“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 marketplace.
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 almost finished.
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 bassists?
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, Commotion.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
Dig his fill at the end of bar 4. Finally,
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.