Friday, September 12, 2014

Peace & Rhythm's Interview with Producer Ray Lugo

Ray Lugo and his groups have brought us some of the grooviest music on the planet! A well-traveled and fiercely independent artist, Ray's music have covered a lot of funky ground, from his Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra, his Boogaloo Destroyers to his soulful L.E.S. Express studio project and solo and remix work. Coming from the heart and soul, his tunes are uplifting and get the feet and hips moving. We just had to check in with him:

(Photo by Joseph Beeson)

Please give us some background about growing up, your early years and how you got into being involved in music.

I grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, but also lived briefly in Caracas and Puerto Rico as a kid.

When I was a boy, around age 10 or so, I’d often spend long periods of time alone as my mother was not in town. In those days, my neighborhood was the infamous “Alphabet City”, and at night I would often find it hard to sleep because I was afraid someone would break into the apartment while I slept. Plus I wanted to drown out the sounds of the drug dealers and people fighting that could be heard from my window. So I would listen to every station from one end of the dial to the other on a small radio I had. The last station of the night was always WBLS and this is how I grew to love disco, R&B, funk and soul. The Chief Rocker Frankie Crocker was my favorite DJ and I always looked forward to his show as he always played the hottest tunes.

By age 11-12, I was a B-boy and Hip Hop was the biggest influence in the way we looked at the world. There weren’t that many actual Hip Hop records in existence at that time, so we’d often tape-record the Friday night radio shows and blast the same tape the whole week until the next show. We would also just loop a break and bump it all the time everywhere we went on the boombox. I remember Bob James’
“Mardi Gras” was one we rocked for ages. 90-Minute cassette tapes with just that ONE break on both sides! hahaha. Those breaks always provided the atmosphere when we would bomb graffiti in the train yards.

The Lower East Side at the time was a place where you had Latin descargas going on in the East River Park on Saturday afternoon, punk rockers coming to buy their dope dressed in the wildest clothes as b-boys uprocked to Spoonie Gee. Everything was very mixed in New York in those days and no one made a big deal of it. It was all part of city life. I became intrigued by the punk rockers and wondered what it was all about, so one day I decided to go to a show. It was a Bad Brains show at the Jane
Street Rock Hotel and my friends and I left the place with our minds blown. I had never seen so much energy, camaraderie and vibes in one room. These people had an “outsiders” club of their own and I wanted to be a part of it. So I went deep in that direction during my teens. 

What other sounds did you hear growing up that really got you jumping!

As a child I primarily heard opera, as my mother is a lifelong fan. When she was around, the works of Puccini and Verdi or anything featuring Maria Callas would often be heard in the house, as she was one of my Mom’s favorite singers. Opera didn’t get me “jumping” but I could tell this was complex and well arranged music. We lived with my stepfather for a couple of years and he was a huge Fania All Stars fan, so I was exposed to a lot of Ismael Rivera, Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe’s music and I began to love it myself. The music that I would say changed my life was early hip-hop. I remember as a kid how the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” could be heard blasting at every block party, in every house and in every school dance in 1978-79. That one tune switched things into overdrive. The Treacherous Three, The Funky Four + One More, and pretty much everything Kurtis Blow was putting out at the time were also anthems we would rock until the grooves started to wear out. Now THAT got me jumping for many years.

From there I became drawn to guitar driven bands and eventually landed on punk and hardcore music because I could identify with a lot of its frustration and explosive energy. So certainly, Bad Brains, Fear, Black Flag and bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds and MDC caught my interest. What I liked most was that these groups were really saying something lyrically, something relevant. Not all, but many of the people making that music were thinkers, they questioned the status quo.

At what point did you get involved with the NYHC scene? Could you tell us about those days?

I got into the hardcore music in the early-mid 80s. One afternoon I was loitering around Tompkins Square Park and struck up a conversation with John Omen, who played bass for Warzone at the time. He invited me down to The Pyramid club and introduced me to Raybeez who asked me if I would like to work with them as a roadie and I accepted immediately. During my time in hardcore I was fortunate to meet and share great (and some very sketchy) experiences with a lot of great people from the scene. It was an exciting period of time because there was a lot of “new” energy around and groups forming all the time. I learned so much about the world of underground, independent music during that period. Had I not known any of this, Kokolo would have never been able to tour so many countries, and I certainly would not be making music today. They taught me valuable things: dedication, conviction and above all, tenacity. Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Never let anyone dictate your limitations. Based on these beliefs I taught myself how to write and produce funky music I could only dream of as a kid.

Back in those days, the scene had been around for about 5-6 years as “hardcore” but there were scant labels to be found and there was still and air of innocence to be found as these musicians were doing it because they HAD to, not because of a record advance, contractual obligation etc. The fanzine
Maximum Rock and Roll was sorta part scene bible/part gossip column and served to keep all the scenes around the country informed on the comings, goings and misdeeds/indiscretions of bands or specific people. There was no internet then, so things were done via actual letters and phone calls. Cassette demos were very popular and you could just mail 3-5 bucks in cash and get your music in a couple of weeks or so. Most bands scraped up the cash to record their demos and sell them outside of CBGB’s during their Sunday matinees. I think I still have my Sick Of It All cassette demo somewhere hahaha. New York City bands at the time did not have the same marquee draw that West Coast bands like Circle Jerks, Black Flag etc or even DC guys like Minor Threat, but it didn’t take too long for the city to gain a strong foothold nationally after bands like Cro Mags, Murphy’s Law, Crumbsuckers and Agnostic Front began to release properly recorded, distributed and marketed albums.

I remember the few places that actually would give many of those bands a break in order to play live were churches and VFW halls. It didn’t matter where they played anyways, as the venue would often be filled, kids would know the songs and we were just thrilled to be out of NYC. 


(Ray & the Boogaloo Destroyers live at Nublu, NYC summer 2014)

What led to your involvement with Underhanded Studios? How much studio experience did you have at this point? What are some notable projects that came out of there?


Around 1989, hardcore began to transition into more of a heavy metal/rock sound as a result of the rise in popularity and influence of Guns & Roses’ sound. I began to sing in a hard rock group called Twin Barrels Burning at the time. We released a 7” on Dutch East India to little fanfare. During those days I was not the most reliable frontman, as my performances fluctuated from great to unwatchable. We had worked hard to generate a buzz in the East Village and we got word that Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records, would be in attendance at our show that weekend. I’m not sure if it was nerves or what but I drank too much before the show and ruined the performance for my bandmates. The big record company bigwig heard a song and a half and got back on his white limo and left. Soon after, I deservedly got booted from the band.

It was then I decided never to let my actions ruin another opportunity and to return to the DIY ethos I picked up from hardcore. One night I bought a 4-track TASCAM recorder from a junkie on St. Marks Street and locked myself in my apartment reading over the instructions manual in order to learn how to operate the thing. This is what inspired me to open up UnderHanded Records on Ludlow Street.

Before Underhanded, I didn’t have a clue how recordings were assembled but had the good fortune to befriend a fellow named Steven Walcott who did and together we taught each other what the other lacked.

The label itself was moderately successful, but should have been more so. It was quite eclectic sound-wise, ranging from Latin Ska to Industrial, Dub Punk and Indie. This was at a time when small indie labels HAD to specialize on one specific style because of the financial risk involved plus the expectations of its buying public. I’m thinking of Touch and GO, Dischord etc. Only major labels had the financial freedom to delve into a much wider variety of genres at the time.

One of our most notable acts were the Latin-Ska band King Chango. They eventually would go on to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and featured Martín Perna, who would start Antibalas, as well as Fernando Velez, who became Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings' conguero. I still have fond memories of the fun nights recording those early songs.

Also at Underhanded, we befriended Phil Lehman and Gabe Roth when they first began Desco Records, which would eventually morph into Daptone Records. They cut their first two albums there along with a host of singles, and seemed to always have a good time during the sessions. 


 What was your path into wanting to start Kokolo? What has been going on with it?

The first time I ever heard Fela Kuti’s music was at Gabe Roth’s apartment on Houston Street around 1994-95. His label partner at the time was a French fellow named Phillip Lehman and together they had launched Desco Records. Philip had been one of the first French B-boy and graffiti writers in Paris and was a true connoisseur of funk, soul and African music. One afternoon I stopped by their place and they were spinning some Fela. The long ass solos and just general song length didn’t appeal to me at the time. It took me a good 6 years for me to one day purchase a Fela CD and discover the brilliance of his compositions. My ears had to mature before I could appreciate his work.

From that point I wanted to challenge myself and see if it would be possible to even attempt forming an afrobeat group given my limited playing skills. I knew that rock’s formulaic structures no longer enthused me and I aspired to become a better songwriter and arranger. Of course I knew I would never touch the genius of Fela but I was convinced I could write more complex music than I had ever done before. This became the idea behind forming Kokolo. Now, 13 years after forming the band I feel it was one of the best experiences of my life for I have had the incredible good fortune to be surrounded by and to have met fantastically accomplished musicians who have shared their talents with me over the years. Some of the guys that have played with me are truly world class.

Currently, we are finishing up Kokolo’s fifth studio album, which will be out in January 2015. We plan on doing an extensive tour in support. Most of the guys in the band have been busy working on a variety of new music projects for the past couple of years and it’s time to get on the road again.

I find it amazing that Kokolo has toured so much out of the US (Europe, Africa, Asia). Why so few gigs in the States? Are there any particular cities or regions (worldwide) that have given tremendous love?

When I started the band, I understood that it would take between 10-12 years for the band to be known globally given the fact that most of the recording, marketing and touring would be DIY and that I was never going to seek a “Big” label for there was nothing they were going to do for me, except lock us into a disadvantageous and protracted contract. In addition, I have always been supportive of nascent “afro” scenes and clubs in a lot of countries and they in turn have repaid our support with logistics, shows and warm friendship. The music I write with Kokolo is intended to make people dance. It’s hard and it’s funky. In a way it is quite aggressive, in a seductive way. This works well at many of the venues that have been kind enough to host us, wherever in the world they may be.

In the United States, we only play established “nights” in clubs or events where afrobeat and afro-funk is already embraced and the crowd is built-in. Indeed, Kokolo is quite capable of booking a 35 date Coast to coast US tour, but the reality is that by the time we hit Detroit we would find a lot of empty rooms. This would be de-moralizing and pointless. We would go into serious financial debt just to pretend everyone in America is into Afrobeat, which is not at all the case. Kokolo has never lost money on a tour and this is what gives us the freedom to continue to bring our live show to wherever it makes sense.

Region-wise, there are so many great cities, countries and events we have played it is hard to pin down the top ones, but some that do stick in my mind would be The Glastonbury Festival, The Montreal Jazz Festival, playing on a floating boat club in Paris, Bullrings in Spain, the insane sound system at Block 33 in Thessaloniki Greece, Gypsy spots in Romania, Italian Beach Festivals and on and on. We got a lot of love from all of those different types of crowds. If you are one of them and you are reading this: Thank you, Merci, Gracias, Danke, Obrigado, Epharisto and Grazie! 

Could you fill us in on how Kokolo gets its music together? Are you the chief songwriter? How steady is the crew of musicians?

I write all of the music and lyrics for Kokolo. In the beginning, I collaborated on a couple of songs with others but when the time came to license songs for compilations, soundtracks etc problems arose. I didn’t want to deal with that again, so ever since, I write everything and things run smoothly.

All Kokolo songs start with a beat, upon which I try to place the fattest and funkiest bass line I can come up with. After those two are set I add the guitar lines, a tenor and a rhythm. Horn lines are then placed in specific places that will add dynamics to the tune and gel with the vocals. I usually listen for a few weeks to those elements and then come up with the chorus, it is only at that point that I know what the song will be about and then I write the lyrics and melodies.

During the first 4 years we had many different musicians come through the door and it took an average of about a year each to find permanent musicians who not only had the skills to play the music as I envisioned it, but that also had stage charisma as well as being pleasant and conscious people. The present lineup has been together for about 6 years now, except for our trombonist, Chris Morrow, who has been with me from day one. Kokolo would not be going today if it weren’t for Chris’ invaluable input and friendship.


Could you explain the different approaches you take to writing music for your various projects? When something pops in your head and you start building it, do you have an idea of which project you want it to be for?

Some songs have come from just bits and pieces I assemble from various sketches I have lying around. From 2008 or so I began to envision more funk and soul driven tunes in collaboration with female vocalists. I felt this material would be out of place within Kokolo and so I dubbed it “L.E.S. Express”, which was the name of a roller skating crew from my neighborhood when I was a kid. Same for the Boogaloo material, I thought it was best to give it an individual identity, separate from the other projects.

I had several sketches that were kinda finished when I befriended Dusty from the Jazz & Milk label over in Munich. After I sent them to him, he felt there was enough there for a proper solo album and that’s how
“We Walk Around Like This” came about. That Jazz & Milk release was the one who opened the door for me to explore a much wider range of influences than I had ever before.

I am fortunate to write any style of music I like when the inspiration hits me, as I believe there are only two kinds of songs: the ones that make you feel something and the ones that do not. I try to keep on the feeling side of things. 


How often do you play the music of each of your projects live in concert? Has LES Express ever played live to an audience?

The L.E.S. Express has remained a studio-only project for the moment. We had discussed the possibility of jumping over to the U.K. for some shows back when Roxie Ray was living there for a bit, but the logistics never materialized and the opportunity faded.

With the rest of the projects, it depends on promoter demand and whether it makes sense. Currently I play with Kokolo, The Boogaloo Destroyers as well as play solo shows and/or DJ. It just depends on what project works best with a particular audience. We usually plan tours 5-6 months in advance and try to go out for as many
weeks as possible once or twice a year.

How many instruments do you play? Do you engineer all of your own recording?

I play guitar, bass, congas, clave, and a tiny pinch of keys. I’m not very advanced in any of these instruments but I play enough to convey the general ideas, which are then enhanced by the real instrumentalists in the band.

The first Kokolo album was engineered by Gabe Roth at Daptone, and we had sporadic engineers sit in between the second and third albums. I engineered the fourth album, and the new one was engineered by our guitarist, Jake Fader, in Cleveland. When it comes to my solo music, I do some of the engineering with crucial help from my friend, Ian Toole.

When you work with vocalists like Roxie Ray and Elani, do they record their vocals from afar or did you get together in the studio? I had never heard these singers until hearing them on your LES Express records. How did you discover these talents?

It was funny, because I actually first met Roxie Ray in person when I toured Australia in 2012, almost 3 years after the music was released. I had first heard her voice singing lead for Dojo Cuts, a great funk band and label mates of Kokolo on Record Kicks. We met for coffee in Sydney and the next night we did a radio interview together. She is a fantastic singer with soul for miles. The way we worked together was great because, unlike many singers, she can actually write her own lyrics and come to the table with concepts. I would send her the rough instrumentals and she would reply with finished hooks and lyrics. She rocks and is a pleasure to work with.

I met Elani through Kokolo’s bass player, Kavin Paulraj, as he had spent quite a bit of time in Brazil and is a dear friend of Elani. She had never sung before and I was playing back the instrumental track when it occurred to me that the tune would benefit from some Portuguese singing. She agreed and we were able to track her and Kavin in just a couple of takes. I love the spontaneity aspect of that tune because it all flowed very naturally and chill, just like I wanted the tune to sound. Elani is a beautiful soul.

Is there a basic philosophy or attitude that you generally convey with your music?

In parallel to my music, my philosophy on life has evolved over time. I used to believe that positive change could come through the collective, in an orderly and cohesive manner. I now believe that change can only come through the modest but continued actions of the individual.

I once believed revolution was the answer, but now feel evolution is far more important. I hope we can begin to concentrate our brainpower on developing new models of living harmoniously not only among ourselves but in cooperation with our natural world. Politics, nationalities, money or status will be useless when there is no clean water to drink or non-polluted air to breathe.

The artwork on every album I have released contains a maxim I came up with many years ago: “Live more, consume less, with more joy and less stress”, with this I try to encourage listeners to collect experiences, not items.

I just have to ask: what goes through the Ray Lugo creative brain when he hears a Duran Duran tune and decides to voodooize it? One of my favorites, man!


Most people think of Duran Duran as 80s pop icons, but if you listen closely you will come to find out that those guys can really play their butts off. I always liked the concept and bass line of “Girls on Film”, so one night I thought “why not?” and rang up the boys with the idea. We had a lot of fun tracking that one and was happy when their bassist, John Taylor, posted Kokolo’s version on their site a couple of years ago.

Who have been the most exciting artists you have heard in recent times?

There have been a couple that got me excited to check their music:

The Aggrolites are one. I found their “dirty reggae” to be the perfect mix of soul, reggae and punk attitude.

Stromae: Belgian dance artist. Great video concepts and lyrically exceptional.

Chet Faker: Really like what he’s been doing with his productions. Unassuming but deeply soulful. Good key works.

Phil France: Exceptional mood pieces. I think of him as a modern day Satie. 

: Not a band, but this Haitian sound really gets me going these days. Too many brilliant groups to mention in one sitting.

Little Dragon: I understand they are currently the flavor of the month, but really love how she places her vocals on top of the jangly rhythms. Impeccable.

What forthcoming projects can we look forward to?

Kokolo - Album #5 out early 2015

Los Terrificos - New Psychedelic Chicha/Spaghetti Western project Album out Summer 2015

New Solo Album – Out Early 2016

New remixes – Out Winter 2014/Spring 2015

Tours: KOKOLO/BOOGALOO DESTROYERS/SOLO/DJ throughout 2015-2016

Besides the music, what are some of your other personal interests?


I like to read a lot of Eastern Philosophy writings, things like Khrishnamurti, Osho and Buddha. I am also a beginner student of yoga.

I have also recently gotten back into following sports after many years away. I have become an avid fan of the English and Spanish soccer leagues, as well as the NBA and NFL.

In addition I volunteer as Director of a soccer program for kids with disabilities. I have learned much from spending time with people that are so grateful that you give of your time. Seeing smiles on their faces is a great inspiration.

What have been your favorite cities you have lived in or visited?

I love different cities for many reasons, but some of my favorites are:

Paris: Because you can simply walk around at night and gawk at the amazing architecture and aura of the city for hours on end.

Tokyo: Endless things to see. Whole different way of looking at things!

Manila: One of the friendliest places I have ever visited. Down-to-earth and vibrant.

Sydney: Too pretty for words.

Rome: Another place where it pays to walk around the ruins at 4AM!

Marrakesh: Top food, deals on everything and exotica galore.

Could you recommend a few favorite current restaurants?


New York: Carmine’s for the best Italian meal.

Larios for awesome Cuban food on South Beach. And if it’s too packed, you can scoop a sandwich from a window shop around the corner. Both great.

Chez Coor’s for the best Jamaican food.

Issaya Siamese Club. Mind blowing food served in a picturesque 100 year-old heritage house.

Name a few records that you count among your all time favorites.

Bad Brains – ROIR tape: --For many years during the initial stages of American hardcore, the bad brains were simply one of the most energetic, engaging and out there groups in the country, both on and off the stage. 


Ruben Blades – Siembra: --In the early 80s, Ruben was looked up all across Latin America as the “intellectual” salsero, the one who poetically voiced the concerns of the everyman. This album forever cemented his reputation as such. 


Tom Waits - Small Change: --After moving on from the punk and hardcore scenes in the early 90s we began to play blues based hard rock and began to delve deeper into artists like Thin Lizzy, Merle Haggard and Tom Waits. Tom and Randy Newman are master story-tellers and on this album in particular, I find Tom to be at his peak of conceptual ingenuity. 


Chic - C’est Chic: --Bernard Edward’s bass lines are the reason why I became interested in playing bass and much of my music features many of Nile Rodgers’ funky guitar chords. I always loved the sophistication of the arrangements and the incredibly tight grooves. Was thrilled to bits when Kokolo got the chance to play with Chic in Europe some years ago. They were still sharp as ever. 


Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: --The way in which PE blasted upon the scene was absolutely thrilling. Their message had never been delivered in such a funky and relevant manner before, their live shows were real spectacles. The Ying and Yang provided by Chuck and Flave were brilliant. I mean, it got to the point where we actually began to believe a revolution was eminent! Bold, innovative, funky and honest. 


Contact Ray at
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  Post author: Andujar


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