wax Poetics

12×12 with Louie Vega

Uncovering the records that influenced Louie Vega

published online
Originally published in Issue 4
By Andrew Mason

Photo courtesy of Louie Vega.
Photo courtesy of Louie Vega.

    “My style is combined from a lot of different things I got growing up,” veteran producer and DJ Louie Vega states. Not an uncommon circumstance, except that, for this kid from the Bronx, growing up was, well, a little different than most folks. Living down the street from Jazzy Jay in a household where uncle Hector LaVoe was a frequent guest, with older sisters who were dedicated club goers and record collectors, it was probably inevitable that his life would revolve around music. As a Latin freestyle guru, he worked on over a hundred records before shifting his attention to house music and a partnership with Brooklyn breakbeat ace Kenny Gonzalez. As Masters at Work, they have been one of the most prolific and respected mainstays on the dance-music scene for over ten years, anchoring their innovative and intricate productions with legendary DJ sets at clubs worldwide.

     “I got my real big break in 1986,” remembers Vega. “At that time, I was playing hip-hop, reggae, freestyle, the classics; I used to give them everything.” With that sentiment in mind, Louie gives Wax Poetics a little bit of everything in his choice of twelve of the many 12-inch singles that have particular meaning for him. I should note that he came prepared with around forty records, and it was only after much deliberation that he settled, with some reluctance, on these. Regrets to Level 42, Gwen Guthrie, George Benson, Jamiroquai, Klein and MBO, Baricentro, Deodato, Lonnie Liston Smith, and the other great cuts that didn’t make it this time around.

    Time Zone
    “Wildstyle"
    (Celluloid) 1983

    “Wildstyle,” or “Zulu Wildstyle” as it’s shown on the cover, is a thumping 112 BPM electro track driven by a monstrous synth bass line. Afrika Bambaataa’s frenzied shouts and a reverbed track of Chic’s “Good Times” being cut up add to the intense vibe. The title is an homage to the nascent hip-hop scene documented in Charlie Ahearn’s seminal 1982 film (graf legend Dondi is thanked on the sleeve), a scene in which Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation were towering figures. “Planet Rock” had been an enormous success the previous year (a certified gold single in 1982), and Bambaataa, along with his DJs, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert, were reaching the pinnacle of their influence. On Bill Laswell’s Celluloid Records, home to many progressive rap tracks, they got the chance to push the envelope further, fashioning a funky and uniquely Bronx take on Kraftwerk (the music on this single is credited to “Wunderverke”). 

    Vega: One of my mentors was Jazzy Jay. I grew up a couple blocks from him, and he knew I was a young aspiring DJ, so he took me under his wing. At that time, he was playing at the Roxy and we used to go check him out, Bambaataa and the whole crew. I was fifteen, sixteen and really learned a lot from him as a DJ. I loved the mixture at the Roxy, there was all sorts of different nationalities hanging out, and everybody was so into the hip-hop scene. We were all into Kraftwerk’s music; Trans-Europe Express was a pivotal point in hip-hop music and dance music. One record revolutionized the scene, because it changed the sound. Bambaataa and that crew were really innovative and took hip-hop to a different place, incorporating those European electronic ideas but giving it a hip-hop flavor. I played this once at the Sound Factory Bar [in the mid-’90s] and bugged everybody out, pulling out my Soulsonic Force records and just cutting up all the jams. [laughs

    Ian Dury and the Seven Seas Players
    “Spasticus Autisticus” 
    (Polydor) 1981

    “I dribble when I nibble, and I quibble when I scribble, I’m knobbled on the cobbles, ’cause I hobble when I wobble...” Dury, famously afflicted by polio, gives us a typically witty and unsentimental look at his affliction. This was recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, concurrently with another influential session by AWOL U.S. funksters Tom Tom Club, who were recording their first LP. The two groups not only shared the studio but also a rhythm section (Jamaican powerhouse Sly and Robbie), keyboard player (Tyrone Downie), and engineer (Steven Stanley). The song begins on a mellow funk vibe, but develops several interesting moods as it progresses, climaxing in a cavernous, ping-pong panned synth break. Listen for the Tom Tom Club’s Weymouth sisters in the chorus of shouts at the end of the tune. 

    Vega: Bambaataa, Jay, and Red—they were playing all kinds of music. It wasn’t just about one thing. They were playing the punk vibe too, the B-52’s, the Clash. It was all about a good song, a good record, a good beat. This is a record that has a reggae element, plus an electronic element because of the synth sounds. It’s got vocals that are very different, very out, kind of like David Byrne, or the B-52’s' “Mesopotamia.” And that synth break... I’ll never forget hearing it in the Paradise Garage. Going from speaker to speaker, and everybody was freaking out! The whole groove was slamming, but when I heard that sound, the stereo going back and forth, I had to find out who did this record. That feeling, right there, you know you’re about to hear [Liquid Liquid’s] “Optimo” or “Cavern”! 

    ESG II
    “Standing in Line” 
    (Emerald Sapphire & Gold) 1987

    Post–99 Records, the enterprising Scroggins girls released this four-song EP. The highlight is a thumping, swerving cut that belies its motionless title. The angry vocals, pinched guitar, and driving beat probably owe more to punk than funk, but that didn’t stop this cut from packing the dance floor in many a club.  

    Vega: ESG had these records that just stuck in your head. You all know “Moody” and “UFO,” which we all played at the different tempo, and then there was this one, “Standing in Line.” I used to call it the Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse bass line. Larry [Levan] used to tear this up at the Garage. ESG were from the Bronx, but they were so underground that nobody knew. When I found out later, I was like, “Yeah, that’s my people!” ’Cause I’m from the Bronx too, but we really didn’t know at the time. Their records worked in dance clubs, and they worked in rock areas, in the punk scene. The instrumentation is so minimal, yet it sounds so powerful, you can tell they were one-minded as a band. Self-produced too! I bought this when it came out.  

    The Hollies
    “Draggin’ My Heels” 
    (Epic) 1977

    An unlikely Loft anthem, this 1977 offering from British pop rockers the Hollies is a lush melancholy number with understated percolating percussion and tasty keyboard work. Though any vinyl hound has probably thumbed past untold expanses of Hollies LPs, this 12-inch is extremely elusive and the subject of heated Internet bidding amongst those in the know. 

    Vega: I was at a flea market in the city on 6th Avenue with a friend of mine, [producer and Tribal Winds label founder] Antonio Ocasio, when he found this and told me it was a big David Mancuso record at the Loft. I took his word for it, and when I got it home and listened to it, it blew me away. I could just feel being in the Loft and feeling this vibe. This is what it’s about. And you know the other songs the Hollies sing! I used to hear them on WABC and the other pop stations. The Hollies?! I would love to know how a group like that came to do a record like this. It’s so cool that they would do this kind of thing; their usual style was totally different. In a way, this was inspirational to Masters at Work, because one of our goals is to bring in people from different genres of music and collaborate with them. Kenny and I actually did an updated version of this song, but we never put it out, because I didn’t know who could sing something like this, but we did the track. These guys have an incredible tone; it reminds me a little of the Cyrkle.

    It’s not a record you can play everywhere, only because people are not educated enough [in dance music]. Or you really have to be playing for a long time in the night to take them on that journey. I played this in Japan, and the people screamed. Over there, the deeper, the better. Pull out your rare jams—they’ll love it! 

    Joubert Singers
    “Stand on the Word” 
    (Next Plateau) 1985

    A scarce release from a gospel group affiliated with the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights in Brooklyn and led by Phyllis Joubert, this release clearly illustrates the strong connections between the house and gospel genres. One of the primary forces behind this melding, and a name closely identified with the New Jersey house sound, was Club Zanzibar resident DJ Tony Humphries.  

    Vega: My thing was going to hear the DJs who I liked spin. Tony Humphries was definitely on that list, and I used to go to Zanzibar religiously when he was rocking on KISS-FM. We would hear him on the radio, then be like, “We got to go hear him in person!” I went to the clubs as much as I DJed. This is really a gospel standard, but they put that four-on-the-floor thing on it, and it just happened. I always loved the little kid who sang on it; we used to mimic it, everybody would sing that part. Hearing it on that system at Zanzibar was something else. That was another Richard Long sound system, same as at the Garage. He was a sound genius. The places that he did were fantastic, because they had great DJs and a great sound system. There was the Roxy, the Garage, Studio 54, the Underground, the Funhouse—I used play on that one! When Tony played this record at Zanzibar he inspired me to play it at my gigs.

    Lamont Dozier
    “Going Back to My Roots” 
    (Warner Brothers) 1977

    Dozier, best known as one of the primary songwriters for Motown (“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Jimmy Mack”) and the cofounder of the Invictus/Hot Wax labels, wrote this soul searching epic for his second Warner Brothers LP, Peddlin’ Music on the Side. Dozier’s charismatic piano riff is worked to its fullest potential by Crusader Joe Sample, with assistance from bandmate Wilton Felder on bass and Hugh Masekela, who contributed the wonderfully dynamic and shifting arrangement. Admirers of the song will also want to keep their eyes out for Richie Havens’s powerful version, and a deliciously funked-up take from native New Yorkers, Odyssey.

    Vega: This was a big inspiration for my Nuyorican Soul project, and I have to pay tribute to Lamont Dozier, one of the greatest writers of all time. It starts with that incredible piano, goes into the song, there’s a little African break, and it goes out with a chant, everybody releasing. This is a very spiritual record. It’s one of those records that, when put on in the right setting, you’re going to get people with their arms up in the air, people singing along, people sweating. If I was to pick one song that represented what I’ve learned musically over the years, what I’ve grown up with in New York, this would be it. Being able to go to the city, you could hear jazz when you want, you could hear soul when you want, Latin music, funk, hip-hop, rock. If I was born in a different place, I would never be what I am now; I know it. It had to be because I am from New York, what I experienced with my family, in the city, with my friends. This record symbolizes that for me.

    There’s a lot of ways you can bring this in [the mix], which is cool. Sometimes, I might bring it in from the middle, from the African breakdown, then bring it back to the beginning. Or keep running that part, and not let the piano break come in. Create anticipation, then, bam!, come right in. My style of playing can get very theatrical, I’ll get into sound effects, or keyboard breaks, things that can break it down without everybody just stopping. That’s the idea.

    Endgames
    “Ecstasy (Centurion Mix)”
    (Virgin) 1983

    Second-tier British new-wavers Endgames had one full-length album release, from which two singles were drawn. This dubbish mix of “Ecstasy” was the B-side of one of them, and became another victim of early hip-hop’s voracious appetite for nasty funk grooves, no matter the complexion. The 105 BPM beat with bouncing synth bass and an addictive block chord hook was a natural for DJs in almost any venue.

    Vega: This goes back to my roller-skating days at the Skate Key [roller rink] in the Bronx. There’s a DJ that spun there that had one of the best 12-inch collections I’ve ever seen. His name is Wayne Burgois; they call him Mad Wayne. He gave me a lot of great 12-inches, in fact he gave me [Barrabas’s] “Woman.” I was a real roller skater back in the day, from say ’78 to ’83, I was skating heavy. The scene was like break dancing but on skates. I would go to Skate Key, or I would go to Laces and hear Danny Krivit. That synth sound in here is terrific, and the Fairlight voice is dope. I just played this record at my monthly Dance Ritual party; I think I mixed it with Melba Moore’s “You Stepped into My Life.” It’s a little down-tempo, but the open sax intro you can drop over something else, then when the keyboards come in, whooo! That’s exactly what happened when I played it last week. People went nuts.

    Malcolm McLaren
    “D’ya Like Scratchin’ ” 
    (Island) 1983

    Impressario McLaren’s collaboration with New York City radio icons the World Famous Supreme Team is an indisputable hip-hop landmark. Featuring “a special party mix” drawn from the full-length Duck Rock LP, this extended player has all the juice you could ask for, from sampling pioneer Trevor Horn’s thunderous production to the now world-famous radio chatter from which the title was drawn. Even the cover art with its Keith Haring appropriations, dual Technics 1200s photo, and ridiculously tricked out boom box is a pastiche of archetypal hip-hop icons. Anne Dudley and Jonathan Jeczalik, along with Horn, the main synth and drum programmers on this project, would join forces to form the group Art of Noise, releasing their own hip-hop homage (“Beat Box”) later the same year. Shout out to Supreme Team captains C-Divine the Mastermind and Just Allah the Superstar of WHBI, godfathers of all hip-hop radio shows to come and from whose show the hook was recorded.

    Vega: This brings back memories of Jellybean at the Funhouse; I think Afrika Bambaataa got in there at the end too. Nineteen eighty-three, man, it was an influential time for me. I guess this was Malcolm McLaren’s interpretation of the hip-hop scene. This is really a Trevor Horn record. The drum machines and all sound like him...something’s backwards in there, like a rock guitar. Trevor Horn’s a genius. We worked in his studio in England once but never met him. This is another record that still gets people open. It’s cool the way the rap comes in so naturally, like somebody just picked up the mic and started going. I always hated that little part towards the end, where the beat drops and comes back in [on the wrong beat]. I used to mix this with “Funkbox Party” by Masterdon Committee.

    The Coach House Rhythm Section
    “Time Warp/ Nobody’s Got Time” (Ice) 1977

    Guyanese-born, British-bred superstar Eddy Grant was a founder of the successful soul/ska group the Equals and a prolific solo artist and producer, founding his own label, Ice, in 1972. The headquarters of all Ice recordings was Grant’s Stamford Hill studio, named the Coach House. “Nobody’s Got Time” was a single from Grant’s 1980 LP My Turn to Love You, distributed by Epic. The deep, futuristic electronic rhythm is topped by a searing harmonica solo and vocal from Grant, who played all the instruments on this cut except the drums (Jamaican music legend Lloyd Charmers contributes handclaps!). The Ice release seen here was backed by an instrumental workout on the same groove, titled “Time Warp,” that was later used by Epic on the flip side of their 12-inch release of “Electric Avenue,” a hit single from Grant’s next LP. Grant initially cut this in a slower, drum-heavy version that came out as a Torpedo Records 7-inch two years earlier but bears little resemblance to this update.

    Vega: I play this to this day, and people think it’s a new record. He was really ahead of his time. Those handclaps! The sounds they got on these records, they got the deep bottom of reggae into the dance world. His voice sounded great, he had the hooks, and he had the songs. What a groove. Plus it has that realness in the mix, there’s not a lot of effects on everything, it’s all right in your face. When you hear it on a big system it’s like he’s singing right in front of you. This was another big Loft record, but the cool thing about this is that wherever it was played the dancers came out; they’d hear it and all get out on the floor. [“Time Warp”] was played in all the underground clubs, whereas the [Epic] A-side [“Electric Avenue”] was played in the mainstream spots. “Time Warp” is also cool ’cause you can ride it with other records, you could mix a vocal in there, do something different with it.

    Bo Kool
    “(Money) No Love” 
    (Siamese) 1981

    A mysterious low-budget release licensed from London’s Tania Records that got huge play from New York City’s underground DJ community. The “TW” in the credits is one Tony Williams—sometimes mistakenly thought to be the Miles Davis protégé and drum prodigy, but actually a London-based reggae producer of the same name. The one-time BBC radio presenter concocted an irresistible synth-funk masterpiece here with the help of rapper Bo Kool, who quotes liberally from Dennis Brown’s reggae smash “Money in My Pocket.” With the heavily dub-influenced instrumental on the flip, this 12-inch has become increasingly scarce in recent years. The relentless minor key bass line has inspired untold numbers of imitators, notable among them Man Friday (“Love Honey, Love Heartache” on Vinylmania) and Mateo and Matos (“Love Style” on Spiritual Life).

    Vega: I first heard this on a tape my older sisters brought home. A lot of my schooling came from them; they had been going to the Loft since ’72! I think the first time I heard it out was in a club called Ones, maybe in 1981. This, [Dinosaur L’s] “Go Bang,” “Time Warp,” that whole flavor, they were tearing it up. And they used to play the vocal. It’s a funny rap; I think it’s a British dude. I play the vocal and the instrumental, depending on the mood. There’s more of that reggae influence in here, with the hi-hat and the dubby delays. And that bass line! What can you say about this record? It’s all about that groove.

    E.S.P.
    “It’s You” 
    (Underground Records) 1986

    An early Chicago house anthem, and one of the first releases on Rocky Jones’s Underground Records (famously home to Steve “Silk” Hurley’s British chart-topper “Jack Your Body”).

    Vega: I’ve got to stick at least one house classic in here. At this time, I was DJing at the Devil’s Nest in the Bronx and a place called Heartthrob, which used to be the Funhouse, in Manhattan. When I first heard house music, I was blown away. On a big system, those records—Mr. Fingers and all the Trax, Underground, DJ International stuff—they sounded amazing. We had records back then coming out of New York; they weren’t labeled house music, but they were compatible with what was coming out of Chicago. It was a lot more vocal oriented, things like Billie’s “Nobody’s Business,” the stuff on the Supertronics label [mostly mixed by Tony Humphries] like Touch ["Without You"] and all that. But then you had these records coming from Chicago that had the bass lines of some of the Salsoul and disco classics, so from the beginning they were really familiar, though the drums were more powerful than the disco records. It was cool to play them with the old records; the crowd reacted really well when they heard it. Then there was also a darker, moodier side to it, like the Jungle Wonz and Mr. Fingers’ “Can You Feel It.”

    Though the New York sound rose up at the same time as the Chicago scene, I do know that Marshall Jefferson and Mr. Fingers had a big influence on the producers and DJs here as well. We loved it, we had open arms for it. I’m not going to say that house completely came from Chicago, because there was already a sound that we were developing. To me, Boyd Jarvis would be our Larry Heard. [Jarvis] came up with these funky bass lines, like “The Music’s Got Me,” “Somehow Someway” [both by Visual on Prelude Records]. There was Colonel Abrams [and] “You Don’t Know” [by Serious Intention on Easy Street Records]. Those beats were different than the drum machines they were using in Chicago. Chicago used a lot of the [Roland] 909. The early ’80s here were the 808 and the Linn Drum, then the [E-Mu] SP-12.

    Barrabas
    “Woman” 
    (RCA) 1972

    Under-acknowledged Spanish rock and soul outfit Barrabas were responsible for several disco classics, the most prominent of which was probably “Hijack,” famously covered by Herbie Mann (and more recently celebrated in its Beatnuts-sampled Enoch Light version). The group’s popularity in New York can be traced directly to the influence of Loft leader David Mancuso, who turned his friends on after discovering their eponymous first LP in an Amsterdam flea market. “Woman,” backed here, as on the 45, by “Wild Safari,” is drawn from that LP. The 12-inch seen here is a rare Mexican pressing.

    Vega: If I had to pick five records that represent me, this would be one of them. The first two [rim shot] sticks on the intro are wiped on my copy; they got burnt out from playing it so much! This record is dope, the way they meshed the rock and Latin sounds together. It wasn’t the same way Santana did it. This became an anthem; you could play it at anytime for anybody. I heard this when my sisters brought it home on 45, another one they heard at the Loft. Mancuso broke this record in the States; I think he got this overseas somewhere. It reminds me of Rare Earth a little, too. Supposedly this 12-inch sold recently for $2,200. The person who sold it told me that I was partially responsible, because I’ve been playing this a lot lately, and somebody in the club saw that I was playing it off the original 12-inch and went looking for it. It’s crazy how things start!