Born in Brooklyn's Sunset Park in 1970, Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez grew up with the meshed sounds of Puerto Rico and New York chiming in his ears. The seventies were the peak years of Fania, and Gonzalez's parents didn't think twice about gazing at their record collection and nodding at their good fortune to be able to call the likes of Eddie Palmieri, Blades and the Fania All Stars "family". Gonzalez absorbed this Nuyorican music like a sponge absorbs water; even though he didn't like Salsa, he had to soak it up. But when he was sent to pick up some groceries, he tuned into the sounds of the street. Lined up along the neighbourhood's raised brownstone entrances whenever the weather allowed, a cacophonous chorus of home stereos blared out a mixture of disco, funk and R&B, while chilled-out drivers, their windows rolled down, transmitted the latest from WKTU and WBLS. On his way back, Gonzalez made sure he passed by the corner of Forty-fifth and Sixth Avenue, where a local street crew worked breaks and beats, and hung around a little, or a lot. The air thick with syncopated beats, emotionally charged songs and hard-working DJs, these were good times to be sent on an errand.
When he was thirteen, Gonzalez got his first turntable and started to practice. He touched wax and it warmed to him. When a friend from junior high school invited Gonzalez into his basement to try out his turntables, he started to imitate his street corner heroes with a sense of purpose. A short while later, he got a part-time job working behind the counter at WNR Music Centre. "There was rock, dance music, freestyle, soul and hip hop," says Gonzalez. "I ended up becoming a buyer, so I was bringing in music for all of these different types of people." Early house records from Trax and DJ International were among the hottest sellers, although the owner stuck to his rock guns and continued to push the likes of Led Zeppelin. That was how Gonzalez -- ears open, surprised eyebrows raised, head gently tilted and nodding -- learnt about rock breaks.
Along with Mike Delgado and Franklin Martinez, Gonzalez set up the brazenly titled Masters at Work sound system and started to put on parties in two local halls. The staple sound was hip hop but, like just about every neighbourhood party of the era, they also mixed in dance grooves from the likes of Pleasure and Liquid Liquid. "Disco and funk were still in the air, even at these parties," says Gonzalez. "For sure." Todd Terry, a friend of Delgado's, came to some of the gigs and ended up borrowing the Masters at Work name for his first two records, "Alright, Alright" and "Dum Dum Cry". "I was like, 'Go ahead, use it,'" remembers Gonzalez. It was a favour in the bank, and it would come in handy.
Appropriately for friends born into such rich musical traditions, the Gonzalez (Puerto Rican American) and Terry (African American) didn't so much see eye to eye as hear ear to ear. Gonzalez started to slip out of school so that he could go around to Terry's house, watch him make records and learn the tricks of the nascent bedroom-production trade. There was no better bedroom in which to learn. Terry's Masters at Work tracks came out on Fourth Floor in 1987, as did a couple of other releases, and then, later in the same year, the fledgling producer laid down his first house record, "Party People", one of the original monuments of decentred, sample-driven dance. Terry's output and fame spiralled out of control in 1988; journalists and dancers alike were doing more than spin out a rhyme when they declared, routinely, "Todd is God". With the Terry hype gaining momentum month-by-month, Gonzalez did well to contain himself for as long as he did. "I borrowed drum machines from Todd and started experimenting," he says. "In 1989 I really started making beats."
Gonzalez's first four releases appeared under the Powerhouse alias on Frank Mendez's street-savvy label Nu Groove and "Salsa House", the last of the series, was picked up by DJ "Little" Louie Vega, who was spinning at Roseland and liked the idea of doing a remix. Vega got hold of Gonzalez's number through Terry and Terry told Gonzalez to expect the call. When it failed to materialise, Gonzalez picked up the receiver and arranged to meet Vega in his Bronx neck of the woods. Forgetting about "Salsa House", the Roseland spinner, already an established Freestyle producer, asked Gonzalez to help him out on a Marc Anthony album he was recording for Joey Carvello at Atlantic. Gonzalez agreed but became intimated by Atlantic's heavy-duty studio setup as well as the radiant auras of Anthony's guest-appearance Latin luminaries, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puento. Vega got his young, towering friend to relax. "Just make some beats," he told him. Gonzalez started to press buttons and probably had a little smile on his face when, on the tenth track of the album, Palmieri and Puente, egged on by Anthony, jammed over his rhythm track. The recording was titled "Masters at Work Featuring Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri", with Puente and Palmieri the undisputed "masters".
Clinging to Gonzalez and Vega like a dog to a fresh bone, Carvello asked the duo to remix Debbie Gibson's "One Step Ahead" and, stuck for a new name, they decided to make the most of their rightful ownership of a very good old one -- Masters at Work. Gonzalez laid down the beats, Vega knocked out the keyboards, and, thanks in part to a B-side dub that would become a trademark sound, the little-and-large team embarked on one of the most influential, long-running and prolific relationships in dance music history.
Since their debut, MAW have thrilled the underground with "The Ha Dance" (Masters at Work), "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (St Etienne), "Our Mute Horns" (Masters at Work), "Love & Happiness (Yemaya Y Ochún)" (River Ocean featuring India), "Sume Sigh Say" (House of Gypsies), "Souffles H" (Mondo Grosso), "The Nervous Track" (Nuyorican Soul), "When You Touch Me" (Masters at Work featuring India), "Voices In My Mind" (Voices), "You Can Do It Baby" (Nuyorican Soul), "It's Alright" (Nuyorican Soul), "Watching Windows" (Reprazent) and boxes upon boxes of other vinyl gems. In addition, they've remixed and produced major artists such as Roy Ayers, George Benson, the Brand New Heavies, Jocelyn Brown, Daft Punk, Incognito, India, Janet Jackson, R. Kelly, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Barbara Tucker, Luther Vandross and BeBe Winans. Throughout their decade-and-a-half collaboration, they've drawn on a global pool of sounds -- house, soul, disco, funk, garage, hip hop, broken beat, dub, Latin, African -- that shines through their hometown haunts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem and downtown New York like light shines through crystal. Nothing less than the rainbow spectrum of the world can be found in these records.
Along the way, Gonzalez has developed a specialist reputation for picking out percussive ingredients that, when heard alone, sound thin, but when mixed together take on a compelling new flavour that other beat maestros can't help but imitate. Gonzalez pioneered the swinging syncopated house beat, which became ubiquitous in the 1990s, by deploying several kick drums, each one pitched at a different frequency, on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart". He stacked up the layers of tribal percussion alongside Puente's flying timbales on the spiritual rollercoaster, "Love & Happiness". He instigated the house scene's engagement with driving jazz rhythms when he assembled the beats of "The Nervous Track". He played a pre-emptive role in developing broken beat -- don’t fix it if it's broke -- with his jumpy drum patterns on Urban Species "Listen (Just Listen)". He's shown he can slam his beats like the nastiest of them with his work on the Brand New Heavies "Close to You". And his collaborations with live players such as Vidal Davis demonstrate he knows how to pitch live drums to the contemporary dance floor.
From the outside, Gonzalez occupies an enviable position. After all, nobody seems to be hipper than the drummer, or the upstart programmer who ekes out timeless beats. When they're by themselves, though, rhythm generators can dream of a post-percussion existence, and Gonzalez insists that he's been more than the beats demon to Vega's heavenly keyboards. "I did a lot of those records," he says, "but people like to categorise us." Gonzalez demonstrated that he can make a whole record by himself, and a very good one at that, with his Bucketheads album, which was released in 1995 and included "The Bomb (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)", a sensational track. Gonzalez deepened his production work on the seminal Nuyorican Soul album, which included "Nautilus", which was cherry-picked by the Brooklynite for a reworking. And he showed off his skills again in his recent cover of Sylvester's "I Want You". "When Masters at Work do stuff together it's magical," says Gonzalez. "But separately I'm able to venture out a little more because it's just me and I'm not second-guessing anything." He adds, after a barely discernible pause, "I also get recognized in a different way."
Recognition is like a drug -- the more you get, the more you need, just to get the same feeling of that first hit -- and Gonzalez, hailed repeatedly for his contribution to dance over the last fifteen-plus years, wants even more recognition. There's a shameless New York-style bravado to his self-belief; what he's got so far is simply not enough, no matter how far he's travelled from his lowly back-street origins, no matter how many tributes have been cast in his direction. Gonzalez plans to make the most of whatever comes his way in the future by concentrating on his own projects, even if MAW and Nuyorican Soul remain ongoing ventures that he'll stay attached to for as long as he can imagine -- like the perfect taste of a favourite childhood dish.
"To be honest, after Nuyorican Soul I wanted to break off and do something on my own, but I felt I couldn't break off because it was just at that level," he says. "It would have been selfish to break off and do something on my own. So we kept it going for a couple more years and then after that we broke off a little. That happened in 1999, 2000." It was at that point that Gonzalez turned his attentions to his labels Dope Wax and Kay-Dee. The focus of Dope Wax has been new material -- remixes of artists such as Kanye West and Jill Scott, original recordings from breakthrough bands, plus the sonic chemistry of streetwise beat scientists. Kay-Dee, meanwhile, is run as a joint venture with the Scottish funk DJ Keb Darge and operates as a vinyl orphanage where long-lost funk records can be nurtured and then released back into the world. "Me and Louie always knew there would be a time when we wanted to break out," says Gonzalez. "We still do things together, but right now we're featuring ourselves separately and people are starting to realize who Kenny Dope is, and what he's done for the business and dance music."
Having played the sullen background man to Vega's sociable, loquacious front, Gonzalez is starting to talk the talk. The thought that up until now he's simply done what a DJ/remixer/producer is supposed to do -- play and create records -- makes the change of direction sound unnecessary, but Gonzalez says he's tired of the fallout that can come from being a little to the left of interview-friendly. "It's kind of my fault because I never talked with people. If I was DJing, I'd go in fifteen minutes before, do what I had to do and leave. I wouldn't socialize, so everyone had this perception of me as a knucklehead. But through these compilations I can speak my thoughts."
Like so many musicos, Gonzalez has an obsessive streak that he's barely able to contain. He says that he's not addicted to vinyl, but it's clear that he's not about to quit buying, and he sounds a little guilty when he guesstimates to owning some thirty-five thousand records. About half of his collection sits in his condo, while the other half is in storage. Until recently, Gonzalez insisted that whenever he toured he was taken straight from the airport to the best records stores in town. "I've got stuff from all over the place -- Turkey, Greece, Germany," he says. "It was crazy." Gonzalez confesses to having bought an unknown quantity of records that he's yet to play. "You go out for a couple of days and get stuff and seal it all up and they end up in storage," he explains. It's a rainy-day strategy: who knows when Gonzalez will need to hear some fresh vinyl, and who knows if he'll have the money to buy some when that day arrives?
Gonzalez, though, has become more worldly-wise as he's hit his mid-thirties. The initial fever of wanting to own everything that's good has given way to an acknowledgement that the source material is infinite and the purpose is to enjoy what's out there, including the records you can't get, rather than accumulate for the sake of accumulation. "I've got ten or fifteen friends who are hardcore collectors," he says. "Everybody always has different collections and you always get turned onto stuff. The period I love is from 1968 to 1976, 1977. That's my time period."
It's a period that is reflected on this compilation. "Azuli were expecting a house compilation, but I didn't want to do a house compilation," says Gonzalez. "Anybody can mix out of a house break, but I wanted to create a story and that's what this is. I take breaks, loop them up, introduce edits and just have fun. That's the thing that's missing in dance music production now -- people aren't having fun." It's easy to hear Gonzalez having two tonnes of fun on this compilation and disco -- perhaps the ultimate fun dance music -- lies at the root of his selections. "I've done quite a few compilations now and I wanted to focus on records you don't normally hear. I'm thirty-six this year, and I'm constantly trying to educate the younger crowd. I've tried to capture an era. I wanted to have the compilation sound a certain way -- for the mixing to sound the way it used to sound when I started DJing."
The expectation that Gonzalez would put together a mix of house and hip hop was natural enough. Why would the beats man choose anything that didn't have its head buried deep in the cavernous world of rhythm? The answer to that question lies in Gonzalez's labyrinthine record collection, which functions as an idealistic (if somewhat inert) musical community. Different sounds from different ages and continents nestle up, side by side, forming a tight-knit resource of sonic pleasure. Gonzalez says, quite reasonably, that his knowledge is "ridiculous" when it comes to music, and although it might be impossible for him to listen to all of his records, each time he is asked to put together a compilation he swivels his baseball cap around to burrowing position and digs out some gems -- gems to share or, to use one of his favourite words, "showcase".
Managing and sharing his collection, Gonzalez is part archivist, part librarian, part press officer. However many records he might go on to produce and remix, both by himself and alongside Vega, and however many records he might break on Dope Wax and Kay-Dee, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Gonzalez is in his element when he's sifting through his shelves and picking out tracks for a collection. "I'm sitting on fifty or sixty mix tapes that I made for myself to listen to," he says. "I could do these compilations forever."
On this one, we hear Gonzalez as he wants to be heard and as he would like us to hear. "I'm not just into hip hop or beats or house," he says. "I'm into music. Everybody gets caught up in this fucking categorizing shit, but at the end of the day you've got good shit and bad shit. You've got music you can feel and music you want to throw away." There are no vinyl "Frisbees" (Gonzalez's term) here. "I'm into going a step further than just the beat. I think there are a lot of people noticing what I'm about in the last two years. It's taken all this time."
The Gonzalez that followers are beginning to recognise has been there from the start. Nineteen-seventies Brooklyn was never just a colourful biographical detail that prefigures the real bit of his life. It's the neighbourhood setting and vibrant street culture that seeped into his bloodstream and left him rooted in disco and funk -- the very sounds that would blare out of car radios and home stereos as Gonzalez went to buy the milk, and that continued to echo around the neighbourhood as he dawdled by the local DJs on his way back home.