A Nuyorican State of Mind (February 2002)

It’s around midnight. Inside Pulse Studios, on the fourth-floor of a ramshackle office block overlooking the Staten Island ferry terminal, Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and “Little” Louie Vega – aka Masters at Work – are about to begin another night’s work at the mixing desk. From the window of the studio, the skyline of downtown Manhattan is visible on the horizon. An hour before, the two columns of light commemorating the twin towers had been turned off for the night; now only the dark sky fills the space where the World Trade Center once stood.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Vega and Gonzalez were home in New Jersey, but unknown to them they were saving lives. The last track of their new album, “Our Time is Coming,” includes an answer phone message from a woman named Michelle who worked on the 54th floor of 2 World Trade Centre, but went to work late on Sept. 11 because she was listening to “I Love to Love,” one of their remixes, over and over. “You saved my life,” she says. “The reason I’m not dead is because of that song. Thank you very much. ”

“That shit was deep,” says Gonzalez, slumped back in a sofa in the studio. “I called Louie and said, ‘I don’t know who she is, I don’t know how she got my number, but it’s deep.'”

Tonight, Vega and Gonzalez are putting the finishing touches to a track by Los Amigos Invisibles, a Venezuelan funk band whose album they are producing. Gonzalez, 31 a burly figure with a shaved head, is playing with a cell phone, wearing a white t-shirt, loose white pants and brown Nike basketball shoes and, as always, a baseball cap turned sidewards. Vega, 36, goateed and tiny in comparison to Gonzalez, is dressed conservatively in a grey v-neck sweater, faded jeans and old school sneakers.

Our Time is Coming, released earlier this year, is Masters at Work’s first full-length album since 1997’s Nuyorican Soul. Their music – a lush blend of house, hip-hop, soul, funk, disco and Latin rhythms – could only have been made in New York – “a melting pot of music and culture,” Vega says. In fact, Vega and Gonzalez call their music “an encyclopaedia of New York.

And since Sept. 11, they say, that kind of boundary-crossing, soulful music is more in demand than ever – maybe something New York needed as a kind of antidote to the terrorist attacks. “What happened last year had everybody really thinking and shook everybody,” Gonzalez says. “People want to listen to records with messages, they want to feel good, they want to dance.”

Luis Vega was born to Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx in 1965. He grew up surrounded by Latin music – his uncle, Hector Lavoe was one of the leading salsa singers of the 1970s, who had moved from Puerto Rico to New York and started singing with the trombonist and bandleader Willie Colon, drawing crowds of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. Afterwards, he would come back to Vega’s mother’s apartment and jam some more. “I remember being 5 or 6 years-old and Willie Colon and him, they had the whole band rehearsing in my mother’s living room.”

By the late 1970s, New York was on the verge of a unique musical explosion. The first seeds of hip-hop were being sewn in the Bronx River Projects, just a few blocks from Vega’s home. As a teenager he saw DJs like Afrika Bambataa, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert play at jams in the local projects, learning first-hand the new techniques of cutting and scratching that they were experimenting with – long before any hip-hop records existed.

Meanwhile, Vega’s two older sisters had started going to the Paradise Garage, the now legendary club on King Street in the West Village, the birthplace of the sound that would become house music. In 1980 Vega attended the club himself for the first time. The thing that made an impression on him – as well as the interior of the club, which the Ministry of Sound would later try to emulate – was the way the DJ, Larry Levan, blended everything from funk and disco to jazz and even some rock into a single seamless groove. “Larry Levan played all kind of music, you know what I’m saying?” Vega says. “There was no boundaries with him.”

Across the East River, in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, a predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood, Kenny Gonzalez grew up on hip-hop. Also of Puerto Rican parents but five years younger than Vega, he wasn’t interested in the salsa music his parents listened to. “I didn’t want to hear it,” he says. “It’s like, you wake up on Saturday morning and your mom is cleaning the house, and you’re like 12 or 13 and you’re like,” – he tuts loudly – ‘Man! That’s the old people’s stuff.'”

As a kid early in the mid-1980s, Gonzalez listened to DJs like Marley Marl on the radio and started going to hip hop jams in Brooklyn. At 15 he dropped out of school and got a job at Music Center, a local record shop (Gonzalez’s younger sister Alexis now works there), where he learned to mix and scratch and also started collecting the old funk and soul records he had seen hip-hop DJs sampling. Using a borrowed drum machine and the turntables he had saved up to buy, he started experimenting making his own beats in his basement. Meanwhile he was also discovering house music, particularly the hard house coming out of Chicago on labels like Trax.

By the time house DJ Todd Terry, a mutual friend, introduced Vega and Gonzalez in 1990,they were both established DJs – Vega playing at clubs like Studio 54 and the Funhouse in Manhattan, Gonzalez playing hip-hop at block parties in Brooklyn. They quickly found they were on the same wavelength musically and started working in the studio together – Gonzalez coming up with beats and Vega laying down a groove and chords and even playing keyboards. They soon felt their mixture of backgrounds was creating something new and exciting.

“We were like, man, this sounds like a whole different type of sound,” Vega says. “It’s like house music but it’s got a funkiness to it, it’s got hip-hop breaks in it. We were mixing up all these different elements. The grooves were very dubby, but it kinda took you to a different place. It was musical, but it had tough grooves.” Gonzalez suggested the name Masters at Work – a name he had already used for some of his own productions – and it stuck.

Over the next five years, Masters at Work would release a series of 12-inches that re-defined house music, dissolving the boundaries dividing it from other genres of music from which it had evolved. Vega and Gonzalez were among the first to introduce jazz into house, beginning with one of their first 12-inches, “Our Mute Horn.” Then they introduced live instrumentation, bringing Latin jazz legends like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri into the studio for tracks like “Love and Happiness.”

The next stage was “Nuyorican Soul,” which began with a groundbreaking house tune called “The Nervous Track” released under that alias that Vega and Gonzalez produced in 1993. “We had done so many house records that were kinda tired of doing 4-on-the-floor records,” Vega says. “We wanted try a different beat, where you could still dance to it in a house club but where you could cross boundaries, so a person who likes hip-hop could get into it. And all of a sudden people from different genres of music got into this record.”

That 12-inch turned into Nuyorican Soul, the album, a kind of tribute to all the musicians and styles of music Gonzalez and Vega had grown up listening to in Brooklyn and the South Bronx. It featured a who’s who list of New York music history – soul diva Jocelyn Brown, salsa singer India (Vega’s ex-wife), Latin jazz legends Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, jazz-funk musicians Roy Ayers and George Benson, and even the hip-hop DJ Jazzy Jeff. “That album is basically the music we heard growing up,” Gonzalez says.

As for the title, New York-born Puerto Ricans had used the term “Nuyorican” to describe themselves since the 1950s; Vega had himself heard the term from his uncle Hector Lavoe. But “Nuyorican Soul” means more than that, Vega says. “Imagine yourself walking through Harlem or East Harlem. Out of one window you’re hearing a salsa record, out of another window you’re hearing a jazz record, and out of another window you’re hearing a James Brown record. To me, that’s Nuyorican Soul – a melting pot of music and culture.”

Given the connection of their music with New York, it was inevitable that Sept. 11 would have a major effect on it. For a few days afterwards, Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzalez couldn’t focus on making music. Overwhelmed by the tragedy, their minds were on other things. “I looked at my son, and I was like, my God, my son is coming into this world,” Vega says. “That shit definitely… it just makes you think,” adds Gonzalez.

But six months later, Vega and Gonzalez believe the best thing they can do – for themselves and for others – after Sept. 11 is to make more music. Vega is now working on an album entitled Elements of Life, which he plans to release in September – in other words exactly one year after the attacks. “It’s very much about a celebration of life,” he says. “A lot of it is about my son, my wife, my family, Kenny. It’s something that everyone can everyone can relate to — trying to live the best you can right now, ’cause you don’t know what’s going to happen, man. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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