Think about any crucial moment within the last three decades of US-based Latin dance music. Chances are Louie Vega was in some way involved. This guy’s CV runs so deep it would take us a whole other long-ass post to really do his career any justice. Thing is, like some sort of Latin Forrest Gump, either directly or indirectly, “Little” Louie Vega was there, leaving his indelible mark on the scene since he was literally little.
The nephew of El Cantante De Los Cantantes—Mr. Héctor Lavoe himself—Vega grew up in a family of musicians, hanging out backstage at the primordial Fania shows of New York salsa’s golden age. He’d soon grow up to become a musician himself, first in the then-burgeoning New York freestyle scene (he’s responsible for putting Marc Anthony on the map, before he became a salsa singer), later pioneering Latin house and producing a stream of ‘90s dance floor anthems under his own name or his Masters At Work moniker (where he shared production credits with Kenny “Dope” González with whom he also produced the seminal Nuyorican Soul).
Now the legendary Fania Records is experiencing a rebirth and, once again, Louie Vega is right at the epicenter of it. Under new management since 2006, the label that basically coined the term “salsa” as a musical genre, has been reissuing its classic albums and multiple remixes of its biggest hits. In 2013, the label decided it was time to start releasing new music and for its first original album in decades it went to Louie Vega and his side project live band, Elements Of Life.
On Friday, May 24th, Louie Vega and Elements of Life will be headlining Armada, an event series (from May 22nd to 25th) by Fania Records in Brooklyn, NY. For that little kid who used to hang out backstage at Héctor Lavoe’s shows in the ‘70s, this means full circle. So we got Louie Vega to sit down in front of his record collection, pull out his all-time favorite Fania albums, and tell us why they’re indispensable. Read below for some stories straight from the caballote’s mouth.
EDDIE PALMIERE AND HARLEM RIVER DRIVE—RECORDED LIVE AT SING SING (1972)
Eddie Palmieri broke a lot of barriers with all his recordings. He did things that nobody did in music. He brought in the Afro-Cuban with jazz, funk, soul, spoken word, rapping. He did all this stuff way back then. And to go and record live at a prison…that’s very rare. Who else did that? Johnny Cash?
Eddie Palmieri was at his prime. He had his brother Charlie Palmieri, vocalist Ismael Quintana, and a lot of great musicians. I have a special story with Eddie because back in the ‘90s I co-produced with him La India, that was one of my first salsa productions. Also in 1991 I had a record with Marc Anthony where Eddie Palmieri played and Tito Puente, too.
WILLIE COLON—EL JUICIO (1972)
It has a lot of great songs, it’s a great record. One of my favorite Willie Colón/Héctor Lavoe records. “Piraña,” “Timbalero,” “Aguanile,” you know… all of them big hits and to this day, you can still play these songs and people go crazy. For me, Willie Colón is the greatest producer Latin music ever had. If you look at his repertoire and what he produced for Fania Records, it’s really an incredible body of music. Just the way he put his ideas together, his arrangements, his songs, everything, he was untouchable. And what he and my uncle had was so special; they were so young when they started. They created amazing music.
This is great dance music; you can play it [at] any party. “Aguanile” has always been a favorite of mine. That was a big inspiration for things I did later in dance music. He’s always been a big part of my life, as a producer, as a music maker. I still play “Aguanile” in my sets. My sets aren’t only house music; I go into all different genres. My mom, Hector’s sister, always told me that her favorite song was “Piraña,” which is on this album.
WILLIE COLON AND RUBEN BLADES—SIEMBRA (1978)
That’s the album [that] “Pedro Navaja” is on. I think it was the number one Fania seller of all time. Besides having so many hits and incredible writing from Rubén Blades, it really showed another side of Willie Colón as well. “Pedro Navaja,” to me, is one of the greatest salsa records of all time. [No one] has done any proper remix of that song yet. That should be on the to-do list for the future. The thing with Fania now is that I can go in[to] their catalog and experiment with it. I would definitely do that.
RAY BARRETO—ACID (1968)
Hard Hands? Or Acid? It should be Acid. That’s a must have. The guys from Fania were so creative. They made, of course, their salsa street jams, they also did Latin jazz, soul, boogaloo. They were really versatile and Ray Barreto always did these records that crossed over. This is a record that DJs play, that I play in the rare groove kind of market.
I love Ray Barreto and I got to meet him many years ago. I was taking piano lessons in the early ’90s. I studied classical since I was a little kid and then when I was older I went back to play piano. One of my piano teachers was Oscar Hernández, the leader of Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and the other one was Ricky González. Two amazing piano players. When I was taking my lesson with Ricky González at his place somebody knocked at the door and it was Ray Barreto and I was like “Wow.” I couldn’t believe it was him. His presence was so powerful and I was in awe. As a child I went to Madison Square Garden and all [these] places, my mother would always take me to see my uncle. And backstage you’d see all these guys together. It was amazing I got to see him closer, you know? I met him. It was a wonderful feeling. So I have a really nice memory of him.
FANIA ALL-STARS—LIVE AT THE CHEETAH CLUB (1971)
One of the greatest live recordings of all time. There were so many wonderful moments captured on that album, and they made that movie, Our Latin Thing, [because] of it. Just the way it was done spontaneously. Of course they had arrangements and ideas but when they went live, whatever happened there was captured in those moments and you can hear it [in] the music. The crowd was so excited! It was very powerful.
I still play it today. I only have to add more bass with the EQ because of the way records were made in those years, so I kinda tweak it, and it sounds amazing. It’s the realness. You can feel they’re playing from the heart. It’s a very DJ-friendly album, it has a great beginning, a great ending, you can mix it in smoothly and it has some great transitions. So many great minds involved. It had a powerhouse of singers: Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Quintana, all those guys together. Such a beautiful ensemble!