Producer's Corner: Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis
Meet the man who co-produced a classic album in The Fugees' "The Score" in a basement, and his thoughts on a reunion, as well as making hits for Justin Bieber, Carlos Santana and Canibus.
The Fugees' classic, award-winning album The Score is largely attributed to the musical and lyrical genius of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, but there's another name who was instrumental to the group's success: Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis. The Haitian-born musician who plays bass, guitar, congas has helped ensure the sonic balance of Wyclef's solo and collaborative classics over the years.
With heaters like Destiny's Child's “No, No, No (Remix),” Carlos Santana's “Maria Maria,” Wyclef's “911” having helped define yesteryear, Wonda continues to nab new production credits with everyone from Alicia Keys and John Legend to Justin Bieber and Gucci Mane. In an interview with HipHopDX Producer's Corner, Jerry “Wonda” reminisces over past successes, runs through his who's who list of top shelf collaborators, and shares an April Fool's joke that made the world go crazy.
HipHopDX: What have you been up to recently?
Jerry Wonda: We were in the studio earlier this morning, mixing the single for Estelle's new single. Yesterday, we did a video premier for “Someone To Love” with Mary J. Blige, Lil Wayne and [Diddy]. I also did a single for Musiq Soulchild with Swizz Beatz doing eight bars, and Lupe [Fiasco]'s “Out of My Head” is going to be his next single. I'm doing a lot of great things I'm doing right now, a lot of songs.
DX: I think a lot of people know you so much from your Fugees work that they won't recognize other stuff you've done, so it's dope to give people recognizable names like that.
Jerry Wonda: The thing is, I'm really quiet. When I made my first studio in the basement, my dad gave his basement to me, Wyclef [Jean] and and my brother Lanell. My dad loved me, and he was a deejay for the family, so he loved music. We went in the basement, and we did [The Fugees'] The Score. … It's crazy., but I did that in my basement. I started that quietly; I'm always the guy behind the scenes. Ten years ago, I built this recording studio named Platinum Sounds in Manhattan. Me and 'Clef built and designed [the] studio, and it's the best stop right now. If you're in New York, you have to stop by Platinum. My projects I'm doing right now are a lot. But now, I have new options. I used to hide out and stay in the studio, but the new team I create right now, I step to the front and get it popping. But the things I'm doing now is what I used to do. Doing hits for Shakira, Carlos Santana's “Maria Maria,” Canibus...all the songs I'm doing are the same thing, but I have a way to always come up with something new like a Justin Bieber. It's just promoting everything I'm doing.
Making The Fugees' Classic Album The Score
DX: You did The Score in your basement?
Jerry Wonda: The Score was done in my daddy's basement. I went to school for sound engineering, but with bass guitar, I was really good in creating things. In the basement, the whole score was done. Booker Basement was the studio where the magic happened. Wyclef's mom and my dad are brothers and sisters, so me and Wyclef were living together, every step we did we did them together. A lot of people don't know that because I keep everything quiet. Now I've got a new team, new management, new stuff, and I just be workin'. … It's a lot of music, man, that we're about to be floating with Wonda Music.
DX: What's it like remembering working in your dad's basement, to looking at your own studio that's a go-to spot?
Jerry Wonda: Where I was before, it was wonderful with the team that got me to where I'm at today. But where I'm at today, I feel like the music I'm creating is coming from good spirits, like the old music I was creating came from good spirits. And I'm nowhere where I want to be yet. I've got so much work to do, I'm looking at the front. I appreciate God to be where I'm at today, but God's got so much more to do. I've got a whole team, I've got to make sure it's going right for us and the artists I'm working on. It's so great to have A&Rs calling, my phone is ringing like crazy. What I do in my world, and I have more than one studio. Sometimes I can't keep out the studio I'm at, because there are clients that love the feeling of the studio where I'm at. … One day, I'd love for you to come check it. It's how the music used to be. It's all about the music. There's a studio around New York, but Platinum Sounds was built because I know what artists, producers and engineers are looking for. I may get a phone call that Kanye [West], John Legend, or U2 and Bono want to use the studio. I've got to go rent another studio! So it feels good to build a place where so many people feel so comfortable and they can create music. That's one thing I love about the studio. But as far as Jerry Wonda, hitting the music heads, it's like, if you need a hit, you need to come see me, man. I'm ready.
The History Of Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis And Wyclef Jean
DX: How did you and Wyclef first link musically?
Jerry Wonda: I came from Haiti, and my father and Wyclef's mother were brothers and sisters. When I came from Haiti when I was little, my dad was like, “You're not staying in Brooklyn. I'm sending you to Jersey, to the Bricks.” He sent me to 'Clef's mom. 'Clef's mom is my second mom, and his dad is my second dad since mine passed away. Me and 'Clef grew up as music cats in the church. We were just very connected, and we started doing music since the church music. … I played a lot of instruments, but I was playing bass guitar since I was 11. Bass was so big for me. I was playing it, and I was great at it. Even on The Score, when you hear "Killing Me Softly," and Lauryn is saying, “Little Bass out here,” that's how I was when playing the guitar. Me and 'Clef were always connected: I play the bass, he plays the guitar. … After that, we did a lot of work together, and we just moved up. When I went to Haiti when the whole thing happened, me and Haiti were touched by it, and we started working in Haiti and creating this movement called Yele Haiti. We're doing a lot of things with kids. When I came back from the States, I worked with Justin Beiber. Then I started working with Gucci Mane, and others. … I ended up doing a lot of work alone, by myself. But everyone knows Wyclef or Jerry Wonda is like the same thing. We do a song whenever 'Clef comes back, but right now, I'm doing a lot of things as Jerry Wonda.
DX: You had The Score and The Carnival really early. When you start off with having Grammy nominations, high sales and other success like that, how do you figure out where to go from there? Some may have that early success and fizz out.
Jerry Wonda: Man, I tell people, integrity. Believe in yourself and focus. Don't ever let it get to your head. The same way there's a few people I know that started around the same time as me or right after me, they've vanished—they're gone. Sometimes, you let the industry and the hype get to your head. People are so happy. … Sometimes I sneak out to a spot to just go listen to music. They won't let me! I'll have to stand in line with 200 people, and sometimes I don't get to go in even though my music is in there. But I like it that way. People like trying to push people to get to the front; don't let that happen, and you'll last longer. It's not how many hits you've got; how many years have you been in the business? I've got a song that came out today, a song that came out yesterday, and a song that comes out next week and next month. We're covering the whole summer, and the following summer. A lot of producers let people get to their head, and they have a couple hits and they're gone. The people that last are the winners, they create infrastructure. When you have that, you last longer.
DX: Don't mean to only focus on Fugees, but how would you describe a studio session with them? If I were to randomly walk into one of your sessions, what would I see?
Jerry Wonda: It would be like going to a family dinner. You see everybody hanging, chilling, eating, drinking and laughing. Nothing that crazy, just everybody chilling. We used to have everything, with the equipment. Nobody knew we were doing a classic album. I just remember I used to play the Top 40 singles and hustle, because I was buying equipment. I'd go play with Top 40 bands then come back to the studio and do what I was doing with Wyclef and Ms. Hill. At the time, that's what we had. If you walked in there, it was just chillin!
DX: A lot of people look at Wyclef as the architect and musical genius, and Lauryn Hill as the lyrical genius who was the voice of a generation in a lot of ways. What do you think Pras contributed to the group?
Jerry Wonda: What Pras brought to the group, a lot of people didn't know. Pras was always the guy who went to meetings, who would bring A&Rs. Pras was always the business guy. 'Clef was the music, and I was getting the sonics—because to me, it was always sonics sound. … We had Salaam Remi, Diamond D around. It was a whole great team that made The Score. But the three Fugees were always Wyclef, Lauryn Hill and Pras, but a lot of people would be like, “What's Pras for?” If you have your fingers, and someone says, “Okay, which one are you going to lose? The pinky?” You can take that out, but you're still missing a finger. To me, Pras was still important to the group. He wasn't the one keeping the hardest verse or singing, but I have a lot of respect for him.
DX: A lot of people would ask about songs like “Killing Them Softly” or “Fu-Gee-La,” but what's another memorable song on that album to you because of how it was put together, or because of the circumstances surrounding it?
Jerry Wonda: I think “Ready or Not.” That was the first song we actually recorded. I remember when we recorded it, I said we would need an engineer, Ms. Hill. That was the first song, and I was really touchy. When we did those vocals, the room was so quiet. She went in the room and started singing that hook, and me and the engineer were really touchy, like, “My god!” 'Clef wasn't even in the room, but when he came back and listened to it, he was like, “My god.” The music was already done by me and Wyclef, so it was really crazy. … If there were 10,000 people in the room, it still would've been quiet, because her voice sounds like an angel's. If you listen to that song, she bodies that hook. That was a great record for me and The Score, and I'll always remember that. That's one of the reasons that I do what I do now.
DX: What is it like for you to see Lauryn perform now? Is she any different between now and back then?
Jerry Wonda: It's always different. When we were performing back then, it was us on a stage, 'Clef on guitar and me on the bass, Leanna on the [turntables], and a drummer. Sometimes, Pras would be touching the keys. To me, that was very simple. But her performances now, she did a wonderful show. I think sound-wise, the sound was great and we were backstage. But me, I like less people on the stage. The less people you have onstage, the better you can get the sonics. The sonics that are number one, they're always simple, it's never too much stuff. If you put a lot of water in a balloon, it's going to explode. If you have so much sound, it's hard to hear her vocals, and she has such a great vocal sound, like the angels. That's the difference, man. But people complain, like, “Man, she's late two hours.” If she's late two hours, you can leave, and if you stay, you stay for the voice. There are a couple artists I love, and I really don't care what's going on. I want to hear the voice. People get mad at those who stay, but they have a great time. They just get mad because sometimes, she'll come onstage late. But that's what it is, everybody's different. You have Nina Simone different. But the one thing you can never take away from them is their talent. When they sing, my god! … It doesn't matter if I wait four hours. I was mad, I've got my drink on now, let's party!
DX: There were rumors about the group getting back together for a while, but I've seen them die down. When those rumors were at their peak, what did you think the likelihood was that it would actually happen?
Jerry Wonda: I'll tell you like this: the Fugees are going to get back together when the time is right. The other day, it was April Fool's, and I made an announcement like, “The Fugees are back together, and they just signed a deal with Live Nation.” I was just joking, but yo, my phone was ringing like crazy! It was heavy. People were calling me from Europe, man. I have a friend in India call me, I had a friend in Japan call me, I had a friend in Australia call me. People I don't even know were calling me. After two hours, I was like, “It was a joke!” … They made great music, man. I'm glad I was a part of it.
DX: When people go to you for a song, what do you think it is that they go for? A lot of producers have signature sounds, but what do you think people gravitate to?
Jerry Wonda: I'm a great musician, first. People look for something where not only is the beat is hard and the music is great, but the energy on the record, it's very important to know about the sonics. Whatever song you listen to, I can tell you if it's a song I worked on. If you listen to “I Smile” by Justin Bieber, or “Maria Maria” by Carlos Santana, you're going to feel the sonics. Or if you listen to Mary J. Blige's “Someone To Love” with Puff and Lil Wayne, you're going to hear. The bass is clocking, the drums locking, and the music, the sonics, every little sound! You can listen to my songs, and with my music, there's little things I put in there. There are sounds you can't even hear, but they work with your pores, your skin, and your spirit. You notice that when you buy a plate of food, they ask you if you want cheese, pepper, salt, whatever. There's a sound that's in my sonics that you don't get other places. That's me, and a lot of people that follow me, they know.
There was a friend of mine in a meeting, and he heard a song. He said, “I was in a meeting, and there was a song, and it made me think about you.” I asked, “Which song?” He told me the song, and I'm like, “I did it.” He's like, “Get the fuck out of here!” I'm like, “Yeah, I did it. That's my song. You know the Wonda sound, baby!”
DX: You've worked with a lot of people, throughout different genres. Scarface, Redman, Carlos Santana, Chamillionaire, Patti Labelle, Paul Simon. Who would you say is the most memorable collaboration you've had, whether it was one through Wyclef or otherwise?
Jerry Wonda: I'd love to tell you only one, but there's so many. I was lucky to do this duet with Aretha Franklin and Ron Isely. I was stoked to do that. L.A. Reid asked me, “Jerry, I need you to do this duet. I thought about everybody, but I felt you were the one that had to do it.” That was really touching to me. It was great to work with Patti [Labelle], it was great to work with Bono, and I really, really love Carlos Santana. I also just worked with Akon. Akon was always in the basement when we were with the Fugees. We just went back in again about two weeks ago, and it was so great. One of the songs I just did is going to be his first single. Oh my god, we had such a great time. Everybody's special. I'd love to say one, but it's so many.
DX: What makes those special to you?
Jerry Wonda: It's all about energy for me, when we get in the studio. Sometimes when you go to the studio, it's a job. You just do a song. There are a couple artists I've worked with where they just come in, do a song, buh-bye. But the people that I told you about, they're special. What they talk about, what they think about, what they are about, it makes the song better and the spirit better with new energy in. They're all different, and I can't explain it, but it's just really different. … The kind of fun I had with Bono, or with Ol' Dirty [Bastard], or with Akon, or with Whitney [Houston], Carlos, Bob Jones, Gucci Mane, Lupe, it's crazy because it's different. DX: The Fugees were doing a lot of work that really thrived off of samples, but Diddy is often credited with the '90s sampling movement, despite you guys doing it first. Is that something that you think you guys don't get enough credit for?
Jerry Wonda: I'll never say we don't get credit. I think we got credit for everything. Look at The Score—we have samples, but we used 20 or so other artists that a lot of people forgot about. Same with Puff. He brought samples back when from artists who, I won't say those artists were dead, but a lot of the kids around that time didn't even know who the artists were. People thought “Killing Me Softly” was Lauryn Hill's song [as opposed to Roberta Flack's]. We were doing the sampling, but we were would go and do songs without samples. The thing about music for me, is that when I go to the studio, whatever the studio brings me to use a sample, I'm going to use the sample. Even when I use the sample, the creation I put on the sample is what makes it work. What I do around the sample is the key. The guitar has to be on it, the keys got to be on it, I've got to put some drums on it, I've got to put some live horns on it, I'm putting stuff in to make it right. I can't get non-creative and just play a sample and not do nothing.
DX: With the music you have made over time, one thing you guys have always done is have social commentary. It didn't only make the music better, but it made it more successful as far as record sales and awards. Do you think it'll ever get back to that point, where having commentary in music will make it more successful, instead of conscious music being successful in spite of having a message?
Jerry Wonda: The more you go through in life, the more you help other people, the more energy you get to whatever you're doing right. The more you give, the more you get back. Most of my people who are great artists and great writers, they donate their time and do the right thing, and you can feel that in their work. That's a trend that we have to follow.