Vikter Duplaix wears tight shirts. The velvet-voiced Philadelphia-based DJ, producer, songwriter and vocalist has never been afraid to strut his stuff. On the contrary, a sensual and stylish persona has always been part of Duplaix's repertoire — he was even named Most Stylish at last year's Philadelphia Music Awards. Just check the cover photo of his debut artist album on Hollywood Records, International Affairs (2003), in which he's clad in head-to-toe purple pinstripes and aviator sunglasses. And the 30-year-old swathed himself in white fur and dark shades for the money shot adorning his 2002 installment of !K7's DJ Kicks compilation series. Yet while many image-conscious artists are laughably transparent, Duplaix isn't faking it. Rather, his bling-bling-sophisticate image is an honest extension of his personality. The man likes to look suave. He thinks he's sexy and isn't afraid to admit it. Even haters have to smile.
Still skeptical? Then listen to the music. Duplaix is a classically trained songwriter and seasoned producer who has worked on more than 100 different recordings with artists such as Erykah Badu, Jamiroquai, Eric Benét, Me'Shell Ndegéocello and King Britt's Sylk 130. After being introduced to dance culture by Britt, a fellow Philly native, Duplaix started DJing and quickly became a fixture on the international house-music circuit. He began producing tracks with Britt under the shared Scuba moniker and went on to record several breakout 12-inch EPs, including “Messages,” “Manhood” and “Sensuality.” As a dance-music producer and, now, a solo artist, the Vikter Duplaix sound is best described as “future soul,” a fusion of past and future in which electronics and emotion groove on wet-dreamy, leftfield-jazzy broken beats.
International Affairs takes this fusion to a new level. Featuring collaborations with 4Hero, Jazzanova and Bebel Gilberto, Duplaix combines live musicians with electronic magic. The result is a signature brand of percussive neo-soul comparable to Sade and Sting. But will audiences accept this producer-turned-artist? Indeed, making a successful transition from behind-the-scenes DJ and producer to bona fide artist is no easy feat. “The challenge has been to explain to people that I'm not just a DJ,” Duplaix says. “I'm an artist who happens to be a producer.”
Fortunately, Duplaix's inherent combination of production skills; songwriting prowess; and, of course, his gorgeous voice allow him to meet this challenge head-on — all while maintaining control of his music. Through listening to International Affairs, it's evident that his hands-on artistic approach creates a quality that's immediately impressive. These standards are obvious in the album's textured production; soulful songs; and most important, its warm, luxurious feeling.
Feeling is Duplaix's muse. “We put a great energy into the record, and it's important that people feel it when they listen to it,” he says. “Above all, I want to make people feel good, to have a sense of positivity. Each song has a certain emotion, an attitude. I try to approach getting an emotion across on each song. I'm trying to communicate the idea of expressing some of the things I've experienced over the past year. That's an overall reflection of my music.”
Duplaix attributes much of the album's energy to its live Latin musicians, some of whom he met while DJing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Duplaix was profoundly affected by the organic relationship between music and life that drives everyday existence on the island. He wanted to capture that vibe on his album, to remind North American audiences about the soul inside rhythm. “There were just so many people enjoying life through music, the energy of it, the history of rhythm and how it relates to their culture,” he says. “I decided to get people that lived there, that live and breathe the lifestyle of the drum. It's important to regain a sense of people locking into the music; a lot of it is just computerized. But you need the hands.”
To record International Affairs, Duplaix flew musicians from Puerto Rico, Brazil and Cuba to Miami. In keeping with the album's live energy, as a producer, he focused less on technical elements and more on creative interaction. For example, Brazilian diva Gilberto wrote and sings a Portuguese verse on the exotic number “Tropical Girl” while “Desperately,” co-produced with Anthony Bell, is a plaintive, sexy ballad that sounds like something from a Seal record. Yet when it comes to gear, Duplaix says the Akai MPC2000XL made a presence on every one of the record's 14 tracks. Emagic Logic Audio, Digidesign Pro Tools and a Moog Minimoog were also anchors of the production process.
From a production standpoint, Duplaix has paid his dues. He grew up immersed in Philadelphia's rich music scene and credits his mother, a music teacher, for exposing him to a variety of sounds at an early age and bestowing upon him an understanding of all music. “I wasn't brought up with gospel; my background is more classical,” says Duplaix, who split his upbringing between Philly and Augusta, Georgia. “I was a big fan of Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock and early rap. I learned about stereos from sneaking looks into my cousin's Playboy collection and reading about the knobs and lights and meters. I was more fascinated with electronics than with naked girls!”
Duplaix started DJing and producing as a teenager, first as a protegé of DJ Jazzy Jeff and then with renowned production duo Gamble & Huff. He helped Jazzy Jeff establish A Touch of Jazz studios, and he co-founded Axis Music Group with James Poyser, thus becoming a sought-after commercial R&B producer. (The company has worked with The Roots, Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo and Common.) Today, in addition to his solo work, he is a featured vocalist on Jazzanova's album In Between (JCR, 2002) and works regularly with King Britt.
Despite years of pushing buttons and spinning wax, Duplaix is perhaps best known to the dance community for his debut solo 12-inch, the intoxicatingly uplifting “Messages.” The 1999 broken-beat hit featured Duplaix on vocals, opening the curtain upon the silky-smooth set of pipes. Released by Masters at Work's MAW imprint, “Messages” found its way to Giant Step's The INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson compilation, allowing Duplaix to make the transition from behind-the-scenes producer to front-of-house performer.
“Messages” gave Duplaix the confidence to sing on his own records. He created the serendipitous track pretty much by accident while messing around with new gear in the Axis production studio. “It was a remix of a track I did for myself,” Duplaix recalls. “We had just bought a new studio, and I was testing out equipment. I wanted to test it by sampling elements of a song I had already done.” When he laid down some vocals and heard the result, Duplaix was shocked. “I was really surprised. From a producer's standpoint, the track was hot. It was a trigger for me to take myself seriously as an artist.”
Duplaix followed “Messages” with “Sensuality,” issued on German imprint !K7 Records. The single featured smooth, emotive vocals punctuated with textured electronic bloops, futuristic sonic effects and a little heavy breathing. On the flip side, Duplaix has been known to get a little raw about his primal urges on tracks such as the broken-beat “Manhood.” “I express sex vocally from a very deep place,” he says. “It's very late-night abstract, a direct approach, sex talk inspired by a real situation,” he says. “All my songs are interpretations of something I've seen or experienced — my own visions.”
Personifying the fusion between live and electronic, past and future, Duplaix employs the power of contrast in his songwriting and production. He builds unique soundscapes with conflicting bricks of sound. When placed side by side, their differences are only enhanced. For example, to offset the smoothness of his voice, he likes to insert sharp, rough effects. “I come from a street environment, so I need the aggression, oppressive drums,” he says. “Sultry and smooth, aggressive and hard. My voice is so smooth and soft, I like to have sounds that contrast it.” Further, Duplaix regards his voice as a defining piece of gear in the total picture of his music: “My voice is part of the sound. If you take my voice out of it, it sounds like just another offbeat, jazzy track. I'm trying to create a soundscape using my voice as an essential part of it.”
Duplaix does most of his work in the Axis Music Group studios, which he shares with partner Poyser. “I'm the tech guy,” he proclaims. “We run Pro Tools and create on Logic Audio. The brain is the G4 dual processor.” The studio also relies on the MPC2000 sampler; a couple of standard Korg Trinity and Triton keyboards; and a harem of vintage synths and electric pianos, including a Roland Juno, a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, “all kinds of Moogs” and an entire Oberheim “section.” Although the importance of live musicians dominated this particular album, sampling and effects usually play key roles in Duplaix's production process. Such techniques allow him to manipulate sounds to achieve the contrasts that he likes. “I like making sounds out of things that already exist,” he says, explaining that “Sensuality” features Rhodes samples with keys played by June Burvine. “I sampled it and played it back after I put it through phasers. To have a certain mood, I manipulated it a different way and played the chords out of order. At the end, I pitch-shifted it so they sound more machinelike and not instrumental. An acoustic vibe would have sounded sleepy.”
Duplaix's fondness for opposites is also evident behind the decks. His DJ Kicks CD spans the spectrum from leftfield to jazzy house to neo-soul, hip-hop to world beat, tied together by a midtempo percussive stream and weird electronic noise. Standout tracks include Osunlade's “Tree of Life,” De La Soul's “Copa (Cabanga),” a live rendition of Badu's “Bag Lady” and the nu-jazz broken beats of 4Hero's “Hold it Down.”
But more intriguing than the CD's content is its structure. The tracks are separated by interludes, which somehow don't interrupt the flow but rather add to it. Backed by plinky percussion and high-frequency futuristic bleeps, robotic voices proclaim such truths as “Universal sounds provided by Duplaix, Vikter Duplaix” and “Please do not be afraid. Just feel the music.” Duplaix says the idea behind the interludes was to structure the CD in the tradition of old-school hip-hop mix tapes of the early '90s. He wanted to reinterpret the technique with a sci-fi twist, thereby creating a new self-contrasting style that is at once retro and futuristic. “It was a way to brand it and add personality without getting on the mic,” Duplaix explains. “I wanted a sound that would add to the theme. Instead of having everyone give shout-outs to their grandma, I made computerized voices that come in and out between songs as a way to appeal to modern, high-tech society.”
Now, for the first time in his career, Duplaix isn't completely immersed in the production side of things. “I'm concentrating on developing my artistry as an individual,” he says, explaining that he chose this particular label because it offered him the creative freedom to make the record he wants to make. “I've made a ton of singles but released only a few. Being an artist is a process. I think I made a good first album that's interesting and listenable. Hopefully, the public will embrace it.”
Duplaix is particularly excited about the forthcoming video that will accompany “Sensuality.” “It's my first video,” he says. “I'm so used to being behind the scenes, but it's very natural.” Considering the care with which he's cultivated his persona and pimped-out look, this artist's comfort in the spotlight is far from surprising. However, it's important to recognize that Duplaix's diligence extends far beyond his image, and this is the biggest lesson to be learned from his success. Underneath the fur coats and tight shirts, Duplaix continually demonstrates that being image-conscious isn't just about style. It's also about focus, attention to detail and quality control — skills that have allowed him to remain in charge of his career and make music that's both technically flawless and emotionally pure.
Studio Affairs: Vikter Duplaix Gear
Akai MPC4000 MIDI Production Center
Akai MPC2000XL MIDI Production Center
Digidesign Pro Tools
Emagic Logic 5 digital audio workstation
Korg MS2000R analog-modeled synth
Oberheim Matrix-1000 synth
Quested double-12 monitors
Quested 10-inch nearfield monitors
Rhodes 88 electric piano
Yamaha 02R digital mixing consoles (2)
Yamaha Motif synth