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JAMAICA BY WAY OF L.A. :: DUPPY GUN'S TRANSFORMATIVE DANCEHALL

JAMAICA BY WAY OF L.A. :: DUPPY GUN'S TRANSFORMATIVE DANCEHALL

By Senay Kenfe

Behind every great musical enterprise in Jamaica, there is the divine riddim, the holy breath blown into the chest of clay and given life as the dub. It is believed in the melodious jewel of the Carribean that the spirits of those before (Duppy) manifest themselves and communicate with this world through the music that is created by human conduits. As the eternal Lee “Scratch” Perry once said,”Dub is the ghost in me coming out.” It is only fitting that these ghosts show themselves in a culture rich in remixing and reinventing avenues of empyrean excursions via the power of music.

This was the underlying theme behind a trip to Portmore, Jamaica, three years ago by Los Angeles-based musicians Cameron Stallones (Sun Araw) and M. Geddes Gengras. A chance collaboration with legendary roots reggae group The Congos led to a self-released 12″ that has now transcended into a new movement of sound: Duppy Gun Productions. Duppy Gun fuses the artistry of Jamaican local vocalists like I Jahbar, Early One, Fyah Flames, and Boofka - with the futuristic, texturalized production of an ensemble of Americans; Peaking Lights, Matthewdavid, D/P/I, San Gabriel, operating under all-new nom de guerres in true dancehall fashion. Led by Cameron and Geddes, the group of musicians have created a fascinating cultural concoction that shifts what we might conceptualize dancehall and reggae music to be; what can and cannot be done across borders.

Last week, we headed east into Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, into a small, unassuming house on a hill to meet Cameron and Geddes. We discussed the upcoming release of Multiply, Duppy Gun Prod. Vol. 1 on Stones Throw - a compilation album that represents a sort of cultural immersion that was birthed in their austere studio in Jamaica. They let the art speak for itself, and the mythology, and the currency of experience and DIY.

SENAY KENFE: So Duppy Gun, which was born in Kingston, I know is an herb that you put in tea and stuff like that. Where did the inspiration for the name come from?
GEDDES GENGRAS: They have all these tonics in Jamaica, these sort of health drinks that are kind of like a rooty version of an energy drink where they just load it up with all these herbs. Usually they’re supposed to be for your “male power.” And “Duppy Gun” was one of the things in there. We really liked the name and we asked Sixteen - who was one of the guys we were with - what Duppy Gun was and he explained to us, “Duppy is a ghost and the Duppy Gun is when you throw the little blossoms into the water and they pop and they shoot the ghosts” [laughs]. And we’re like, “All right - that’s cool.”

Cameron: We actually have the inception of the name on video, which is kind of rare. Because our friend was there filming the project. There are these roots drinks you can get at some bars there, but then there’s just bicycle guys who make their own and are mostly Rastas. It’s a really deep herbal tonic, so it comes in a wine bottle [holds up hands] THIS big. And of course, the herb names are so deep like “blood wiss,” “strong back,” “woman moon,” “man back,” “woman back.” And there’s a shot of me [in the Duppy Gun documentary] when I’m reading it and we get to “Duppy Gun” and we’re like, “What’s Duppy Gun?!

Geddes: Bob Marley was the Duppy conqueror. We aim to shoot the spirits down.

So for those that don’t know, you guys spent [some time in Jamaica]?
Geddes: It was amazing, it rained a couple times, but other than that, it was 80 degrees every day. We were in Jamaica for nine days, initially, to make a record with this group, The Congos.

Cameron: The way that sessions work, obviously, is that musicians just start to roll up and chill out and try to get on the session. We were there really specifically to work with The Congos so we kept telling people, “Sorry, man.” We were just there as artists, we weren’t doing any label dealing so we were sort of like, “Yeah man, we’re just here to work with them and that’s all we can do.”

But eventually some of these dudes were so persistent and the vibe was such a family vibe that they’d come in the studio and we would just be chilling with them and eventually we sort of were playing them some stuff, then they started toasting on it. And we were like, “All right, well, we gotta do this.”

And it was immediately conceived as very separate from that Congos recording. It was like, “Okay, this is going to be Duppy Gun and we’re going to maybe start this label, I guess, where we make tracks and then get Jamaican vocalists on them.” And what was really exciting to us about it was that the tracks that we were playing them was the stuff that we had sort of discarded because we thought it was too weird or too minimal or didn’t have the right vibe, and definitely wasn’t traditional dancehall beats.

…They kept being like, “Come on man, play me a rhythm.” And we’re just like, “I don’t know man, [our music] is pretty weird.” And then we’d play it for them and they’d just immediately just be like [snaps fingers] so eager and so down to collaborate. It was the marriage of this really nontraditional music with their kind of traditional dancehall and non-traditional dancehall vocals that we were like, “Oh, this is really unique.”

It was like a perfect example of cultural immersion. Two separate cultural figures coming together in one area.
Cameron: Both of them super potent, nobody was trying to meet anybody in the middle as far as the creation.

Geddes: Everybody was doing it their way. That was really cool.

Cameron: Right, but then the thing itself is somehow both, which is what’s so exciting.

Geddes: Yeah, and I don’t think it could’ve worked any other way. I think the reason why that record is successful and the reason that we’ve been able to build this relationship with these artists is that we went there and we really did Jamaica on their terms. And we sort of lived the way they lived and just kind of entered their lifestyle in a way that a lot of people don’t really get to do when you go someplace because you’re being shown one specific aspect of it.

You didn’t have a tourist moment.
Geddes: Yeah! [Laughs] Not until the third trip did we ever have anything that resembled a tourist moment and that was really weird and uncomfortable. But for the most part, it was going there and living with them in their homes and eating with them and just doing things their style and kind of surrendering to the way things work there.

Cameron: The Rasta sleep schedule, which is go to bed around sun down, get up mega early - it took a while to adjust to that. For a while, I didn’t realize how unique our experience of Jamaica was because at that time we were really living with The Congos, who were older Rasta mystics. Basically they have a monastic lifestyle - the way they eat and the way that they sleep and everything. That was our experience in Jamaica for the first two times we went there. It was spending all of our time with these guys in this community.

“[Duppy Gun is] a project that was created just by a total desire for understanding and communication.”

And when you guys got back, how would you describe the process of pitching Duppy Gun to Leaving Records and Stones Throw Records?
Geddes: We started off - when we got back and had the material for the first one, we didn’t even think about working with anybody. I think the immediate [thought] was, “We just have to put this out.” Maybe in the back of both of our minds was, “Nobody else is going to get this so let’s just do it,” [Laughs], “because then we can do it our way.” And we had this very specific vision for what we wanted to be, which was this sort of mysterious. I think as we’ve both gotten into collecting dancehall records and stuff, there’s this very specific, very stark style in the packaging that can make things very mysterious. Whether there’s only a couple names on there or there’s no actual names, just weird pseudonyms and a catalog number and a weird logo; it doesn’t tell you anything. So we had this idea of these 12″s that could end up filed in with all these other dancehall records.

Cameron: Something you would find in a thrift store that would just blow your mind. We’ve walked off a little bit, but there’s still a genuine effort to spread a fair amount of misinformation [laughs] within the Duppy Gun catalog about who’s doing what and all that kind of stuff because it’s just more fun.

It creates a mythology in the same sense that George Clinton would do with P Funk. Everyone’s some mythological creature.
Cameron: Exactly! That’s exactly right.

Geddes: And then in the Rasta culture, too, people have many different names. You go through your life and things happen to you or you do things and then you have a new name or someone will give you a new name and then - that’s your name. That was an experience we had with a guy that we’d been hanging out with a bunch - Tony, I think, inadvertently named him.

Cameron: Yeah, he renamed him and we were trying to find out his real name and he was like, “No, this is my name now, he laid it on me.”

Geddes: But the idea of the new names especially when we were starting to do [this] - we didn’t want it to be necessarily attached to Sun Araw [Cameron’s music moniker] or what I do, we want it to be its own separate thing. Then also starting to work with other producers that people know like Aaron [Doyes] from Peaking Lights or Matthewdavid - people who have their own careers. It was important to us that they enter into it on that same level and it’s like, “This isn’t about us as producers, this is about the vocalists.” Because that’s what we’re doing, we’re making vocal records. I think the real goal is to get this music, to get these artists out into the US and Europe and get them exposed to an audience that wouldn’t hear them otherwise.

So earlier you guys were talking about the concept of toasting, which might be unfamiliar to a lot of people who don’t particularly follow reggae music or dancehall music as a whole. I think it’s wonderful, the idea that in Jamaica, VP Records or something, can put out one LP of literally one rhythm and 15 people will do their own interpretation of it. Can you talk about what toasting is?
Geddes: Toasting came out of sound system culture. When there was a popular rhythm that people just wanted to hear over and over again, the DJ just decided to play it over and over again and people would chat over the records. They’d talk about the sound system, talk about their rivals or whatever. That’s basically - that is the birth of rapping. While it might not have been the inspiration all the way across the board, chronologically it predates hip-hop music.

Caribbean culture was really prevalent in New York where it started. And you know when you talk about those compilation records where they’ll have the same rhythm with like 20 different singers on it? It’s funny because when you go to a party in Jamaica they’ll do this - it’s basically karaoke - everybody will sing a song they wrote. And they’ll just play a couple of the stock rhythms, the ones that you hear all the time over and over again. And then everybody will go up there and sing their song and it doesn’t matter what key the rhythm is or what key the song’s in, they’ll just go for it anyways.

There is this real tradition there of vocalist culture. It’s vocalist-centric music. The bands and the rhythms are what they are, but in the end I think, in Jamaica, the most important thing is to be a great singer or be a great rapper, toaster, whatever it is you do.

So with the people you meet there that do that, they work really hard at it, take a lot of pride in it. Every vocalist we met would have a notebook just filled with all these songs that they had been writing; sometimes for years and years. So when you play them a rhythm they have the notebook out and they’re paging through and looking through all this work they have and finding something that works.

But it’s a real serious work ethic, there’s never that attitude of, “Oh, this track isn’t the right track for me,” or, “This track isn’t good enough for me,” or, “This track isn’t good enough,” or, “I don’t know how to go on this track.” It’s like, “Let me try it.” Sometimes it would just be a complete train wreck, but there was never a, “I can’t do this.” It’s just like, “Let me try it again.”

Cameron: Everyone has a notebook [of songs]. We met out vocalists in all sorts of different ways. Mostly just through connections with our friends that we made and they’re like, “Oh, you gotta hear this dude,” or, “This guy’s my neighbor and he’s amazing,” or, “There’s this kid down the street.” That happened several, several times. There’s this kind of sense, a lot of vocalists down there are just ready for that moment at any moment.

We approached Stones Throw before Matthew[david] was working there - he’s working there now and now he’s helping out and shepherding this whole record. But basically approached them because we had put out the first 12″ ourselves and we sold all of them and it did okay. But we didn’t make enough money to make another one on our own dime because we’re both just musicians.

[We thought], “Okay, we need to find someone that’s going to help us with this.” So we approached [Stones Throw]… and told them the concept and they got really excited about it. Then we asked Matthew and Aaron and our friend Butchy, my buddy Alex and a bunch of different producers. Alex is DPI, his Duppy name is Genesis Hull, Matthewdavid is Matthew David High Waistline, and Aaron Peaking Lights, Butchy - he’s a drummer and plays in Boredoms and has a solo electronic production called San Gabriel and he produces his DJ talent.

So yeah, that family is continuing to expand as we’re reaching out to more and more people. But that’s sort of how that all came about and then Stones Throw came into the picture and now they’re helping us release this compilation [Multiply, Duppy Gun Prod. Vol. 1], which we’re really stoked about.

What is your connection to reggae and dancehall music outside of the trip?
Cameron: Personally, Heart of the Congos was the first record I heard that got me really, really excited about reggae. I had always liked it but never really pursued it or looked into it with focus until someone played me that record. And then someone played me [Lee “Scratch” Perry’s] Super Ape and then I was like, “Alright, I need to look into this.” And it’s been a huge influence on my music since well before Sun Araw - the project that I do now - but there was a period, especially in Sun Araw, where it was listening to that and African music almost exclusively and it was a huge influence on the sounds I wanted to hear.

So it’s a very personal thing for me in that way. And then going there obviously just amplified all that and it’s become much more of a huge section of my life now.

Geddes: For me, I definitely grew up listening to a lot of reggae and dancehall. I grew up in the North East in Connecticut and there’s a strong Caribbean culture there, so there’s a lot of that music around; especially on the radio. Reggae music has been a big passion of mine for a long time, something I just really connect with and love. At it’s best, it has a really deep, beautiful, spiritual, political force to it that doesn’t exist in a lot of other music. I also think its place in the world and its place in the history of music is really amazing considering where it comes from.

Cameron: Right, the scale. When you go down there, that’s what blew our mind. The second day [Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace] from Burning Spear just rolls up. Then you start to realize there’s like 100 people involved in making these records; these records that have changed the world. There’s maybe 60 or 100 people that were just rolling around.

Geddes: There’s like 25 bass players that have played on every single reggae record you ever heard.

Cameron: That’s ever existed from Jamaica.

Geddes: And Jamaica’s not a big place. Everybody just lives in the same zone, which is cool. I don’t know there’s just - it’s hard to explain what it is about the music. But definitely a lot of my ideas about extended production technique and studios and instruments and all that stuff came from the music. I feel like my love for minimalism is definitely influenced by dancehall, especially of the '80s and '90s. That’s my zone, the late '80s and early '90s really minimal, cold, digital dancehall stuff.

That’s very evident in your guys’ production. But not minimalism in a sense that it’s simplistic, it’s just that less is more.
Geddes: Well, for the stuff that we do, the rhythms that Cameron and I do together, we’ve recorded all of it live. Except for “Earth” maybe, we overdubbed [the bass line]. It’s us jamming together, usually we’ll have - I’ll be working whatever the rhythmic drum machine or whatever we’re using for the drum sound, sometimes it’s a synthesizer, and then Cameron will have his keyboard set up and have it all synced together so that we can kind of jam. And then we have a mixer in the middle with all the effects ends and we can just sort of dub it in real time. It’s funny because a lot of people have asked us about doing remixes of our tracks and it’s basically impossible because -

Cameron: There are no stems.

Geddes: It’s all just one long stereo track because we record it all live. But that’s kind of the way we work on it together. And in making music like that I feel like less is always more. Less sounds mean the ones you have can be more powerful.

Cameron: That’s the thing, it’s limited - I mean, so far the tracks that we have produced together, which is the majority of Duppy tracks, they’re like that. You’re limited to what you’re actually doing, but everything is being touched by human hands at all times, which is important, I think, to the way that they sound. And the fact that they are loop-based but they’re not automated in any way and things are changing all the time. And also, this is the first time that I’ve ever made music specifically for vocalists. So the idea of leaving the room for the vocals to really have a home in the middle of it.

G Sudden.

How did you feel about juxtaposing where you guys are coming from and the production that you guys did? I don’t want to throw key words - but [you do a lot of] ambient music. And then you do a lot of eclectic experimental music with Sun Araw. Can you describe the liberties you felt you could take with production compared to where you guys [do on your own]?
Geddes: I feel like starting with The Congos’ record we really made the conscious decision - before we went down there, we got together and we talked about what we wanted to do. A couple things that we decided early on was that we didn’t want to make a reggae record because we realized that that was beyond our means. [Laughs] It was just a really bad idea. Why do that? There’s plenty of great reggae in the world, there’s people making great reggae today, we don’t need to step into that arena. The other thing is that it was important that what we did together was something that we did together. And that it wasn’t me glomming on to Cameron’s thing or Cameron glomming on to our thing, it was us meeting in the middle and creating something.

The circumstances of making a Congos record was that we were doing it really fast because we were only there for a little amount of time and the work all of a sudden piled onto us. We were working on the record so fast that we didn’t really have time to argue about anything or get mad or anything like that because were like, “We just have to get this done. We have to make this record.” In doing that, I think we developed a way of working with each other where it’s like we can sort of shut off the individual egos to a degree and just create based on each other’s -

Cameron: Like the parts of our practices that can talk to each other without needing a lot of translation.

Geddes: Because there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t cross over in what we do, but the parts that do tend to be maybe more on the philosophical side, not even necessarily the musical practice side.

“I think [DIY] can be the mark of true artistry; an unwillingness to wait for means.”

In what sense?
Geddes: Just the way we think about music and the way we sort of define our practice and the way we work with certain elements like duration and repetitiveness and minimalism - that’s a big one for us - and sounds. We’re both really obsessed with sounds.

Cameron: Like timbre… exactly. I think what he was talking about earlier too, about sort of dub being a big influence on the idea of studios and instruments. I mean, I think that’s something that we both came to like separate from dub in the sense that we both had the same problems a lot of dub producers have, which is just the limitation of equipment and possibility. I think that leads to a lot of creativity. People would often say to me about early Sun Araw stuff, “Wow, it sounds a lot like dub, were you trying to emulate these styles?” And I was like, “No, I just had a guitar pedal and I had a tape machine.” And you sort of find the same answers to the same problems. That’s something that comes out of a fiercely DIY spirit, which is something that we both share. Which I think can be the mark of true artistry; an unwillingness to wait for means. It’s an understanding that I can do something with what’s here, I don’t need to wait for something else.

So I think it was really - without being too grandiose about it - that was what made the connection with The Congos. The first few days [in Jamaica], Ashanti Roy would just come in and sit while we were working and he would be grooving it and loving it, but he would be like, “This is real different.” I remember there was one day when he just sort of looked at us and was like, “You guys are roots people.” In the sense of he’s like, “The way that you’re generating this music I can understand. Maybe it’s really different than what I’m used to, but I’m watching you work and I understand that where you’re working from is the same place that I work from.”

Geddes: It’s a spiritual practice.

Cameron: Yeah, and it has a lot to do with the generative spirit and creativity and improvisation and the ability to work around limitation and the ability to build a structure out of chaos - which is all art is I guess. We’ve tried to ride that same wave with Duppy Gun where we try not to sit down and be like, “Okay, we sort of want it to sound like '80s dancehall.” We want to just make things.

Geddes: What we sit down with is what we’re going to use. It’s always been our way that we’re going to find solutions to create something that we want to hear with whatever we have in front of us.

Cameron: And with Duppy, we purposely limit the palette.

Boofka.

Why do you think a lot of artists don’t take risks? Because this was a risk. A creative risk.
Geddes: I think risk means different things depending on where you are. As long as we’re learning lessons and progressing as artists and then also finding ways to contribute to the community and give back and be an active part of this continuum, then there is no risk; I don’t think it exists.

Is there anything that you guys want to end on? Thanks for having us.
Cameron: Look up this record [Multiply], look up the [documentary] videos. It’s a really complicated story and we found it’s been difficult to tell it fully because a lot of the times the music media just wants a sentence - and this is not a sentence, this is a weird paragraph. So I’m really happy that the film is there because you just see a lot of the life and a lot of what we experienced there. And that’s going to explain it better than we can.

Geddes: It’s a project that was created just by a total desire for understanding and communication. So if you approach it that way then hopefully they’ll connect. Watching the documentary, to me, is such a perfect way to wrap yourself in the experience. It’s important to us to record people where they live and where they work; their places. You can see I Jahbar’s farm and you can see the house that he’s building in Portland…

Cameron: It’s always important to acknowledge how people live to remember that there are other ways to live. Which isn’t to say that anyone’s is better than anyone else’s, but it’s so helpful to see that there are other ways to live; radically other ways to live.

It gives depth to the lyrics because you understand the anguish and pain, which is not to say that’s the only thing, but also the love and the happiness that people go through and bring to you guys.
Geddes: The depth of all those emotions are interconnected and there’s a really strong tradition in Jamaica of music made under oppression and life under oppression. So when you work with these people, yeah they have a spiritual perspective on their music because they have to. To them it’s -

Cameron: It’s medicine.

Geddes: Yes, and if we can engage with a tenth of that level of commitment, then we’re already doing something really great.

::

DUPPYGUN.COM

Duppy Gun’s Multiply, Duppy Gun Prod. Vol. 1 consists of a double vinyl LP that comes with a T-shirt - buy it here on Stones Throw. Duppy Gun is hosting a record release party this Saturday, November 22, at Jewel’s Catch One in Mid-City, Los Angeles - we’ll see you there. More info on that here.

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