Although debuting with Masters At Work slightly earlier, 2020 marks the 30 year anniversary of the first Kenny Dope solo release. In the last three decades, this masterful DJ and producer has brought us timeless house anthems, landmark compilations and mixes, helped changed the course of dance music with his innovations and amazed us with DJ sets that ranged from peak-time uptempo assaults to hip hop, Latin and soul from the inner city streets. He has also been, hands down, one of the greatest of beats producers, every bit the dance music equivalent to hip hop’s J Dilla. Across some of the best independent labels around, including a few that are his own, he has traversed more styles of music than any other DJ of his standing. To mark the occasion, Marc Rowlands picks 30 of the most memorable moments from 30 years of Kenny Dope.
‘MAKIN’ A LIVING’
A peak time hip hop party anthem issued way back in 1991 on Nu Groove Records, this much-reissued banger married the vocals of ‘Heaven and Hell is on Earth’ by 20th Century Steel Band and the refined but still raw late-Stax masterpiece ‘Melting Pot’.
THE BUCKETHEADS ‘THE BOMB! (THESE SOUNDS FALL INTO MY MIND)’
Going quite some distance in defining the house music sound of 1994, the wider public were first introduced to the beats-for-days capabilities of Kenny Dope on this chart-topping slice of disco revival for Henry Street Music.
FAMILY OF EVE ‘I WANNA BE LOVED BY YOU’
The rarest of grooves, this lo-fi and infectious early ‘80s disco monster was unearthed by Keb Darge on his first Legendary Deep Funk compilation for BBE, who went on to release a remix 12” of it in 1998. But, two years later, they issued the track’s original on 12” for the first time, backed by a Kenny Dope edit and it blew up, finding its way into the record boxes of the likes of Derrick Carter and Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson.
KENLOU ‘THE BOUNCE’
Proven as near-peerless producers when solo, the whole is still greater than the sum of its great parts when it comes to Masters At Work’s collaborations. It’s pointless to start picking the catalogue apart attempting to attribute one section of it to one or the other, but for its barrage of disorientating percussion, you knew for sure that Kenny Dope was somewhere in ‘The Bounce’. The track trod a similar path to the often overlooked dub of Incognito’s ‘Everyday’ which MAW turned in during the same year.
With the ambitious Nuyorican Soul album a couple of years behind him and the radical sounds of Southport Weekender’s jazz dance-meets-broken beat still fresh in the mind, Kenny served up this beefed-up take on Olli Ahvenlahti’s ‘Grandma’s Rocking Chair’ (which he went on to re-edit officially).
When Kenny delved into disco for their own Urban Theory / MAW Records, you knew he was gonna put the hours in. Of course, it was chock-full of classic big room bangers, but what made it really special was the mix CD, Kenny having re-edited so many of the tracks included. He then presented them, sliced up, at times filtered or laden with cuts and effects which ensured that even if you already knew the tracks, you really couldn’t tell what was coming next.
Watch this next: Kenny Dope slammin’ house set in The Lab NYC
STRANGE GAMES AND FUNKY THINGS III
With an ultra-cool design and flawless selections of 1970s soul, funk and jazz, the in-house curated Strange Games and Funky Things series had not only caught everyone’s attention but set an extremely high bar for issuers BBE Records. So, there was a certain amount of risk involved in handing the series over to its first outside compiler. Less risky if you choose someone like Kenny Dope though, who not only maintained the quality by turning in a fitting follow up, but raised the bar with the inclusion of a killer DJ mix of the comp that took in Barry White, Parliament, Roy Ayers, Don Blackman, Herbie Hancock and much more.
GWEN MCCRAE ‘FUNKY SENSATION’ MAW MIX
Already a much-loved dancefloor classic for 20 years, it was highly improbable that anyone could improve on ‘Funky Sensation’. Except MAW. Their hip hop percussion forced extra funk into a space nobody could have imagined any more could fit. Released in 1998, the pair had already tackled the track less officially on the ‘Get Up’ remixes from 1994, its roughhouse hip hop beats coming unmistakably from Kenny.
MASTERS AT WORK PRESENT NU YORICAN SOUL ‘THE NERVOUS TRACK’
The start of the Nuyorican Soul project arrived in 1993 light a bolt from the blue. ‘The Nervous Track’ wasn’t anything similar to what the same-named label or MAW had released before. A head–turning mixture of warm, jazz chords, electronics and off-beat, endlessly building percussion of Latin inspiration, it was embraced by legions of DJs and dancers from all manner of scenes, the very definition of a crossover hit. That it would so inspire the integral core of producers responsible for the London-emanating broken beat sound that was to follow, nobody at the time could have guessed. Seminal.
LIQUID DOPE ‘AIR MACKS’
Combining Latin grooves from the neighbourhood with system-shaking breakbeats, Kenny eschewed the usual Henry Street Music disco house vibe on this unjustly-overlooked 12”.
In 2004, Christmas came early as Kenny dropped four mix CDs on his own Dopewax label, each representing different dancefloors he might have visited in his youth. Spanning several genres, the ‘Favourite Grooves’ instalment was the moodiest and most jazzy of the three, airing the likes of 24 Karat Black, Bohannon, Ramsey Lewis, Steve Miller, David Porter, Bob James, Rotary Connection, Leroy Hutson, Doug Carn and Ahmad Jamal.
ATMOSFEAR ‘DANCING IN OUTER SPACE’ MAW REMIXES
This late 1970s UK jazz-inflected disco cut punched way above its peculiar weight when first released on Elite Records, prompting many reissues, but its late ‘90s reappraisal by the dynamic duo came with a series of interstellar dubs that enabled every subsequent airing to remain fresh and unique.
Read this next: 10 iconic Masters At Work moments
ROLLER BOOGIE 80S
The first of Kenny’s 2004 mix onslaughts on Dopewax, Roller Boogie 80s took an optimistic glance at the carefree times when disco was moving in a more soulful, electronic and slightly slower route into the charts by way of Mary Jane Girls, Dennis Edwards, Gwen McRae, Odyssey, Fonda Rae and Unlimited Touch.
MASTERS AT WORK ‘JUSTA LIL DOPE’
Taken from an absolutely killer MAW EP that also contained Kenny’s mix of ‘Blood Vibes’ and ‘Our Mute Horn’, this opening sample fest paired ‘Darkest Light’ by Lafayette Afro Rock Band with Barrington Levy and those early Roland TR-909 beats from Schoolly D’s brutal ‘PSK, What Does It Mean?’ Knockout.
ST. ETIENNE ‘ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART’
Sometimes, when a song is so good, it would take a fool to dictate the ‘definitive’ version. And so it is with this song: its writer Neil Young, the Saint Etienne original and the extended dubbed-out duo of a mix presented by the dearly departed Andrew Weatherall are all quite brilliant. But, Masters at Work were still able to bring something fresh to the table in their main mix, their great garage-y dub and a Kenlou mix that had Kenny’s fingers all over it.
LIL’ LOUIS & THE WORLD ‘NEW DANCE BEAT’
With ‘French Kiss’ having hit worldwide, there must have been a certain amount of pressure on Lil Louis to equal his success on second album ‘Journey With The Lonely, so it was perhaps a brave move introducing MAW as producers on its second song. But, what a great decision it was; the near-flawless album flows perfectly.
MANU DIBANGO VS MASTERS AT WORK ‘NEW BELL’
From the same project as their ‘Funky Sensation’ remix, MAW again improved what had previously been thought of as perfect with the tightened percussion they added to this Loft classic.
NUYORICAN SOUL ‘I AM THE BLACK GOLD OF THE SUN’
Masters at Work’s most ambitious, diverse and most musical project to date, the Nuyorican Soul album is a masterpiece. We were gently eased into the ride by this faithful Rotary Connection cover. Of course, 4 Hero would take the track into even more thrilling new territory on their remix, but if it hadn’t been for MAW making this introduction to Charles Stepney, might we not also have had Dego and Marc Mac’s brilliant take on ‘Les Fleur’ from a couple of years later?
Read this next: 30 of the best Chicago house tracks
SOUL FUZION FEAT. VEE ‘I GOT RHYTHM’
Kenny furthered the offbeat rhythm explorations of the Nuyorican Soul project on this super soulful solo release, issued under the moniker of Soul Fuzion on his own Dopewax label in 2004.
KENNY LATTIMORE ‘DAYS LIKE THIS’
Peak period Masters at Work. Whether you went for the smooth house mix they turned in or fell for the crisp, jittery percussion of the Nuyorican mix, the boys knocked it out of the park on this sublime vocal. For some, there’s only one killer vocal anthem with this title. Poor people.
The third of Kenny’s 2004 Dopewax mixes, he reserved this one pure and simple for soul grooves. Songs familiar to those who attended even the earliest of our weekenders, Kenny presented them from a hip hop perspective, splicing together favourites by the likes of Milton Wright, Frankie Beverly and Barbara Lynn.
Originally a Kenny Dope A+R’d Nu Groove offshoot, after a 10-year absence, Kenny revived the Dopewax label in 2000. It was initially for offbeat cuts like ‘The Illout’ and ‘Brazilica’, but he soon opened the label up to other sides of his production work, such as the return of Liquid Dope and the one-off Soul Fuzion, with outside contributors like Jill Scott, Terry Hunter, Cassio Ware K-Alexi, Gene Hunt and even Kanye West not far behind. It’s been with us ever since.
KENNY DOPE PRESENTS RANDY MULLER’S BEST
In 2005, Kenny honed in on one of disco’s last great under acknowledged legends. Producer, songwriter, keys man and arranger Randy Muller was best known as leader of Brass Construction and although his later work with others would, years later, turn up on the ‘most wanted’ lists of DJs and vinyl collectors, nobody had shone the spotlight solely on this Guyana-born talent until Kenny did. The quality speaks for itself, covering some of the very best underground disco sides ever made from the likes of B.T. Express, Skyy, Brass Construction and Rafael Cameron.
CHOICE ‘A COLLECTION OF CLASSICS’
Although perhaps less well presented than some of the other collections here, this Azuli series gave carte blanche to its compilers and, freed from the constraints of operating within any specific genre, Kenny turned in an instalment that flowed brilliantly despite it covering a multitude of musics (for similar, check out his brilliant ‘Anything Goes’ mixes on his Soundcloud). Free reign over the 1970s and 1980s brought in highlights by Earth Wind & Fire, Dunn Pearson Jr, Level 42, Rainbow Brown, Kool & The Gang, Norman Conners, Serious Intention, Sylvester, Exodus, James Brown and Cameo.
Read this next: 20 of the best house music samples
CLYDE ALEXANDER AND SANCTION ‘GOTTA GET YOUR LOVE’
A Holy Grail of disco vinyl from the P&P stable, this mesmerizing and slightly wonky 1980 release on Peter Brown’s Heavenly Star was compiled on the UK Boogie Tunes once, then once again by Joey Negro on Disco Spectrum on BBE. But, Kenny Dope provided a brilliant edit in 2002 allowing it to be released once again on 12” and it’s remained on rotation ever since. The song was actually written and arranged by Gary Davis, who would release his own great version a couple of years after the Sanction version and Kenny would re-edit that one too. A killer.
RALPH FALCON ‘EVERY NOW AND THEN’ (KENNY DOPE DUB)
There are very few sacred cows when it comes to remixes either of MAW won’t even try, but, on paper, there was no way Kenny could have come up with anything decent to add to this moody and complete early Murk classic, right? Oh, my. Wrong.
MASTERS AT WORK ‘STOP AND LISTEN 5’
Masters At Work split mixing duties individually on this cross-genre compilation containing two CDs. Louie’s was up first and offered a knockout, uptempo assault that genuinely could have come from one of his dates with the dancefloor. Kenny took a different approach and offered an expansive, multi-tempo mix covering hip hop, raw funk, contemporary soul, Latin sounds and psychedelic disco, including Sun Palace, Gwen Guthrie, Fania All Stars, Nina Simone, Slum Village, Jill Scott and Doug Carn.
With Keb Darge compiling his Deep Funk on BBE and MAW entering the label’s family not long after, it wasn’t long before Kenny and Keb were introduced to each other by label head Peter Adarkwah. Both deep diggers, they hit it off and together founded the Kay-Dee label at the start of the new millennium. A labour of love, it has pristinely issued and reissued soul, hip hop, funk and disco finery from the likes of Manzel, Gary Davis, Clyde Alexander, Pazazz, Harris & Orr and Brass Construction.
NUYORICAN SOUL ‘IT’S ALRIGHT, I FEEL IT!’
For a whole generation of dancers, the most life-affirming song of their era. The gospel call and response, arguably Jocelyn Brown’s greatest vocal to have been captured on wax, those stomach punching sub-bass drops juxtaposed against the uplifting piano, all underpinned by classic beats-for-days. Words don’t even do it justice, sometimes you just have to feel it.
TREY LORENZ ‘PHOTOGRAPH OF MARY’ (MASTERS AT WORK DUB)
One of the aspects supposedly specific to the house music emanating from New York in the early 1990’s was its incorporation of jazz. And, the upright bass bottom end of this Trey Lorenz dub mix by MAW, underpinned by an infectious Kenny Dope percussion rhythm, is a good example. When operating in dub territory during this period, MAW were capable of delving into darker, deeper waters than in many main mixes. This one sounds so ‘off’ it’s also perhaps comparable to slightly later releases by Chicago’s wonkiest producers like Gemini and Cajmere.