Accepting that at Southport Weekender, we’re often overwhelmed by the depth of musical knowledge our attendees hold, an introduction to Masters At Work’s Little Louie Vega is perhaps as usefull as the proverbial coals to Newcastle. His productions over the last two decades plus – either as a solo artist or alongside partner Kenny Dope – have had a larger impact on contemporary dance music than any other producer you will ever be able to name.
Covering hip hop, house, garage, disco and world music, Masters at Work have helped invent genres (soulful house, Latin house) and re shape beyond recognition the music once known as house and garage. He has remixed some of the world’s premier mainstream artists such as Madonna, Jamiroquai, Daft Punk and Janet Jackson and turned in virtual masterpieces on his mixes for the likes of Manu Dibango (New Bell), Kings Of Tommorrow (Finally), Viola (Little Girl) and Nina Simone (See Line Woman).

The consistent high quality of their original productions has enabled them to work in the studio alongside some of the world’s finest musicians and vocalists including George Benson, India, Tito Puente, Jocelyn Brown, Roy Ayers and Arnold Jarvis. In addittion, Louie Vega manages to maintain a busy, globe crossing DJ schedule, being regarded as one of the finest talents in his field. Marc Rowlands caught up with Louie in 2002, his ninth year appearing at Southport Weekender.

What is it about Southport Weekender that makes it such a special event ?
I guess it’s because they dedicate those two days to soul music, all forms of soul music. The people who really appreciate that kind of music, can go and experience the best in soul music for a weekend.

Have you had much opportunity to see the rest of the weekender on your visits?
Yeah. I’ve been doing Southport now for eight or nine years and a few times we’ve come early. We’ve been record shopping, I’ve caught some of the bands that have been on in the afternoons and some of the other DJs. Especially after I finish playing, I always walk around. There’s a room right next door with a lower ceiling that I really enjoy. I always check out that room.

What keeps you coming back?
Alex and Jonathan, the whole crew have always treated us really well and we’ve collaborated on some great ideas together. It’s a good team and I enjoy working with people who have it together like that.

What are your plans for your appearance at the 30th Anniversary?
This year I’m really excited because we’ve got India coming over, and she hasn’t been in England for years. She has so many classics to sing, I think it’s really something that Southport’s going to be able to hear her sing songs like “To Be In Love” live, it’s our favour for all of our special fans out here. She also has this new record “Backfired” which I’m excited about people hearing.

That’s going to be your next single. Can you tell me a bit about the track, it’s quite an old one isn’t it?
Yeah the song was written in 1992, we put it on the back burner, it was always on the shelf but it was never the right time for it. I kept pulling out the track and experimenting with it, doing different things to the song and I guess it took this long to lock into the right kind of groove. It came together last year when we were putting together the “Our Time Is Coming” LP, we thought “let’s have a track from India on there, nobody’s heard anything from her since ‘To Be In Love'”. She had delivered the song so well, I guess it was difficult to compete with, it’s such a powerful song.

You’ve commissioned a remix from Joey Negro for that track. Are you happy with the result?
Definitely. He had done a mix of one of my favourite records of last year “Don’t Change” by Erro which I’d been playing for such a long time from a CD Osunlade had given me. Joey’s mix gave it a new lease of life, so I started playing it again. He did such a great job on it, when we’d finished “Backfired” he was the obvious choice for a remixer and he delivered it. He did exactly what I expected him to do.

How do you feel about the new “Our Time Is Coming” album?
We’re happy with it. That album was really done because we wanted the CD buying audience to experience Masters At Work. Six of the songs had been out previously, five are new. We just thought that there’s a whole world of people out there who haven’t heard us because we put all of our records out on vinyl, and we called it “Our Time Is Coming” because we decided that from now on we would make albums. Roy Ayers already had a song called “Our Time Is Coming” which I loved and we wanted to re do it. I guess a lot of people will see that title as ironic.

To have acheived so much and attained so much critical acclaim from your peers, the press and fans, particularly over here, is it disheartening not to have received appropriate commercial success or radio play back in the US?
We’ve been around a long time, I guess it comes with the territory because we don’t follow trends. We wouldn’t make a record to sound like something that’s hot and already out. If everybody goes right, we always go left. We can because we believe in what we do. We have the best tool now to put our music out, which is our label. We don’t have to listen to any A and R men going “do this because…” whatever. So that’s where we’re heading, build up the label and put out albums on it. We already have another six albums waiting to come. It’ll only be another six to eight months before the next one is with you.

There was a sampler issued by Strictlty Rhythm quite a long time ago for a Hardrive album. Is that one of them?
Well the Hardrive album is something I guess Strictly Rhythm have always been expecting. We never got round to it and then we made a deal with Warners. What we do have coming is our Latin album, which is going to be similar to what we did with “Our Time Is Coming” in that we’ll have all of our Latin and Latin house hits like “Love and Happiness” and “La India Con Voe” on there alongside some new cuts. Kenny’s rap band that he produces, Merciless RNS will be on there and so will my father who’s been playing as a sax player in Latin bands for over 35 years. I also have a Louie Vega album coming, which starts off where “Elements Of Life” left off. I really experimented with that track, there’s another Blaze collaboration on there, a collaboration with Joe Claussell and a new vocalist called Anany. It’s going to have a big world music feel to it. Lyrically it’s the deepest thing I’ve done, it’s about a celebration of life and it’s dedicated to my son. I started focussing on it after September 11th. After what happened there I just took a look at my son and thought “What kind of a world is this that I’ve brought you into where something like this is going on?” but I want to let him know that he’s going to be OK and that I’m going to protect him till the end.

Why do you think that world music, specifically African and Latin music, has had such an influence on the likes of Joe Claussell, Ron Trent, Blaze and Masters At Work over recent years?
We definately all had it in us having been influenced by everyone from Fela Kuti, Cesaria Evora, Hugh Masekela to Nitin Sawhney. Working with musicians more has just enabled us to experiment with this sound more. I think a lot of it has to do with the clubs we were brought up in where there was never one style of music played. You would hear a rock tune, a disco tune, funk tunes, jazz and soul all in one night. I like to hear that variety in clubs.

What are the clubs that have influenced you?
It depends on who’s playing. Joe Claussell, Francois K, David Mancuso, Timmy Regisford. Timmy plays from 12 ’til 12 in the new Shelter club. He really takes you on a journey, you gotta hang out until really late, but he really does take you there.

Dimitri From Paris has said that on his forthcoming appearance, he’ll be covering many styles of soulful dance, not just house. Enjoying a variety of styles yourself, is that something we can expect from your forthcoming sets, particularly at Southport?
It all depends on how knowlegeable the crowd is and there, they are. So if you play well and do it right you can do those things. I’m glad Dimitri’s doing that, it was my request that he should be with me on that night. I think Southport’s one of those special places where they can appreciate that variety, it’s the true meaning for me of what Southport is, all forms of soulful music. After this year, I definately think the soulful sound is going to expand to greater levels there. That’s why it’s important for us to do this now, hopefully it will inspire other DJs who go to Southport to do the same.

You’ve recently put out a mix CD and an album of remixes for the West End label. How did it feel approaching such a reverred catalogue of music and how did it come about?
Well West End is like THE hero label, they had many different styles of great music on there from R n’ B to disco and even their disco wasn’t like the usual disco, they had an edge. I’d been doing the ‘Return To Paradise’ parties with Mel Cheren and Paradise Garage resident David Depino and they went so well that Mel said “You know, it’s going to be the 25th Anniversary soon you should do a mix for us”. I talked to Kenny and he asked whether they had any of the masters, we figured that what we’d like to do was re EQ all of the songs and remix some. It was a really challenging experience, particularly the mix as we had to travel through such different tempos, it was great to be able to see how those records were made. Especially to see the amazing job Larry Levan did on the female vocal version of Loose Joints “Is It All Over My Face”. It was all in his arrangement of the song, he re edited it, put the end at the start and where he placed those vocals, because those vocals were all over the place on the multi track. Having to re do what he had done there was a real education.

Are there any more of Arthur Russell’s compositions that you would like to have a go at?
Yeah, Indian Ocean on Sleeping Bag, “Go Bang”, I mean Francois’ mix is superb, but there are a couple of things that I would do to that record now, if we had it.

How do you feel about CDs making so much more of an impact on DJing?
Well the CDJ1000, I’m so happy they made that. What was always missing in club CDs was the touch of a turntable, and that has it. It’s actually taken the place of one of my turntables, I used to use three, now I use two and two CDJ1000s and a Pioneer effects unit.

Why did you decide to do a Masters At Work album instead of another Nu Yorican Soul one? Was that project a one off?
That record was ahead of it’s time. A lot of things happened with that record, in the US we were on a jazz label and I don’t think anybody knew how to market it correctly. We had a great relationship with the label, it just wasn’t the right place for that product. It’s a very different type of record, covering all those different types of music, it just needed that master marketing plan, and it didn’t get it. In the UK it was on Talkin Loud, which was great. Worldwide it didn’t sell loads of records, but it did make a difference on music that you hear today and I think it will be a record that people will continue to discover as time goes on. It is for me timeless. There will be another Nu Yorican Soul album.

Of all the artists you’ve collaborated with, which one have you personally enjoyed working with the most?
I would say George Benson, we had a great time in the studio, he was so creative, he brought so much into the project.

Are there artists that you would like to work with that you havn’t done so already?
Oh there’s tons. Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Femi Kuti, Cesaria Evora, David Byrne.

David Byrne? Are you a Talking Heads and Luaka Bop fan?
Oh yeah. In fact we just produced an album for a band that’s signed to Luaka Bop.

If Kenny Dope brings a hip hop element to the Masters At Work table, what does Louie Vega bring?
Well I have a lot of my influence there as well, you know. I’ve always played hip hop, particularly between 85 and 90. It’s always been a big part of my life, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B and Rakim, Biz Markie, Boogie Down Productions all that stuff was an essential part of me playing as a freestyle DJ.

How are your Dance Ritual parties going?
This week sees our first Dance Ritual party at the new Shelter club. It’s been my New York residency for four years now, we’re doing monthly parties until the fall and then it goes weekly.

What is it that makes this new Shelter club so special?
The soundsystem. They have a Phazon and I think it’s the best one, because it was the one that was in Twilo. It’s amazing.

2002 interview conducted by Marc Rowlands