Photo courtesy of the artist

How Louie Vega Brought House Music Back to the Grammys

The Master at Work reflects on his storied career ahead of the awards ceremony.

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Feb 8 2017, 6:25pm

Photo courtesy of the artist

After pulling a late night in the studio, Louie Vega was still asleep when the nominations for the 59th annual Grammy Awards were announced the morning of December 6. Only when his wife, Anané, called him and a stream of text messages lit up his phone did he realize something major had happened.

"When I called [Anané] back, she said, 'Louie, the album got nominated for a Grammy!'" Vega tells THUMP over Skype from New York. "I said, 'What!' I had no idea. When I saw it, I was blown away."

Surprised as he may have been, Vega certainly has the résumé to justify the nod. The DJ and producer is one of house music's most prolific figures, both as a solo artist and as one-half of the revered duos Masters At Work and Nuyorican Soul, among many other projects over his 30 years-long career. He's no stranger to the Grammys either, winning his first award in 2006 for Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical (for Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly") and Masters At Work being nominated three more times in the same category.

This time, though, Vega says, is more meaningful. For the first time, he's being recognized for an entire body of work: his 2016 album Louie Vega Starring... XXVIII, which is up for Best Dance/Electronic album. Despite his three decades in the field, the LP is somehow Vega's first solo album, but it justifies the wait. A staggering 28 tracks long (hence the name), it's a clinic on timeless house grooves, radiating with warm chords, hip-rolling percussion, and velvety vocals espousing messages of love and hope. It's also a masterful display in teamwork, featuring collaborations with over 25 artists including Soul Clap, Nick Monaco, gospel group 3 Winans Brothers, and numerous house vocalists Vega has encountered over the years. "I love when two minds come together and a whole story gets told," he says.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Vega began DJing when he was 13. By his early 20s, he was already holding residencies at some of New York's biggest venues at the time, including Studio 54, Palladium, and Heartthrob. It was at the lattermost venue that he discovered the vocal talents of a young Marc Anthony, who was an up-and-coming freestyle singer before his salsa superstardom.

In 1990, Atlantic offered him an album deal, which Vega accepted with one condition: he wanted to do it with a singer, and he knew exactly the person to ask. "I've always had this dream of being like my uncle, [salsa icon] Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón," Vega says, referring to their star-making collaborations in the late 60s and 70s. "Willie was the producer-musician, and Héctor was the lead singer. With Marc Anthony, we could do that for dance music."

During the making of his joint album with Anthony, When the Night is Over, Vega was introduced to another DJ-producer, Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, by their mutual friend Todd Terry. When he invited Gonzalez to jam in the studio, the synergy was immediately apparent. "We just connected so well," he recalls. "We were just coming up with these great grooves, and it was just a whole new style. I told him we needed to start something together."

That studio session was the beginning of one of house music's most celebrated pairings: Masters at Work. Channeling their many influences from hip-hop to jazz, Vega and Gonzalez created many immaculately-produced originals, from the techno-tinged whiplash of early single "The Ha Dance"—now a foundational text for all ballroom music—to their sweeter house ballad "To Be in Love." Also renowned remixers, they flipped pop songs by the likes of Debbie Gibson, Michael Jackson, and Madonna into tracks that DJs could unleash on the dancefloor.

"You would never hear Frankie Knuckles, Junior Vasquez, or Tony Humphries playing a Debbie Gibson record," says Vega. "But they were playing that Masters at Work B-side, that's for sure."

Masters At Work was just the beginning of Vega's many projects with Gonzalez. As KenLou, they made raw, sample-based rhythms; while as Nuyorican Soul, they further explored their Puerto Rican-New Yorker roots through jazz and soul alongside high profile collaborators like Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and George Benson. Other joint aliases they assumed along the way include Groove Box, People Underground, and Black Magic.

Looking to further explore jazz and world music after years of touring, Vega launched another venture, Elements of Life, in which he performs with a live band. The project brought together an international crew of newer singers and musicians including Anané, Josh Milan of house duo Blaze, South African singer Bucie, guitarist José Luis of Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles, and spoken-word poet Ursula Rucker.

Many of these artists, including Milan and Bucie, appear on Louie Vega Starring... XXVIII which, like Elements of Life, is the result of the producer's worldly travels. While it seemed only natural for members of the Elements of Life family to appear on the album, many of the collaborations came from artists he knew personally but had never worked with. As he tells it, he ran into singers Karen Wheeler and N'Dea Davenport while on tour in Hong Kong and Tokyo, respectively, and both had the same question upon seeing him again: "When are we going to do something together?"

Others, such as '80s house vocalist Adeva, he temporarily pulled out of retirement to record. Then there's his unconventional collaboration with Funkadelic, whose single "Ain't That Funkin Kinda Hard on You" he remixed for the album. As Vega recalls, he told bandleader George Clinton the remix needed a "party-crowd feel," to which Clinton responded by gathering over 30 people in the studio and recording the festive atmosphere. It serves as a perfect album opener, welcoming listeners to a record with the joy of walking in on a friend-filled backyard barbecue in full swing.

"The album is house music at heart," says Vega. "For me, it represents the house community. I'm really excited about this Grammy nomination. I think that we're kind of carrying that torch for everybody out here and opening that door."

What makes XXVIII's nomination for even more significant is that it's the first traditional house album to be up for Best Dance/Electronic Album in its 12-year history, a distinction not lost on Vega. Unbelievable as that might sound, who better to be that first than one of its pioneers?

"You don't understand how many messages I got from so many people around the world," he says, "Producers and DJs and singers just saying how they were so happy that this opened that door and our music got to be noticed and recognized. They almost feel like it's their music too."

XXVIII is full of house all-stars, but at the Grammys it's going up against the the superstars of dance music at large. Previous winners of the Best Dance/Electronic Album category include genre titans The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, and most recently, Skrillex and Diplo as Jack Ü. Past nominees have also been critically and commercially successful in the dance world—Justice, Kraftwerk, and Disclosure are just a few—though the category has also had a history of recognizing pop-skewing outliers like Madonna, LMFAO, and Kylie Minogue.

This year, Vega is vying for the crown along with rave veterans Underworld, electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, ambient producer Tycho, and post-EDM experimentalist Flume. Vega, laughing as he says he feels he sticks out like a sore thumb among his category, has nothing but love for his fellow nominees.

"I think they're all so talented; there's a lot of great music in there," he says. "The cool thing is that it's not all the same kind of dance music. It just goes to show you how huge dance music is now. Within dance music there's all these hybrids and different styles. That's what you're getting here; those are five choices that cover all ends of the spectrum."

As the popular saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and house music is enjoying the spoils as newcomers to dance music scratch past the surface and dig to the roots. Vega, crediting this new generation of fans, says it can only get bigger from here. "When the music catches the youth culture, that's when it happens," he says. "So I'd say house music is in a very good place right now."

With the Grammys fast approaching, Vega reveals that he's not just sitting on his hands as he waits to hear the results of the award. He and Gonzalez have been working on new Masters At Work material, and he's penciled in future studio get-togethers with Joseph Capriati and Black Coffee. Right now, it seems, his focus is a collaborative project with fellow Bronx-reppers The Martinez Brothers, almost like a symbolic passing of the torch to the rising generation of house producers.

Thirty-plus years in, with enough aliases to supply a small army of producers, Louie Vega still has plenty of fire left in him. "I have never been bored of doing what I do," he says. "You gotta love what you do. If not, I don't think it'll ever be real."

Krystal Rodriguez is on Twitter.