House Rules

THE SHEER INDUSTRIOUSNESS of house music's practitioners is daunting at best: Countless 12-inch singles under numerous monikers; underground-credible (and neatly profitable) remixes of mainstream pop records; and finally, the "major" album every two years or so, credited to one's "main" pseudonym. All this activity can inspire skepticism--how hard is it, really, to program a few beats and loop some samples on top of them? That's one reason so many house lovers put their trust in the New York production team "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, a.k.a. Masters at Work: They seldom, if ever, take the easy way out.

Not that the duo always carry off their larger-scale projects. It's always admirable to respect your roots, but only about half of 1997's celebrated conversing-with-the-elders album Nuyorican Soul flew as high as its aspirations, and further collaborations with lite-jazzers like George Benson and Kenny Lattimore can find Vega and Gonzalez favoring opulence over content. Although a certain ponderousness infects their recent, more self-consciously "musical" output, it doesn't totally cripple either The Tenth Anniversary Collection Part One, 1990-1995 or Part Two, 1996-2000, a pair of recently released quadruple-CD boxed-set imports on BBE. Neither set is as consistent as you might hope--they're less a double-headed Anthology of American House Music than clubland's equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book--a smorgasbord to be sampled selectively. But they win points for convenience and thrift (retailing at around $25 apiece)--and for containing some of the best dance singles ever made.

Most house producers perfect one approach and dabble in others, yet Vega and Gonzalez are equally skilled at creating song-oriented vocal tracks, atmospheric instrumentals, and DJ-oriented cut-ups. Barbara Tucker's "Beautiful People" remains the essential Nineties vocal-house record, a nine-minute distillation of house's utopian spirit that, like Tucker's perfect vocal, manages to convey passion while remaining elegantly controlled. By contrast, River Ocean's "Love and Happiness," sung by salsa queen India, who's also Vega's wife (from Part One), and Incognito's MAW-remixed "Nights Over Egypt" and "Always There," (from Part Two), are a more recherché but effective disco homage. This latter pair of tracks also shows the producers' aural cosmopolitanism at its most effortless, with "Nights" especially recalling prime Earth, Wind & Fire.

Similarly Seventies-revivalist is "MAW Expensive," an expansive cover of the Fela Kuti classic "Expensive Shit." And Ruffneck's "Everybody Be Somebody" (Two), which effectively frames a gruff sampled shout (from Yello's "Bostich") with a cooing female vocal, splits the difference between song and cut-up. In fact, despite Vega and Gonzalez's love for the dense arrangements of the big-band jazz and salsa of their youth, the DJ records that draw from hip hop and Latin freestyle tend to be just as boisterously musical as when the tracks that cross the Salsoul Orchestra with the Fania All-Stars. Partly this is because the grooves come first: Songs like Mindrive's "Deep Inside" and Gonzalez's irrepressible Bucketheads single, "The Bomb!" (both on One), conjure ghostly moods from the more earthly flesh of their sources'--"Beautiful People" and an obscure Chicago song, respectively. ("The Bomb!" is also the song on either box that non-clubrats are most likely to be familiar with--an edit much shorter than the 15-minute monster collected here got some radio play, as well as a video that was among the Box's early hits.)

While Vega and Gonzalez's sonic curvature helps round out even their most angular rhythms, the duo adds a surface roughness to a sinuous effort like "The Nervous Track" (One), making its mélange of jazz-tinged hip hop, house, and acid jazz palatable to fans of all three--or none of the above. The brand-new "Mind Fluid" (Two) consciously updates that early classic with trippier, more cleanly delineated production and a more playfully virtuosic feel. It's as if Vega and Gonzalez are alerting hungry young devotees like Daft Punk (whose "Around the World" is superbly reworked on Two) and Basement Jaxx that, even after ten years, Masters at Work are still just as raw as they wanna be.