Growing up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in the early eighties, Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez couldn't stand the salsa music his parents listened to. "At home, my mom played Eddie Palmieri and Celia Cruz while she was cooking or cleaning," recalls the goateed, beefy producer in his Brooklyn B-boy brogue. "I hated that shit. All I wanted to hear was hip-hop."
Indeed, Gonzalez -- one half of the Masters at Work production team that injected an organic Latin sensibility into the machine-driven genre of house music -- didn't embrace the music he grew up with until he got a job as a buyer at a Brooklyn record store and had to listen to everything that came across his desk. "Suddenly," he remembers with awe, "the music my parents were listening to made sense."
Ever since, he's made a career out of using that music in a way that makes sense on modern-day dance floors and in remixes of songs by artists like Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Jamiroquai. By working with a band instead of a bank of studio equipment, he and partner "Little" Louie Vega have set the standard for soulful house (with "Deep Inside") and reignited the dance scene's interest in Afro-beat star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (with "MAW Expansive"). While many house-music remixers are content to take a song and add thumping beats, Vega and Gonzalez reimagine tunes completely; they recently transformed R&B singer Kenny Lattimore's boilerplate soul ballad "If I Lose My Woman" into a jam-happy house party.
Vega and Gonzalez are bona fide stars in Europe -- they recently appeared on the cover of the British publication DJ magazine, and English electronica darlings the Basement Jaxx traveled to New York just to meet Vega -- but they're known only to fans of dance music here in the U.S. And with the more mainstream likes of Ricky Martin exposing American ears to Latin rhythms, Masters at Work are excited about expanding their audience. "Every time we play our music in clubs, there's such a strong reaction," Vega says. "Now it's a matter of translating that excitement to the rest of the world." And though they're not yet signed to a major label, "the timing couldn't be better," according to Michael Paoletta, Billboard's dance-music editor. "The Latin-music landscape is really opening up to include so many different kinds of artists. If a record-label president like Tommy Mottola gets behind them, they could really be major."
Gonzalez's career started the same place his love for Latin music did -- in the record store. He and neighborhood friend Mike Delgado cobbled together the first rough Masters at Work productions from records he brought home from his job. But when Gonzalez heard the soulful house music being pioneered in Chicago by producers like Marshall Jefferson and Steve "Silk" Hurley, "that changed everything," he says. He didn't have any music-industry connections, so he did what any aspiring D.J. would do: He rented out whatever spaces he could, from Brooklyn catering halls to a loft space above a Thom McAn store in Sunset Park. And his parties soon became legendary, not only for the way he mixed salsa with hip-hop and reggae but for his ability to draw upwards of 600 people to an outer-borough party.
By 1987, the Masters at Work moniker had attracted so much attention that New York house D.J. Todd Terry borrowed it -- and the their style -- for the New York house classic "Alright, Alright." About three years later, Terry introduced Gonzalez to Vega, who had won a following as a D.J. in the Bronx. At first glance, the soft-spoken, unassuming Vega and the brash, loquacious Gonzalez make an odd pair. But Vega also goes back a ways with Latin music (his father, Louie Vega Sr., is an accomplished jazz and Latin saxophone player, and his uncle Hector LaVoe was a renowned salsa singer), and their first song perfectly fused the reggae of Vega's D.J. sets with Gonzalez's percussive Latin rhythms and hip-hop-influenced beats.
At the time, eclectic clubs like Paradise Garage were closing, and "people's minds were starting to think in terms of categories," remembers Gonzalez. Still, the Masters were able to strike a deal to produce Marc Anthony's 1991 project Ride on the Rhythm Vol. 1 and later formed their own independent label. They also maintained their connection to the New York house-music scene by D.J.'ing at mid-nineties parties like "The Underground Network," which inspired current come-as-you-are club nights like "Body & Soul."
The culmination of their work was the 1997 project NuYorican Soul, which included contributions from diverse musicians such as Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, George Benson, and up-and-coming salsa singer India. "It was like this puzzle we had to fit together," Gonzalez says. NuYorican Soul struck a balance between the eclecticism of an adventurous D.J. set and the conceptual unity of an album. It also sold well for a dance album, and industry watchers speculate that it could have been a crossover success in Latin-music-friendly 1999. "If the NuYorican Soul album was released now, it would hit so many more markets," Paoletta argues.
Unlike others in the underground dance scene, Masters at Work aren't shy about seizing the opportunities opened by Jennifer Lopez, and they're currently looking for a label that can get more exposure for the follow-up to their NuYorican project. "We've been waiting for this for a really long time," Gonzalez says wistfully. "The light has finally been turned on."
"Little" Louie Vega spins every Wednesday at "Sunset Ritual" (Vinyl, 6 Hubert Street; 212-343-1379; 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.; $12).