“BASS IS WHAT MADE ME WHO I AM,” PROCLAIMS JERRY “WONDA”
Duplessis—a weighty statement considering the extraordinary path he has traveled from
his humble Haitian village to Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, and co-owner of a
top New York City recording studio, Platinum Sound. Cousin of one of pop’s most
eclectic poets, Wyclef Jean, Duplessis has worked with a wide array of chart-toppers.
This includes collaborating with “Clef” to co-write, produce, and play bass for such hits
as Santana’s “Maria, Maria,” Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love,” Mary J. Blige’s
“911,” Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” “Million Voices” from the film Hotel Rwanda, and the
Fugees’ breakout classic CD, The Score. As Wyclef’s musical director and bassist,
Duplessis really gets to stretch on his Pensa 5-string. During a typical marathon show, Jerry
can be heard issuing imposing reggae lines that pivot provocatively between straight and
shuffle phrasing, adding upper-register melodic density to sparse hip-hop grooves, and
stepping out for a shuddering slap solo.
Born and raised in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Duplessis
grew up to the sounds of native Rara music and the blend of Creole, Spanish, and U.S.
“cowboy” music he heard in church. Like his older brothers, he started on guitar, but his
mother bought him a bass at age 14. “As soon as I touched it I knew I’d found my
calling,” he laughs. “I started playing it in church and suddenly all the girls were looking at me, and I was even more convinced!
I became known as Te Bass, which
means ‘little bass,’ because the instrument
was too big for me.” An older
musician in town taught him how to
navigate chord changes, and Jerry soon
learned every one of Aston “Family Man”
Barrett’s Bob Marley bass lines, as well
as James Jamerson’s work on Marvin
Gaye’s What’s Going On album, which
was a staple on the radio. “Those are my
two main guys; they played melodies on
bass. Later, I also got into Jaco and Lee
Sklar for the same reasons.”
At 16, Duplessis was sent to the U.S.
to be raised by his father, Reynold, and
his aunt (Wyclef’s mom). With the families
settled in East Orange, New Jersey,
Reynold saw Jerry and Wyclef’s interest
in music and dedicated the basement of
his home to become their recording studio.
Jerry, meanwhile, took gigs with reggae,
salsa, merengue, and wedding bands,
which expanded his playing and helped
pay for studio gear. He also attended the
Institute of Audio Research. Soon, the “Booga Basement” was up and running, serving
musicians and rappers from Jersey to
Brooklyn. This included Wyclef’s trio, the
Fugees (with Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel),
whose smash second album, The Score, forever
changed the face of hip-hop and soon
drew everyone from Queen Latifah to Bono
to the studio. “It was like our own little
Motown,” notes Jerry. Seeking to continue
that spirit, Wyclef and Duplessis opened Platinum
Sound just off Times Square in 2003.
It was there that we talked to Jerry, as he
worked on tracks for Estelle and the
Cheetah Girls’ Adrienne Bailon, to get his
insight on making bass in the current music
How does bass enter the process when
you’re writing songs or producing songs
for other artists?
Usually it all starts with a bass line or a
groove in my head. Then I go to my [E-mu]
SP-1200 or [Akai] MPC-3000 and make a
drum beat, and I’ll put down a scratch version
of the bass line. If I don’t have a bass
line, the drum part will inspire something. But the real key for me is following the song’s
melody. Often, after the groove is down and
I come up with the melody of the song, I’ll
scrap my original bass line and create a new
one that better suits the melody. If I’m working
with an artist on their song, I’ll have
them sing the melody and I’ll play along on
bass until I arrive at something I like. The
best bass lines to me are the ones where you
find an open space in the track to contribute
an original musical statement while still
being locked into the groove and supporting
the song. To achieve that I need to really
focus and get in a zone, so sometimes I don’t
end up putting bass on a track until it’s
You’re able to shade your bass lines
in different parts of the pocket.
That all starts with having your time
together. I learned about time from listening
to rara bands in Haiti playing for eight
hours straight, without ever speeding up or
slowing down! I try to make sure my bass
and the kick don’t sound quantized, so after
the downbeat I usually lay back a little bit;
it’s the reggae side of me. That’s why the hihat
is my best friend—I play off that and then get back to the one. No matter how busy
or basic my part is, most important of all
to me is that I’m married to that kick drum.
If the bass and kick aren’t locked you can’t
make people dance.
How do you decide what instrument
and sound is right for a track?
It’s really just a feeling; I try to be open
and go with the spirit of the music and the
artist—even the energy of whomever is in
the room. I’ll also get a vibe from picking
up and playing different basses; the tone
and feel of the instrument will inspire a
direction. Often, I’ll have the bass line doubled
by keyboards and other instruments,
or I may have more than one bass part
going. Other times it’s just bass through
various plug-in effects or even clean, like
on [the Fugees’] “Killing Me Softly.” Generally,
I record my bass guitars direct, with
an additional track of a miked amp in a
vocal booth about half the time.
Do you approach your bass lines differently
when an artist is rapping?
I definitely keep them simpler so they
don’t clash with the rapper. Remember, if
someone is rapping, they’re talking, so you
don’t want to play all over what they’re
saying. You want a part with a lot of space
that’s repetitive, so listeners aren’t distracted
and can focus on the lyrics. Probably the
best way to create tension or contrast is to
have the bass line drop out and in again.
What’s Wyclef’s take on bass?
Clef and I both come from a background
of seeing musicians perform in
church. He loves to play all the instruments
and he really has an affinity for anything
he picks up. He has always been
into bass from watching me. In the studio
we work together on all aspects of the
song and track, including bass—we’re like
Sly and Robbie. I’ll say this is how the
bass line should go, and he’ll say no, lets
do this instead here. Sometimes he’ll start
a bass line on guitar and ask me to run
with it. Live, it’s crazy; we just try to have
fun and be free. We’ll go from hip-hop to
rock to reggae to DJ to pop to freestyle,
where I’ll play his guitar and he’ll play my
bass; or we’ll trade my bass back and forth
playing slap solos at each other.
What advice can you offer to young
Learn bass and overall musicianship
as completely as you can, but at the same
time be open to playing other instruments
and especially to writing music. Look at
how many top bassists are doing more
than just playing bass now. Every day, no
matter where we are, Clef and I try to
come up with melodies and record them
for use down the road. The reality is one
day you could wake up with a bass line
in your head that could change the whole
world of music.
Main basses Pensa 5-string; fretless
Rob Allen MB-2 5-string; PBC Burton
headless 5-string; Fodera Anthony
Jackson 6-string; fretless ’65 P-Bass;
Epiphone El Capitan 5-string
acoustic bass guitar; Fender Squier
Jazz Bass; Carlo Robelli 8-string
Strings DR Hi-Beams
Rig Aguilar DB 750
head with two GS
410 4x10 cabinets
Recording Neve mic preamp as DI; Apple
Logic Guitar Rig
With the Fugees The Score, Sony; Blunted
on Reality, Ruffhouse. With Wyclef Jean
Carnival, Vol. 2: Memoirs of an Immigrant,
RCA; Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101, Eagle
Rock; The Preacher’s Son, J Records;
Masquerade, Columbia; It Doesn’t Matter,
Columbia; Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, Columbia;
Presents the Carnival Featuring the
Refugee Allstars, Sony. With Santana
Supernatural, Arista. With Mick Jagger
Goddess in the Doorway, Virgin. With Queen
Latifah Order in the Court, Motown.
With Shakira “Hips Don’t Lie” single, Epic.
With R. Kelly The R. in R&B Collection, Vol.
1, Jive. With Pras Michel Win Lose or Draw,
Universal. With Labelle Back to Now, Verve.
With the Neville Brothers Valence Street,
Columbia. With Aventura Last, Strichcode.
Soundtracks Ghosts of Cité Soleil, Sony
BMG; Hotel Rwanda: Original Soundtrack,
In the head and hands of Jerry Duplessis, the musical and sonic possibilities of the bass guitar are boundless—from
Haitian-informed hip-hop to Wyclef’s world pop, from three strings to six. Duplessis addresses his basses several ways:
Finger plucking with index and middle finger, slapping with thumb and index, palm-muting with either a thumb pluck
or a heavy-gauge guitar pick, and curled-hand fingerstyle, using thumb, index, and middle-finger plucks.
Example 1 contains the dubby one-bar groove of the Fugees’ “Vocab” [from Blunted on Reality, 1994]. Jerry used
his Fodera 6 to bring the thud; let the harmonics ring. Example 2 shows the slippery two-bar groove of the Fugees’
“The Mask” [from The Score, 1996]. Jerry cut the part using a beat-up Cort fretless that was missing knobs and its E
string; make believe you have a metal guitar slide on your finger, and take your time on the slides. Example 3 features
Jerry’s basic groove on the Santana hit, “Maria, Maria” [from Supernatural, 1999]. Among the keyboards, percussion, and other instruments
doubling the ostinato is Jerry’s PBC Bunker headless 5-string. Be sure to match the note durations.
Turning to Wyclef’s solo career, Ex. 4 contains the chorus groove of “Fast Car” [with Paul Simon on guest vocals, from Clef’s Carnival,
Vol. 2: Memoirs of an Immigrant, 2007]. Check out how Jerry rhythmically varies his Pensa 5-played root-5th-octave part. Jerry stretches
melodically via his Pensa on the verse of the Wyclef/Norah Jones collaboration “Any Other Day” [also from Carnival], shown in Ex. 5. Dig his
fill at the end of bar 4. Finally, Ex. 6 is taken from a live Wyclef concert in Nigeria just after Christmas 2009, with Jerry showing his reggae
chops on a version of “Diallo” [from Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book, 2000]. If you summon up the YouTube version, note all of his melodic
variations by playing the notes of the chords in different inversions.