“Sweet kids in hunger slums / firecrackers break / and they cross / and they dust / and they skate / and the night comes . . .”
—Laura Nyro, “New York Tendaberry”.
“The duality between apparent fixity and imminent relocation may account for the special appeal of casita design among the impoverished and disenfranchised [Puerto Ricans] of the South Bronx. Under the present conditions of inner-city life, they too, like their nomadic ancestors in Puerto Rico or at some earlier time in their own lives, face constant threat of removal or having to pick up and do it somewhere else.”
—Juan Flores, From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity
“These albums are gonna be the encyclopedia of a sound that was born in New York”
—Little “Louie” Vega.
The nation the world really has been in a “New York State of Mind”. Post 9/11 so much of “the city” has been memorialized, mourned, celebrated, deified, remembered. While a tattered flag is seemingly on national tour and the New York Mets and Yankees don NYPD and NYFD caps and other paraphernalia, the very core of the city, it’s people, are innocent bystanders in the drive towards revenge and economic recovery. While the nation rightfully mourns the municipal heroes who died on 9/11 and the captains of (money) industry who lost their lives, there has been little attention to the folks, the everyday folks, who toiled and barely survived with barely survivable living wages working as cleaning staff, busboys, maintenance workers, food service workers. These folks, many black and brown with accents that more recall Santa Domingo and Kingston than Brooklyn and the Bronx, have given and taken so much from New York, New York. In a particularly touching NPR segment on the “Sounds of the World Trade Center” memorial project, one gentleman reflected that he missed the sounds of Salsa that emanated from the radios of the Latino/a workers who cleaned offices after business hours.
Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez and Little Louie Vega know these people well. For more than a decade the duo, professionally known as Masters at Work (MAW), have been the most effective progenitors of what came to be known as Nuyorican Soul, a cultural and social mélange of the sites (and sights) and sounds of the “real” New York: the place of Pastrami, Jerk Chicken, Cuchifritos, ginger beer, Now-a-laters, piraguas, and Sunday summers at Orchard Beach or Pelham Bay Park. The place where the rhythms of “spanglish” and patois manage to overwhelm even the city’s famed high humidity. This is New York post-1965. Lucy and Desi (the Cuban band-leader who reportedly disliked Puerto Ricans) are off to Connecticut and for those like them, desiring to still live in NYC, Robert Moses took care of their needs: it’s called Jones Beach or The Cross Bronx Expressway or the Henry Hudson Parkway or the ways that folks like Lucy and Desi got out of dodge, because their city was being overrun by those brown and black and all the (non-white) colors in-between.
This is the New York that was created post-1965, with an immigration act that changed the face of a nation by repealing the national origin quota that allowed for more favorable immigration opportunities for western and northern Europeans (the right kind of whites, apparently). According to census data, there were over one million immigrants, primarily from the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia that came to New York in the two decades following the ‘65 Immigration Act. During that first decade, the majority of “Latino” immigrants were from the island Puerto Rico. While significant energy was expended by Puerto Rican nationals over the issue of “statehood vs. nationhood”, a significant portion of native Puerto Ricans created a new space for the cultivation of an “authentic” Puerto Rican sensibility in the city of New York.
Writer Eugene Mohr traces the roots of term “Nuyorican culture” to 1916. Well known “Nuyorican” scholar Juan Flores identifies a distinct Nuyorican vision that emerges in the 1960s with the publication of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets in 1967 (the Nuyorican counterpart to the late Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land), and poetry collections by Pedro Pietri (Puerto Rican Obituary, 1973) and Tato Laviera, whose early work is compiled in La Carreta Made a U-Turn (1979).
In his book, Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (1993), Flores writes that “with the Nuyoricans, the Puerto Rican community in the United States [had] arrived at a modality of literary expression corresponding to its position as a non-assimilating colonial minority. The most obvious mark of this new literature emanating from the community is the language: the switch from Spanish to English and bilingual writing.” (151) But Flores is careful to caution that “this language transfer should not be mistaken for assimilation in a wide cultural sense using English is a sign of being (in America), not necessarily of liking it here or of belonging.” (151)
The Nuyorican sensibility is probably best captured by poets Miguel Algarin and Miguel Pinero (see the recent Benjamin Bratt film, Pinero) in the introduction of their anthology, Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Words and Feelings (1975), who write that “for the poor New York Puerto Rican there are three survival possibilities. The first is to labor for money and exist in eternal debt. The second is to refuse to trade hours for dollars and to love by your will and ‘hustle.’ The third possibility is to create alternative behavioral habits.”(9) Algarin and Pinero were among the founding members of the now famous Nuyorican Poet’s Café that is part of a larger tradition of New York based Puerto Ricans “establishing makeshift, neighborhood spaces to accommodate the rising generation of bilingual and English-language writers.” (Flores, From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 179.)
Whereas social spaces like the Nuyorican Poet’s Café and the New Rican Village were set up to respond to distinct literary and spoken-word concerns, both are part of a tradition of “makeshift” social spaces created by Puerto Ricans, with the image of the Casista, being the most prominent example. According to Flores in his most recent book From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, casitas are “those little houses, modeled after the humble dwellings in rural Puerto Rico of years gone by, which have sprung up in the vacant lots of New York’s impoverished Puerto Rican neighborhoods since the late 1980s [their] design and atmosphere magically evocative of the rural Caribbean and now serving as a social club and cultural center for inhabitants of the surrounding tenements.” (63) The genius of casista culture lies in the ways that the Puerto Rican poor in the South Bronx and El barrio (East Harlem) have transformed the vacant lots of those boroughs into something of value and sustenance. The images of burnt out tenements and vacant lots accompanied some of the most vivid and accordingly distorted images of the black and Puerto Rican poor in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then, President Jimmy Carter’s “celebrated” visit to Charlotte Street in the Bronx in 1977 (a calculated stab at Republican congressional leadership and former President Gerald Ford, who told NYC to “Drop Dead” as the city teetered on economic collapse in the mid-1970s), and the film Fort Apache, The Bronx went a long way in demonizing the South Bronx and its inhabitants in the public imagination. In contrast to those negative images, casitas and the music that found a home in their spaces “celebrate the blatant fact of collective occupancy.” (From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 65)
Like the “Chitlin’ Circuit” institutions that foreground black working class identity and cultural expression in the post-World War II era, casistas represent a conscious attempt to reconstitute community and common identity among Nuyorican immigrants. The “glue”, if you will, that brings these often disparate bodies together, are the music of bomba and plena, which are African-based forms of Puerto Rican popular music. In his earlier book Divided Borders, Flores argues that the “popular song has played a central role in the cultural life Puerto Ricans in this country.” (147) In this regard, Flores later suggests that the “worlds of the casista and plena are thus symbiotically related as forms of performative expression of working class Puerto Ricans, especially those of Afro-Caribbean origins from the coastal areas of the island.” (From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 68)
Flores identifies Marcial Reyes as one of the folks responsible for bringing plena to Puerto Rican communities in New York in the 1950s. The birth of plena dates back to the migration of the families of former enslaved Africans from the islands of St. Kitts, Nevins, Barbados, and Jamaica at the beginning of the 20th century. While there was a distinct African presence in Puerto Rico before that era, plena was an attempt to reconstitute the “Boricuan” identity that has been celebrated contemporarily in the music of Latino hip-hop artists like the late Christopher “Big Pun” Rios (see his collaboration with Joe on “Still Not A Playa”) and Fat Joe. Flores explains that the emergence of plena “coincided with the consolidation of the Puerto Rican working class; it accompanied and lent idiosyncratic musical expression to that historical process” as these populations were displaced and marginalized because of American rule (which began in 1898) and later by efforts to industrialize. (Divided Borders, 89) As Flores asserts, with the coming together of “former slaves, peasants and artisans” and the convergence of their “life experience and social interests” plena, parallel to the African-American blues, became a primary conduit for the popular expressions of the Puerto Rican working class including their concerns about less than affirming labor conditions. (Divided Borders, 89)
The working class roots of plena is particularly important to an understanding of how plena functioned in Puerto Rican spaces in New York in the mid-20th century, as the form emerges in opposition to the more privileged “Afro-Cuban” forms of music that made international stars of musicians like Machito and Maria Bauza, who both collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s, and later Mongo Santamaria (“Watermelon Man”). The privileging of Afro-Cuban music reflected the general privileging of Cuban immigrants over Puerto Rican immigrants, hence my earlier mentioning of Desi Arnez’s ethnic politics. While the differences in Afro-Cuban forms and music like plena and bomba cannot be simply reduced to an issue of authenticity, the latter forms did more reflect the sensibilities of the emerging Nuyorican working-class.
By the mid-1950s Puerto Rican immigrants were sharing working-class and poor urban spaces with the generation of post-World War II African-American migrants from the deep south and what was becoming a steady stream of Afro-Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Whereas Leonard Bernstein’s classic musical West Side Story perhaps romanticized about the clashes between New York Italians and Puerto Ricans in the post-World War II period, the reality was that many Puerto Ricans were forced to share public space with African-Americans. In that many of the communities that Puerto Ricans shared with blacks had long been identified as “black” spaces, it was often incumbent upon the newly arriving Nuyoricans to build cultural bridges between the two communities. The best example of those bridges is the emergence of the “Latin Boogaloo” in the mid-1960s.
The “boogaloo” sound was grounded in a strong backbeat, which can be traced to the work of legendary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson had a hit Jazz recording in 1963 with “Alligator Boogaloo” which featured Palmer protégé Leo Morris (Idris Muhammad) on drums. The “Boogaloo” backbeat became one of the nuanced features of what became the Motown Sound, which speaks to how popular and widespread the Boogaloo had become. The Latin Boogaloo was created “accidentally” at the Palm Gardens Ballroom in New York City, when musician Jimmy Sabater suggested that bandleader Joe Cuba play a song he had written for the kinds of black audiences they often played for. That song would be “Bang, Bang” which very quickly became known as the birth of “Latin Boogaloo”.
For a three year period musicians such as the Joe Cuba Sextet, Joe Bataan, The Pete Rodriguez Orchestra (“I Like It Like That”), Willie Colon, and the legendary Willie Bobo, whose Spanish Grease (1965) and Uno Dos Tres 1*2*3*, some of the few “Latin Boogaloo” recordings available on disc, became Chitlin’ Circuit sensations. “Latin Boogaloo” reflected the interests of Puerto Rican youth in both Mambo music and Doo-wop. According to Flores, “two musical languages thus coexisted in the world of the boogaloo musician-that of his cultural and family heritage and that of life among peers in the streets and at school. The challenge was how to bring these two worlds together and create a new language of their own.” (From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 88)
More importantly, Flores notes that the “Latin Boogaloo” coincided with the later stages of the Civil Rights movement, which in New York City more reflected the political sensibilities of the Black Panther Party and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) leaders H. Rap Brown and Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) than of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Convention). It also coincided with the maturation of the first generation of Puerto Rican youth born and raised as Nuyoricans. Like the generation of black youth who came of age in post-Harlem Renaissance New York City, this generation of Puerto Rican youth were less willing to negotiate the challenges of disenfranchisement and exploitation in the city in the more moderate terms that their parents did. The radicalization of this generation of Puerto Rican youth is best represented in the work of that first generation of Nuyorican artists, such as Piri Thomas and Pedro Pietro, and an organization like The Young Lords Party (YLP), who like the Panthers, were often misnomered as “gangs”, and events like the “Garbage Riots” in July of 1969.
In the latter example, members of The Young Lords party reacted to community complaints that the New York City sanitation department systematically refused to pick up garbage in East Harlem and other communities of color. At first members of the Young Lords heisted brooms and bags from sanitation workers and began a clean up themselves. Eventually they carted mounds and mounds of uncollected garbage into main traffic thoroughfares, effectively bringing commuter traffic to a halt. The group, which was founded by Cha Cha Jimenez in Chicago using the model set by the Panthers, would organize a Harlem-based satellite in early 1969 with now prominent New York City media figures like Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman and Felipe Luciano serving as part of the group’s founding central committee. As Luciano reflected a few years ago, “I thought [the garbage riot] was very unromantic. I couldn’t imagine myself leading a march for garbage when there was so many other issues out there. But that’s what the community wanted, and our philosophy was to do what the community wanted.” (New York Newsday, 1.24.90)
Other notable “protest” by the Young Lords included the December 1969 takeover of First United Spanish Methodist Church, where they established a breakfast program, health-care facility and child-care center, and a much publicized take-over of the notorious Lincoln Hospital on 149th Street in the South Bronx after thirty-one year-old Carmen Rodriguez became the first woman to die under Legalized abortion laws in New York State. Her death fueled on-going claims by the Young Lords and black nationalist groups like the Panthers and United Slaves (US), that the legalization of abortion was aimed at diminishing the black and Latino urban poor. But as Jennifer A. Nelson notes, the Lincoln Hospital take-over reflected the Young Lords Party’s progressive move (via the leadership of the organization’s women) towards a feminist stance which “encompassed access to voluntary birth control, safe and legal abortion” alongside broad-based community issues such as quality health-care system, free day-care, and an end to poverty ” (Journal of Woman’s History, Spring 2001) Luciano, the group’s founding chairman, also doubled as a member of the “Original” Last Poets (documented in the film and recording Right On), thus capturing the common interests of black and Latino communities at the end of the 1960s.
The Last Poets are significant in this regard as Jimmy Sabater suggest that Boogaloo “was basically an early form of rap.” (quoted in From Bomba to Hip-Hop, 112) The Last Poets, along with Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets, represent one of the many direct artistic links to hip-hop. But their visibility also reflects that from its inception, hip-hop was a mélange of influences and voices including The Black Arts movement, Jamaican dub-poets [Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jamaican sound-systems (which Kool Herc reconstructed in the South Bronx)], the black comedic tradition (see Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes the Judge”), and the aforementioned “Latin Boogaloo.” Though the latter was quickly moved aside by colluding salsa labels and promoters, the kinds of cultural bridges that the Boogaloo afforded was quickly reconstituted in the sensibilities of still younger generations of blacks and Latinos in New York via the embryonic forms of hip-hop, but also within the Salsa movement (the great Eddie Palmieri looms large here) and the emerging dance music (disco) culture in New York City.
It is literally on top of this fertile multicultural ground (not to sound cliché) that the Masters At Work (MAW) vibe rest. The 36-year-old “Little Louie” Vega is a boogie-down native (that be “The Bronx”) who came up with a healthy appreciation of Salsa courtesy of his uncle and Salsa singer, Hector Lavoe, who recorded and performed for the Fania All-Stars, named after the most prominent Salsa label of the 1970s. He was also exposed to the break-beat genius of Jazzy Jay who held it down in Vega’s Bronx River neighborhood (The home of the Zulu Nation). But as a teen, Vega began to frequent some of the underground House music spots in New York City, most notably The Paradise Garage, where the late and legendary Larry Levan held it down.
By the mid-1980s, Vega himself had become a House and Latin Freestyle DJ of some note, regularly spinning in spots such as Devil’s Nest, Roseland, The Loft and the post-Disco Studio 54. Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, who was born in “Straight from Brooklyn, better known as Crooklyn”, kept a distance from “Latin” music, but got hooked into the House music scene courtesy of famed House producer Todd Terry. It was Terry who brought Vega and Gonzalez together in 1989, when Vega stepped to Terry about remixing Gonzalez’s “Salsa House” (Nu Groove Records, 1989). A year later Vega, asked Gonzalez to provide beats, for what would eventually become the debut recording of Marc Anthony. The work with Marc Anthony would become the founding collaboration of Vega and Gonzalez and began a prolific ten-year period where they remixed (really reconstituted) folks like Debbie Gibson (who they made relevant again with their 1991 remix of “One Step Ahead”), Vanessa Williams, Deee-Lite, Janet Jackson, Incognito and produced acts such as Luther Vandross and BeBe Winans.
But the crux of the MAW movement is a loose collective of Salsa, Soul and dance music artists that the duo brought together under the guise of Nuyorican Soul. During the early 1990s some of the MAW productions, including their first album, were credited as masters at work featuring Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. The willingness of Vega and Gonzalez to actively seek out and embrace the music and talents of Palmieri and Puente was notable, because it brought earlier forms of Latin (Nuyorican) music like Afro-Cuban and Salsa in direct conversation with the house, Latin freestyle, hip-hop landscape that birthed “post-(Latin) Soul” figures like Vega, Gonzalez, and others. As Vega reminisced in a recent magazine feature, “It was a tight-knit thing where you had your whole crew, everybody knew everybody in a way we’re tryin’ to recreate our old neighborhood; in a subliminal way, we’re always tryin’ to bring people together.” (URB, Jan:Feb, 2002). This spirit perfectly captured in the 1997 release Nuyorican Soul (Giant Step/Blue Thumb), which featured vocalists Jocelyn Brown and India, George Benson, Roy Ayers, the TropiJazz all-stars, including Puente, pianists Palmieri (who contributes two originals, “Taita Caneme” and “Habriendo El Dominante”) and Hilton Ruiz, and flutist Dave Valentin, and TSOP arranger (Gamble and Huff’s The Sound of Philadelphia label) Vince Montana, Jr.
The recording opens with a funk-ass version of the Rotary Connection classic “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun”. The song is a nod to the West African influences that undergird the Nuyorican Soul project, but also an emphasis on the cultural and musical hybrids that the collective represents, an example that Rotary Connection forged three decades ago under the influential producer Charles Stephney (who also crafted the early Earth, Wind and Fire sound). Stephney co-wrote the song with Richard Rudolph, who met his future wife, the late Minnie Riperto, while both were in the group. Their own inter-racial marriage would be the most lasting metaphor for the kinds of boundary shifting the Rotary Connection attempted in their music and clearly stands as an inspiration for the very kinds of community bridging that Masters at Work hope to achieve.
The project then slides into “It’s Alright, I Feel It!” an original co-written by the “Masters” with vocalists Benny Diggs (who directed the New York Community Choir on Nikki Giovanni’s brilliant Truth is On the Way in 1970) and Jocelyn Brown who is the featured soloist on the track. Brown has done background vocals for a wide range of artists over the last decade but is best known for her 1983 anthem “Somebody Else’s Guy” which was a great example of quality post-Disco dance music emanating out of New York City. “It’s Alright, I Feel It!”, with its Gospel House flourishes provided by pianist Terry Burrus and then unknown drummer Vidal Davis (Who is Jill Scott? Vol. One), harkens back to those days of mid-1980s New York dance music.
But the track also sets up an example of how seamlessly Vega and Gonzalez envision their music and the communities that they embrace, as the Brown track segues into two Latin Jazz pieces, both co-written with pianist Hilton Ruiz, who was heavily influenced by McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. The track was inspired by a trip Vega and Gonzalez took to a DJ festival in Southport (UK), where they peeped folks getting their dance on to Pharaoh Sanders’ Journey to the One, which features the muscular hard-bop groove “You Got to Have Freedom”. On “Maw Latin Blues” Ruiz trades in the Steinway for a Hammond-B-3 giving the song an initial Chiltin’ Circuit feel. But the song finds its real groove via Richie Flores’ straight gangsta Conga solo, so much so that by the time Dave Valentin gets his flute on, it clear that that it may be the Blues, but a Blues straight out of El Barrio as opposed to the Delta. Valentin’s flute solo on “Maw Latin Blues” literally morphs into the opening lines of “Gotta New Life,” which is a direct reference to the aforementioned “You Got to Have Freedom”. Ruiz returns to the piano, this time to play the role that the under-appreciated John Hicks did of the Sanders “original”. The real stars on the track, though, are vocalists Lisa Fischer (long-time background vocalist for Luther Vandross) and Jocelyn, who, according Carol Cooper, trade scat phrases reminiscent of the early, early work of The Pointer Sisters. The seamless flow of the three aforementioned tracks are important because the reflect how the DJ’s attention to flow and layering (shout to Tricia Rose) can play out in extraordinary ways in the studio.
In this regard their foundation first and foremost as DJs also breeds a technical fluidity, as they are equally adept in creating the kinds of hip-hop landscapes that Salsa, Gospel, and Big Band Jazz would seem far removed from. On “Nautilus (Mawtilus)” the Masters pay tribute to pianist Bob James and his song “Nautilus” which was one of the most sampled “jazz” tracks during the early days when hip-hop was still in the park and plugged in to the lamppost. Most recently Ghostface Killah sampled the song on his first solo release The Ironman (1996) James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (often referred to as the “Breaking Bells”) was also a favorite that later became the basis of Run DMC’s “Peter Piper.” (1986)
The Nuyorican Soul tribute also gives tribute to vibraphonist Roy Ayers who does the classic Roy Ayers scat on “Roy’s Scat” (“shaba dowie yow, yow ”) behind a truncated sample of his classic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”. But the cornerstone of MAW’s reconstruction of CTI-era Soul Jazz is the brilliant nearly 9-minute “You Can Do It (Baby)” which features vocals and guitar by the legendary George Benson, whose classic recording This Masquerade (1976) is one of the most popular selling “Jazz” recordings of all-time. “You Can Do It (Baby)” begins with Benson scatting and grooving behind a break-neck rhythm track. By mid-song it’s all about that “gee-tar” as Benson reminds the young folks, who only know him for his “sanging,” why he’s the artistic son of Wes Montgomery. But it’s those vocals late in the song where Benson sings “Been so long, since I’ve been gone You know I’m back from the world.” The lyrics serve as a fitting metaphor for the vision of the whole project as “Little Louie” Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez musically capture Juan Flores’ though that to be Nuyorican is to find some comfort in the timeless ability to always “pick up and do it somewhere else”, whether it be on the streets of the South Bronx or in a corner bodega in Alphabet City.
Though less ambitious, MAW followed-up Nuyorican Soul with Our Time is Coming (2002). In some regards, the recording harkens back to their earliest work together, though it represents MAW at its most accessible. The contributors read like headliners of a classic soul tour, showing that when some of the Soul veterans of the late 1970s and 1980s are allowed to work with attentive and thoughtful producers, such as Vega and Gonzalez, they can still shine. Patti Austin, who began her career almost three decades ago as a CTI artist and who forged a solid commercial career in the 1980s on Quincy Jones’ Qwest label, is spectacular as ever on the opening track “Like a Butterfly (You Send Me).” The song was co-written with well-regarded house producers Blaze.
Austin had much of her commercial success in the 1980s courtesy of two brilliant collaborations with vocalist James Ingram (“Baby Come To Me” which was first introduced on General Hospital and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”), who is on a short list of some of the most talented R&B vocalists to emerge in the last 30 years. Both Austin and Ingram were featured in Quincy Jones’ groundbreaking mix of Funk, Jazz, R&B, dance, and hip-hop that was featured on The Dude (1981). In many regards Our Time Has Come attempts to achieve that same kind of commercial friendly mix, thus it is no surprise that Ingram would be featured on the bouncy “Lean on Me” (not the Bill Withers classic).
The song begins with Ingram’s signature yodel, which is as stunning as it was when he was first featured on Jones’ “One Hundred Ways” and “Just Once”. But the most pleasing old school cameo come courtesy of Stephanie Mills who blows up the spot on the tilting groove of “Latin Lover”. The song highlights the bankrupt politics of an industry in which someone who possesses such a fine vocal instrument as Mills is not currently signed to a major label. Again, the fact that Ayers (who provides vocals and vibes on the title track), Mills, Ingram and Austin have a place in the MAW universe speaks to their serious appreciation of the music that helped “raise” them.
But the real political vision of MAW is most apparent on their brilliant “remake” of the late Fela Kuti’s “Expensive Shit”. The late Fela, who died of HIV in 1997, is increasingly being recovered by a generation of young musical activists. Fela is really the contemporary template for a specific kind of “celebrity Gramscian” that finds a presence in the work of artists like Mos Def, Common, Sarah Jones and MeShell Ndegeocello. MAW’s “MAW Expensive” acknowledges their long-time and unrealized dreams of working with Fela, but is also an acknowledgement by the duo of their commitment to teaching and building in their music. Gonzalez and Vega are among the many “young” artists, including Fela’s son Femi Kuti (Fight to Win, 2001) who joined veteran producer and former Black Panther Nile Ridges in the making of Red Hot & Africa the still unreleased “Red Hot” tribute to Fela.
Recordings like Our Time Has Come and Nuyorican Soul emerge at a moment where black and Latino/a leaders in places like New York are finally coming to terms with the common siege they are under, not only in America’s urban centers but globally, as well. Al Sharpton’s simply brilliant political decision to embrace the cause in Vieques may have been motivated by his long term desire to run for President, but it was many of the “moves” that allowed for the unprecedented support that Puerto Rican politician Fernando Ferrer received in his bid to become New York City’s first Puerto Rican mayor. The perceived power of such a coalition in New York City was fully realized in the despicable and racist tactics of Mark Green and his campaign lieutenants to de-legitimize the coalition. The efforts of the Green campaign specifically targeted the discomfort that the New York Jewish community had for Sharpton and ultimately cost Ferrer the democratic nomination for mayor. Green was, of course, trounced by Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg (“excuse me while I light my spliff”) after both black and Latino/a voters refused to back Green.
As the post-9/11 politics of New York City threatens to force the city’s “people” into small self-interested enclaves, the music of Masters at Work is an all too timely reminder of the common vision that the Nuyorican spirit has forged with some many of New York City’s inhabitants.