Little Louie Vega in 8 tracks

Louie Vega was born in Brooklyn. A second generation Puerto Rican immigrant, he grew up in a musical household, consumed with the sounds of Latin origins. Born into a musical family, his father was a Jazz saxophonist and his uncle was the legendary “salsa king” Héctor Lavoe. Here is performing with the salsa supergroup, Fania Allstars to a packed Yankee stadium.

These latin and jazz roots played a pivotal role in Louie Vega’s formative years and still today you can hear echoes of Lavoe and senõr Vega’s Jazz influences coursing through Little Louie’s sets and particularly his music. Salsa and Latin music, unlike uncle Hector’s suit in that video has become a timeless addition in the House music lexicon, and it is especially dominant in contemporary pop music with the birth of tropical House.

Louie Vega was a precocious talent, and started DJing in clubs before even coming of age. He was given the nickname Little Louie, not because of his stature, but because of his relative age to the other DJs in the booth at that time. He was holding residencies at Studio 54, Devil’s Nest, Heartthrob, Roseland and regularly playing at the Palladium, Area, and 1018 as a teenager, and although he couldn’t legally buy a drink from the bar, he was an intoxicating selector, working at some New York’s early seminal House clubs.

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles in New York, Little Louie Vega represented the next generation of DJ. As the maxi single came into its own, calling in a new era for DJs who went from the booth to the studio in the succeeding years, seeking to eek out more from the music through the extended DJ cut, L:ouie Vega came into his own as a producer. He was at the cusp of this new trend and one of the first DJs to put his own spin on a popular record from DJ’s perspective in the form of the remix.

In 1986 he and Joey Gardner joined the Latin rascals in a remix of eighties synth pop band, Information Society’s “Running” and while few remember Information Society today, it laid the groundwork for Little Louie Vega’s fertile and extensive career as a producer and a name that has become synonymous with house music.

His talents didn’t go unnoticed and remixes followed for Cover Girls, Debbie Gibson and Erasure amongst others, before he was picked up by Atlantic records. Going from remixer to artist in 1991 Vega enlisted the help of none other than latin crooner Marc Anthony, to make his mark as a fully fledged artist on “When the night is over”. Infusing Latin rhythms, House beats, modern synthesisers and Anthony’s vocal, Louie Vega made a serious impression with his long player debut and its first single first single, Ride on the Rhythm.

Anthony’s scatting vocals introduces a record that ticks all the boxes in true early nineties fashion. Syncopated house beats… check… hollow bass synthesiser … check … staccato piano stabs… check … R&B vocal… check … breakdown rap… and possibly the most important addition to any seminal 90’s dance track, the saxophone solo… check.  

It was possibly the first ever crossover success for a House artist of Little Louie Vega’s kind, a DJ turned producer. Where producers like Shep Pettibone had already by that time already made their mark on the maxi single as remix artists accommodating the DJ, Louie Vega was one of the first DJs to turn super-producer through his debut LP and went from obscure underground DJ to a successful pop artist, overnight.

Where most would sever their ties with their origins, Louie Vega remained steadfast in his roots with a DJ-friendly remix package from the Masters at Work side project he and Kenny Dope created together.

Louie Vega had not only breached into popular culture with he and Marc Anthony’s LP, but had also secured he and Kenny Dope’s legacy today as two of House music’s biggest and most successful stars in the nineties, a legacy that has waned little as they continue to DJ all around the world and release records with crossover appeal.

They’ve gone by many names in the past including MAW (the abbreviation that is also the name of Louie Vega’s label), KenLou and Soul Fusion, but Masters at Work always had a kind of salient ring to it when describing their work together. Masters at Work was originally coined by Louie Vega as a pseudonym for Tod Terry, who actually recorded a few titles under the name in the 1980’s, but it was eventually rightly co-opted by Vega and Dope when they formed what everybody considers the first producer supergroup.

They released their debut LP in 1993, another quintessential nineties record that carried over the essence of the “when the night is over” remix package into the long player format and immediately established their dominance on the House music landscape, while bringing the subcultural movement into the purview of the mainstream. The first single from the LP, “I can’t get no sleep” featuring the vocals of longtime collaborator India reached number 1 on the US Billboard charts.

They continued to collaborate with India, particularly as Nuyorican Soul (the faceless DJ/producer image of nineties House at work) as they released their second LP  under that moniker, enshrining the sound of nineties House with the likes of the cover of the Loletta Holloway and Salsoul Orchestra classic, “Runnaway.” It has been as remixers where the duo have made the most substantial impact on House music throughout the nineties and well into the present with over a thousand titles to their name. They are uncanny in their ability in taking a fairly ordinary pop track or a forgotten classic and exposing it for its key appeal while redirecting the key elements towards the dance floor.

Remixing is a craft that Louie Vega has mastered both in this project and as a solo artist and he has the accolades to prove it too. Nominated for 7 Grammys in the past, he won the esteemed prize with his remix of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” in 2006. A song that is perfection in itself, Louie Vega treats it with awe and the necessary respect as appropriates it for the modern DJ in 2007. It reaffirms House music’s roots, originally established with Funk and Soul tracks from the likes of Mayfield, while stripping it down to its bare necessities for a modern, functional dance floor. It’s a track Vega handles with extreme care as he makes sure to accentuate those key elements like that groovy bass and Mayfield’s vocal, but he puts his own distinctive spin on it and with latin percussion and a jazzy chord progression, Vega makes it his own.

Is it better than the original? Not by a long shot, but the original is a classic, and Vega gets enough distance from it where it can live as its own track, paying homage and reverence to its ancestor.

Today, Little Louie Vega’s own music has also gone to be revered in a similar way. Countless Classic House tracks he created during the nineties have been sampled, edited and remixed and a fair few of these have even made it into the mass popular consciousness, as artists like Kanye West uses Vega tracks in his own creations.

The US rapper’s 2018 chart topping success “Fade” on Life of Pablo uses two very familiar and distinct  Vega (as Hardrive) and Barabra Tucker samples in its construction. The Vega and Barbara Tucker contribution is so prominent in this track, that it calls into question the very validity of  Kanye West as an artist… would that track ever have been so catchy if it weren’t for that distinctive bass and Tucker vocal luring the listener deep inside?

Time and again Louie Vega has made an impression on House music that crossed over to mainstream success and he’s never been one to just rehash the past or entertain tired House music tropes in his creative pursuits. He continues to make music and Djing with his distinctive flair, channeling everything from his Latin roots, Disco education and his position in the House music canon to every aspect of his career.

As he celebrated 28 years of an  illustrious career in 2016 with his last full length, Louis Vega Starring… XXVIII he remained a humble facilitator to the House music genre, paying homage to the great influencers like Funkadelic and 3 Winans Brothers, and collaborating with a fair few new artists on the scene. Here he is collaborating with his wife Anane Vega on Heaven Knows…

*Louie Vega plays Frædag this week with g-HA & Olasnkii and Olefonken.