With a career that spans three decades and a famously encyclopaedic knowledge of music, interviewing legendary DJ Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez is an intimidating prospect. Luckily we live in a world that’s united by a love for ‘Game of Thrones’ and so before long we’re sharing theories about Daenerys, Tyrion and co. and comparing favourite box sets. There are no boundaries when it comes to TV shows. Eventually the conversation moves from how growing up in the hood in Brooklyn, New York, inspired him, to how the creation of his iconic track ‘The Bomb!’ was actually an accident, and touches on his upcoming collaboration with Ocean Beach Ibiza on Seamless Recordings. A compilation that includes some of his own tracks as well unreleased material, ‘Ocean Beach The Debut’ is out on July 14 and is set to be the soundtrack to the summer. Sit back and listen to the wise words of a Master At Work…
So Kenny, it’s not often you get to sit down with someone with music knowledge as vast as yours, so I figured this is a good opportunity to pick your brains. If you were going to educate me about music, where would you start?
It depends what kind of music you wanna start with, you know what I mean. If you was to say ‘Ken, I want to know where house music came from, or how did it start’, I would say it started in Chicago. But Chicago was influenced by disco music – those initial first tracks came about because they were replaying music with those kinds of vibes and those sounds. But if you said to me ‘I want to know ‘90s hip hop’, I’d say that was influenced by jazz and soul samples. Personally, I was influenced by a lot of different music. I started playing reggae, hip hop – I got into house music, and from that I started to learn because I wanted to know what came before.
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Would you say your knowledge of music stems from having an inquisitive mind?
Oh yeah, I’m one of those people who wants to know what came before. I’m very interested in the past and how things work – I want to know how we came to this point in our lives. I can look at a building or a car and wonder how they were built. With music I want to know how things were recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I might have a record from say, De La Soul, and they’ve used a sample I don’t know – so I research it, and then I find the record and read the credits and there’s a piano player I’ve never heard of, so I look for his stuff.
Do you still stumble across music you’ve never heard before?
All the time. Every day. Sometimes in a cab, sometimes at the airport. There are things like that all the time. Music is endless.
I read that you collect 45s. Is there something special for you in owning something physical rather than just downloading music?
I do download but yeah, there’s nothing like having the original piece of music. Especially 45s. They’re real intricate and a lot of them are one-offs. In the States there were certain labels that had a certain sound from certain cities. You know, you had Stax from Memphis, which was deep soul, then there was Motown – everybody had their own sound and vibe.
You’re an oracle when it comes to music of the past, but who or what are you excited by at the moment?
There are a lot of one-off records, but not necessarily bodies of work. I like Deetron, and Dennis Ferrer is a friend of mine who always comes up with good tunes. I think vocal stuff is coming back slowly. The whole resurgeance of deep house is being embraced at the moment and it’s putting these records back on the radio, which is important because the kids are starting to hear this stuff. I’m gonna be 44 but I feel like I’m starting over because everybody I played to for the last 24 years has grown up – they’ve had children, they’re doing other things. Now there’s a new generation and I’m happy I can stay relevant by making music for them while teaching them at the same time.
Do you think things have gone full cycle – you’re as relevant now as you were in the ‘90s?
It’s absolutely a cycle – and right now we’re in the ‘90s. The kids are trying to emulate what we did before which is cool. They’re trying to understand and figure out what machines we used. It’s so easy now to make a record, whereas years ago you needed to have $40,000 worth of equipment in your house or have a studio that was worth half a million dollars. But staying relevant is about putting out records – once you stop the gigs dry up. So it’s about putting out the music and getting in front of new people. I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to play in front of this new generation, and at the same time I’m able to show them it’s not about syncing the music – I’m playing the music. It’s not about turning up with something that’s pre-mixed. You can tell sometimes that you win them over 100%, but other times you can see they’re listening and they’re learning. I feel like I’m blessed to still be here doing this. A lot of guys don’t have the strength, the ability, the mind-set to be able to adapt.
You’ve just put together a compilation for Ocean Beach, what can we expect from that?
It’s soulful. It’s deep house. It’s what’s happening now. It’s about what I’m playing and the records I like. I’m not really a label person; I don’t like to label things. I’m about good and bad music more than anything. I just like music that you feel in your heart and your soul – beats or melodies that touch you. So I picked a bunch of songs and did the mix.
And Ocean Beach is primarily a daytime party, do you enjoy playing during the day?
Days are cool because it’s a different mood outside, but as a DJ it’s harder to get people into the music. You gotta play different. It’s challenging because Ocean Beach is about beds and chilling so it’s more about playing cool music. I did Blue Marlin Ibiza last year and that was a challenge because they’re not primarily club people. At first it was hard, but I got it.
So even after all these years playing, you still find some gigs challenging?
Yeah, everywhere’s different and I treat it like it is. You have to. Everything has its own identity and crowd. I’m not one of those DJs who plans a set. What do you do if you have it planned and it doesn’t work? Then what? There’s a big separation now between guys that play music and guys that DJ. DJs adapt and tell a story and can take you on a journey.
When did you first come to Ibiza?
You know, it’s gotta be at least 20 years ago. It’s crazy. But last year was the first time I stayed here for a period – I had a lot of dates in a block of time so we decided to make it home. Me and my girlfriend drove around and got to see the island, it was cool. A lot of times when you come to Ibiza on tour you get there, you do Mambo, you eat, you go to the gig, you shower, and then you’re back at the airport. And it was always like that. You gotta realise that I’ve been travelling since ’91 and when you’re younger you come in, do your job and then you leave.
That’s over 20 years of touring – how have you dealt with having such a crazy lifestyle for that period of time?
I didn’t even realise it was crazy for the first 10 years. It wasn’t until 2001 that I actually stopped for a minute. All the time the flow was like: records, remixes, travel, repeat. That was the grind for 10 years, you know. But then when I stopped for a second, I was like, ‘I’ve done so much music, I’ve travelled so many places, but I’ve never seen shit.’ Because you don’t, you see a hotel and that’s it. So as time went on I tried to stay places and live a bit. I’ll do my dates and then me and my girlfriend will stay for another week or so and take a vacation. When you’re younger you don’t really feel it, but when you’re older you want to work smarter, not harder.
When you look back at your body of work so far, is there anything that stands out to you as your greatest achievement?
Wow, the greatest achievement? I guess ‘The Bomb!’ – The Bucketheads record. That record was kinda mad. I just picked up a bunch of records and some samples to make a B-side for a 12-inch – it wasn’t even for the A-side. But the reaction to it, even today, is amazing. It wasn’t meant to do that. The intro was a mistake; that whole build up was because I missed the sequences with the drum machine and it felt good so I just left it going back and forth. I didn’t know it was going to do what it did and it changed my life completely – financially and everything, because it was such a big record. That’s one achievement for sure. Another one is Nuyorican Soul with my partner Louie Vega. We worked with a lot of musicians whose music we’d listened to while we were growing up, and when we did the photoshoot with them I was sitting there looking at all these legends and I was like ‘wow, this is for real right now’. It smacked me in the face.
You’ve experienced so much success, was that something you expected when you started out?
What’s crazy is that I knew at a young age I wanted to do music, I knew at a young age I wanted to DJ, but I never thought I’d have travelled to all these countries, met all these people and made friendships worldwide. When I started this wasn’t a profession – you did weddings and sweet 16 parties and people got paid $200 to do this stuff.
What would you like to be your legacy?
I think it’s there. I want to be known as a music lover and somebody who’s genuine and helpful. For a long time there was a perception that you couldn’t talk to me but I think that’s what will stick in people’s minds that know me.
Why was there that perception do you think?
Years ago I was never in the forefront. Louis did the interviews because I didn’t really care for it. I was really into the music, my friends and my family, I wasn’t really into talking about what I did or how I did it. You’ve got to realise that early on everybody wanted to do what we [Masters At Work] were doing and sound like we were sounding, so I just took a step back and thought ‘you know what, I ain’t telling nobody shit’. And you know it was kinda good and bad. By me stepping back I kept my skill and production to myself and let everybody figure it out themselves, but it also separated me from the media and from people knowing who I am and what I’m about, not just being one half of Masters At Work. Then a friend of mine said to me ‘you know, you need to go out and do some things by yourself’, and little by little I got more comfortable talking.
How do you think you’d cope now in the era of super-celebrity DJs?
My thing is to just be as real as you can. I’m not mad at anybody’s hustle but I don’t like arrogance. I’ve seen kids go up to somebody they admire and have their dreams shattered, and if you chose to do this – if you chose to be an entertainer or an actor or a sports player, it comes with territory. I know it could all be gone tomorrow and I think that’s what’s kept me fresh.
Do you think kids have it easier with all the technology available these days?
Whenever I hear a young kid complaining, I’m like ‘dude, a laptop is very powerful, you can have a whole studio in there.’ It’s what you have in your mind to be creative that counts. I don’t wanna hear you complaining, because you don’t know what we had to do to make records. It took days. Even down to doing a simple remix, and time-stretching somebody’s vocal. Take a Madonna record that was a certain speed/tempo, and you had to pitch it up so it’s house tempo – it took four days. Four days of the engineer chopping each line of the record to put it in time. Today you can take the vocal, you know the start point, you know the end point, you press enter and it’s done.
You’re revered in the industry, but who do you admire?
I look up to other entertainers. Like 50 Cent, he’s a really smart dude. And Dr Dre, he’s a guy who started like I started – in the hood. And they’ve been able to take every opportunity. Sometimes I’ve been in places at certain times and not paid attention at what could have been the next step. And I look at those guys and they took advantage of every opportunity that came their way. To be somebody from the hood, to be 50 plus years old, and sell something you’ve been involved with for $2.5 billion, that’s crazy to me.
Do you think there’s something about coming from the hood, about the similar environment you all grew up in, that instilled a sense of wanting to succeed in you all?
Absolutely. 100%. It’s like, I knew people whose parents were wealthy and the kids could’ve had anything they wanted, whereas we gotta learn it on the street, and we gotta make mistakes to get to the next level. You got this kid over here – he’s got a family business, his father’s straight and is like ‘here’s $200,000 to start a business’, and the kid sticks it up his nose. Meanwhile over here, we’re working step by step. I grew up with kids that dealt drugs, got locked up, some of them are dead, some of them have been in jail for 20 years. I didn’t want to be around that shit. Coming from that and having as little as we had and then turning it into something, it makes you wiser. It makes you use what little you have to create, and that’s reflected in the music.