New York natives “Little Louie” Vega and “Kenny Dope” Gonzalez have one of those envied and iconic partnerships in electronic music. Having worked together since the 1990s, producing the most classic of classic house music as Masters at Work, the pair has ineffably lived up to their moniker. It was no surprise that when we caught up with Vega and Gonzalez at Detroit’s Movement Festival, their off-stage chemistry and charisma was just as present as when they’re behind the boards. We sat down to talk about their first experiences with electronic music, the sounds of New York, and Puerto Rico, and making magic as Masters at Work.
You guys are playing in just a few minutes. What can we expect from your set?
Kenny Gonzalez: All our sets are freestyle. They’re different every time we get up there. They’re very spontaneous. We don’t really talk about what we’re gonna play, we just get up there and do it.
Do you still get nervous after so many years in the business?
Louie Vega: Not really! When you first get up there, of course there’s a moment of nervousness, but adrenaline takes over. We’re comfortable enough up there that if you’re happy, we’re happy.
What was your first awareness or experience with electronic music?
KG: Man, looking back to like 1985, I remember being in the record store, and seeing all these vinyls come in, and for me, it was just so cool. I was 15, and that was that.
LV: I started DJing when I was 13. I was around for the disco days, right through to the music we know today. I was lucky enough to experience all of that, and it was a big influence for me musically.
I know that the Masters at Work moniker comes from your early productions that paired live instruments with electronic beats, the masters vs. the innovators. Who are some of your favorite “masters”?
KG: I could name so many people.
LV: Kraftwerk, Larry the Man [Levan], all across the board. We get inspired by everything.
KG: And because of that, we get pulled in so many directions, musically. It could be that a hip-hop record really inspired us, but the inspiration will produce a club anthem. You’d never imagine that, but we think differently.
Tell me about your other project, Nuyorican Soul. Would you say the moniker represents your alter-egos, or is it all different facets of a single entity?
LV: Masters at Work focuses on production, and represents a lot of early electronic music, a lot of music that is probably pretty influential to today’s DJs. Nuyorican Soul is our live act, where we’re really able to show our skills.There’s been projects in between, so many monikers—we need all of these outlets because we’ve experimented with so many different sounds. [“Deep Inside,” their production as Hardrive, begins to play at the Beatport Stage] Here comes one now! [laughs] With “Deep Inside,” for example, we used this sample from a track called “Beautiful People.” Everyone got to hear Barbara Tucker’s voice. It blew up a lot bigger than we thought it would. It kind of helped her out in that way, too.
I also read that Nuyorican Soul is a tribute to your heritage as Puerto Ricans, and as New Yorkers. How would you describe the sound of New York?
KG: New York is a melting pot. You have so many different types of people—African-American, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Mexican, everyone. So, the diversity of the culture creates very diverse music.
What about the sound of Puerto Rico?
LV: Salsa! Afro-Caribbean sounds, Afro-Cuban rhythms… All of those sounds come through in our house music, the street rhythms and the flavor. We listened to everything growing up, so all of that together really made us who we are.
What kind of music were you listening to when you were young? What was one track or record you had on repeat?
KG: “Super Rhyme”! His was one of the first albums I asked my mom to get me, back in the ’80s.
LV: For me, you know, melting pot—the Rock Steady Crew…Jazzy Jay was one of the first DJs to take me under his wing, and he was a hip-hop producer.
If you listened to those artists or records again today, do you think it would still have the same effect on you?
LV: We still play ‘em!
Let’s talk a bit more about your Latin backgrounds. What is the music culture like in Puerto Rico?
KG: I’ve only been a couple times, on vacation. It was cool, very laid-back but the culture moves too slow for me. Everyone is so mellow, everyone there is on vacation!
LV: As far as music goes, they’ve got salsa, reggaeton, and I think techno is actually developing there as well. I know a couple DJs from Puerto Rico that have a very Cadenza influence, so I think there’s definitely a scene there.
You’ve been working together for over 20 years now. How does your creative partnership work?
KG: We definitely have a strong chemistry. We’ve taken breaks but when we come back, it’s like we never stopped. So it’s something unexplainable. I couldn’t put into words what it’s like being behind the boards together—the magic just happens.
LV: The demand from the fans was really what convinced us to get back together. We can’t believe that the records we created in the ’90s still have that effect on people. For us, when we got back together, it felt like we had never left.
A lot of people cite “Love and Happiness” as one of the pivotal tracks of your career, and I’ve read that it was a very memorable song for you to create. What do you think makes it so special?
LV: We brought so many different sounds together for that track. It was so culturally diverse, and that made it really interesting, and really interesting to create. Of course, India on the record was very special as well. It was the perfect package—great melody, great song, great vocals, great ideas. We mixed different styles, which is something we love. And that translates to all our music.
How has your interaction or understanding with music changed over the course of your career?
KG: It’s grown so much. Even though we knew a lot about music when we first started, it’s pretty incredible the breadth of knowledge we’ve acquired over the years. We’ve seen more countries, we’ve met more people, we’ve heard more music, we’ve seen more scenes, and believe it or not, all of that matters.
LV: We’ve grown with the technology, as well. The advancements in music technology have really helped us step up our game in terms of production. Now, we’re so excited to make music together because there’s no limit to what you can do. It’s taken us to the next level.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
KG: Buying records! We’d be doing something related to music. Music has some hand in everything I do in life, so if I wasn’t making it, I’d still be involved in it somehow.
LV: We’re living it, and we’ve been living it for so long that I don’t even know what else we could do.