apr 9, 2021
Harold Heath

The career of “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez is a journey through the cross-Atlantic musical conversations, which saw DJs and producers from the US and the UK cross-pollinating sounds and styles to drive and develop another. It’s a demonstration of the power of music to freely travel back and forth across borders and oceans as well as a testament to the duo’s peerless production skill and musical vision — it’s musical multiculturalism in action.

Masters at Work (or MAW) spent three decades producing some of house music’s most influential cuts, creating a huge, sprawling back catalogue full of genuine classics, including huge club anthems like Hardrive’s “Deep Inside” from 1993, “I Can’t Get No Sleep” featuring India, or their killer rework of Barbara Tucker’s “Beautiful People.”

MAW’s grooves move between underground and commercial with ease. Their ’92 mixes of Trey Lorenz’s “Photograph of Mary” were huge underground tunes at the time, and the beat then cropped up a couple of years later on Reel 2 Real’s massive international hit “I Like To Move It”. Their Nuyorican Soul project took seminal tunes like the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Runaway” and Rotary Connection’s “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun” and made their reworks classics in their own right.

MAW have consistently showed themselves able to turn their hand to other genres in house music too, not least the soulful scene. Check their epic remix of BeBe Winans’ “Thank You” from 1998 or James Ingram’s “Lean On Me” from 2001, bringing a high-quality organic musicality to house music. And we’ve not even mentioned disco yet — what about their joyous re-rub of The Braxtons “The Boss” from 1996, channelling MFSB with those pure mid-70s disco strings?

But perhaps what makes the duo truly legendary is the fact that many of their records are truly transcendent — they transcend genres and unite DJs and dancers from across widely disparate scenes.

The career of Masters at Work is defined by success, and generally spoken about as a series of achievements and superlatives: Grammy nominations, smash hit records, remixes for artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, Jamiroquai, Earth Wind & Fire, Stephanie Mills and Mr Fingers. Their genre-busting Nuyorican Soul project sent the duo on a 10-year hot streak in the ‘90s, and they defined the sound of US house music in the process. But — as the Nuyorican Soul moniker suggests — at the very heart of their sound lies New York City, the city both were born and raised in. Louie in the Bronx, and Kenny a few miles south in Brooklyn.

For those who don’t actually live there, New York City holds a particular romantic place in our cultural hearts as a rich and potent hub of music, art, dance and literature. New York is Mancuso’s Loft, Siano at the Gallery; the site of Stonewall and the birthplace of hip hop. It’s block parties, Kool DJ Herc, Charlie Chase and Red Alert, The Funhouse and Studio 54. It’s Fab 5 Freddy and Debbie, Keith and Jean-Michel; it’s The Paradise Garage, The Danceteria, The Limelight, The Tunnel; and legendary DJs like Gibbons, Flash, Tenaglia, Krivit.

Many of us hold an idealised and idolised concept of the city, viewed through the prism of countless favourite songs and films like Taxi Driver, Wild Style, The Warriors, Beat Street, Saturday Night Fever, Do The Right Thing, Desperately Seeking Susan — the New York City of our dreams. The reality, of course, is a little different: more prosaic, rawer and more real.

“New York’s been through a lot of phases, and in the late ‘70s early ‘80s , Brooklyn wasn’t a pleasant place to grow up,” Kenny says. “It was tough, kind of like how it is now with all these divides, all these different people going at each other. We had to go through that growing up, going to high school to fight because people were trying to take advantage and things like that, so music was an outlet for us. We did the parties to get away from that negativity. My family was working class. They worked to put food on the table and stuff like that. We had to wait, to save our little allowance money to buy things, whether it was a pair of Adidas or whatever. In the early ‘80s, it wasn’t like we was spoon-fed. I remember having to save for a set of [Technics] 1200s for a long time, I started working in a store to save up. We didn’t have nothing handed to us.”

Despite the gritty reality of growing up in New York, the idea of the city as the proverbial cultural melting pot is still accurate. “Well, I lived in Stratford Avenue,” Louie says, “right up the block from the Bronx River Project, and I was going down the block and discovering Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Red Alert, and Afrika Islam doing these get-togethers and playing all this great music, from punk rock to breakbeats, everything. It was school right there.”

Kenny’s neighbourhood in Brooklyn also had a rich and vibrant musical heritage. “My neighbourhood was Puerto Rican,” he says, “Jewish above me, Jamaicans left, Italians to the right — they were playing Italo disco stuff — to the left of me I’m hearing reggae, funk and soul, and then my neighbourhood was listing to Latin music too, so I grew up with all those elements.”

This musical cosmopolitanism is key to MAW’s success, and it doesn’t take a genius to observe how these rich influences have been present in their music. In drawing together different cultural streams, MAW’s sound is quintessentially New York — a summing up of what is great about the city; proof that magic occurs when different musical cultures collide. As Louie says about his hometown, “If we were growing up anywhere else we would not be the same people, for sure. That’s why I consider myself and us lucky to be able to have grown up there, as rough as it was, but as rich as it was.”

As their sound travelled from those NYC streets to The Haçienda in Manchester or Ministry of Sound in London, their influence began stretching way beyond house music, too. You can feel it in UK garage, trip hop, broken beat, acid jazz, drum & bass and more; all genres arguably predominantly pioneered by UK producers and artists, but all of which owe a very clear musical debt to MAW.

One of the duo’s many skills is creating records that drive musical innovation and development. Take the “The Nervous Track.” Released under Nuyorican Soul, the song explores what’s actually possible within a genre, demonstrating that new forms are achievable by creating a musical environment where breaks, latin, jazz and non-house tempos flourish. The track easily slides across multiple styles, as demonstrated by the broad and far-reaching DJ support it received from beyond the house music scene.

“It was inspired by the [UK dance music event] Southport Weekender,” Kenny says about the track. “We go into this jazz room and everyone’s dressed up, they’ve got their shoes and suits on and they’re jazz dancing and I’m like wow! It’s fast but alright, let’s take that and flip it. That movement was going on in Southport, but we took it home and incorporated all the other stuff.”

Sonically, “The Nervous Track” is perhaps closer to liquid drum & bass than US house, but according to Louie, it was the UK’s broken beat scene that owes a debt. “I’ll never forget,” Louie says, “I was in London sometime and — may he rest in peace — Phil Asher invited me to this club in the West End and he testified! He was like, ‘Louie, I just want you to see how the music you’ve made influenced us,’ and it was that whole broken beat scene. That’s a really good feeling, that you can be part of a creation of a sound that touches a lot of people and influences people to make that kind of music in their way.”

MAW live

Look into the MAW catalogue in any depth and you start to find other important and influential records too, like 1991’s “The Ha Dance” which was a defining piece of music on the vogue scene. And on the same 12-inch there is also “Blood Vibes,” a tune that Kenny notes was being played in the UK at 45 RPM on the proto-jungle scene. Fast forward a couple of years and MAW dropped their “Mind Fluid” 12-inch, which again picked up plays from jazz, broken beat, downtempo and drum and bass DJs. 

The pair are unsurprisingly extremely comfortable in each other’s company. They’re still quick to laugh at each other’s jokes, they often punctuate each other’s answers with their own affirmations — “Oh definitely!”, “For real!” — and occasionally pick up the story from their partner halfway through.

“It goes without saying, we’ve been influenced too —” begins Kenny before Louie chimes in with a heart-felt “Hard!” “— if it wasn’t for being at Southport,” Kenny continues, “and seeing that at first hand, I wouldn’t have been influenced. The broken beat scene built up from that but it came from that jazz room at the Southport weekender first. It all revolves. Even the soulful house stuff stems from all our disco stuff that we played early on, and records that we got influenced by, so it just moves around in circles.”

The other key factor in MAW’s longevity is the mutual respect and sense of brotherhood between them. They were introduced by Todd Terry when Louie expressed an interest in remixing Kenny’s “Touch of Salsa” (a remix that ironically never happened), and instantly they found they had a unique connection, both personally and professionally. 

“It’s a special brotherhood, it’s unity. Creatively, our minds are always turning when we’re together,” Louie says. “We complement each other when we’re in a room together. When we listen to something we’re always listening to each other too. Sometimes we won’t see each other for a few months and then we get together to DJ or go in the studio and boom, things just happen.” 

Kenny’s a pretty cool cat, even when talking about career highlights like Nuyorican Soul or casually calling Strictly Rhythm and Nervous Records at four in the morning to tell them whoever makes it down to the studio first can sign their latest jam, but he becomes animated when talking about his relationship with Louie. He even sounds incredulous when he says they’ve never fought about anything. “Never! There’s never been a fight! It’s real, that’s where that spiritual shit comes in, this was supposed to happen.” They’re so in sync that when discussing their ‘90s hot streak that they both use an identical hand movement — a kind of 45-degree karate chop towards the computer screen — to illustrate their single minded commitment and drive. “He’s genuine, good, honest and he’s a fucken’ workaholic,” Kenny continues. “This dude, nobody can outwork him, I’m telling you. That keeps me going. Even back in the ‘90s you couldn’t out-work him, he’d stay up longer than anyone, the dude don’t sleep!”

Sometimes when two people work together, you get synthesis, and what is created is bigger than the sum of the parts. This is clearly the case with MAWs professional relationship — they assemble their art by welding musical influences together into new forms. And it’s this sonic alchemy that has kept them at the leading edge all these years. But their personal relationship has enabled them to continue working together through the last three decades. It’s a deep mutual respect, a genuine brotherhood.

The big news for MAW fans this year of course is the appearance of their newly re-mastered catalogue, available on streaming platforms for the first time, along with the release of the first new MAW tracks for twenty years. But why now?

“Because it feels like now is the right time,” Kenny says. “There’s a new generation that’s ready for it, so we wanna teach them and expose them to our sound again like we did before.” And it’s not just new MAW material, the duo are planning new Nuyorican Soul music too. 

“This catalogue is really important to us,” Louie says. “This was a time of our lives where we were able to start our own label, MAW Records, which started in 1995 and we’ve never fully put it on streaming outlets. We wanted to start fresh with a whole new look and everything. One of our goals with this is to introduce the new generation to our sound. We’ve remastered 55 tracks and we’ve added unreleased dubs, instrumentals and other special things in some of the releases. When we started we were young but we’ve learned so much now as far as being producers — how to connect and how we bring out the best in musicians and singers — and we want to just create a lot of music that we feel is going to touch a lot of people. So there’s gonna be new MAW and Nuyorican Soul, more on MAW Records and we have our first single out. We’ve not released a record as MAW for 20 years, so it’s a really exciting time.”

Just as we’re signing off the Zoom call, Louie suddenly says, “Wait a minute, I didn’t answer that question about what Kenny is like!” He pauses for a moment, carefully picking his words and puts his hand on his heart. “I was brought up with 8 sisters, and for me, Kenny is the brother that I never had, and that’s it.” 

Nothing more mysterious than brotherhood, talent and hard work lays at the heart of 30 years of classic, influential music. The last word goes to Kenny, who, like Louie, is fired up about the next stage of MAW.

“I feel good,” he says. “I know we’re back and about to kill it. I feel sorry for everybody out there cos it’s time to catch up, we’re gonna be on our game again and there’s another ten years coming right now. Listen, I’m not knocking anybody out there but when we start this again and go, it’s on. That’s all I’m saying.” 

Harold Heath is a freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. His new book, Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Smalltime DJ, will be published by Velocity Press in Spring 2021.  Follow him on Twitter

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