Certain terms gets tossed around all too loosely in dance-music circles – but legend is one that genuinely fits “Little” Louie Vega.
A DJ’s DJ and a producer of diverse sounds, Vega, 56, has been a staple of New York City’s rich club-music scene and an in-demand, global jock for four-plus decades now. The Bronx native’s list of accomplishments is long, but a short version includes: his influential collabs with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez as Masters At Work and Nuyorican Soul; his 2006 Grammy Award for his remix of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”; his performance with Cirque du Soleil and his Elements of Life Orchestra (featuring his wife singer/DJ Anané) at Miami’s Super Bowl XLI in 2007; remixes and productions on a slew of club hits from a range of artists that include Barbara Tucker, Mr. V and Gloria Estefan; and memorable DJ residencies at NYC’s Sound Factory Bar and Cielo venues.
Since its 2019 inception, his “Expansions NYC” parties, where Vega spins six-hour sets of house, funk, disco, Afro and R&B sounds, then engages in jam sessions with a band of traditional musicians, have been all the rage. And most recently, Vega has carried that approach into his latest album, Expansions in the NYC (Nervous Records). With an all-star cast of collaborators – from Joe Claussell to Kerry Chandler, from Moodymann to Honey Dijon – the 22-track full-length celebrates the diversity of sounds in modern clubland.
DJ Life Mag caught up with Louie Vega to discuss his latest project, how he spent the lockdown, his gear choices and how streaming has become, happily, part of his professional life.
DJ LIFE MAG: You’ve been part of a variety of memorable parties over the years, but what made the “Expansions NYC” parties so special that it inspired an entire album project?
Louie Vega: Expansions NYC is party I curated and created at home in New York City specifically for dancers. It was special because I played six-hour/all-night sets, and at 3 a.m. on Wednesday nights I’d have keyboardists, guitarists, poets, percussionists, and singers jam out with me at wee hours of the a.m. – and I recorded all the sets. Hearing them after, there were so many amazing grooves, hooks, and ideas made my mind turn, and I started recording the days leading up to the party and I’d test out the recordings. I, then, added more tracks as I met artists on the road that I wanted to work with – and the album was born. It all started with the New York City party inspirations.
DJ LIFE MAG: And you’ve worked on some diverse full-lengths as well. Doing an album is such a huge undertaking and albums are more of a rarity these days… why an entire album now?
Louie Vega: I’ve always loved making albums. It allows me to tell a story and express myself in any way I want musically, lyrically, and artistically. Albums are stories that will be around forever for all your fans and music lovers. I believe I’m on my eighth album where I’m involved as the artist that I’ve produced. I also get to help others tell their story when I produce an album for them. I love what I do and love to collaborate.
DJ LIFE MAG: Talking studio/artistic process here, how long did it take to make the album and how did you work with so many collaborators, especially during some uncertain times? How much was in-person and how much was sharing folders, etc.?
Louie Vega: The album took about three years, but the pandemic was in there. So, really, about one-and-a-half years of work and the rest was waiting times, and I added a few tracks since time lapsed. I was playing it on my streaming live shows during the last two years – a track here and there – and I would talk about it, so it’s been an anticipation with the fans. I did many sessions with singers and musicians in the studio or myself creating on a keyboard or laying down drums, etc. My engineer Yas Inoue spent the most time with me on this album. We even had live string sessions in NYC and had Patrick Adams and Leroy Burgess there in the studio who wrote amazing arrangements.
DJ LIFE MAG: Sounds like quite an operation…
Louie Vega: Robyn and Kindness came to my studio, and we wrote the track and song in one day on the spot. Honey Dijon was in New York for half a day, and we spent some hours in the studio and came up with the track and song during that time. The inspiration was there when it came to being in the studio one-on-one – for me, that’s the best way.
DJ LIFE MAG: But you obviously had some success working remote, right?
Louie Vega: When I asked Moodymann to get down on the album, he said, “Let’s go!” I looked on my archive of tracks I had in the studio on the shelf and found the perfect one for him. He felt it, and in Detroit he laid down his vocals and wrote two songs on one track. I combined them and arranged them so they morphed into one song, and it became “Seven Mile,” and there is still extra vocals for an unreleased one if we wanted to have it. So, in this case being remote, it still worked out perfectly. During the uncertain time, we got in some masterpieces – for one, “Joy Universal” by Two Soul Fusion. Josh Milan and I in the studio came up with that one and it was one of the last choons on the album recorded. For me, it completes the circle on this album project! We are talking 22 tracks on the album, so I have many more stories.
DJ LIFE MAG: I’d like to go over a couple more of the tracks, if you don’t mind. Track one, “Igobolo,” is quite a statement, right out of the box. Such a lush, gorgeous track – what went into that one with Mr. Claussell?
Louie Vega: Oh wow, I had a great session with Joe Claussell. He is such a spiritual, good dude! That’s my brother from another mother. He came to the studio, and I had an idea to start, a groove. He came in and laid down percussion, and hummed some basslines, which I played in. So, we had the bass of the track. My favorite was when he said, “Let’s get the vocal mic on and some effects on [his] voice.” He then closed his eyes and made all those amazing sounds with his voice in the intro of the record. It was so ethereal and heavenly – he was so into it.
DJ LIFE MAG: It’s a helluva way to start an album…
Louie Vega: I loved that he took this so seriously and gave his heart and soul. I then sent him the tracks we did that night and he wanted to get his musicians on it and came through with amazing piano and synth solos and comping. I mean, it came back a beautiful piece of work! I then mixed it later on with my engineer Yas Inoue at Daddy’s Workshop – that’s my studio – then mixed it again with Josh Milan at Honeycomb Studios, since I wanted to tweak it some more. You can hear our styles in that tune. It’s a true collaboration.
DJ LIFE MAG: I really love the Karen Harding song, “Free to Love,” because it just has that anthemic, classic feel and it has a never-ending theme for dance music. That one’s a real keeper. How did that happen?
Louie Vega: Ah, nice – I’m happy you like that one. My publisher, Ultra Music International Publishing CEO Patrick Moxey, wanted to put me together with artists in the U.K. at his studios. I was mid-album by this time and I had just finished performing with my band Elements of Life at London’s Southbank Centre. Since we had our musicians there, one of them, Silvano Monasterios, was staying in London a few days. Patrick and the Ultra Pub team showed me links of these U.K. artists and their works. I picked Karen Harding – I liked her voice and vibe on her songs.
DJ LIFE MAG: What was the process on that tune?
Louie Vega: When she came into the studio, she was laid-back and very cool, and she knew what she was doing – a true pro! I had laid down the track a few hours before she came – remember, I had Silvano, the keyboardist from our Elements of Life band there. Once she heard the track, she started singing melodies and lyrics. We then collaborated on the melodies once she sang them down and the song started formation. We then arranged it and I had the vocals I needed for when I’d get back to Daddy’s Workshop. I also had engineer/musician Ross Hillard at the studio in London and asked him to play live bass on the record. So, I had that, too, to take back to my studio. When back home, I added more keyboards to it with Axel Tosca and I then arranged and mixed it. I love that song and I really enjoyed working with Karen Harding.
DJ LIFE MAG: “How He Works” has a very tribal-house rhythm and it feels like a very New York kinda tune – tell me how that one came about?
Louie Vega: My son Nico is a piano and guitar player these days. I’ve always wanted him to come down to the studio and see what comes out of his head. I asked him to come to the studio with my engineer Yas Inoue there; he then laid down all the keyboards on “How He Works” and he picked all those samples you hear on the track and played them in where he heard them. I was in awe watching him do his thing. I’d go up to leave him alone with Yas and I’d come down once in a while… next thing you know, a full track was made. The “How He Works” sample comes from the Elements of Life version of “Stand On The Word.” He wanted to use the phrase “How He Works.” I then called my lawyer to clear the sample and now he has publishing on his track, “How He Works.”
DJ LIFE MAG: Well, it came out great…
Louie Vega: He didn’t want to be featured. He’s down-to-earth and has no cares about fame or having his name upfront. I got lucky – he let me get on with that one, so he is featured. I was in shock to see him play all these keyboard parts. It shows he has some Masters At Work in the veins! Proud moment for me!
DJ LIFE MAG: In the end, there’s a lotta music there. What other tracks do you feel most strongly about and why?
Louie Vega: I love the album. It has a wonderful story and so many songs bring me joy. “The Star of the Story” featuring Lisa Fischer, “Music Is My Life” featuring Unlimited Touch, “All My Love” featuring Robyn, “Joy Universal” featuring Two Soul Fusion, “Feel So Right” featuring Honey Dijon… I mean, this album is a stunner for me. I appreciate and love all who are a part of this album.
DJ LIFE MAG: A little tech talk… how do you record your tracks? What’s your main studio gear?
Louie Vega: I recorded most of the album at Daddy’s Workshop – Nico named it many years ago, as a small child. Our DAW is [Avid] Pro Tools. I have lots of vintage, original pieces – like Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, Juno 106, Nico’s guitars – he has three to choose from, if we need guitar, he plays and we record – [Roland] JP-8000, Korg PA900, to name a few, but we also have lots of plug-ins. Two of my favorites plugs-ins are [Rob Papen] Predator and for bass sounds [Spectrasonics] Trilian – check out the [Rob Papen] SubBoomBass, too. My monitors are Dynaudio – I live by them and have had them over 20 years.
DJ LIFE MAG: Moving to the DJ booth, what’s your gear and why?
Louie Vega: In the DJ booth I use: four Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000 players, a Pioneer DJ DJM-V10 DJ mixer, [Alpha Recording System] ARS Model3500 crossover with custom volume knob. If I want to use knob mixers, I have a choice of the ARS 9000, ARS 9100B, ARS 9900, or the ARS 6700.
DJ LIFE MAG: Big question: our favorite producer and remixers?
Louie Vega: Producers: Quincy Jones, Willie Colon, Gamble & Huff, Trent Reznor, Trevor Horn, Inflo, Sly & Robbie, The Mizelle Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Giorgio Moroder, Brian Eno, Render & Lewis, Arthur Russell, Jay Dilla, DJ Premier, Missy Elliot & Timberland, Mark Ronson, Norman Harris, Vince Montana Jr., and Josh Milan. Remixers: Yvonne Turner, Larry Levan, Tom Moulton, Kenny Dope, Walter Gibbons, Dave Lee, DJ Kemit, David Morales, Spen, and Mike Dunn.
DJ LIFE MAG: You were an active streamer during the lockdown – what was that experience like for you? What did it reveal to you?
Louie Vega: April 6, 2022, marks two years since I’ve been streaming live during the pandemic and now post. We have had our “Twitch-a-versary.” It’s a wonderful experience in these Twitch streets. I’ve met many new fans and people who were not in clubs or the nightlife, as well the ones in the nightlife. The chat room became my dancefloor and it’s become a big family online. It revealed to me a new way to connect with people worldwide, who have the same thing in common musically. The twitch.tv/louievega family is truly loyal and come on every moment I’m on live.
DJ LIFE MAG: Right, it kept your profile alive during a tough time…
Louie Vega: The cool thing about Twitch is you can just pop up and, if you checked the bell emblem on my channel, you would receive a message saying I’m on live. So, I don’t even have to promote on social, if I don’t want to, to let everyone know to get on. The chat room fills up instantly with minutes and people are listening, as well, that are not on the chatroom. I wanted to gain the audience naturally on Twitch, so I only posted on my pages and had a few of my loyalists spread the word. I now have 25,000 core followers and growing. I started my stream live on Twitch on April 6, 2020, during lockdown, as another outlet to my show on Worldwide FM for people to see and hear me at the same time. I’ve been on Worldwide FM for five years now and I’ve already been streaming there since then once a month on their channels. Adding twitch.tv/louievega gave it another dimension and intimate party setting with the fans. They really feel like they are with you and you with them.
DJ LIFE MAG: Now that the lockdown is over, what does streaming do for you?
Louie Vega: I’m thinking new ideas of streaming when I visit, let’s say, a city around the world. I can do special things. We don’t even need a crowd, so it’s all easy – the crowd is online live. Or I can have a small party of friends and have fun playing tunes with a beautiful setting at a castle or beach or cafe or unique spot, and I can pop up when I want!
DJ LIFE MAG: When you play out, how do you approach your sets?
Louie Vega: I approach my sets by reading the crowd. I would go there at least 45 minutes before I DJ, and I can tell what’s in the room. I see what drives them. But it’s really within my first 30 to 40 minutes while I’m playing music… I can feel what they like. Once I get them, then it’s a clean sweep! Most of the time, the people are there to hear and see you – so, that’s a good thing.
DJ LIFE MAG: For you, what has it been like returning to playing events with human beings finally in front of you?
Louie Vega: It’s been beautiful. People are very happy to come out again and there is a vibe like the Roaring Twenties [laughs]. I think everyone misses it, and all the events, clubs, festivals are well attended. Give them the fun they want!
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