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Q+A: Louie Vega

We ask the questions to get the answers

  • Dave Jenkins
  • 28 April 2016

Few people in this game can truly be called a master, but Louie Vega is certainly one of them. Breaking through as a DJ in the late 70s and holding down residencies at legendary NYC clubs such as Studio 54 before he was legally able to enter them, his entire life has been dedicated to music.

Whether it’s his achievements in the 80s as a disco and hip hop DJ, his decade-defining sounds with Kenny Dope in the 90s as both Masters At Work and Nuyorican Soul or, more recently, his Elements Of Life project that mixed Latin, jazz, r’n’b, soul, gospel and Motown and featured a decorated cast of musicians, Louie’s music is dedicated to fusion: reinforcing the relationship between generations and continents and styles while creating his own along the way.

His most recent project sees him reigniting his passion for house music songs on a major scale. ‘Louie Vega – Starring XXVIII’ is his most ambitious project to date. Its 28 tracks feature the likes of ultimate funk king George Clinton, multiple Grammy-winning gospel dons 3 Winans Brothers, Soul II Soul’s Caron Wheeler, quintessential house vocalists Byron Stingily, Jocelyn Brown and Monique Bingham, Nick Monaco and Soul Clap, and many, many more.

A verified opus in a 35-year career that spans more than 25 compilations and over 10 collaborative albums, ‘Starring... XXVIII’ is Louie’s debut solo album. We called up his NYC HQ to find out more.

The emphasis is on the word ‘starring’ and not ‘featuring’ like most dance records, right?

You got it. The DJ has been at the forefront of the scene for too long and it’s time to bring the artist back to the forefront. This album is very song-based and the people performing those songs should be right up front.

We’d say that’s been the case for all your hallmark album projects...

I agree. All these projects tell a different story of my musical make-up. Nuyorican Soul with Kenny Dope was the product of our direct environment, the city we grew up in. Elements Of Life was much more of an exploration of music around the world with lots of different cultures coming together. Now this is about making some great house music songs that could stand the test of time.

Do you feel house music has missed the song aspect lately?

It has for a long time! We had so many great songs to identify with during the 90s. All those records we made during that time were real well-crafted songs. It’s all good having tracks and dubs, but you don’t have to know how to write a song to produce music.

There’s a time and a place for both...

There is. But songs are what really connect. People want to sing along, and melody is key. I learned that from the maestro, Quincy Jones. When you write a song you touch someone’s emotions deep inside. That’s a great feeling.

What inspired you to write the album?

I just wanted to write a house music album. I went through my archives then started making a wishlist of people I wanted to work with. I started reaching out and everyone was interested. We’d hook-up when I was on the road, or if they were in town. Everyone just came together naturally.

Including George Clinton!

He called me when I sent over the first rough cut. It was the biggest moment in my life – the king of funk telling me I’d made something funky! He said he’d never got into house music until now. I sent him a clip of me playing it in South Africa with the whole crowd singing along. He freaked out! Then he went and got versions with Kendrick Lamar and Funkadelic. That doesn’t happen every day.

From funk to gospel: let’s just establish how massive the Winans Brothers are in gospel music...

They’re the royal family of gospel music! Together they have over twenty-five Grammys. And the Clark Sisters on the same record? I went straight to the top of the gospel community. You can’t get any higher. It’s a special record; the first single from the album and it did very well on the radio. It went from a single to a hit to an anthem.

That dropped almost a year ago... what held up the album?

I wanted it to come out in October but a friend felt the new year would be better as it was such a milestone. My first ever solo album in 35 years. That’s quite something, wouldn’t you agree?

Of course. But you strike us as a man who buzzes off collaboration, so there would never be a 100 per cent solo Louie Vega album...

You’re right. Plus if I was writing the album purely solo then it would be instrumental as I’m no singer! But yes, I love that magic when everyone gets together: the ideas that fly around and the spontaneity of it all.

The Crew Love guys seem to have that same vibe in the studio. Do they remind you of a young Masters At Work?

They definitely remind me of the energy we had back then and how we’d bring our friends together. Todd Terry, Tony Humphries, MK, Roger Sanchez. So many of us. We had such a great relationship; we had a lot of fun in the studio.

What’s your favourite studio memory from that period?

I remember one time in François K’s Axis Studios, above Studio 54, with Kenny and Todd. We were working on the dub of Melissa Morgan’s ‘Still In Love’. Kenny programmed the beat while Todd and I played keyboards. We sampled Melissa’s voice; Todd was playing the vocal samples rhythmically in the funky way only he could. We sampled the chords off the original and played it back on a keyboard, which created new chords. We knew we had something really special right there. Magic.

Was there a secret to that magic?

Kenny and I have a natural connection. Our personalities and tastes are different but we complement each other perfectly in the studio. Our openness to all kinds of good music helps and there was total dedication from both of us; we’d work until it was done. And if we got the goosebumps in the end, we knew it was there. We were working in the studio sixteen to eighteen hours a day, four to six days a week. We would feed off each other.

The same goes behind the decks, too?

We feed off the crowd! The way the crowds from New York to London to Tokyo would connect with us turned it into musical bliss. When we DJ together it’s totally improvised so nothing is pre-planned, which makes it feel like jazz musicians jamming, all spontaneous.

If we could go back to one record in your history and relive that process which would it be?

The Nuyorican Soul project. Especially the photoshoot for the album. Everyone was in a New York restaurant, hanging out just having fun, getting to know one another since at sessions we mostly worked with the icons separately. All the artists on the Nuyorican Soul project in the same room, photographer Dah Len working his magic to create those historical pictures – it summed up what Kenny and I loved to do: bring together lots of talent, get the best out of them and create art! That’s when we realised what we had done: not just made a monumental album, but unified musical forces. I’m proud to say I’ve achieved that with ‘Starring... XXVIII’ too.

'Louie Vega Starring XXVIII’ is out now on Vega Records

Check out our video interview with him below

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