Stephen Titmus spends some time with a DJ who's a master of his craft.
During the past three decades, Vega has developed a singular approach to playing records. Before each set he employs a sound technician to essentially construct a new DJ booth from scratch, complete with high-end audio equipment and four CDJs. He'll often play three or four remixes of the same record in one set, layering them with acapellas and effects to create something close to a live remix. This style stems from Vega's experiences in the golden era of New York clubbing. He was schooled at legendary venues like Zanzibar, Better Days and Paradise Garage, first attending that legendary spot as a 14-year-old accompanied by his older sisters. Those clubs left a powerful mark on Vega and still inspire him today.
I was struck by Vega's extraordinary willingness to go the extra mile as a DJ. He once paid $1,800 of his own money to fly crates of vinyl to a friend's birthday party so he could play all night. Despite his hectic tour schedule, he still keeps a midweek DJ residency at Cielo in New York. Overall though, I got the sense that Vega was still totally in love with music. "It's just a thriving time for dance music," he said. His enthusiasm makes it hard to argue otherwise.
Talk me through your current DJ set-up.
I use four CDJs and the MODEL 1 mixer. Using the MODEL 1 mixer was a big change for me because I'm a rotary guy. It was the first time I really used a fader mixer at multiple gigs. I was invited by Richie Hawtin and Ben Turner to come check out this mixer in Ibiza a few years ago. It had the sound that I look for. I loved all the filters and, you know, just getting in between those frequencies. It was just a different way of DJing for me. So they signed me up as an ambassador. I was like, "Wow, I'm going to get all my rotary purists upset now."
My other setup that I use, I play on four CDJs but I use an ARS 6700 mixer. It's the best rotary mixer I've ever heard in my life. We used the UREI for a very long time, this is comparable to all those old school mixers that sounded great.
I also use a 3500 ARS isolator, with a volume control so I have gain on the isolator which allows me not to have so much gain on the mixer. Or I use a Dope Real isolator. These are custom-made isolators, they're not like the ones they give to everybody. I know the engineers and they are geniuses and they make things tailored to the way I want them.
And sometimes I use the Pioneer RMX as well. So I don't use a lot of gadgets. But what I have I use very well, and I use it to the max.
What's the advantage of using a rotary mixer over a fader mixer? Is it personal preference or are there different things you can achieve?
It definitely is preference. It's what you like and what you feel comfortable with. I happen to feel comfortable with both of these mixers. When you're playing on a rotary mixer and you're turning two knobs, there's definitely a different sense within the flow, and the transition is very smooth. You can also do fast cuts if you know how to turn those two knobs at the same time. But with the Model 1 I'm actually turning filters at the same time that I'm pushing faders. So it gives a whole different feeling to it.
Why use an isolator? You have the EQ effects in the mixer, why do you need that additional step?
By using the extra piece, the 3500, I can really use it as an instrument. To talk to you with the songs. Give a lot of dynamics to a song. I can definitely make a song sound totally different. You are able to isolate the entire frequency which is very cool. You could almost make it sound like you have an acapella live right when you're playing.
When I'm mixing a record I may turn back the mid-range a little bit on the isolator, which will make it sound a little warmer, and give a window, a space for this next record to come in and feel smoother. Sometimes I can take out all of the mid-range and highs of a song. You feel the bassline of the first song, and I have the bassline off of the second song, but the mid-range and highs on for that second song. It gives a whole different effect, and musically it sounds great if you are in the area of the keys where they're close to each other—it really sounds wonderful.
So we're talking about precise manipulations of frequencies. How long did it take you to learn that?
It's a feeling thing more than a technical thing. I can't explain exactly how much you need to do it, but I know by listening to it. I record every single set that I've done for the past 25 or more years. Sometimes I listen to them when I'm on the road and it becomes like the background of my hotel music or whatever.
You're listening back to see how things went?
I think you need to listen to yourself. You can't expect everything to be right. Whatever the crowd is listening to, they're listening on a huge soundsystem. When I'm listening to the recording I'm listening to every little thing. I'm just that type, I'm a professional. When I'm mixing I really like for it to sound clean and great.
I don't like it when I hear that next record and all of a sudden that kick is kind of weaker than the song before. I'll know that that record should have been a little higher in dB when I'm mixing it in. Then I'll definitely remember that. If that next record is weak, and I feel it, I'll use the isolator to beef it up as it's coming in and then it's just as strong. I'm using three or four different things at the same time that people do not notice at all. I'm tweaking things as they're coming in so it's not just like I'm mixing two records.
There's peaks and valleys that a song takes. When a song breaks down it helps if you're getting too loud. I'll wait till it gets to a point where it makes sense to bring it down. I'm not just going to go lower—you're going to feel the system go like that. I don't want to have a dip like that. I'll do it gradually. Little by little, or I wait till a drop or something, that's where people won't really recognize a big dip.
You favour the one-ear headphone. Why is that?
I like to have that left ear open. I like to hear what's going on. So it gives me that freedom. Plus I wear a hat.
The answer was in front of us the whole time. You were on CDJs almost before anyone I can think of.
I was on it pretty early, man. It's funny, in the beginning everybody was always like, "I'm not changing from vinyl to CDs." Then they changed from vinyl to CDs. We were traveling around the world with four crates of records and then we were traveling around the world with a bunch of books of CDs, and now we're traveling around the world with small hard drives.
Tell me about the way you use CDJs.
I have four CDJs. I know people are always saying, "Why does he have so many CDJs?" I really like to have access to a lot of different types of music and DJ tools. Not everything is planned. I won't have a certain acapella looped all the time. You know what I mean? In the Pioneers you can store loops...
Like rekordbox functionality.
I won't really store things and have them planned. I like it to be of the moment. I'm not using the hot cues a lot. I want to keep my mind moving and creative. In the far right I may have a playlist of effects and acapellas and tools. Then the other three are for mixing. I listen to the arrangement. The way I play music, I may not bring it in from that 16-bar beat at the top. I might bring it in from the middle of the song, or the end, or the vamp. It just gives it a different feeling, when you're mixing the vamp of a song into another song. For me, I'm a musical person. In my head I'm hearing chords, I'm hearing melodies. I'm hearing things that might match and feel good. The way I play is spontaneous, I don't put a group of 40 songs and that's what I play. No, it's it's a two-terabyte little hard drive, the Samsung, which I use. It's light, small and fast and it holds a lot of music.
I may have a vocal on. I may mix a beat with samples on it. I may have an acapella at the same time. I might even loop that acapella while the two records are playing. As these two records are playing, it transitions onto the beat. When it transitions onto the beat and that vocal comes off, that next vocal will come on. That may happen right away on that third CDJ. You know what I mean?
Do you use the sync functionality at all on the CDJs?
No, I don't.
Why not? Because you're doing so much up there, it would seem reasonable that you might.
It's to each his own and I just choose to mix the records myself, you know, I want to have a little bit of that, let's say, authenticity. Not everything is going to be super perfect, and also there are certain things that you can do live that's going to have a different feel.
I want to be in that moment. I want that challenge. I want to be able to mix those two records and get that third record happening. And the transition will come out a lot different as to if I was syncing it.
When you and Kenny play you've got maybe eight CDJs and two mixers. How are you two communicating? How do you stop yourselves from clashing?
When Kenny and I are playing, it's like a sign language. It's almost like in the eyes, the way we look at each other, the nods, the hand signals. We have certain ways of speaking to each other that we understand. There's certain things that you don't do. If he's playing a vocal and a beat, I'm not going to play another vocal on top of it obviously. I'm going to complement what he's doing.
Do you miss anything about vinyl?
I still do vinyl parties. I do them a few times a year in New York and I love it because it's a big project. I bring in special technicians for it. I have Moses Montoya, my tech who comes up and sets this things up early. Moses has mastered the art of building me a DJ booth. He can take an empty space and in a few hours it becomes this incredible DJ booth with my rider all around it and looking really cool. He does every single one of my events.
Then you have Takaya Nagase, who comes in and brings all the sandbags and little gadgets that go underneath the turntables, these soft little cushions, and also the needle cleaners. Everything he's got is amazing. Takaya happens to be one of the guys, I call them the David Mancuso disciples, because they took on his spirit and his parties, and they do a party called Joy. I went to Joy and I saw Douglas Sherman and Takaya and the rest of the guys. I was blown away. I said, "Man, there's no feedback in this place no matter what you play—album versions, everything, they sound great." I got hooked. I started going—in the past six months I have been three or four times. I brought them vinyl, we started talking, and I asked Takaya who did all this stuff at Joy. And he goes, "Well I do, I'm a carpenter too." So I said, "I'm doing a vinyl gig, I would love for you to come and do my set-up with Moses." And he came and did it and that was it. Any vinyl things that I do, I say Takaya, Moses, let's go. If you're really going to do a long night, I have to have four, five cases of vinyl to do something like that. Because I dig deep and I go in different areas and I like to really take that journey. I'm going to play the whole night so I need to have choices.
If you ever go to a Vega Records release, you'll see ten Louie Vega remixes. I think that was the actual number for "I Choose You." Why so many mixes?
I'm treating it like when I'm mixing. I want to give you the DJ tools. I want to give you different versions to play around with. I want you to get creative the way I do. I'm trying to give you tools to have fun. Some DJs just play the main versions of the songs and that's it. Some people just put out a main version and an instrumental. I like to give you those tools. For those kids that are inspired by what I do, you can do it too. I'm feeding you the tools to do it with.
How much does your DJing inform your production? Are you testing tracks there and looking for a reaction in the crowd?
I'll tell you, Wednesday night at Roots. This is a small party, 300 people. I get so inspired. I made so many records because of that Wednesday night, because I will do something in the studio, I'll go in, I'll test it out, play it, I see if it's really lifting everybody—and boom, I know I'm going on the right track.
What's the biggest reaction you ever had for a new record?
We've been lucky that we—Kenny Dope and I—made a lot of great records that people really enjoyed. I mean, anywhere from when I did "The Nervous Track" a long time ago, when I first tested it at the Sound Factory Bar. Or George Benson's '"You Can Do It." I've had Italian crowds of three to four thousand plus singing the song like a concert. So we've had a lot of great moments with music. We've been lucky that our music touched people in that way.
I was in Johannesburg and I had just finished a song with Funkadelic and George Clinton which was on my last album, Louie Vega Starring… XXVIII, the one that was nominated for a Grammy. I'll never forget it when I played it there, it was wonderful. When it got to that second hook, something told me to just like slap it off on the isolator and leave the high end. I just slapped it off and the whole crowd sang along. That experience was mind blowing. Chills. The whole crowd had learned it.
I want to talk about when you started, back in the '80s. What kind of equipment were you playing on back then?
Man, The Devil's Nest, that was the first club I played at professionally. It was in 1985 and I was playing on two turntables and a Bozak mixer. That's where it started. And then from there when I went to Heartthrob in New York City, which was the old Funhouse in '86. I always played on a UREI.
Who were the DJs that were influencing you back then in the mid-'80s?
Larry Levan, Tony Humphries. David DePino and Joey Llanos, who used to play on Fridays at Paradise Garage. David Morales playing in Inferno. Kenny Carpenter. Jellybean Benitez at the Funhouse. Bruce Forest at Better Days. You know, these guys were amazing. I learned a lot from these guys.
Bruce Forest had a really unique way of playing. He was almost like a hip-hop DJ on dance music. He played with incredible energy. He was one of the first to develop a homemade sampler—he used to sample records on the spot. And then he had keyboard players like David Cole come in and jam out. And then later on, Morales played there as well. Bruce was very innovative. He was this white young guy playing in an all black gay crowd. And you know, the thing is that in those days if you wanted to go hear the best DJs, most of them were playing in the gay clubs. I'm a straight kid from The Bronx, but my sisters went there and they were like, "Louie, you need to hear these DJs." I was just blown away by the whole energy in the room and the music and the mixing and records I've never heard before. And the same thing with Paradise Garage when I heard Larry Levan. I went first in 1980, I was a little kid, 14, my sisters took me out there.
14 at Paradise Garage?
I have unforgettable memories from Paradise Garage with a lot of that music, when Larry was making all the Gwen Guthrie stuff, Grace Jones, Man Friday, The Peech Boys—when he was working on all those records. I heard all that at the Garage. With Tony Humphries it was different because we lived in New York City so you had to take a trip, you needed a car to go all the way out to Jersey.
It was Newark, right?
In Newark, New Jersey—you had to take that trip out all the way and go here for Humphries [at Zanzibar] but you would be there until like eight, nine in the morning easy. All these places that I went to had great soundsystems. Most of them, the Paradise Garage and Zanzibar, were made by Richard Long. Imagine having the best soundsystems with an incredible DJ and people just having a beautiful time dancing and just rejoicing that whole night. It was something that inspired me to do what I do today.
Do you think the soundsystems of today can compare to the Garage?
No. But there's some things that come up, they have that same spirit. Yellow, where I used to play, sounds really nice. You have clubs like Nowadays, you have Analog BKNY. Those clubs are smaller than Paradise Garage. They sound wonderful and comparable on a smaller scale.
Are there particular DJ techniques that you learned from that era?
The acapella thing. Using sound effects to build atmosphere, let's say in a dark club with the lighting. Lighting is very important in clubs. And that's one thing that nobody takes really as seriously around the world. They definitely don't. I mean, I've been lucky enough to have Ariel Figueroa.
The man behind Body & Soul's lighting?
Even before that. He was at Sound Factory Bar when I was there in '91, '92, he was at Twilo. Even before that with David DePino at Tracks. Ariel's been around a really long time and he understands the music, he has a great sense, I mean he's like a cat. He'll know exactly when to hit that moment, you know, he's like a DJ on lights.
So what's he doing that other light engineers wouldn't do? What is he bringing to the table that no one else can do?
He brings life to the music. He's speaking to you with the songs, when the songs are singing their melodies, he's doing things with the lights and bringing out those melodies almost within the lights. It's not just really a switch on and off, it's a lot of things going on. He's speaking to you with the lights.
Is it possible for you to rock a party on a bad soundsystem?
Well that's why I bring the isolator so at least I can tweak it. At least I can tweak a little bit and I'll make it sound better than it did before. You do your best to make it sound good.