He may be known as the quiet half of the prolific dance music producer / DJ team Masters At Work, but the creative, successful and inspiring music talent that is Kenny “Dope' Gonzalez shows no signs of slowing down now that he has been selected as your CHOICE for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. Just a couple years shy of the official twenty-year anniversary of a career that has rocked the world from its first note, you propelled this amazing artist to victory by a hair over Chicago 's Steve “Silk” Hurley. For these 5-Answers we excerpt the highlights from a longer chat we had during a recent photo shoot. With several hot remixes and funk reissues on his own imprints (KAY DEE RECORDS & DOPE WAX), we find out how mentor Todd Terry contributed to his delinquency as a minor, what he feels about being on tour with vinyl and where in the world he likes to play best…
1. When did your love affair with music start and what were your first influences?
Kenny Dope Gonzalez: (Thinking) Umm…1978, ‘79. [I was] nine and was just listening to the radio basically. [Plus], there was a crew on the corner that had a set where I grew up at 45 th and Sixth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They played soul music, breaks and disco. I saw them everyday as I went back and forth to get milk and stuff. That was my first experience seeing a set and I said I want to do that some day. The older guys didn't want to let a young kid on the set. It wasn't that simple. But, eventually I got one turntable and started practicing on it. It was a natural progression. When I was thirteen or fourteen, that was when I really started. It felt good to actually touch the wax. Little by little I was playing with my pop's system and then in junior high school, one of the kids had a set up in his grandmother's basement. So that was the beginning of me cutting stuff up – or trying to from watching the big kids, you know what I mean? Later on, I worked at WNR Music Center. That's where it all began for me; that's where I learned about different genres of music. It's also where I learned how to buy, sell and order music.
2. How did you learn to produce music and what role did Todd Terry play in your development?
KD: I would say I met Todd around 1985 because it was crazy then. I had already started at the shop and was doing parties by then. Todd was already making records. He came to our neighborhood for the parties and everything just flew. At that time, I was going to high school but I really wasn't, so to speak. I was supposed to be in school but I wasn't going because the school I was supposed to go to – New Utrecht in Bensonhurst, was on the way to Todd's house. I would go to Todd's house and watch him make records. At that time, he was trying to get his stuff going so I was just watching. That's basically how it went down. I still use things to this day that I learned from just watching him.
3. When did you and Louie Vega first connect?
KD: Ninety, he was doing Roseland at the time. I already had a couple of records out and Louie wanted to remix one of my songs. That's how we met. He had a deal with ATLANTIC [RECORDS] and was working on Marc Anthony then and though he wanted to do the remix, at the same time and in the same breath he was like, “Come to the studio.” So I went to the studio – it was Battery Studio – and I just saw this big board and it was like okay, ‘What are we doing here?' He was like, “Just make beats.” That was all he wanted me to do and that was all I did. Basically, he played a song and I did a drum track to it. He didn't like his beats. He wanted something edgier, something harder. I just had a bag of records, took samples and did what I felt.
4. Where does your creativity come from?
KD: Well, I was the one who always wanted to push the envelope and try something different because I really believe you are only as good as your last record. You always need to out-do yourself, so that's what we did. A lot of other producers use the same sound on ten records, [but with us] every record always has a different drum pattern or different bass sounds. From that, it then became, ‘what are we going to do now?' Well, we are going to incorporate live musicians. So we hired a bass player, a guitar-player, then we started doing horns. After we did all the instruments we felt, then it was time to tap into different genres like African, Latin or whatever.
A lot of [creativity] happens after I come off a tour or I come back from playing somewhere. It's hard to really describe. It's just a feeling you get, a vibe. It's crazy. I recently played at APT where I played only 45's. [APT] was small, uncomfortable and the sound system was not the best but the next day, I wanted to go into the studio with a band and just create some of the music I was playing. When I came back from Moscow after seeing a bunch of Russians dancing to “Alright,” it was awkward to me because they didn't know that record when we knew it. That sparked me to thinking I wanted to make a record like that, but add new flavor to it.
5. You travel around the world to play and a lot of people romanticize the lifestyle, tell us what it's really like. Are you still carrying vinyl?
KD: Yeah, it's so nice to travel…[he says sarcastically]. No, it's not as luxurious as everyone thinks it is. Going to all these countries for like twelve hours at a time. I just came off a tour and it was a rough one; we haven't done a tour like that for a couple of years. It was two little flights a day with three and four-hour layovers. Then I had to work at night, smile and be in good spirits… you have to perform and be able to be in a good vibe. It was hard because every little club has its sound check and then I basically only slept for one or two hours a day for a whole week! Going from New Castle to Estonia, to Birmingham wherever – they were good parties, though.
I play off CDs now. I don't carry records anymore. Mainly I have two books; one is all house music, the other is rare grooves, soul and disco. That's the way I break it up. I stopped playing records because they can go missing or get stolen. When I go on a tour, my records are my identity and it's bad to play with someone else's records. A lot of time they would be like, “You gotta play.” I would be like, no, get my records here or I am not playing the gig. That happened quite a few times. It just came to a point where I had to move to CDs. Everybody is kind of like, “Oh he's playing CDs or he's endorsing CDs” – especially in Europe, they really want to see the vinyl. But I'm not losing my stuff so I'm just not bringing it. If I am doing Philly, Chicago or L.A. or somewhere local, then maybe I'll bring my records. When I play 45's, I bring the records but they're heavy. CDs I can carry on the plane with me.
Bonus! Do you have any favorite places to play around the world?
KD: It's hard because there have been so many, but there is one – Scotland. When I say Scotland, people are like huh? They think of kilts and stuff but it's very soulful. That area in Edinburgh is blacker than half the people I know soul-wise. Craig Smith is really good and he has done an incredible job over the years of educating that crowd. You can go there and play anything. Literally anything. You can play a jazz record and they will figure out a way to dance to it if they've never heard it before. They are so into what you bring to them, that I can play across the board – rock stuff even. Break it up and be like, I gave you this, now I'm going to go over here. Pow!