Innovators, musical geniuses, house pioneers: there are few accolades that it would be inappropriate to level at Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, who, as Masters At Work (MAW), have been responsible for arguably the most impressive catalogue in the history of house. Staggering both in terms of quality and quantity, they set the blueprint for house production throughout the 90s, and their collective influence on the wider sphere of dance music cannot be overstated. The two native New Yorkers have amassed an overwhelming body of work in that time, one that includes over 1500 hundred original productions, remixes and side projects, redefining the way we think of music in clubs.
There are few names in dance music, which need less of an introduction than Masters At Work. Their name says it all! The ground-breaking project of Vega and Gonzalez forged a reputation for genre-eschewing DJ sets and flawless house production throughout their extraordinary careers, while their influence and reach, changed house forever standing behind dozens of the biggest club hits and remixes of their time. Effectively sound tracking the American nightclub scene of the 1990s, Masters At Work blended their love of the disparate music coming from New York’s underground clubs during the 1980s – disco, the freewheeling garage scene, emerging house and hip-hop styles, Latin freestyle – to enormously influence the mainstream dance sound as it coalesced during the following decade.
Taking the distinct and already highly praised production aesthetic of Vega and fusing it with Gonzalez’s encyclopaedic knowledge of breaks, hip-hop and beat creation, Masters At Work created an accessible yet defiantly underground sound that is still being copied and referenced – but crucially never bettered – by many of today’s contemporary producers.
Celebrating over 25 years together, shepherding dance music down new paths with their inventive production style and imaginative feel for different musical forms. Four time Grammy award nominees, Masters At Work have defiantly mixed everything they can find – house, hip hop, funk, disco, latin, African, jazz– into a universal groove such as Nuyorican Soul, KenLou, MAW, The Bucketheads and Hardrive to name a few. And in doing so MAW has become a cultural melange unto itself, emblematic of the multi-cultural society in which we live.
In 2012, Masters At Work have reunited over ten years later, toured and played at Ibiza with Carl Cox at Space, with Luciano at Ushuaia for the closing, Rock In Rio, Rock in Rio Lisbon, BPM at the Crosstown Rebel’s Rebel Rave event, Red Bull Academy event in San Francisco and New York, O2 Arena in London to name a few.
Both Vega and Gonzalez were born to parents living in New York (the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively), though of Puerto Rican heritage. Consequently, both were early influenced by the Big Apple’s fertile salsa scene during the ’70s. (Vega’s uncle is the renowned salsa vocalist Hector Lavoe, and his father played saxophone in Latin groups for over 30 years, while Gonzalez’s father, Hector Torres, is also a salsa expert.) During the early ’80s, both were noted DJs around New York, though Vega immersed himself in house and freestyle while Gonzalez entered the rap scene. (The separate interests came in handy later, as dance fan Vega concentrated on songwriting and groove-making while hip-hop head Gonzalez programmed beats and samples.) The pair also worked separately as producers, and Vega had already made a name for himself working on dozens of freestyle tracks and remixes by Nice & Smooth, Information Society, and India. Gonzalez, working as a mobile DJ with a team calling themselves the Masters at Work, founded his own Dope Wax Records and worked on production for all of the major New York dance labels: Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Cutting, and Big Beat. In 1987, he loaned out the name Masters at Work to Todd Terry for the 1987 single “Alright Alright” (a huge club hit), then Terry returned the favor one year later by introducing him to Vega.
After comparing notes, the pair decided that combining their wide range of influences could be an interesting experiment. They released their first Masters at Work single, the appropriately titled “Blood Vibes,” on Cutting Records. Since Vega still had remixing contracts from his solo days, the pair decided to apply the MAW treatment first to Debbie Gibson’s “One Step Ahead.” The dance community was reasonably shocked to hear a disposable pop artist given a respectable, even exciting, dance sound.
House production teams rarely released albums of their own productions under their own name, but a Masters at Work LP appeared in 1993, on Cutting Records. The album mixed older singles with newer productions, and featured guest slots for vocalists like Jocelyn Brown and India (the latter of whom is also Vega’s wife) plus producers like Todd Terry and Maurice Joshua. The reputation of Vega and Gonzalez grew soon and they received pleas from most of the major labels to contribute remixes, adding to their résumé Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Madonna, St. Etienne, George Benson, Brand New Heavies, Lisa Stansfield, Deee-Lite, Everything But the Girl, Chic, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Ce Ce Peniston, and dozens more.
Though Masters at Work were still a relatively underground phenomenon in 1993, the success of singles like “The Nervous Track” (as the Latin-vibed Nuyorican Soul), “Love and Happiness” (as River Ocean), “I Can’t Get No Sleep,” and “When You Touch Me” — each with vocals by Vega’s wife, India — caused their associated label, Strictly Rhythm, to give them their own MAW Records subsidiary. The discofied Gonzalez side project known as The Bucketheads reigned the dance charts during 1995-1996 with two number one singles, “The Bomb (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)” and “Got Myself Together.”
Masterworks: Essential KenLou House Mixes In early 1997, the MAW duo issued the most high-profile release of its career (at least in terms of the music establishment), a self-titled full-length as Nuyorican Soul. Recorded with input from a host of jazz and past Latin masters (George Benson, Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, Charlie Sepulveda, Dave Valentin), the album spawned several club hits, including “Runaway” and “It’s Alright, I Feel It.” The following year, Masters at Work compiled some of their best productions for Masterworks: Essential KenLou House Mixes and MAW Records: The Compilation, Vol. 1. Two years later, BBE trumped both with the release of the four.
Now 25 years later they are still undisputed Masters at what they do and have defined over the years. With new projects and music coming up, it is an exciting time for all music lovers.