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Soul Men, 'Nuyorican' Style

Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzales have produced a heady new brew comprising old-school R&B, salsa, disco, jazz, house and hip-hop. Their savory concoction reflects the effervescent sounds of the New York neighborhoods where they grew up.

July 27, 1997|Lorraine Ali | Lorraine Ali writes about pop music for Calendar

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Outside deejay and producer Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez's apartment house, kids hang out on front stoops listening to hip-hop. Distorted salsa blares from passing cars and vintage R&B wafts through open apartment windows.

The old residential area of Sunset Park is filled with the noises, styles and sensations that Gonzalez and his partner, "Little" Louie Vega, used to create "Nuyorican Soul," a genre-busting album that fuses old-school R&B, salsa, jazz, disco, hip-hop, house and dance-club styles, executed by an all-star roster of guest musicians ranging from jazz guitarist George Benson to hip-hop turntable whiz Jazzy Jeff, salsa great Tito Puente and dance divas India and Jocelyn Brown.

The collection has broken through the barriers that usually separate pop music these days.

Released this spring on the jazz label Giant Step Records, the album and the single "Runaway" have appeared on Billboard magazine's dance singles, club play, R&B and jazz charts, as well as the pop Heatseekers chart, which tracks hot prospects.

The album has also attracted rave reviews. Vibe magazine's notice concluded: "All this diverse talent and music manages to come together into one beautiful whole. Who do these guys think they are--Quincy Jones?" Dance-oriented Orb magazine calls the collection a "magical, multicultural mystery tour."

The term "Nuyorican" has been used since at least the early '70s as a way to describe with pride New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, but Gonzalez and Vega coined "Nuyorican Soul" as an easy and accurate way to describe their musical styling.

Instead of mixing styles for art's sake or PC points, Vega and Gonzalez reflect in the album a love and understanding for all their influences. They make a potentially confusing hybrid comfortable and easy, opening it up to listeners that grew up far from the Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, the first fans to respond were New Yorkers. The album is an accurate documentation of New York and its blend of cultures and eras. Initially, "Nuyorican Soul" sold three times as fast in New York as it did the rest of the country (sales are approaching 55,000 nationally), thanks in part to heavy support in local clubs and exposure on Top 40 urban radio stations such as the city's WBLS-FM. Around the city, it's talked about in offices and at parties almost with a sense of civic pride.

" 'Nuyorican Soul' has a lot to do with our lives, growing up in New York, listening to all different styles of music, hanging out with all different kinds of people," says Vega, 32, a Bronx native who, like 27-year-old Gonzalez, is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in a neighborhood where Latin and African American cultures collided.

"The good thing about 'Nuyorican Soul' is we get a little bit of everybody liking it," continues Vega, sitting on a black couch in the living room of Gonzalez's cramped apartment and recording studio. "People from the jazz scene, people from the Latin scene, people from the dance scene, and fans of these artists themselves.

"We also wanted to show people the fundamentals of dance music. You have jazz, you have funk, Latin, soul hip in the dance genre. It was great, 'cause we got a chance to work with a lot of our influences. People we loved over the years, and been collecting their records. It was like a dream come true for us."

In putting "Nuyorican Soul" together, Gonzalez and Vega chose artists that had shown a similar love of experimentation.

"All these artists on the album have tried many different things in their careers," says Vega. "George Benson conquered many different genres, from pop ballads to R&B to jazz. Then you have India, who does salsa, dance music. That's who we wanted, people who were very open-minded about blending styles of music. People who could give."

The album features everything from Benson playing guitar and scatting on the polished "Can You Do It" to a beat-heavy yet smooth version of Bob James' "Nautilus." Though "Nuyorican Soul" does jump from genre to genre, it does so with consistency, grace and a cool, club-culture attitude. It also comfortably combines the world of spontaneous jamming and scatting with the calculated world of studio technology.

"Louie and Kenny are the type of young visionaries that keep music vital and exciting," says Benson. "They mix a knowledge and respect of the past with new and creative ways of thinking. They have succeeded with completely unique ways of recording, and I truly admire their artistry and passion."


Gonzalez's two-story townhouse sits in the colorful Southwest Brooklyn neighborhood that he grew up in, situated almost under the elevated tracks of the B-train, a 20-minute ride from downtown Manhattan. The neighborhood is a mishmash of old row apartments, corner bodegas, semi-dilapidated storefronts and tiny Spanish cafes.

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