Louie Vega interview: When You Touch Me

One half of Masters At Work, Louie Vega, talks to Marko Kutlesa about collaborations, Paradise Garage and the problems with ghost producing.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 12th Oct 2016.
Originally published: 21st Sep 2016

Louie Vega is one half of Masters At Work alongside Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez, the duo who defined much of the vocal house music sound of the 1990s as well as pioneering jazz, Latin and disco infused, sometimes off beat, strands of dance music that helped place New York at the centre of the music in that era.

Working under a variety of aliases including MAW, KenLou and NuYorican Soul and as solo artists, they have helped shape several movements in dance music and have soundtracked discos for over two decades.

A busy DJ, producer and sometime bandleader Louie Vega has, in recent years, concentrated on his solo career, having released an artist album in 2016 that stands amongst the best work he's ever done.

That album, Starring...XXVIII, is an epic 28 track collection in which Vega has collaborated with a long list of vocalists, musicians and songwriters, many of them his peers who he has worked with before. It is an exhaustive presentation of new songs (and some cover versions) that in its unswerving concentration on lyric accompanied dance music, stands apart from every other album released within the genre this decade.

Having just returned from a European tour, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Louie Vega at home to talk about the tour, his most recent album, Masters At Work and the highly anticipated tribute to New York club the Paradise Garage that Vega will play at the forthcoming Liverpool Disco Festival.

There were so many songs on your last album, but its production came after years of popularity for EDM, minimal house and techno. Did you somewhere take a conscious decision to not follow current trends with this album?

Well, for me, it's always been about doing things that come from what I feel inside. My inspirations come from travelling the world or from being in New York, wherever I am. And wherever I am musically. This album brought everything today that I'd done from years ago until now, but it was really about collaborating with 25 different artists, the task being to create songs and productions and tailor them around each individual artist. 

I play around the world a lot, I'm very active, I'm always DJing and the music works. People love it. People come out to hear me all around the world, so I really don't base my music on if something is a trend. I'm just doing what I do. I do get inspired by things that are out there, I don't have a closed mind, I'm open to a lot of things.

I'm doing a few collaborations right now and some of those are definitely going into different areas that I maybe haven't been making music in a lot. But that album is where I was for, say, the last two years. For me, it's always been important to keep the song out there. Great songs stand the test of time. It's a beautiful piece for me.

Which track from your last album do think was the best lyrically?

A clever song on the album is 'Elevator Going Up' with Monique Bingham. It's really based around the melody of the piano and when I gave her that groove she wrote all these cool melodies and harmonies that go with that. It's a nice story, about two people meeting in an elevator, but the way she sings it, it's really clever. I love it.

Also 'You Are Everything' with Jocelyn Brown, I think that's a powerful statement. I have a lot of favourites on the album, The Winans and The Clark Sisters 'Dance', which was written by BeBe Winans and his brothers.

For me, lyrically, the strongest song on there is the one you did with Lem Springsteen 'I Deserve To Breath'. It was quite a profound title and very timely. 

Yeah, it's a powerful statement. Lem and I wrote the track together, we wrote a couple of hooks and then he took it home. He came back and suggested that we involve Leah Lorien, another songwriter who'd had this cool idea. He'd seen some lyrics she'd written and thought that we could make it part of this. So she came in and sand the demo and I loved the song right away.

I said that I thought the person who could really take it to the next level was Adeva. I remember Lem wasn't sure at first, like “Adeva? Where did that come from?” She hadn't been around in such a long time, but I saw her in Southport a couple of years back and her performance was so powerful. I was backstage, waiting to go on and I said “Who is that singing?” because I couldn't hear the words. But I could hear this powerful voice. Somebody said “It's Adeva” and I was like “What?!” I hadn't seen her in so many years.

As soon as she was done with her show I ran to where she was and said “Wow! You sound amazing. We gotta get together” That was about a year before this track came along and so I reached out to her, sent her the song and she loved it. She said “I can do this” and I said “I know you can!”, because I knew right from hearing the demo. And she did an amazing job.

I had her here for two days and she was so good I said “We have to do another song”. So, I called Josh (Milan) right away and sent him some ideas I already had down for another song. The next morning I had another track ready for her and that's indicative of how strong the whole energy of the album went. Josh is such an amazing songwriter and musician, it took him only one night to write 'In The Morning'. But, you're right, 'I Deserve To Breath' is such a powerful song lyrically, a strong statement on what's happening today. 

You worked with a lot of people on the last album. Is there anyone  in your career that you regret not having got together with? Anything that almost happened, but didn't quite work out? I'm thinking of someone, say, like Bobby Womack, whose 'Stop On By' you covered on the album.

Ah, man, I would have loved to have worked with him. I could think of a few. One was Mick Jagger. It was a long time ago, the early 90s when we were doing so many Masters At Work remixes and they sent us a song from Mick Jagger and we thought we just couldn't do it justice enough to bring it to the clubs.

It was a great song, but we couldn't just do it for the sake of it being Mick Jagger. We had to feel something from it, because we need to do something right for the artist. So, we didn't do it and I regret that because he's a hero of mine and I would have loved to have worked on a remix for him. There were another couple of instances too.

But as far as artists I'd still like to work with? There are plenty. Never say never, there's still time with a lot of them. Stevie Wonder, Jose Feliciano, Alicia Keys, D'Angelo, Jill Scott, I could reel off a whole bunch of names. 

You just came back from a 10 week European summer tour. How was that in general? You've done a few collaborations during the tour. Who have you been working with? 

It was amazing. I've played so many festivals, so many clubs, so many beach parties, so many cities. It was a great summer. It got really gruelling in August, I worked 18 days straight without a break. But it was great. Wonderful people, great food, beautiful landscapes.

The only hard part is the travelling and the fact that as soon as you finish the gig you have to move on to the next place. Sometimes, after you arrive at the airport you have to drive two or three hours  to these remote beach locations, but once you're there it's like paradise.

There were some days where we had two or three days there and I had to pick a good spot to be based, so I stayed in Ibiza and Italy and those were really nice places. In one place, just outside my window was this volcano right in front of me. Beautiful. The south of the Mediterranean, Turkey, Greece, I went all over. The UK. 

It's really inspirational, going out and seeing all those people dance to your music and what you're playing. You get to test things and see what people are feeling and each place has it's own different style. I got inspired to go and work. I went into the studio with Kenny, so we did some Masters At Work music in July. We did about three or four days in the studio, five or six tracks. It was great. I also worked with The Martinez Brothers and we came up with four or five tracks from just a couple of days recording. The energy was in the air.

Can you tell me a little about the musical direction that the work you've done with Kenny is taking?

Well, when we started working we said, let's not try to do something that deliberately sounds like one of our aliases. We didn't want it to be like we were sitting down to do a Masters At Work record or a NuYorican Soul record, we just wanted to go in and make music.

But at the end of the session we were listening back to everything and we were like, you know what, this is definitely on the Kenlou side of things. We put out about eight or nine releases as Kenlou already and they are all kind of street, sample based or percussive club grooves. 

You've said in the past that another NuYorican Soul album is not something that is immediately on the horizon. But have you considered doing perhaps another studio based single, something like 'Mind Fluid' or 'The Nervous Track', where it's just the two of you in the studio?

Yeah, we definitely want to do that. We're definitely going to go back to the NuYorican Soul basics, but where we're at today is a totally different place. We have a lot more experience now. We're pretty excited that next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of NuYorican Soul, so you never know what you might hear next year. Next year is a very important year for Masters At Work, for sure. We really want to release music under a lot of our aliases and projects next year. 

You've worked several times with BBE over the years. They are celebrating their anniversary year this year. What are your favourite releases from their catalogue?

Oh man, I love those Stop And Listen projects. All the classic releases from disco to funk and soul. Keb Darge, Kenny, Spinna, a lot of my peers and good friends have put together such good compilations for them. I'm so happy Peter (Adarkwah) is back, because he hadn't been around focussing on the label like before.

But now he's got that energy again, so I'm excited that him and the crew are coming on strong again. I know they're going to release a bunch of good stuff. I love the new Spinna project they've just done, the Stevie Wonderland album. 

Apart from Larry Levan's studio work, which is an ever present reminder, why do you think the legacy of the Paradise Garage continues to endure, to a worldwide fan-base many of whom never went there?

Well, it affected so many people! Here in New York alone the Paradise Garage was a whole movement. To me it was the renaissance. The music Larry created, the music he played at the club, it was like he was the one that started it all. Everything that was happening with the music in the late 70s and early 80s, he was right in the middle of it. He was so openminded to music that he ended up teaching us all, no matter what kind of music it was or what tempo it was.

When I come to Liverpool, that's what I'm going to give you. My experience of the Paradise Garage. Because I was there. I first went in 1980. I was 15 years old. My half sisters got me in. Their cousin worked security there under Noel, who was head of security. I went on a members only night and I after that night I would keep going back. Even when I started to flourish on the New York club scene myself, I would go right after finishing playing. At 5am or 6am I would go with 20 or 30 other people to the Garage. 

How will you approach playing a tribute set to the club? Will you play only records that were played there? Will you employ only technologies that were available at the time the club was running?

Well, I think the promoters there may have heard me play a set somewhere that was a tribute to Paradise Garage, so I think maybe they'd like me to do something similar. What I'd like to do is my experience of going there and music of that era as well. It stretches pretty far, from the late 70s to the late 80s. So that's a lot of music he played.

But also I'd like to pay tribute to the way he played them. I love that music with all my heart and to this day I still play records from al those great labels like West End, Prelude and Salsoul. They were all killing it with amazing music during that era. 

With production techniques and technologies having advanced so much, have you revisited any of your back catalogue and updated, re-edited or remixed any of your material in order to have new, exclusive versions to play out?

That's something we're going to be looking to do next year, when we're ready to come out again as Masters At Work. We're looking to revamp some of the catalogue, plus also we have so many different version of remixes that we did that never came out. We're going to dig into the archives. Every remix that we did at one point we ended up having four or five different versions for it, usually two completely different musical version and then dubs of each. 

These days, so much of the communication between a DJ and their fans comes in the form of constant, self promoting updates on different social media channels. Is there room in the business today for modesty and concerning yourself only with music?

Well, the thing is that this is the future, there's a connection to your people all around the world. When we first started it was all about communicating with New York. Now it's about speaking to people around the whole world that want to follow you, know about you and want your music. 

For me it's about making music from the heart, making music which I'm going to play out, which I do. Playing my music out to the fans isn't necessarily about making them go out and buy it. If I can make them laugh, smile, cry, feel good for that night, then I've won there. That inspires me to make more music. I'm a producer, a DJ and a band leader, there's lots of different ways I can touch people with my music. But that's what I'm in it for, to make them feel something.

One of the recent big stories in the dance music media has occurred because a producer, Hannah Wants, has been accused of plagiarism because a track she made with a alleged ghost producer sounds very similar to one already released. I don't want to ask you about her or that song, but I would like to ask you about your opinions of ghost producing.

Ghost producing? I don't know too much about that because we don't do stuff like that. We're very hands on when it comes to our music, we make it, we play it, we make the beats, whether it's sampling or whatever, we always give credit to others whose music we use, because you're taking a big part of their creation. You've gotta work something out.

I've never done any kind of ghost stuff, so I don't really know about it. I think a lot of these artists grow bigger and bigger and they create a stable of producers. I guess some of them may not be getting the credit for the music they make. Is that what ghost producing is?

What's happened is there's huge pressure on DJs to produce music if they want to have an international career, so some DJs may go to a ghost producer and say, "OK, make me a track that sounds like this, I'll pay you, release it under my name and it'll help my DJ career."

I'll tell you right now I think that's terrible. That's horrible. You're lying to your own audience. You're lying to everybody. Why would you do something like that? You're in it for different reasons if that's something you're gonna do, different reasons to what we're in it for.

I want nothing to do with anything like that. When someone does that, it's not you artistically. To me that's not art, I disagree with all that stuff. Terrible. If you want to DJ, then DJ. If you love producing too, then get into that. If you don't know how to do it then work with people, work together, don't have somebody do it for you and put your name on it. 

But, ending on a more positive note, I'm really excited about coming to Liverpool, man, it's going to be great. Bringing that Paradise Garage sound there is going to be so much fun.

Like I said, I've done a Paradise Garage party before with Mel Cheren from West End Records in the late 90s and it was amazing. That was probably the last time I've done something like that. I'm gonna see if I can find some cool exclusives for it. I may have some stuff up my sleeve from that era, because I do have some special edits and mixes in my archive. I'll be doing some stuff live too, it'll be all about the moment. I'm really looking forward to it.

You can catch Louie Vega playing a three hour Paradise Garage classics set at Liverpool Disco Festival on Saturday 29th October. Tickets are available below.

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