A key figure of the scene in the city and beyond since the ’80s, Vega’s story reads like dance music myth: born in the Bronx to a musical Puerto Rican family that included his uncle, salsa legend Héctor Lavoe, Vega entered the club scene as a teenager and was soon spinning at institutions like Studio 54, where he helped pioneered the house genre and crossed it with disco, funk and Latin influences. In the early ’90s, Vega linked with Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez to form the legendary duo Masters At Work; his solo work has also garnered six Grammy nominations, and one win in 2008 for his remix of Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.”
All the while, Vega has kept an ambitious tour schedule and consistent string of singles and albums, the latest of which is Expansions In The NYC. Out this past Friday (Apr. 29) on Nervous Records, the two-and-a-half hour, 22-track album plays like an extended jam session that you’d be lucky to catch happening afterhours at the club.
That’s by design, with the LP taking inspiration from Vega’s Expansion NYC parties. Launching in February 2019 in Manhattan and Brooklyn, these events were less DJ sets than musical jam sessions featuring a tight group of musicians, dancers, poets and other creatives cooking up musically freewheeling grooves that traversed genres and typically lasted until 3 a.m.
With the album, Vega captures the spirit of these events for everyone who couldn’t get there in person, bringing in an A-list crew of collaborators — Robyn, Moodymann, Honey Dijon, Kerri Chandler — and a sprawling lineup of world-class musicians. Even Vega’s wife, DJ and singer Anané, and his son make appearances.
“I reached out to her when she was upstairs and asked if she would come down and drop some lyrics and she just nailed it,” Vega tells Billboard. “To have my wife and son on my album means the world to me, nothing like it!”
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
In Naples, Italy. I’m here with Anané, we have our party The Ritual With Anané & Louie Vega at an open air beach party for over 2,000 people. The setting is a beautiful, modern hotel overlooking the water, and the views are a castle and the great Mount Vesuvius.
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The first album I bought might have been Saturday Night Fever at 10 years old. I did see the movie with two of my sisters, and it drove me right to that record store I used to go to down the block on Westchester Ave. and Manor Ave. I frequented this store at an early age.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do or did they think of what you do for a living now?
My parents were separated, but lived one block apart. When families migrated from Puerto Rico, they tended to live close to each other. There was much more unification. I lived in my grandmother’s home at seven years old, and my mom lived a block away with three of my sisters, where she raised them. My mom worked in Paterson, New Jersey, as a bookkeeper for a factory. My dad worked for a courier delivering packages with his van; he also played tenor saxophone in local salsa bands.
Later in life, while living at my grandmother’s home, they noticed I loved DJing. But my grandmother and her daughter — one of her three daughters — didn’t feel that it was a real job, as it had no benefits and not consistent. It wasn’t until 1986 when… I was working on a remix for an artist on Sleeping Bag Records named Nocera, the song was called “Let’s Go.” It was on this project that I invited my grandmother and my aunt to the studio in New York City. When they came in and saw the huge SSL mixing board and a posh studio — with just myself and the engineer and heard the music playing while I let them know what I did to the record — they then realized this was a promising profession!
4. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
The first non-gear thing I bought myself was a vehicle, a Pathfinder SUV in 1986.
5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what would you give them?
One album I would recommend for someone looking to get into dance music is Nuyorican Soul.
6. What’s the last song you listened to?
The last song I listened to yesterday was “From The Beginning” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. This song was recommended by my son who is playing guitar and sent me a few tracks to listen to. (He’s been doing this lately.) I could not stop playing this beautiful song. Now it reminds me of him. I played it through my day.
7. What’s the biggest issue facing dance music currently?
There are many, but here’s one and a simple one: Dance music today is so saturated. There’s so much of it worldwide, keeping on top is a timely job. It’s just knowing how to pick the good ones, and there are good ones. I’ve got my system, and it’s worked for years: if it moves me it’s going in my drive.
8. What’s the most exciting thing happening in dance music currently?
The most exciting thing in dance music today is how far it’s gone. Watching the world discover it is mesmerizing. To be able to travel to these faraway and sometimes even remote places, to see and hear audiences sing songs you’ve worked on at clubs and festivals is just cosmic! What a feeling!
9. As a house music pioneer, do you think U.S. audiences now fully understand and appreciate house music?
The U.S.A. still has a ways to go, and doesn’t compare to what’s going on around the world. But making it in the U.S.A. is where it’s at for everyone. It’s mostly the main cities where we go, so we do feel the appreciation, and we do feel it growing day-by-day with festivals, clubs and events. Seeing them well-attended is what’s happening now, so that’s a great sign!
On a commercial level, very few make it, but I do feel now is a great time for house music crossing over, because I see interest within the pop field, Grammy recognition and hearing it subliminally in commercials, ads, etc. The DJing profession is a phenomenon.
10. How can the genre continue its expansion?
As long as we are all touring and spreading the love making music, it will continue. I speak for the entire dance community. There are so many hybrids of the sound now and many pockets of people who love the different sounds in house music.
11. Are there places you don’t hear house music that you’d like to?
On the radio.
12. Are there places you do hear it and you’re like, “Whoa!”?
In commercials and ads.
13. Your work and legacy is so tied to New York City. What’s happening there in house music, and electronic music at large, that isn’t happening anywhere else?
I’m a native New Yorker — New York City born and bred. Nightlife here was unique in my teen years and has a lot to do with my musical upbringing. We have such a long and rich history with electronic music. New York has that “swing.”
14. It sounds like a series of really special performances influenced your new album. What’s the story of a particularly epic one?
I had a night in 2019 called Expansions NYC that I curated and played six-hour sets at on Wednesday nights. At 3 a.m. I’d jam with my keyboard player, guitarist, horn and flute, percussion and occasional spoken-word vocalist and singers improvising while I was DJing. I’d record my sets, and when listening back I heard cool grooves and rhythms.
I then recorded ideas in my studio sessions weekly, and this soon became the foundation of the album. One particularly epic one was when I had invited poet Sugah Lyrics, with Axel Tosca on keys, Toni C on guitar and percussionists Ritmo y Tumbao and Sting Ray. It was this night that one of the early tracks came about after hearing the recording. I then reached out to Sugah Lyrics about some words she dropped that night; after that, “A Place Where We Can All Be Free” came together!
15. What’s been the proudest moment of your career thus far?
Composing for Cirque Du Soleil and playing it live at the Super Bowl and winning a Grammy have been highlights in my career.
16. Are there causes or charities you’re involved with that you’d like people to know about?
I’ve played at various charities over the years, from helping children in need to raising money for lands that have gone through natural disasters.
17. What’s your favorite place to listen to and experience dance music?
From checking out live performances to state of the art venues with proper sound, there are several favorites. I just had the pleasure of playing the hi-fi room Dante’s [in Miami], curated by music director Rich Medina. I had a grand time playing and listening to music there. For this album, I had an idea to do album listening parties in hi-fi rooms. We’ve done it so far in Miami, London, New York, and next is L.A., Oakland, Atlanta, and hopefully Paris, Italy, Berlin, Amsterdam and finally Tokyo. These places would be where I’d listen to music at its best.
18. What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
The best business decision I ever made was not to sell my publishing or masters.
19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My greatest mentor was my uncle Héctor Lavoe; he taught me to have variation in all I do.
20. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Trust your instincts, learn an instrument, and play and make music from the heart.