Masters at Work: House Masters

If you went to dance clubs in the 1990s, you heard Masters at Work—probably several times an hour. From 1990, when Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and “Little” Louie Vega launched their partnership with a deep house remix of Debbie Gibson’s “One Step Ahead”, to 2000, when they celebrated their tenth anniversary with a pair of four-CD boxed sets, they were almost unbelievably prolific. In that first decade, Masters at Work released something on the order of 500 remixes, as well as a mountain of their own records under various names (most notably Nuyorican Soul), and effectively defined the house music sound of that decade: the metronomic piston of Gonzalez’s beats, the dissonant jazz and salsa chords of Vega’s keyboards, live instrumentation weaving around programmed rhythms, vocals slashed up and looped to reveal the oddest grains in singers’ timbres.

And then, after 2002’s Our Time Is Coming album, the cascade dried to a trickle. Masters at Work never quite broke up, and they’ve continued to DJ and to produce the occasional high-profile remix together, but there’s scarcely a sign on this four-disc retrospective that they kept going after their golden decade. Their set in the House Masters series isn’t exactly a greatest-hits—a MAW compilation that doesn’t include Nuyorican Soul’s “It’s Alright, I Feel It” or Hardrive’s “Deep Inside” doesn’t qualify as a collection of their career peaks. Instead, they’ve assembled this collection to acquaint youngsters with overlooked bits of their discography as well as some of their best-known records.

What they’ve put together here is two discs of vocal tracks and another two that are more or less dubs and instrumentals, all scrambled chronologically but with a few smart juxtapositions. A pair of disco covers—Incognito souping up the Jones Girls’ 1981 “Nights Over Egypt” and Nuyorican Soul’s faithful remake of the Salsoul Orchestra’s 1977 “Runaway”—serve as a reminder of how much Vega and Gonzalez learned from the grand arrangements of the mirror-ball era. And leading off the second disc with “I Can’t Get No Sleep” and “When You Touch Me”, two killer collaborations with salsa star India (who was then married to Vega), is a strong argument for the power and strangeness of their songwriting, as well as the way they could shape a track around a singer’s voice.

Their remixes were sometimes more about overpowering their source material than reworking it. You could feed anything into the gaping maw of MAW—Saint Etienne, uilleann pipes, reggae, Baaba Maal, hip-hop, George Benson—and it would come out as a pumping, DJ-ready house record. Still, when they remixed a vocalist they especially liked, they rose to the challenge, as with the radiant ten-minute version of Bebe Winans’ “Thank You” that opens House Masters.

When Gonzalez and Vega gave themselves license to experiment, though, they sometimes struck gold; their weirdest throwaways could spawn entire new subgenres. Gonzalez has noted that “The Ha Dance”, from 1991–a groove built around a tiny sample of the movie Trading Places–probably took them “like two hours” to make; pretty much the entire vogue fem music scene revolves around its legacy. “The Nervous Track”, a hyper-syncopated riff with frantic drumming and standup bass, appeared in 1993, and a year or two later “broken beat” sprouted from the Masters’ heavy footprints.

The MAW tracks that hold up best a decade or two later (and outside a club setting), though, are often the ones with unpredictable or spontaneous elements. India’s vocal on “I Can’t Get No Sleep” was edited from a flu-ridden improvisation; “Deep Inside” was an ad-libbed fragment from the Masters’ production of Barbara Tucker’s “Beautiful People” (which doesn’t appear on House Masters either), spun out into a record of its own. And if Black Masses’ “Wonderful Person” isn’t the result of someone trying to sing Linda Clifford’s 1978 disco song “You Are, You Are”, forgetting everything but the hook and making up new lyrics around it, then it might as well be.

The moments when one of Masters at Work’s collaborators throw them off-balance mean a lot, because they’re otherwise so firmly rooted in the conventions of ’90s club music—conventions which, to be fair, they helped to establish. Gonzalez and Vega built their career on being a beat factory, but the most enduring work of the years when they dominated the dance floor came from the times their studio was an experimental lab instead.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork