8 Ways Masters At Work Changed The Blueprint Of House Music

Thu 17th Sep

Masters At Work, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and ‘Little’ Louie Vega will be lighting up London's Tobacco Dock next Easter Friday, for their first UK club show in 5 years. The decorated DJ double-act will be headlining The Great Gallery, as they make their long overdue debut at the Grade I listed venue and for FAC 51: The Hacienda.

One from The Bronx, the other from Brooklyn, M.A.W. are two New Yorkers that have shaped the house music landscape. Widely regarded as the most revolutionary house production team in history, their legacy is one of innovative trailblazers.

Ahead of this monumental appearance, we look back over the history of the outfit to chart the 8 moments that Masters At Work altered the course of house music.

View the full line-up and buy tickets to FAC 51: The Hacienda at Tobacco Dock, with Masters at Work and more. April 2nd 2021.

1. Cross pollinating house and hip-hop

Some studio partnerships gel instantly, and Kenny & Louie’s felt like a natural union from the very beginning. Having originally produced for other artists, Masters At Work soon became an official entity and began producing music under their own banner. Taking the lead from another innovator, Todd Terry (coincidentally, the man who had earlier introduced M.A.W. to one another), their sound evolved as a fusion of styles. On the dancefloor, things were less tribal than today’s standards and you could conceivably hear disco, soul, electro, hip-hop and pop during one sitting. The Masters At Work sound mirrored what was being experienced in the clubs, merging house, hip-hop, funk, disco, Latin, African and jazz into a universal groove.

2. Legendary weekly residency

While their musical output is impressive to say the least, Masters At Work also excel at DJing. As the ‘80s turned to the ‘90s, New York was the place to be and M.A.W. held down a fabled Wednesday night residency at the city’s infamous Sound Factory, the club initially made famous by Junior Vasquez, David Mancuso and Frankie Knuckles. The successful midweek listing should give you an indication of the hedonism that encapsulated the New York club scene at the time - a melting pot of second and third generation immigrants, freaks, A-listers and the vibrant gay community. Aside from South Factory, the city also boasted The Loft, Fever, Devil’s Nest and Fun House as well as the twilight years of Studio 54. It was the second golden age of New York clubbing.

The Classic Mix CD Series · 130 - Ministry of Sound - The Sessions 5 - Masters At Work - Disc 2 (1995)

3. The remixers of the stars

In the ‘90s, labels were willing to throw considerable money at remixers to reimagine the music of pop stars looking to get their hits heard on dancefloors. Masters At Work were one of the era’s go-to outfits, who always guaranteed putting a fresh spin on a familiar record. During this period, they remodelled and repackaged hits for huge names, including Bjork, Michael Jackson and Madonna. This rich streak continued well into the next decade. Although the prominence of the remix was coming to an end, the superstars kept knocking at the door - and Ken & Lou were more than happy to oblige. Some of their most noteworthy include their One Step Ahead remix for Debbie Gibson, Saint Etienne’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart and this beauty for Daft Punk.

4. Taking sampling to new heights

Sampling was already prolific in Jamaican dub and rap music, but by the early ‘90s M.A.W. helped push the prominence of the technique within electronic music circles. Samples from the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield, Gwen McCrae and Barrington Levy can all be found in early M.A.W. material. Perhaps their boldest use of sampling can be heard in The Ha Dance, which took a microsecond of dialogue from the film Trading Places, which starred Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy. The track became a huge voguing anthem within the LGBTQ+ community and ballroom scene. Ironically, Vega had intended for the track to be a hit amongst the B-Boy dance crews. The fact that it still causes scenes on the dancefloor to this day is a testament to its creator’s imagination. House music without sampling seems unfathomable in the modern age.

5. Developing the winning formula

Early on in their partnership, the duo had worked together on a record by the Latin singer Marc Anthony. Later, they would revisit similar territory for their own music. At the time, house music was predominantly instrumental or contained vocal snippets borrowed from other music. The idea that they might be songs in their own right was relatively alien, but as usual, M.A.W. were ahead of the curve. To elevate them to the next level, they needed to find a vocalist to complement the beats and widen their appeal. Turning to Puerto Rican singer Linda Viera Caballero, otherwise known as India, the salsa star would front their most famous works, before being invited onboard as a more integral part of the Nuyorican Soul project. Through their collaborations, India would become one of the defining voices of house music, uttered in the same breath as contemporaries such as Loleatta Hollaway, Barbara Tucker and CeCe Peniston.

6. Incorporating live instrumentation

Three years after first linking up, Masters At Work had dominated the house music world, but both men harboured a desire to shift the focus away from a club setting and play homage to their roots. The Nuyorican Soul name derives from the pair’s Puerto Rican heritage, New York home and affinity for all things soulful. Essentially, it’s the full embodiment of their being. Shying away from sampling, output under this banner is generally less thumping and performed alongside musicians from other disciplines. The project also allowed them to experiment more, developing and helping to populism the broken beat style that Dope had earlier pioneered. The Nervous Track, released on Nervous Records, is perhaps the best example. House music folklore has it that Dope was inspired to make the track on a visit to the UK’s Southport Weekender.

7. Adopting various alter-egos

What’s in a name? Aside from the aforementioned Nuyorican Soul, M.A.W. have produced under the aliases KenLou, Soul Fusion and Hardrive, and that’s before we even touch on their individual nicknames. Gonzalez releases hip-hop under the pseudonym The Bucketheads, as well as occasionally going under the names Debo and Kay-Dee. This allowed them to showcase various different shades of their musical identity, although the actual reason for doing so was far more pragmatic. It allowed them to manoeuvre around exclusivity deals with labels and release music from multiple sources at a time when producers weren’t so clued up on the legal aspects of the business. In any case, we got some stone-cold house classics under different guises.

8. Embracing the new generation

In today’s ever-changing landscape, keeping up with the front of the pack is not easy. Yet Masters At Work continue to remain at the forefront of developments. We only need to look at their most recent hook-ups to see that their influence is intergenerational. Louie Vega is hot off the back of studio time with both The Martinez Brothers and Joseph Capriati, while his last two “solo” albums, Starring and Elements Of Life, were full blown collaborative projects. Just this year, the duo contributed to The Blessed Madonna and Dua Lipa’s Club Future Nostalgia project for the track Pretty Please.