Kenny Dope Talks
Masters At Work have been producing bona fide dancefloor classics since the early 1990s. Landmark releases include "I Can't Get No Sleep", "The Bounce", "The Nervous Track", "It's All Right, I Feel It", covers "Runaway" and "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun" plus remixes for the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jamiroquai, Bjork and Nina Simone, to name just a few.
However, while we were used to their music penetrating the worldwide dancefloor consciousness regularly in their first 15 years, this Masters At Work partnership has been rather quiet of late.
As well as concentrating on his own Vega Records imprint and solo gigs, 'Little' Louie Vega has been regularly travelling the world to headline events alongside David Morales and Tony Humphries, the triumvirate collectively billed as the 3 Kings Of House. But as far as Masters At Work productions go, bar a retrospective House Masters collection issued by Defected records in 2014, the duo has fallen rather silent.
"We have a bunch of Masters At Work stuff to come out," reassures Kenny Dope, speaking over the phone from his New Jersey base, "but with all these other things we have going on and with all the travel, we don't have anything finished. There are only so many hours in the day. Nothing will come out until it's ready to come out. Hopefully we can find the time soon to finish some stuff and knock it out."
In the meantime, Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez has been avoiding the kind of star-studded DJing collaborations that Vega has been involved with. Sure, he still headlines large clubs and festivals, as befits a producer of his standing and DJ of his ability, so long in the game. But apart from some joint Masters At Work appearances, Gonzalez's DJ dates are solo affairs. Plus you're just as likely to find him getting busy behind the decks, over many hours, in a smaller club like Liverpool's Magnet as you are in a major complex or festival. The smaller spaces afford Gonzalez the opportunity to dig deeper into his beloved vinyl collection, which spans many genres of music.
Coming from a hip hop background, Kenny Dope has long been acknowledged as a crate digger, unearthing long forgotten gems from vinyl's past. He starting buying vinyl as a teenager and went on to work in a record store. Old soul, funk and other breakbeat samples found their way onto his earliest solo releases as a hip hop producer, later moving into Latin and disco samples, such as Chicago's "Streetplayer", the source for his biggest solo house music hit "The Bomb" (recorded under The Bucketheads alias).
Collected from all over the world, many of these rare and lost sounds have received a new lease of life thanks to Gonzalez reissuing them on his Dopewax and Kay-Dee records imprints, sometimes backed with re-edits or remixes from the man himself.
On Kay-Dee Records's solo and collaborative catalogue you can find a sample of the music that inspires Gonzalez, from vintage breakbeat soul and funk, dancefloor Latin gems, contemporary releases from the likes of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Lee Fields and DJ Spinna plus classic hip hop artists like Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions and CL Smooth.
Their latest release is the first in a new Kay-Dee book series. It's the soundtrack to what's regarded as hip hop's first big screen release, the 1983 movie Wild Style. The Kay-Dee package is a super deluxe box set containing the soundtrack across 7 x 7" vinyls, extensive liner notes in a 28-page book written by Brian Coleman which includes new photos provided by Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn.
"For years I've been unearthing rare funk and soul 45s," says Gonzalez. "I wanted to branch out and look for something that hadn't been done before. I had a couple of ideas for things and Charlie Ahearn was on my list so I reached out, he was into the idea and he was blown away by the book. We put each of the beats on a 45, re-edited them so people could play them."
For many people outside New York, this seminal film contained their first glimpses of hip hop's main disciplines – turntablism, MCing, B-boying and graffiti – and showcased some of hip hop's own pioneers, playing themselves in a South Bronx setting. Busy Bee Starski, Fab Five Freddy, Grand Wizzard Theodore, the Cold Crush Brothers and Grandmaster Flash all appeared in the film, and most contributed to the soundtrack, alongside Blondie guitarist Chris Stein. For the Kay-Dee release each track from it has been re-EQed and the versions re-edited / extended, having been modified from the original source tapes, which Gonzalez collected himself from Ahearn's basement.
"He had pretty much everything intact," says Gonzalez. "I went to his house and he had all the music from the film there, each track on tape. It was all in great shape. Sometimes I go and find these source materials and they've been kept in the basement for years. They've been subject to damp, they have mildew. But he had them kept perfectly. We just transfered the tracks to Pro Tools, so we could do the mixes and basically that was it. It wasn't a long process at all. The biggest thing was talking to Ahearn about the concept. He's a little older than me and when I first approached him he couldn't get why I wanted to do it on 45s and not on an LP. But when I explained about the book, and that I wanted to have all the pictures in there, and talk about the process of recording, he got it."
Kenny Dope sounds to be in extremely good form during our conversation. I've interviewed him several times before and while he's always polite, if he's tired, busy or pushed for time, his answers can be significantly shorter than those his gives here. But in this instance he sounds fresh, friendly and full of energy. It's pure speculation to wonder if this might be down to his current mood or if his health may have something to do with it, but in a relatively recent photograph posted on his instagram account, Gonzalez can be seen to look as fresh and full of vitality as he sounds today. He is significantly slimmer than he was a decade ago.
He is positive in his outlook to every question asked, particularly when discussing projects undertaken by Kay-Dee.
"I'm just interested in doing cool projects, releasing cool music. Cos we got a new generation out there who don't know and want to know. There are a few guys out there who have record collections like I do. If we want this thing to move forward, if we want this music to keep going, we've got to get it out there and teach the younger generation what counts."
Earlier in 2014 Kay-Dee were involved in another hip hop heritage reissue when they re-released Boogie Down Productions first LP "Criminal Minded", again as a box set of 7" singles.
Kenny Dope was only 15 when this benchmark hip hop release from rapper KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock hit the streets. This album became a blueprint for many future rap releases and acted as a marker for hip hop culture as a whole. Its lyrics were drenched in social realism, highlighting the economic and violent world of gang culture that exists beneath the surface of contemporary US cities. It dealt in feuds, it was one of the first to contain reggae rhythms and proved as a whole that rap could be a dynamic and consciousness-raising medium.
Knowing how much of an impact this album and the mastery of KRS-One and Scott La Rock it contained had on hip hop heads of Kenny Dope's generation, I ask him if he ever gets starstruck when dealing with some of the high profile names he encounters and collaborates with? Would the teenage Kenny Gonzalez have ever thought he would be releasing Boogie Down Productions on his own label?
"The thing that crosses my mind is that I think, wow, I never would have thought our paths would have crossed in the future," he says in earnest, although he has himself received more Grammy nominations than many of those he still idolises. "Last year I was in Dubai with Derrick May and it was the same with him. I remember his records coming in, selling a shitload of them and me getting them, when I worked in the store. Back then I never would've thought that I would be DJing with him, hanging out, having dinner with him. That goes for so many of the people I've worked with and it's because basically I'm still a fan at heart, a music lover. It feels good, you know. It lets you know that you've accomplished something, to be working with those you've admired."
And is there any contemporary hip hop he's listening to and enjoying at the moment?
"Actually, I really like the Your Old Droog album," he says, as though the admission would come come as a surprise. "A lot of people have been dissing him because he sounds a lot like Nas. But I just like the record. He can definitely rhyme. And even though it's got an older feel to it, to me it sounds fresh. It feels good."
Whether he uses the house music with which he's most commonly associated, the hip hop which is his longest love, the Latin that exists in his DNA or the soul and funk that seems to inspire him most at present, Kenny Dope delivers DJ sets that are consistently inspiring.
Check him out when he comes to The Magnet, Liverpool on Friday 30th January and for a sample of what you may or may not get, listen to the Kenny Dope mix most recently available on the net, a blistering collection of soul, funk and disco, crafted from a hip hop turntablist's perspective, which was produced for Benji B's radio show here in the UK.