Louie Vega Breaks Down 'NYC Disco' Double Album: Exclusive
There are those who defy genre, and then there is Louie Vega. The Grammy-winning producer has found success working sounds from house into jazz, Afrobeat into soul, salsa, hip-hop and more, but perhaps his favorite sound of all is that bright light get-down of old that some people still call New York City disco.
As a close friend to the Nervous Records family, he's been granted the divine pleasure of handling some classic disco recording masters, including an unreleased tune by the legendary Luther Vandross and "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" by Anané and Tony Touch. He put his funky spin on the tunes, and on Friday (June 29), he gives fans NYC Disco, a 27-track double-album that explores disco's past, present and future.
Billboard Dance caught up with Vega to get the skinny on this new release with an exclusive album breakdown. Hear the stories behind some of the album's funkiest tunes below.
"Get Myself Together" - Luther Vandross
This track is very special to me. It’s a song that was never released by Luther Vandross. He recorded it in 1979 when he was working on the Never Too Much album. I was lucky to be chosen for this remix by Fonzi Thornton (good friend of Luther, also an accomplished singer in the business, a royal family background singer I call him). Fonzi (a partner in the Luther Vandross estate along with Luther’s Niece Saveeta Williams and another family member) had two songs never released before from Luther Vandross and asked me if I would be interested in remixing it. Once I put up the vocals, the inspiration was set. It was Luther’s voice that brought out in me the direction of that groove. I called my amazing musicians Axel Tosca (keyboardist) and Gene Perez (Bassist), we then laid down this infectious groove complimenting the original drums recorded in '79 along with new drums I added on top. Original Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, live bass, a superb string arrangement, and to complete the painting Fonzi called all the original Luther Vandross background singers Lisa Fischer, Cindy Mizelle, Brenda White, Paulette McWilliams, Tawatha Agee, and he of course all made The A Team royal family background singers of all time. Once all recorded and laid down, my engineer Yas Inoue and I mixed it down. My favorite part is the finale, where you hear Luther Vandross belting out notes to perfection and finishing the song with just the right touch.
"Rebel Nation" - Patrick Adams & Cloud Two Featuring Anané
Working with one of your heroes, Mr. Patrick Adams, has always been a dream. His music is part of the soundtrack to my life. I grew up with all his masterpieces within my adolescent years 'till now. To this day, I still play many of his productions within my DJ sets. I was working on the NYC Disco album in the studio. My computer was on and a message popped in from the great Patrick Adams on Facebook. He said “Louie, I heard the Luther Vandross song on your Worldwide Fm Open Air Sessions show. I’d love to do a string arrangement on it." I could not believe that he reached out and wanted to work on one of my projects. I said to Patrick that I was working on this new album NYC Disco and it would not be complete if I didn’t have one of New York City’s premiere producers of all time, then checking if he had anything I could hear on the Cloud One style (his more experimental and underground productions back in the days). He said he had something. It was a demo he created a year ago that was inspired by one of the new Star Wars movies. Once I heard it, the song was perfect for the album. I asked him to send me the parts to the demo, and I immediately started working and putting my thang on it. Once I finished, I felt this song needed a verse reflecting the concept of "Rebel Nation." I reached out to Anané to see if she would be interested in writing lyrics to the track. She came in and nailed it after one conversation online with Patrick. I call Anané a chameleon, because she transcends so many different sounds with her voice. She gave the track just the right feeling vocally. It’s a very punk-rock approach; the kids speaking out, all kinds of people speaking out together at the same time, many voices. “Get Up! Stand Up! Let’s Rise! Rebel Nation," “How we are living, through untouchable screens." I mean, she hit it right on target. The original tracks from Patrick had a great string arrangement but played on synthesizers. I then said to Patrick "let’s record a live string section." He then said “now you are talking." He composed the string arrangement on paper and came into the studio with a friend to conduct the string players, and that was Mr. Leroy Burgess. So Imagine having two of your heroes in the studio at the same time and all this magic going on. "Rebel Nation" was born.
"He Promised Me" - BeBe Winans
BeBe Winans and I have been collaborating for years since the MAW days producing “Thank You." Every time he has a new project, he reaches out to see if I’m interested in doing a club mix or collaborating. We had great success with the Grammy-Nominated Album Louie Vega Starring…XXVIII which had 3 Winans Brothers Featuring The Clark Sisters “Dance” and later “I Choose You." Bebe, this past year, came with a song that he recorded for his solo album He Promised Me. This song was in a different time signature, and the groove totally downtempo. It was a great version already, which went number one on the gospel radio chart. I went left on the project and created a disco groove inspired by a George Duke and Didi Bridgewater classic, changed up the time signature with a four on the floor vibe. I added live horns, which added lots of excitement to the track and asked BeBe and the ladies to sing more ad-libs and backgrounds. The track came back super hot and made it that much easier for me to overdub some organ solos by Josh Milan, a piano solo by Axel Tosca and Gene Perez rockin’ a funky disco bassline. I’ve been playing this track for a few months, and it gets everyone on the dance floor immediately.
"Get With the Funk" - Featuring Josh Milan
I wanted a funky side to the album, bringing the spirit of the '70s and early '80s in New York City when you had funk groups combining their sounds with disco, soul, and jazz. Arthur Russell is a hero producer of ours for the avant garde sound of disco fusion, so his spirit and vibe was all up in the track. Josh Milan played all the instruments on this song (Keyboard Bass, Organ, Fender Rhodes) and sang backgrounds along with Cindy Mizelle and Sharon Bryant (co-founder of Atlantic Starr). Reaching for a party vibe is what we wanted and with the help of Cindy and Sharon they brought the party sounds to the record. We stacked about six tracks of good time party sounds that were improvised by these incredible, talented women. When you hear it, it sounds like 50 people partying at the apartment back in the Bronx, or even a block party.
"Dancing for Your Love" - Featuring Cindy Mizelle & Sharon Bryant
For so many years, there is a song that has stuck with me in countries like Italy, Japan and even the UK. It’s “The Boss” by Diana Ross. Two of my favorite songwriters, Ashford and Simpson, also produced this track. The funny thing is I never knew that John Davis from John Davis and the Monster Orchestra arranged all the horns and strings on “The Boss” and many other of my Ashford and Simpson faves. John Davis had many releases on the label Sam Records, and this label is owned by Michael Weiss who was Sam Weiss’ son (of Sam Records). The NYC Disco Album project started with me remixing some of the Sam Records hits and rare classics, one of the first I remixed was “Bourgie Bourgie” which was a John Davis hit track that had the vocals of Ashford & Simpson, and they also wrote this song too.
The horns and strings on “Dancing For Your Love” is an homage to Ashford & Simpson, and John Davis as well. This original song was written by Josh Milan (lyrics) and Axel Tosca & myself (music). Josh wrote this song in one night, and we recorded it the next day with Cindy Mizelle and Sharon Bryant on lead and backgrounds. This track is one of my favorite songs on the album, it has such an uplifting feeling, and a real good feel song.
"I Can’t Stop" - Featuring Jazzy Jeff
Here we have John Davis again, who to me is a top versatile producer. I didn’t know one of his first productions was “Be Thankful” by William DeVaughn, a soul classic. John came to New York City to film the epk for this project, and we met there and hit it off. We spoke about his sessions, and he had some crazy cool stories. On this track “I Can’t Stop,” I already knew it was one of Sam Records biggest hip hop break beats. I remembered hearing this at block parties back in the '70s when I was about 11 years old, as well I went to the Bronx River Projects which was right down the block from where I lived and used to listen to Jazzy Jay (who later became a mentor and first DJ that took me under his wing), Red Alert, Afrika Bambaataa, & Afrika Islam, then you had the breakdancers too. This track would play and the crowd would go ballistic, and the DJs would be cutting up the break. Here, over 40 somewhat years later, I’m remixing this track for my album. I thought "what can I do to make it special?" Then it came to me. Why don’t I get one of my friends who happens to be one of the greatest scratch DJs and a great DJ period? His name is Jazzy Jeff. I sent the original tracks to Jazzy Jeff, I created a new arrangement and had three long breaks (of the same beat the DJs used to cut up back in the day) throughout the song. I sent Jazzy Jeff the original parts of horn stabs, vocal samples, and the orchestra hits. He then did what he does best; he created another layer to the song with his scratches. This is a tribute to my breakdance, hip hop roots.
"Love Having You Around" - Featuring Rochelle Fleming & Barbara Tucker
Bringing the queen of disco soul together with the queen of house was a task I’ve always wanted to accomplish. Doing it on a First Choice Classic written by Stevie Wonder was perfect. The “Love Having You Around” version by First Choice was a track I played frequently at my party Roots NYC at Cielo, and one night I decided to loop the intro and the vamp of the song. Barbara Tucker happened to be at the club that night and we started jammin’. She sang ad-libs over the looped vamps and there struck the idea. I went in and remade the track but with more house influence. This time, I came the other way around and recorded a disco soul classic on a more house contemporary flavor, but still keeping the integrity of the original. I talked to Barbara and said “what if we get Rochelle Fleming to sing a verse or two on the track," hence came Rochelle to the session along with Barbara Tucker. When I spoke to Rochelle about the song, she said she never sang lead on that song long ago. It was one of the other talented First Choice singers. It made it even more special that she never sang verses but only a few ad-libs on the original, so it was a first for her. Live horns we then added and those stabs really moved the track. The horns were reinterpreted by Axel Tosca, and I added some new parts. The Background team was a powerful crew; Cindy Mizelle, Tawatha Agee of Mtume, Barbara Tucker, and Rochelle Fleming. I remember first testing the instrumental with the horns recorded. When I played it in the club, the crowd went into a frenzy. We knew we had a good one.
"Dance" (Disco Heat) - Sylvester
Sylvester is the top falsetto singer of the world for me. Bringing soul, disco, gospel, and R&B, he had so many big hits, and some of my favorites are “Over and Over,” “Mighty Real,” and "Dance (Disco Heat)." He also had Two Tons Of Fun (Martha Wash & Izora) singing with him, who also had huge hits on their own record deals. I love the fact that he gave lead parts to his background singers, which is something that I love to do in the studio as well. "Dance (Disco Heat)" was sampled many years ago on Nervous Records. This sample track was so infectious and one of my preferred records to spin. I gave an idea to Michael Weiss to have Bryon Stingily write a song over the track which then became an instant hit almost 20 years ago. Here we are today, as I was working on the NYC Disco Album, I decided to sample the same song “Dance (Disco Heat),” but I twisted the samples and found other samples not used. I then created a new arrangement, and asked Cindy Mizelle to come in and sing some new fresh hooks which had nothing to do with the song. The new line “Time To Get Up” just stood out and had everyone singing along when played out in clubs. Added organ solos and enhanced the Two Tons Of Fun vocals with Cindy Mizelle singing the same parts as well adding more support. This was the first track off the album that reached out to the young generation of DJs and clubbers. DJ Monki from BBC Radio 1 and others were pounding the track.
When it came time to license the track, the label asked if I would mind using the name Sylvester as the artist. I said I’d love to have him as the artist. After all, it is his song and a true honor for me to have Sylvester on my album. Hey, we have Sylvester on the NYC Disco Album. I’m still shocked.
"Love Paradox" - Featuring The Martinez Brothers
The Martinez Brothers and I just finished recording tracks in our studios and had released a project early this year; “Shut The Door” by Louie Vega & The Martinez Brothers featuring Hector Lavoe. This cross-generational track made noise in many facets of the club community worldwide, played in festivals and clubs by many of the top DJs in the world. I thought it would be great for us to collaborate on a disco track for my album, showing some versatility in our styles. They came with a sample track that had a jazz funk sound, which I then heard and said “let’s bring this one to life with a more orchestra feel.” A huge horn session was key (over 16 horns parts playing at once) and the stacking of backgrounds with scatting by Cindy Mizelle and Sharon Bryant. Live drums, bass, electric guitar and a totally fresh arrangement was the finishing touch. The Martinez Brothers, whom I’m very proud of, are reaching so many around the world with their exciting DJ sets, and they remind me of myself when I started long ago. It's like living it over again. Such exciting times.
"Last Night a DJ Saved My Life"
Of course, why not this song? It’s the number one homage to DJs. I had already finished the entire album and was about to hand in to master when my lovely wife Anané (artist, dj, songwriter) came to me and said she had an idea she wanted to lay down in the studio. Anané finished recording the next day, which was a day before I was mastering, and brought me this stunning rendition of the classic “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life." It was too good to be true that this song fit perfectly on the NYC Disco Album, and in the sequence, it fell in just the right spot on the album. There is a famous rap on this song, and when it came time to think of who could do it, Anané said “why don’t we ask Tony Touch,” a friend of ours for years. He gladly accepted and came in and nailed it in one take.
All about that Rhythm guitar, Sherrod Barnes laid down guitar right in the pocket. It was the only way to end this project by adding the true HOMAGE TO THE DJ. NYC Disco is complete for me!