Louie Vega on Becoming a DJ at 13: "As Soon as I Put My Hand on the Records, I Loved It"
Before the world was struck with EDM madness, there was old-school hip-hop. From Afrika Bambaataa to DJ Red Alert and Jazzy Jay, these guys were practically the first mainstream DJs.
Somewhere in between those giants was Louie Vega, one-half of legendary house duo Masters at Work.
As the nephew of salsa legend Héctor Lavoe, Vega was no stranger to music. He grew up taking piano lessons and watching his tio perform at Madison Square Garden. But it was at 13 when he discovered the turntable.
"That was my first love," Vega said. "As soon as I put my hand on the records, I loved it."
Fast-forward more than 30 years and Vega has shared the stage with Latin music giants Tito Puente and Marc Anthony. He's played in clubs all over the world. And he's established his eponymous record label, Vega Records.
And this month, Vega and his orchestral crew, Elements of Life, will unleash a new album, Eclipse, via Fania Records, the first release in 15 years on a label that, according to Louie, "is to Latin music what Motown is to R&B and soul."
The two-disc collection showcases the group's new tracks while also paying homage to Fania Records and the Fania All-Stars.
"We created new choruses," Vega tells Crossfade, "and named just about every single Fania All-Star musician [in the tribute track]. I'm really happy with the way it all came out. When you listen to the whole piece, it's epic and beautiful."
Just in time for the release party at PAX on March 19, we caught up with the Grammy-winning producer and spoke to him about growing up alongside Héctor Lavoe, his love affair with music, working with Marc Anthony, and Fania Records.
Louie Vega and Elements of Life.
Crossfade: You just came back from Europe. What were you doing there?
Louie Vega: I was there on a mini-tour in Italy, and then I came back to Ibiza, and then I came back [to New York]. I have a summer event [Sunset Ritual, a mega beach club party] that I do with my wife [Anané, who is also a DJ]. [It's] an event that we do in nice beach clubs around the world.
How was it growing up with your uncle?
I grew up with Héctor coming to my house all my life, because my mother is his older sister. He used to live in my mom's house when he first came from Puerto Rico to New York. I remember seeing him when I was really young, all his performances at Madison Square Garden.
What influence did he have in your career?
One thing I learned from him was having variation in your talent. He would sing ballads and ab-lib his way through, and was so creative with his voice. He could see a woman in the audience and sing about her on the spot, just making it up. He really taught me a lot about image and a lot of parts about being an artist.
When did your love affair with music begin?
My dad played sax for many years and played in a lot of local bands. I was a young kid who was in the middle of the birth of hip-hop with Afrika Bambaataa. I played piano as a kid, I took classical lessons until I was about 11. Then I stopped and eventually in the early '90s, started taking piano lessons again and it was Oscar Hernandez [one of the founders of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra] who gave me piano lessons at the time.
When did you first start DJing?
I started DJing when I was 13. One of my friends, his older brother had turntables. When he wasn't here, we would go there and DJ with the equipment. That was when I first laid my hands on some turntables. [It was a] big moment of my life, because at the same time, I lived in the Bronx and right outside was Bambaataa, DJ Red Alert, and they were creating what today has become hip-hop. Being in my neighborhood and the block parties was really a big influence in my life.
I would play around with the breakbeats. In those days, there was no hip-hop or anything. There was disco beats and rap jazz funk beats. In the middle of the song, there was a jump break where the band would groove more. I would make it last longer and make it seem as if I was mixing.
When was your big break?
Jazzy Jay took me under his wing. I started making those mix tapes... and I gave it to Jazzy Jay and he heard it and was the first one to recognize my talent.
When did you really start to make music?
My first salsa production was with Eddie Palmieri. And Marc Anthony used to hang out in the clubs as a kid when I was remixing music. In 1991, Atlantic Records offered me a deal. First thing I did was look for a singer and thought of Marc Anthony because he was the only kid who could sing his ass off. So I called him over.
We got together through Tito Puente and Palmieri. Puente was doing his 100th album and was performing in Madison Square Garden, and asked if we would perform and open up for his show. [To transition to his style], I thought we should do a street descarga salsa jam and said you guys [Marc Anthony and India] should ad-lib in Spanish. That was the birth of the idea of Marc Anthony and La India singing in Spanish. They came form the dance world. That's when Marc Anthony did "Hasta que te conoci." We went in two directions and blew up. It was a very pivotal point in everyone's career at that time. Those things were the seeds of what we are today.
Eclipse took four and a half years to produce. Why did it take so long?
The album took a really long time because I tour a lot. I always travel around the world as a DJ. I was making the album as I was traveling the world. The record kept evolving.
What's it like releasing an album under a label with such a large name in the industry?
Being on Fania for me, I started as a kid growing up listening to [my uncle's] music as child in my house and... now look, it's a dream come true. For me, it's important to carry on the spirit of Fania because there was so much great music made in those days. I don't expect to be a Fania All Star, but we can carry on the spirit of Fania. I feel I have accomplished something very wonderful to bring my music to Fania Records, as well as keeping my style of music. We have a good future there.
Louie Vega & Elements of Life with Josh Milan, Anane Vega, Jose Mangual, Luisito Quintero, Sahr Ngaujah, Oveous Maximus, and DJ Joe Claussell. Tuesday, March 19, at Pax, 337 SW Eighth St., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and admission is free with RSVP at fania.com/eol. Call 305-640-5847, or visit paxmiami.com.
Masters at Work at Sea. With Little Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez. Wednesday, March 20. Lady Windridge, boarding at 4800 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. The cruise starts at 3:30 p.m. and ends at 9 p.m. Tickets cost $150 plus fees via wantickets.com. Ages 21 and up.
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