Pure Percussive Pleasure

Kenny and Louie’s joyous retro reboots dominate clubs and living rooms alike

Gotham’s hippest and happiest underground nightlife owes its origins to the ever-streetwise and affable duo of Brooklyn’s Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and Bronx-bred “Little” Louie Vega, known officially (and appropriately) as Masters at Work. Consider Vega’s parties at Cielo, co-produced by West End Records honcho Kevin Hedge and attracting a who’s who of underground production talent from around the world, all dancing, drinking, slipping demos to the DJs, and networking like mad. Kenny, meanwhile, recently funked up the venue with a solo DJ set mixing r&b rarities with new and remixed tracks, days after his Masters at Work cohort returned from a festival stint in Europe.

For his part, Louie sustained weekly residencies at a string of influential Manhattan clubs for nearly two decades, routinely breaking new music to radio and fellow underground jocks. Then, inspired by the likes of Tito Puente, George Benson, and Roy Ayers, he shocked everyone by shelving a profitable but rather predictable remixing career to lead and produce a band of his own in alliance with Kenny, whose precise, mathematical approach to rhythm and harmonic textures, though rooted in hip-hop theory, also evolved through increasing contact with live players. Their controversial Nuyorican Soul project, completed in 1997, revealed their ambitious on-record and onstage intent to repopularize dance music that foregrounded the improvisational energy of live instrumentalists. As serious audiophiles, both Kenny and Louie — like most of Cielo’s resident jocks — strive to render the dividing lines between “DJ” and “live musician” increasingly invisible.

This dynamic duo’s ever expanding entourage of voracious house, hip-hop, electro, jazz, deep funk, salsa, and classic disco enthusiasts includes local legends like Todd Terry and Kevin Hedge — pioneers of influential club sounds that Ken and Lou each helped disseminate from the South Bronx to East New York as turntable czars of the late ’80s. Such loyalty and creative synergy is what allows whatever new or radically refurbished recordings Ken and Lou currently release on their respective independent labels to reach fellow DJs and rare-groove dance fans across the globe.

Over the past two years, Louie’s Vega Records and Kenny’s Kay-Dee imprint have come to exemplify pure pleasure and cultural revalorization. Just as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa first played obscure yet seminal bits of funky vinyl to inspire and empower a generation of urban teens, Ken and Lou introduce an even wider demographic of young strivers to the joy and value of vintage acoustic musicianship. Emerging in 2004, Louie’s Elements of Life Orchestra is a live ensemble loosely patterned after the salsa and funk “supercombos” of the ’70s, but infused with digital and world-beat elements; Vega Records’ 2006 projects tap even more deeply into a school of sophisticated dance fusion owing as much to the Fania All Stars, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder as to legendary jazz imprints like CTI and Pablo.

For starters, AnanĂ©’s Selections casts the multilingual female vocalist as a sort of Cape Verdean Jane Birkin to Louie’s Serge Gainsbourg — they do provocative remakes of quirky underground hits like “Jungle Fever” and “Standing in Line,” vividly juxtaposed with modern originals like the autobiographical “Ma Mi Mama” or the singer’s own sly slice of French cabaret pop, “Mon Amour.” DJ-producer Victor Font (a/k/a Mr. V) fuses rap and Lower East Side electronica into laconic tone poems full of sardonic wit and bite on Welcome Back, blending house-y hooks, trip-hop keyboard pads, tribal riddim loops, and Daisy Age rhymes. And stylistically reminiscent of Brazil’s Paulinho Da Costa, Afro-Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero’s Percussion Madness salutes departed greats like Puente, Ray Barretto, and Fela while inviting contributions from legends like Blaze and the since-deceased Hilton Ruiz — the incredibly crisp production makes every track sound like it’s being played live in your living room.

But while the Vega label swings, Kay-Dee digs deep in the crates. What the label’s British fans (and even Kenny’s equally savvy British partner Keb Darge) might consider “northern soul,” Ken remembers from his NYC B-boy crate-digging days. Sharing a lust for classic vinyl with most rare-groove junkies, Kenny likes to remix or re-edit gems from musical allies like Henry Stone or Randy Muller, which he then transforms into 45s and 12-inch platters for discriminating hipsters. As if saluting the Beatles era, Kay-Dee released a series of popular 7-inches before a full album emerged — market demand led to the first annotated Kay-Dee compilation CD, introducing 21st-century teens to singles like Funky Nassau’s gleefully rude “Look at What You Can Get,” the rare James Brown production of the Believers’ “Mr. Hot Pants,” and Brass Construction’s never released “Got to Be Love.”

Darge, a true “trainspotter” DJ and Deep Funk jock who played his first turntable set in the U.K. 30 years ago, brings his knowledge of clubland tastes from Melbourne to London to the Kay-Dee sensibility. In the liner notes for that Kay Dee Records CD comp, he praises Kenny’s remixed version of Johnny King and the Fatback Band’s “Peace, Love Not War”: “I got the original about 15 years ago but did not play it out much as the mix was poor. Kenny also had a copy and said we had to get the masters. Last year he came to pick me up in Manhattan with a big grin on his face. I climbed into the giant vehicle he was driving, he pressed “play” on his sound system, and BOOM!! Out came the mix you have here. Fuck me! What a difference. Kenny had transformed it from a decent tune into a monster.”

The nuanced tweaking evident on Kay-Dee edits and mixes may seem subtle, but it brings out an irresistible vivacity in these grooves. And Kenny gleefully dedicates an entire label to such unexpected aural revelations! While Louie centers his label around classy, modern productions patterned after atavistic models showcasing live players, Kenny prefers to rescue authentically anachronistic treasures from the obscuring muck of primitive signal processing and underproduced analog recordings. Niche markets rule! Percolating and thriving just under the radar of major-label greed, these guys are working one conceptual step ahead of retro-dabblers like Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera, who only visit the vintage territories Lou and Ken thoroughly explore and continually rebuild.

Published in: Village Voice, October 9, 2006