Winter Music Diary: Masters At Work Offer A Stew Of Styles

Third day features production duo of Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez and 'Little' Louie Vega along with James Ingram, Wunmi.

MIAMI — The third day of the 16th Annual Winter Music Conference, like all the days before it, offered dozens of events showcasing the latest in dance music's many subgenres, including hip-hop and house. But the menu at Masters at Work's Sunset Ritual event offered all that and more, with fare including classic soul, live R&B and even world music.

Masters at Work — the production duo of Brooklyn's Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and Bronx-bred "Little" Louie Vega, nephew of Latin music icon and Fania All-Stars founding member Hector LaVoe — met through Todd Terry, a hip-hop and house music DJ and producer who started the original Masters at Work team with Gonzalez. Since the mid-'90s, Vega and Gonzalez have combined their influences to become one of the most important house production teams, their name a badge signifying the highest quality dance music available.

Sunset Ritual revealed the breadth of the Masters at Work team, which grows with each year. Collaborating with DJs, dancers, musicians, vocalists and other producers, Masters at Work are the first house producers to create a musical and cultural concept, which they reinforce with each new production.

The event kicked off at noon on Monday at the open-air Opium Garden club, the site of several of the conference's biggest and best events. Gonzalez opened with a set of late-'80s house classics the industry-only crowd (admission to Sunset Ritual was by invitation only, or a steep $25 cover; WMC badges were not admitted) lapped up. Tony Touch, or as he's fondly known, Tony Toca, came on next with an old-school hip-hop set full of scratching and quick cuts. He then moved into a dancehall reggae set before ending with breaks, such as Pal Joey's "Hot Music," that transitioned smoothly into Vega's full-on house set.

Vega is a major force in house music, as both a producer and DJ. Often one of the first DJs to get unreleased music, Vega can often guarantee success for producers by spinning their tracks. His Dance Ritual party in New York City and Masters at Work yearly extravaganzas in Central Park have only added to his import and visibility. As a producer, Vega is responsible for some of house music's best work. In 1996, he engineered the Nuyorican Soul Orchestra project, a meeting ground of old- and new-school that included Roy Ayers, George Benson, singer La India and DJ Jazzy Jeff in a modern reinterpretation of some of Latin music's greatest ensembles, such as the SalSoul Orchestra.

The Masters at Work label, and Vega's productions in particular, tear up dance floors across the world. Last year, Masters at Work released "Elements of Life," "Life Goes On" featuring singer Arnold Jarvis, and Japanese singer Monday Michiru's "Sunshine After the Rain," all essential singles in any self-respecting house DJ's crate.

Vega's set started at about 4 p.m. and moved quickly into banging, peak-hour tracks that were a little harder than what he's known to play. Starting off with a few jazzy tracks, Vega headed into an assault of instrumental tracks built from Latin and African polyrhythms. The dance floor filled up to near capacity by the time the sun set, cloaking the Opium Garden in darkness save for a few well-placed rice paper lanterns and torches that reflected the club's Eastern theme.

At 9 p.m., the live performances began. Singer Julie McKnight, the vocalist on last year's club hit "Finally" (originally recorded by Kings of Tomorrow and recently remixed by Masters at Work), took the stage first. The crowd sang along, the tune's massive popularity making it as memorable to clubgoers as teen pop is to top-40 radio listeners.

Vibraphonist/vocalist Roy Ayers came up next, treating the crowd to his hits "Searching" and "Love Will Bring Us Back Together."

The night's MC, Nigerian singer/dancer Wunmi (whose track "Ekabo" was also a hit for Masters at Work), hyped the crowd with her apocalyptic Grace Jones-meets-Tank Girl outfits, eclectic vocal technique and athletic dancing.

The performance peaked when James Ingram sang his latest track, the Masters at Work-produced "Lean on Me." Those who knew the tune, already a huge hit at such underground clubs as New York City's Shelter, sang along, while those who didn't stood in awe of Ingram's flawless performance. The live portion of the night closed with an unrehearsed interchange between all of the night's performers: Wunmi's dancing, Ingram's scatting and Ayers' '60s-reminiscent pleas for universal peace, love and understanding.