Two decades before Daft Punk rolled back the technological years on ‘Random Access Memories’, another iconic house duo went back to their roots. Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and Little Louie Vega, aka Masters At Work, were the kings of New York house music in the mid-1990s, a time when the city’s house scene was arguably at its peak. And Nuyorican Soul — both project and album name — was the jewel in their crown, an uber-lush vision of dance music that reeked of expensively cut clothing and vibrated with life, recorded, much like ‘Random Access Memories,’ with an elite team of studio musicians and majestic special guests. Disco is at the heart of both albums, its steady four-four pulse the glue that binds them together. But whereas Daft Punk joined disco with soft rock, ’80s pop, and just a hint of prog, Masters At Work added salsa spice, jazz swing, and soul glow to the disco blueprint, producing a percussive tribute to their hometown.
Nuyorican Soul debuted as a project in 1993 with ‘The Nervous Track,’ a masterpiece of Latin house music that combined eerie chords with jazzy breakbeats, congas, and brass stabs. The track was apparently inspired by watching jazz dancers at the UK soul institution The Southport Weekender, with Gonzalez — possibly the best drum programmer in house music — coming up with the beat in his head there and then. Speaking to Laurent Fintoni for his book Bedroom Beats & B Sides, Vega said that when Gonzalez presented the beat to him, he immediately knew it was something very different.
‘‘Dude, we can’t put that on that remix,’’ he told his partner of the Ultra Naté remix they were working on at the time. ‘‘It’s a different thing, man. It’s a whole new thing.’’
Sure enough, ‘The Nervous Track’ was unlike anything else in house music. House had long borrowed from Latin and jazz, but this was typically limited to adroit sampling or the odd keyboard pattern. ‘The Nervous Track’ sounded utterly alive, the perfect midpoint between the electronic groove of house and Latin music’s live swing. It has been called the first broken-beat song — predating the West London sound of syncopated beats and jazz-funk chords by a good half decade— and named as an influence on the nascent drum & bass scene, with Roni Size and Goldie among the song’s admirers.
MAW followed ‘The Nervous Track’ in 1996 with ‘Mind Fluid,’ the second Nuyorican Soul release. It continued in the Latin / jazz / house footsteps of its predecessor, but with added melancholy, thanks to Vega’s classically-minded synth lines. By that time, the recording of the group’s debut — and, in fact, only — album was in full swing, although neither single appears on the original version of ‘Nuyorican Soul,’ which was released at the start of 1997. (Both tracks do appear on the 2006 ‘Nuyorican Soul’ reissue, which is the essential version of the album.)