Masters at Work Are Ready to School Brooklyn in House Music History for #BEMF

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Masters at Work
Courtesy of Masters at Work

With a good DJ on the decks, the dancing never stops. The beauty of the extended mix is that there is no break from the onslaught of the beat; a single groove can connect many different, disparate sounds and rhythms to dizzying effect. Though house music has Midwestern beginnings, it caught on like wildfire in the New York scene for a reason: New Yorkers were already accustomed to the melding and merging of various genres in their everyday lives. This was particularly true as hip-hop exploded on the streets in the mid-to-late Eighties. With the city already awash in the traditional sounds of various cultures that populated this block or that, a quick walk around the neighborhood was like listening to one endless track, with each style of music fading and blending into the next.

For “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, this was a simple fact of life. In the late Eighties and into the Nineties, they began DJ'ing, remixing, and producing tracks across a wide variety of genres under the moniker Masters at Work. Just as house music was blowing up, they came right along with it, helping to define the genre’s sound in its heyday. While house splintered into a multitude of subgenres, then morphed again to reflect trends under the umbrella of electronic dance music, Masters at Work have stayed true to a simple formula: Find a groove and build it up with authentic, memorable hooks, influencing subsequent generations in the process. At the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, which invades the borough November 5–8, those generations meet. Masters at Work are playing alongside Soul Clap at Verboten on November 6. Though M.A.W. have been revolutionizing dance music for 25 years, it’ll be the first time Brooklyn sees Gonzalez and Vega appear onstage together.

Vega was brought up in the Bronx, born into a family of Latin jazz musicians, while Gonzalez, over in Brooklyn, honed an early interest in hip-hop. “Growing up in New York, my neighborhood was Puerto Rican, but I was also surrounded by Italians, Jewish people, Jamaicans, African-Americans,” Gonzalez remembers. “In all those neighborhoods, there was different music playing. Whatever it was, even if it was a polka song, there’s still a beat on it. Anything with rhythms, I’m into. You may not know it then, but it’s getting instilled in you as you drive around, ride around on a bike, walk around.... You’re hearing all these rhythms constantly, so when you start creating, all that stuff is in you.”

“We were lucky enough to come in at the beginning of house music,” Vega adds. His cousin Eric was a popular event promoter in Manhattan at the time, and Louie DJ'd many of those parties while Gonzalez cut his teeth in the boroughs. “When we started producing we definitely had the schooling [and knew] the roots, where it came from, whether it was Chicago, New York City, Detroit. We were playing that music. We were inspired by these early sounds — Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Larry Levan. We knew the roots, and then we became producers and remixers and started incorporating what we wanted to into the music.”

The duo was sought after by artists and labels alike looking to add club-ready cachet to songs that wouldn't have been dance hits otherwise. At the time, remixing was simpler and involved little more than adjusting levels or varying emphasis on existing elements. Masters at Work had a different approach. “We would get these artists that were like alternative or rock, and when we would do [a remix], they would have the biggest hit in the club. But that was our specialty,” Vega says. “We could take a little hook, but the music around it would be totally new music. We were writing new music to a lot of people’s songs and coming up with all these great grooves.”

“Slowly, it just became a style. We took chances and we gave you dubs that had nothing to do with anything, and we would just get hype for that,” Gonzalez says. “At the same time, there always had to be an element that we liked in the record or the artist to do it. We probably turned down twice as much music [as we released] that we didn’t do because there was nothing inspiring to actually work on. It wasn’t about cashing in. That’s what made us special to work with.”

In the early Nineties, Masters at Work took on huge pop stars like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Debbie Gibson, as well as lesser-known, then-underground artists such as Björk and Jamiroquai while simultaneously producing their own mega-hits (“The Bounce,” “What a Sensation”). In 1997, they released their most ambitious project to date: Nuyorican Soul enlisted in-studio musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds (soul, disco, and salsa greats like Vincent Montana Jr., Roy Ayers, George Benson, Jocelyn Brown, and Tito Puente), layering original live music with signature M.A.W. beats.

“We worked for seven years straight, hardcore, every day, traveling on weekends, coming back to the studio,” Gonzalez says. “I remember musicians [saying], ‘How is this gonna fit together? You’re in the wrong key!’ Artists like Tito Puente telling us this. Eddie Palmieri...that was funny to me, coming in just like, ‘What is this?’ But they still did it because they believed in us. They took that chance and when we put it together and played it back for them, they were all blown away. They told us, ‘We never in a million years would’ve envisioned this.’ We’re not classically trained musicians, [but] we knew how we wanted it to sound. As DJs, you make things work that don’t necessarily work together; that’s your job.”

Still, Gonzalez admits that the magnitude of the project didn’t fully hit him until after the work was done. “I didn’t even realize what we were doing [with] the record until the photo shoot,” he says. “It was amazing, because all these artists were there, and you would never think that would’ve been a possibility when you created it. You’re just going from your gut, just going and going and going.”

Gonzalez and Vega have traveled all over the world, revolutionized dance music, and watched the New York scene change a million times over, all while remaining relevant. “I’m always listening, whether it’s hip-hop albums, house albums, pop stuff, whatever,” says Gonzalez. “When I go do my thing and play out, I’m on it. I like to know what’s going on and what other people are doing, even if it’s not in my lane or my genre.” They say that the biggest change in the scene has been watching clubs come and go. “You gotta realize that when Louie was playing at Roseland and Studio 54 and those kind of spaces, and we had Palladium and the Tunnel, these big clubs with big sound systems — it was a movement. You could go to five happening parties in one night — all different styles of dance music, hip-hop, or whatever, but still, it was a movement,” Gonzalez recalls. As clubs closed and the paradigm shifted to favor more lounge-style spaces, new scenes sprouted up in the outer boroughs.

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“It’s moved over to Brooklyn,” Vega confirms. “You can go on that one strip where you have Output, Verboten, Good Room, that bowling spot...that’s not even including Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. There’s definitely something special happening out there.” In the city, Vega still DJs Wednesdays at Cielo, a Meatpacking hotspot he’s helped grow for the last eleven years. “I feel really good that [Brooklyn is] opening up to guys like us; it’s important to play those scenes, because we gotta show you where it comes from,” Vega says. “We kept making music and doing what we do. We’re a special case because we’re full-on producers and what we’ve done with music is history for everybody. So for us to come out and play is definitely a happening. It’s very important for New York to have this [festival]; we haven’t had it like this in a long time.”

Vega and Gonzalez have big plans for next year, too. They’ll both be releasing albums, working with artists they’ve signed, and, eventually, putting out another record as Masters at Work that’s likely to be a game-changer for electronic music. “When we get in that zone, every time, it works. It’s worked since 1990. I don’t really know another partnership that’s conquered what we’ve conquered in this amount of time, in all these genres,” says Gonzalez. “We’re still bringing something to the table that people are still talking about. My biggest thing is to develop that to the next level. That’s the plan. With our experiences and everything that we’ve done and been through, if we took our sound to another level, I don’t think people will be ready for it, honestly. [That’s] some next-level shit.”

Masters at Work play Verboten on November 6 as part of the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival. For ticket information, click here. For more information on BEMF, including lineup, schedule, and more, click here.

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