Cameron Stallones and M. Geddes Gengras are definitely at home in L.A.
Stallones, with his sometimes-personal-alias, sometimes-actual-band Sun Araw, creates dark, dubby jams textured with New Age tones, somewhere between Terry Riley and King Tubby. Gengras is an engineer of tall, dripping celestial towers of synthesizer sound (released under his own name) and cybernetic dance grooves (under his techno alias, Personable). L.A. is an ideal home for both — long a haven for abstract electronic experiments that transcend the boundaries of the physical Earth, from John Cage to Flying Lotus, and a current American mecca for experimental sound.
Which sets up the premise of their Duppy Gun Productions project pretty perfectly: Two musical outsiders leave the comfort of L.A. to immerse themselves in a small scene of vocalists in Jamaica — one of the most influential, yet fundamentally conservative, music scenes in the entire world. From those beginnings, the duo saw the opportunity to create an entirely new thing.
"Duppy Gun is like creating our own whole world,” says Gengras. “When our world in L.A. met their world in Jamaica, we crossed over into a new place. And that felt like something that had to be documented and explored."
Duppy Gun’s output consists of several 12” singles and cassettes, many of which are collected on the 2014 full-length release “Multiply.” Their most recent EPs, “Lighter Thief” and “Fresh Clipp’d,” both feature guest vocalist I Jahbar, with vocalists Sikka Rhymes and Arafat Brigande guesting on the latter. More Duppy Gun releases are planned for 2017.
Their travels were documented by filmmaker Tony Lowe for a series of woozy, hyper-stylized YouTube videos, which join together into a single “visual dub” documentary that the musicians insist give listeners the best idea of their experience in Jamaica. The camera follows Stallones and Gengras as they sit in traffic, visit burnt-out buildings or fishing boats or hike down trails on their way to recording more vocalists, with footage of billboards, storefronts, and other half-surreal, half-mundane sights spliced in.
One segment features an amazing performance called “What Would You Say About Me" by local vocalist Fyah Flames, AKA Jodian Gordan. The riddim — created by DJ High Waistline, AKA L.A. experimental producer Matthewdavid — is huge and encompassing, a planetarium-sized projection of sound. But Gordan bends it back to the floor with the earnestness of her vocal. The video follows the action in the yard where the track was recorded before melting into a collage of corrugated metal fences.
The basis of the music is Stallones’ and Gengras’ productions, which start with the vague idea of traditional, stuttering dancehall riddims and distort their syntax. Molecular plinks and plonks are foregrounded; keyboards groan and croak; various rhythms and tones whirr like kitchen appliances and singe like firecrackers.
As with more typical dancehall records, though, adept vocalists — “toasters,” in the parlance — ski over the top of the challenging riddims, bringing their own rhythmic sophistication to bear on the duo’s twisted music. (Riddims are also provided for the project by Aaron Coyes of the band Peaking Lights, producer Butchy Fuego and Alex Gray, AKA producer-collagist D/P/I.)
Duppy Gun has its origins in another communal experiment. In 2011, the label RVNG Intl. flew Stallones and Gengras to Jamaica to record with The Congos, the legendary Jamaican vocal duo. The musicians set up in The Congos’ studio in Christian Pen outside Portmore, a ragged Kingston suburb, where they chiseled out a spiritual, hallucinogenic album that itself represented an earnest expedition toward musical common ground.
Meanwhile, local vocalists gathered in the yard outside the studio on word that a couple of American producers were in town. At first, Stallones and Gengras hesitated — they didn’t have much money to pay any of the singers — but they did have a couple instrumental tracks left over from The Congos’ record. The vocalists who had gathered outside were persistent, so while The Congos were laying down the vocal tracks, the pair decided to make a couple of recordings.
Those recordings, by two vocalists named Early One and Dayone, became side A and B of the first Duppy Gun 12”.
“The material was so compelling, it felt like it was a thing that needed to happen,” says Gengras. “The Congos are a great thing in that community, but there are also so many people around them who are amazingly talented. There are a lot of people who could use some more shine to get their stuff out there."
Since then, Gengras and Stallones (credited as “Velkro” and “Big Flite,” respectively) have traveled to Jamaica four more times, for about 10 days each trip. Each time they bring a glut of riddims created by themselves and their co-collaborators, and then play the riddims for vocalists, who choose one and sing over it.
Most of the vocalists they’ve worked with are also from Portmore, though they’ve also traveled to Spanishtown and Portland to record.
Instead of being thrown off by the strangeness of the music, the vocalists saw Duppy Gun’s offbeat riddims as a challenge. Gengras and Stallones say the Jamaicans they worked with were constantly motivated by the idea of one-upping each other, which worked to the duo’s advantage.
“That culture is perceived as being very musically conservative,” says Stallones, "so what was exciting to us was that we were bringing things that are very much outside the accepted forms of a dancehall beat or a reggae track, and they were being met with enthusiasm."
They were first struck by this when they recorded a song called “Spy,” with I Jahbar, a sort of elder in the circle they worked with.
"That beat is so squirrely, and there’s a little loop to it, but it also has me playing live drum pads,” says Gengras. “It goes all over the place, and the whole thing is phased all to hell — it’s really hard, and he just runs that track down the whole way. For like, two and a half minutes, it’s unbroken. Hearing that track originally, I liked it but I couldn’t even imagine what a vocal would do on it, and then he was doing something like that. When we heard that kind of stuff, it was like, 'Wow, wow, wow. This talent is really serious.'"
The seeming ease with which Gengras and Stallones came across talent doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that they didn’t (and don’t still) have some cultural distance to traverse. Doing business in Jamaica can be a little different, and not just because locals expect that the two outsider musicians from America to have more money to blow than they actually do.
“I learned very quickly that a lot of my conditioned, learned politeness was an enormous barrier to clarity,” Stallones says, while Gengras chuckles. "There’s really a sort of forceful and even at times machismo aspect of doing business down there that doesn’t come naturally to me as someone coming from suburban Texas, or whatever. We’ve had an education in just learning how to translate our desires in a clearer way down there."
In fact, after a few years of making records in Jamaica, the Duppy Gun crew say their focus has shifted from simply creating collaborative records to working with younger artists on creating and distributing their own records, while trying to establish something like a DIY ethos within the circle.
“For a lot of them there’s this history of dudes going down there [from the U.S.] who are involved in the large-scale mainstream western music industry,” says Stallones. “So we try to explain, ‘Hey, we make records, and we don’t make any money from them.' And they’re like, ‘Why?'”
The pair say they are hoping to work with younger artists — their collaboration with G Sudden and Bookfa being a prime example — in hopes of influencing the younger generation of artists in the circle.
“The internet blossoming down there is kind of making that understanding possible,” Stallones continues, "and that’s a huge part of what we feel like our work there is now — expressing to these kids that they don’t need some institution to come tell them they can create, that they can create on their own, and create for the sake of creating."
In that sense, the Duppy Gun project has not only drawn some very unpredictable and rewarding music out of its two principles, but it’s also endeavored to be a two-way street — bringing tech-enabled DIY sensibilities and a warped vision of dancehall to a circle of Jamaican musicians eager to step to the mic.
Top image: Musicians Cameron Stallones and M. Geddes Gengras started Duppy Gun after recording the "ICON GIVE THANK" album with legendary vocal duo The Congos. | RVNG Intl