Sooner or later, it happens. Just like A-list actors decide that they really want to direct and star musicians decide to become actors, big name DJs decide to become recording artists. After years of honing their skills at re-interpreting and adding musical backing to other artists’ compositions (and gathering a nice cache of coolness and credibility in the process) they now want to be the name above the title. Not in a compilation “Mixed By ” sort of way, but in a “Hey—I did all this myself!” sort of way. But the hyphenate game is hard to play; for every Clint Eastwood or Will Smith, there are scores of Jodie Fosters and Stings.
Louie Vega is one of a handful of DJs who you could call a legitimate international superstar. Since his emergence on the New York City scene in the 1980s, he’s established a reputation as one of house music’s original heroes—through his DJ work and as a remixer and producer as part of Masters at Work and Nuyorican Soul. In 2004 he joined fellow super DJs LTJ Bukem, Paul Oakenfold, and others by releasing a true “solo” album: Elements of Life was a set of original material that he preformed with his band. Now Vega has farmed out tracks from that album for other DJs and producers to remix, hence Elements of Life - Extensions. How ironic!
Vega has always been interested in Latin and African rhythms. Here, as with the original Elements , sambas and other syncopated styles are implemented into the dance music. You can imagine the intended result as a cool, groovy, multicultural experience along the lines of King Britt’s Scuba project or Afro Mystik. But there’s “cool” and “groovy” and then there’s “god awful boring”. You can’t accuse Vega of resting on his well-established laurels; give him credit for that. But most of Extensions is a big-time snooze. It goes nowhere and takes too long to get there.
Jazzy Jeff’s take on “Jungle Fever” opens the album with chill-out, birdsong sound effects: so far, so good. But then you get a more beat-heavy, Latin-tinged version of Chakachas’ 1970s heavy breathing porn-funk, and you’re just baffled. Things only get more hazy when followed by twelve tracks’ worth of similar sound effects, Latin percussion, Clavinet, and “come together / love is all you need” platitudes. Take “Let the Children Play”, one of three brand-new tracks. After four minutes of navel gazing, some percussion finally kicks in, but it’s never buoyed by a backbeat. And that’s a problem when the song goes on for ten minutes! The only reward you get for your patience is lyrics like, “The love that you give / Will come right back to you”. Well, glad that’s settled.
Maybe part of the fault lies with the remixers. After all, how can Jazzy Jeff, Kenny Dope (Vega’s Masters at Work partner), Jazz-N-Groove, and the like all come off so dully? When you don’t have a lot to work with, there’s only so much you can do. And the conservative nature of most of these mixes suggests that some of their creators were a bit intimidated by their boss’s stature. For example, “Journey’s Prelude”, featuring hip-hop poet Ursula Rucker, gets augmented with a greater running time, edited vocals, and some Kraftwerk-eque blips, but not much else.
Extensions isn’t all dross, either, just as a laid back Latin rhythm doesn’t in itself imply dullness. “Sunshine (Sacred Rhythm mix)” is sharp and melodic. It actually sounds like it could be from Heaven 17’s techno-jazz-pop How Men Are (1984); which, if not high praise, is hardly damnation, either. “Ma Mi Mama (Freeform U Heirs Vox Mix)” gets things completely right, with earthy Hammond organ and a solid beat that shows how Vega made his name. But, as if to remind you of its true nature, the album closes with the new age steel drum fest “Steel Congo (ATOJ mix)”.
And a career as illustrious as Vega’s would be best kept free of steel drums altogether.