Sun Araw in Jamaica

How the Cali underground's most righteous guitarist became an ambassador for dancehall

Music Feature
Medykal_OchoRios_TONYLOWE

“People have always said that Sun Araw has a heavy reggae and dub influence, but I was always a little self conscious — I didn’t know as much about that world as people seemed to think.”

A few years ago, Cameron Stallones, the man behind the vivid organs, sun-drenched guitar, and scattered rhythms of Sun Araw, couldn’t have imagined that he would soon be taking frequent trips to Jamaica, collaborating with reggae artists, and releasing the results on his very own dancehall label. But today, Duppy Gun — the imprint he runs with fellow California underground musician Ged Gengras — is releasing its third 12” record and the duo have found themselves inextricably linked with the island and music of Jamaica.

“I get a lot of Rasta calls on my cell phone these days,” laughs Stallones. “Artists we’ve worked with will call me when they see their stuff on YouTube or iTunes and they’re just ecstatic.”

Beyond the positive feedback from Jamaicans, the Duppy Gun releases, which pair experimental soundscapes made stateside with up-and-coming Jamaican vocalists, have found a niche with fans of the California underground and have begun to break into dancehall and DJ circles, as well. The interplay of the abstract, synthesizer-filled backing tracks and the amazingly passionate, melodic vocal performances results in a unique balance, a kind of postmodern dub music. 

With their newest release from I Jahbar (“such an incredible presence”) and Fyah Flames (“she’s like a mystical, dreaded-out Mary J. Blige”) and plans to keep the project going indefinitely, Duppy Gun has fully immersed its founders in the Jamaican musical culture. But Stallones and Gengras certainly didn’t start out with this plan.

In fact, this entire enterprise began in 2011 when Stallones was contacted by the head of a different record label. Matt Werth of New York-based RVNG Intl. was planning the next release in his label’s FRKWYS series, which pairs young, underground artists with legends from various genres. Werth pitched Stallones on the idea of collaborating with storied Jamaican roots reggae group The Congos and his answer was immediate.

Heart of the Congos is one of my favorite albums, so I had to say yes when it was them,” said Stallones. “Two and a half weeks later I was standing in Jamaica.”

In the meantime, Stallones paired up with Gengras, who had a more extensive knowledge of reggae and dancehall music, and who would serve as both a collaborator and the project’s audio engineer. 

While on paper the combination of Sun Araw’s refracted, pulsing song cycles and Gengras’s swirling synthesizers seemed like a perfect match for the dense rhythms and gorgeous vocal choruses of The Congos, on the ground in Jamaica the difference in styles and backgrounds was clear. “A lot of the guys had never heard our records,” said Gengras. “So when we were playing some of the ideas we had, the guys in the studio were nervous. We’d have a weird beat with Cameron playing some guitar over it, and there were definitely guys looking at us like, ‘Where’s the one drop? How are we supposed to work with this?’”

But as the group holed up in founding Congos member Ashanti Roy’s home studio, common ground started to emerge. While listening to the repetitive, slowly evolving tracks that Stallones and Gengras were working on, The Congos began comparing them to Rastafarian religious chants. “At some point Ashanti Roy said, ‘Oh, these are like Niyabinghi chants,’” said Stallones. “That really unlocked the structure for them. That’s when they started putting together these amazing vocal lines.”

Released in 2012, the resulting album, Icon Give Thank, is a warm, wobbling amalgamation of experimental dub rhythms, wiggling keyboards, and reverbed guitars. The distinct vocal choruses of The Congos meld seamlessly into the mix, creating something that is certainly not roots reggae, but that wouldn’t sound too out of place next to a latter-day King Tubby record.

Though The Congos, who are now in their 60s, were initially perplexed by the California duo’s foreign sounding tracks, many young people in town were eager to get involved. “The whole time we were recording that album, people would come up and sing us songs or bug us about getting in the studio,” Gengras recalled.

“They’d lead you down these circuitous conversations,” explained Stallones. “You’d end up saying, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s go listen to the stuff that’s too weird for the album,’ and as soon as we’d start playing it, they’d be dropping these amazing verses and doing dancehall toasting. It all sounded incredible.”

With some extra time and the surplus tracks from their work with The Congos, Stallones and Gengras began working with people they met around town, using a laptop to record their vocal performances. “Almost all of those tracks were recorded outside,” said Stallones. “We recorded in people’s yards, on the beach, wherever they were comfortable. We met this one guy who was doing construction on a house, so we just recorded him in the unfinished house.”

“Our best piece of equipment was a really long extension cord,” added Gengras. “If you isolate the vocal tracks on those songs, you can hear all of the these environmental sounds: people working and yelling, people singing along. It adds an amazing sense of place.”

It quickly became clear that, with the combination of their outside-the-box backing tracks and these lesser-known local voices, Stallones and Gengras had something special on their hands. In fact, according to Gengras, it was obvious after recording just a few tracks that they needed an outlet for these roving recordings. Starting a label called Duppy Gun — named after an herbal tonic thought to blast away evil spirits — the duo focused on getting their Jamaican field-recording-cum-dancehall tracks out to a wider audience. 

However, for Stallones and Gengras, dealing with the money, agreements, distribution, and logistics of a record label was all new. “Honestly, putting out the first Duppy Gun record almost killed us,” confessed Gengras. “We were really limited in our business knowledge, and it was taking forever for us to get the records out. We didn’t set out wanting to run a record label, but we felt like we had to.”

Luckily, it was around this time that independent hip-hop label Stones Throw heard the first Duppy Gun release. “When Stones Throw approached us about doing more of these Jamaican records, it was clear that they were the best way to get the music into more hands,” explained Stallones. “We felt like we got the first record out to our audience, but we didn’t have the means or the knowledge to get them into proper reggae and dancehall circles. That’s what Stones Throw has been able to do.”

Over the next year, with the sponsorship of Stones Throw, Stallones and Gengras made two more trips to Jamaica to record more material. “As far as artists, we really cast our net as wide as possible,” said Stallones. “We were doing things with everyone from old school, lovers rock guys to sixteen-year-old kids that we met on the street.”

“Everyone down there is a singer,” added Gengras. “A great example is their karaoke. It’s just one rhythm over and over again, and people will take turns getting up and singing their own original songs over it. There were natural performers and singers everywhere.”

As they planned their releases, both Stallones and Gengras wanted to make sure Duppy Gun kept the focus on the artists. They were keenly aware that they needed to develop strong relationships with the people they were working with in Jamaica, a country with a long history of exploitation from the outside. 

“We wanted to make sure they understood that we weren’t Americans coming in to take advantage of them,” said Gengras. “We told them, ‘You’re not going to get rich off of this, and we aren’t either. But hopefully we can present you to a completely new audience.’”

With the increased distribution of Stones Throw, that’s exactly what Duppy Gun has achieved. Though they have enough material for “five or six” more releases, and aim to release a 12” monthly for the rest of the year, Stallones and Gengras are already planning their next trip to the island. “When you look at the the music coming out of Jamaica, you realize it’s just an amazing, concentrated source of musicians,” said Gengras. “Even with all of the time and money in the world, we couldn’t record everything we’d want to. But we’re going to try!”

Today, the Duppy Gun duo spends their days planning future releases, playing live with reggae and dub legends like Lee “Scratch” Perry, and fielding a constant stream of “Rasta calls.” For Stallones, who initially felt insecure about his reggae background, it’s clear that his collaboration with The Congos has opened up a completely new path.

“It’s funny looking back, because when I made my list of dream collaborations for that album, Henry Flynt was at the top,” he recalls. “We would have made something cool, but if I had done a record with Henry Flynt, Ged and I would’ve never gone to Jamaica and we would have never met all of these amazing people. Without that record, I honestly can’t imagine how different our lives would be.”

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