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House Call

The Bronx is hundreds of miles away from house-music giant Little Louie Vega's vantage point on the patio behind Miami Beach's Panna Café, where he sits and enjoys a cup of coffee. He's here under some duress: In three hours he has to rejoin his wife, the beautiful Cape Verdean vocalist Anané, to pack his bags and fly back to New York, where he overlooks Masters at Work Productions with longtime partner Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez. Still, he sips the coffee as he calmly discusses his new creation, Elements of Life.

"It's a world album with a dance edge to it," summarizes Vega, whose uncle is salsa vocalist Hector Lavoe. A meditation on spirituality, love and family, Elements of Life draws on six different languages and incorporates bossa nova, rumba, salsa, soca and African rhythms. Percussion lies at its center, with session musicians like keyboardist Albert Menendez and bassist Gene Perez adding flourishes. Its inspiration was a lyric written by Chicago house team Blaze for the title song: "Our dreams are there to show us how to stand for what we know/In the spirit of love, we must let the hatred go." When he first read their words, Vega says, he immediately thought, "Elements of life -- I could build something around that."

Vega's been working on Elements of Life for about three years, gathering collaborators in his native New York and in Miami and funding its recording sessions himself. "This record cost a lot of money to put together. I could have bought a house," he says, laughing. Although he says the album is mastered already, there's little music available from it so far besides an inconclusive 20-minute sampler. More satisfying is the album's first single "Cerca De Mi," a Spanish love song performed by Argentine vocalist Raul Midon that earned spins from several DJs during the recent Winter Music Conference.

Vega is working on securing a distributor for the international and domestic release of Elements of Life, though he adds that it will definitely come out in Japan through MAW Productions this spring. "I'm looking for a boutique with major distribution," he says. "It's not going to be able to go through the big machine," meaning major-label companies that probably wouldn't know how to market it.

It seems surprising that a musician as high-profile as Little Louie Vega would have to search the deep label sea for support. For the past decade, Masters at Work has dominated the domestic house scene; it is synonymous with modern Nuyorican music. Prolific to a fault, it has remixed "thousands of records," according to Vega, including hits by dance music veterans like Deee-Lite, Barbara Tucker, and Daft Punk; pop singers like Aaliyah, Gloria Estefan, and Madonna; world music stars like Les Negresses Vertes, Femi Kuti, and the Gipsy Kings; and long-forgotten dance divas like Kele Le Roc and Alison Limerick. Gonzalez even scored a minor pop hit under the pseudonym the Bucketheads with "The Bomb," a 1995 reworking of "Street Player," a long-forgotten disco track by Chicago.

Masters at Work has released 1997's Nuyorican Soul and 2002's Our Time Is Coming on Tommy Boy Records, an independent label with major-label distribution, as well as a classic eponymous debut on Cutting Records back in 1993. In addition to MAW Records, there's Gonzalez's Dopewax label -- an outlet for his frequent forays into sample-heavy disco-house, Latin funk, and hip-hop -- and Vega Records, which released "Cerca De Mi" earlier this year. The duo has also worked on projects for BBE Records, a popular British imprint, adding its star power to compilations filled with rare grooves from the '60s through the '90s. In fact, Masters at Work is so productive that its forthcoming album for Tommy Boy, MAW Electronic, is only mentioned in passing during the conversation.

Now 38, Vega has been making music for more than two decades. Unlike many would-be old-school house heads, he can honestly claim to have attended early hip-hop block parties in the South Bronx and hung out at legendary New York nightclubs like the Fever, Paradise Garage, and the Loft. "I was lucky enough to grow up in the middle of disco, R&B and rap," he proudly notes, bragging that he has 15,000 to 20,000 records. "Learning a lot from Jazzy Jay, who was one of my mentors, and people like Larry Levan, Jellybean Benitez, Tony Humphries, David Mancuso at the Loft. All these guys taught me all that I know when it comes to making music." Although Vega smilingly adds that he's "young at heart," he is also newly married with a son and reassessing his priorities in life. Moving away from quick-buck remixes, Vega and Gonzalez are focusing on building catalogues for their record labels. "Hopefully one day we'll get major distribution," he says.

Shifting gears, Vega laughs about how "I got married on the beach" last fall. "Right on the sand. And you know what the weird thing was? It was so cute because a lot of the locals were here -- a lot of Hispanic people I saw on the beach -- and they were cheering for us. And [a couple] came up to us and said, You know what? I don't think people really appreciate the beaches we have. You guys are one of the few we've seen get married right here on the beach.' And this was a couple who has lived here for many, many years. It was beautiful."

Now Vega is "bicoastal" with residences in both Miami and New York. "I live here now, right next door," he grins, pointing toward some location a couple of blocks away from the cafe patio. "I like it a lot." Vega says he has big plans to work with more local musicians down here, but today he has to return to New York and the business of being a label owner and producer.

He'll be back.

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Mosi Reeves

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