Monday, Feb 04 2002 | 20:45

Loved and respected by house djs, rare groove collectors and Gilles Peterson alike Maters At Work are legends in their own right. New listeners should check the MAW album on Tommy Boy, older disciples need their West End Records 25th Anniversary Mastermix. We sat down with Little Louie Vega for an indeep interview about everything MAW…

Masters At Work – an interview with Little Louie Vega
by Oliver/Olski von Felbert

Do you see “Our Time Is Coming” as your first album ?

That’s weird, that’s what everybody’s saying. Not really. I see really Nuyorican Soul being our first album. For Masters At Work, yeah it is. Because the first one was very early days. Our very first album in 1993 on Cutting records.

Really everybody asks why didn’t we put out an album for a long time for Masters At Work. It is because we were signed to a label for ten years. It took that long to get out and we finally were free last year and we put the album together.

So it was business reasons…

Yeah it was business reasons and at the same time we were remixing so many records. And we were kinda stuck on the label. Sometimes that happens, you sign a bad deal when you first start cause you’re all exited to put records out. You realize then that it was a horrible deal and you’re stuck there. Masters At Work were stuck on Cutting Records for like ten years and as soon as we got out we did an album.

Why did you choose Tommy Boy ?

Actually Tommy Boy chose us. They came to our party in Miami. You know we do these big parties in Miami at the Winter Music Conference and we were presenting our record. We put out like two test pressings with a song on each side, four different songs from the album.
And he (Tom Silverman) just saw the momentum we had, the way everbody reacted to our stuff and the way we sell records. He liked all that stuff. He felt that he could market us and push us more in the cd market. Because we don’t put out cds we put out vinyl all the time and maybe a couple of compilations here and there but not really marketing and promoting Masters At Work.
Six months later we ended up signing a deal.

Looking at the history of MAW and Tommy Boy it’s like two native New Yorkers are finally coming together.

It’s weird because Tommy Boy gave me the first mix (job) ever in 1986. I did a record for them called “Running” by Information Society. I’ve known Tom Silverman for years. So it was weird that he gave me my first record and that he was signing us later on.

Why do you call the album “Our Time Is Coming” – you are on top of things housewise for more than ten years. So what is yet to come for you ?

Albums – we are focussing on albums that’s what we mean by that. We really want to take it to the next level by making albums. We have about four albums in the works right now. One is a Masters At Work album, another one is Nuyorican Soul, then we have MAW Latino which is more all of our latin tracks. That’s gonna be the next one for the summertime and will be promoted in the latin market in the US and Spain, South America, Italy.

What are you expecting saleswise from the new album? Do you want to “cross over” ?

Well, let’s see what happens. Its not a sound that I hear a lot on the radio but there are good songs on there so if it should happen it happpens, we would love for it though. The reason why we’re on Tommy Boy is it can get across the whole market and let them at least listen to it.

One could say that the album is not your most eclectic or versatile piece of work. Leaving the vocalists ( and maybe the Fela tribute and the latin track) aside its the typical MAW house sound that plays the music. The sound that made you famous and the sound that most labels look for when asking for a MAW remix.

And that’s what we wanted to do because we’d never put out an album with that sound. We put out “To Be In Love”, we put out this one and that one – singles. But to me if you listen to it at as whole they go together. For someone like you who has heard our music it’s cool, its alright, but for someone who doesn’t know I think its a great introduction to our sound and what we have been doing for the last couple of years.

I mean Nuyorican Soul crosses a lot of boundaries but the Masters At Work album wasn’t made for that. A lot of kids that have been buying Masters At Work have been buying those kinds of records. So we wanted to introduce new people to that Masters At Work sound and we feel that this is a good introduction to the club sound that we’ve had that cares more to a live aspect of house music.

It’s still not easy to break a record in the US that is based on house.

House music is not commercial over there. R&B and hip-hop rule. But there is an underground market that is starting to bubble and there are other ways to do it. Through colleges, through the dance community in each of the fidgety cities. Its spreading little by little. We are starting to do more festivals on the Westcoast, I just did something in Austin, Texas that was great, a big festival. Now I’m doing one in San Bernadino and to me the sound is starting to spread little by little. Maybe not in a commercial radio mainstream kind of a thing but you know, like anything else, everything is gotta bubble in the underground.

If you would want to cross over by any means the most obvious thing to do would be moving in r&b direction.

But we are not thinking in that directon. Right now we are trying to break the records as they are. Like there’s a radio station in New York called Kiss that play R&B but they like Patti Austin. So they asked us “Would you give us a mix but make drums lighter” because we are always so strong on the drums. So we will go and attempt to bring the drums and make it lighter so that they can play the song as it is.

…in its original tempo ?

Yes, as it is. So we are all a little exited about it that they’re even considering things. That means there is hope. I don’t expect it to blow up because in the US it’s a whole different scene but I’m not saying that you can’t do it.

The good thing is that we have good songs, songs that you can sing along to, songs that people can relate to. That’s important for people who listen to lyrics and there’s a crowd out there who likes to listen to songs.

I started as a bedroom producer but you got to understand I got to progress and get to the next level. I’ve done 1000s of tracks and instrumentals and dubs and all that. It’s a whole different level. I feel that I progressed to a level of being a producer. I am a producer, I can produce a singer, I can produce a musician, I can produce whatever I got to produce in the studio.

I found my passion. My passion is that I love to produce, I love to produce musicians and artists. I can come with tracks by myself as well. Cause Kenny and I we do every kind of work in the studio. He’s basically like the drum man. Every type of beat I want, like “Look, I want a Brazilian kind of beat, gimme that. I want a beat that goes like this or that, gimme that”. I focus more on groove, playing the grooves, coming up with the foundation of it.

These records that we’ve been doing (on the albums) they’ve been calling for musicians. So we wanted to take it to a different level. If we want solos we bring in people to interpretate that for us.

Why did you choose people like Patti Austin and James Ingram as singers ?

We took a whole different approach, we took balladeers who are amazing singers. You’ve never heard Patti Austin on a house record and you’ve never heard James Ingram on a house record. We tried to bring people in that never experienced that sound and let’s see what they got to give.

That were amzing sessions with amazing singers. Those people are true professionals and their talent is: wow ! Patti Austin cut those vocals, the backgrounds and everything in like five hours. I showed her the song over the phone. She heard the song over the phone and she liked it.

James Ingram: the same thing. In his case I gave him the track and he wrote lyrics to it. He came in with “Lean On Me” and him singing that song just blew me away. And those people performing live is something else, it’s amazing.

First they worked with Quincy Jones, who wouldn’t want to work with singers who worked with Quincy Jones? Patti Austin is Dinah Washington’s goddaughter, I think. Quincy Jones knew Patti Austin since she was 4 years old. Imagine seeing a four year old girl singing on key and everything. So she’s been with the whole Quincy family for like 42 years. Working with him on the jazz records, on the pop records, Michael Jackson. She’s been on all that stuff. It was a dream to work with somebody like her.

And James Ingram who wrote PYT (“Pretty Young Thing” on the “Thriller” album) for Michael Jackson and sang all those hits for Quincy and who worked with Quincy for so many years. It was like a dream come true to do things like that, to work with such talent.

But for the kids who are going to house clubs these people are the music that their parents were listening too.

Of course. That’s why we have records like “Work” that works more for a younger person. Yeah, to me of course Patti Austin and James Ingram those songs are more sophisticated. But listen to the lyrics… Don’t look at the name, listen to the song, listen to the person singing, listen to the melody, listen to what they are doing. I think it will be a lot different.

I don’t listen to music like that: Oh, this person singing, they made records 20 years ago. No. I listen to a song and if it sounds good and it touches me, it doesn’t matter. He could be a hundred years old.

But we all know how important looks are. Today people expect singers to look all like Destiny’s Child.

Well look at Tito Puente. He was music that our parents were listening to. I don’t think anybody cared how old Tito was.

Ok. I have to agree on this one. Your remix of “Ran Kan Kan” was my introduction to Tito Puente to me and I have to thank you for that.

What’s going on club-wise in New York ?

Not much. There’s not that many spots. Right now a new club is about to open. Kevin Hedges and Timmy Regisford are opening a new club, they had the Shelter for many years. They’re not at Vinyl anymore, that’s the same place that Body & Soul was at. There are not many clubs that care about decent undergound music

Centro-Fly is a little bit more commercial. Once in a while they have Dimitri to play their. But to me the sound of the club is more of a commercial sound.

Our main spots are small spots. The underground soulful element “ and I just don’t mean one type of sound, there’s a lot of sounds when it comes to that “ Body & Soul is a whole different sound, Shelter is a whole different sound, Dance Original is a whole different sound. That are mainly the spots, the parties you need to go when you’re in New York city.

I play a variety of things. Its very cultural driven my music. I have of course your classic underground sound with either the diva vocals or the gospel type of feeling, you have an African sound that I love to play, a Brazillian sound I love to play, a Latin sound that I love to play. All with the soulful element. Sometimes I may go off to a different tangent. Just go to a totally different place not really house music. It depends on what’s out and what’s driving me. If you wanna know the way I play, listen to the Nuyorican Soul album that’s the kind of perfect example that I can play very different kind of things, while keeping an audience in a club or the crowd still groovin on it even though the tempos are changing or whatever. But then again I can give you that drive. So it all depends on the crowd.

What keeps you djing ? I don’t know how old you are right now.

I’m 36, I’ve been playing for 23 years.
It’s just …to me the djing is a natural thing. I love to play music, I love to see the people’s reactions, I love to create an atmosphere, that’s what I love to do. And to me that drives me to make records. If I didn’t make dance records, I wouldn’t be djing. If I wouldn’t dj, I woudn’t be making records. Because one (thing) drives the other.

That means the club for you is not only a workplace but also a source of inspiration.

I don’t even see it as a workplace. Of couse you go out (there) and you you do what you got to do. I see it more as place where people can … I make people happy. I like to make people happy, I like to make people feel good, going home and having a positive vibe. That’s all what I’m about. I like to put a smile on people’s faces. There’s a large portion of the club that come out for the music and there’s another portion of the club that comes out because they have problems. They come out with problems and I make them go home with a smile on their faces.

Do you never have a problem to relate to your crowd ? Some of them could be your kids agewise.

Off course, well I look at it this way: I’ve been doing it for the same (reasons they do it) it’s like the same age bracket exept that I’ve been getting older a little bit. The cool thing about it is, I guess a lot of these kids go out and they buy our past records. So they learn a lot from the music that we’ve made. They start I guess developing their taste in music and obviously the people who come out to the clubs that I play at, they’re coming out because I˜m there. Because a lot of times a lot of these clubs don’t put me on their regular nights. They put me on a new night and they promote it. So the kids that are coming out are kids that definitely know about me.

Pop music has always been about being young, it’s youth culture. But the djs are getting older and older.

For me there’s no age for it. That’s one thing about djing: there’s no age limit for. Look at Frankie Knuckles. He’s been around for what? 30 years or 25 years ?

I think it aquires a certain experience to become a really good dj. You need to really know your music, you need to know how a club works, how a crowd reacts to certain things. A good dj to me is somebody who is able to translate his knowledge and his love for music to the crowd and make them feel good.

I think that’s definitely what people are looking out more for. If they come up to hear me, they know that I’ve been around a while. And they know that I made up a lot of music and I’m still making music. It’s not an image, its not a visual type thing. There are some djs that are like popstars. I’m not a rock/popstar. I’m a dj who shows you the experience that I had over the years and I’m gonna show you something. That’s what I’m there for.

I was doing it when I was 13 years old. 1978 I was playing and I was 13 years old. I think kids will see it more like “Wow, I can do that too”. And who wouldn’t love to play when they’re 36 years old, who wouldn’t love to play when they’re 45 years old ?

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