It's been a minute since we first met at the Legends… LIVE series I produced and you came with King Britt and Soul Dhamma to close it back in 1999…
Vikter Duplaix: Wow! Has it been that long? How you been?
I've been. But I think you've been much better these days!
VD: Eh, you know it's a process, just moving forward and staying happy.
Start at the beginning where you were born into a family in Philly that was like what?
VD: My family is… big and very diverse in its makeup. Northern, southern, black, Native, white, Japanese - whatever, it's in there. You name it we got it, so there's always been exposure to multiple cultures even before I knew what that was. Traveling and things like that have basically been happening since day one. I have a very musical family - my mother is a music teacher. My cousins and aunts have always played the piano and sang so that was always around.
Were you an only child?
VD: My mother's only child but I have four other, older siblings.
So, were you raised by yourself, with lots of attention and musical training from your mom directly?
VD: Not from her directly but there was an emphasis on me being in schools and choirs that emphasized or were about music. That's what I liked to do. I tried to write songs when I was younger… on my own just bangin' on the piano and singing along. And of course there was the whole James Brown-slash-Michael Jackson imitation thing going on.
Did you do little shows for your family?
VD: Yeah that kind of thing. I'm sure every - or [at least] 90 percent of all young people at that time were doing that because Mike had such a huge impact on humanity. That was what my childhood was like creatively, but running simultaneously was the reality of inner-city life, which was not as picturesque.
So let's go inside that. What was it like to grow up in Philly during your time?
VD: Well I grew up in the tail end of the East coast gang era. Each city block had a different gang, so walking through neighborhoods was a challenge once you became mature. As a child it doesn't really affect you. When you're a little kid, you're just running around and not really paying attention. But the more mature you become, the more those issues become a part of your reality.
VD: I think because the element of peer pressure and the idea of social participation [comes into play]. How do you fit in with the concept of the neighborhood? Are you down with the bullies? Are you down with the nerds? Are you an athlete? Are you a ladies man? Are you a graffiti writer? Those kinds of things…
I think I know which one you picked in that group, but we'll save that for later. (Both Laugh)
VD: That's kind of an experiment. You're maturing and in the city, it's much faster than in the country or it's a different type of scene. Because I think country people get into something else.
Well you mentioned that you had both. You spent a lot of time down South.
VD: The beauty of it was I think maybe the contrast saved my life. I was in school during the winter in the North and because of the weather, you can only get into so much stuff. You're not outside all the time. Then as soon as the weather breaks, you go back down South where you're talking about dirt roads and dragon-flies and things like that. It was a much different experience. Of course, the South is a lot different now than it was before. Then, they didn't have arcades and multiplex movie theaters.
The concept of the shopping mall was just starting. Now I think the rural areas are the kings of the malls and the multiplexes because they have so much room to develop in a new and faster way. (Laughs) And the East has a tendency to just redo areas that have been there forever. So the concept of going down to the slower-paced South I think kept me from being a hundred percent part of that accelerated growth for a city kid. [Especially since I had to] deal with a lot of things, full speed ahead without my father being around, without having that enforcer.
What kind of kid were you without your father figure around? A good one or bad?
VD: I was a good kid. I wasn't without masculine energy, though. I wasn't without uncles and positive males in my life. It just was that my father was not there, specifically, at home. I think because I was never a person who was really influenced by peers necessarily - I had a strong will and was always determined to be an individual. I spent a lot of time alone. I was an only child so that wasn't a foreign concept. I had acceptance and love from my family so I wasn't looking for love outside of the household. I wasn't easily dominated or manipulated by forces outside of it.
Let's go back to some of those early music experiences, when you were touring and involved in the choirs.
VD: The main focal point of my musical experience as a child was the music magnate school that I was in. There was a lot of focus on theory, classical performances and traditional plays like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and that kind of thing. I tried to learn an instrument, which I never really got into completely because I always heard something that was not on the paper. What was difficult for me was playing. I think I realized at an early age that you can play music, you can like it and it can be good to you but it may not be a part of what a classically-trained violinist thinks works. I was hearing sounds in my head and because I couldn't play, I got a bit frustrated because when you're doing theory and you're writing complex cords and diminished ninths and things like that, most teachers find that you should not learn those things if they're not proper. They're always telling you, "Don't do it that way, do it this way." So I just lost interest in that structured format and I think maybe I lost interest too soon because I should have continued to learn instruments properly. I think that would have made my life easier later on creatively.
What was the name of the school you went to?
VD: It was called GAMP - Gerard Academic Music Program. Through that I started to excel in choir [though] I was never really a lead vocalist or anything like that. That wasn't really my focus. I don't think I had the desire to stand in front of the crowd. I was always comfortable being a participant. [It was] the perks of it - it's like the guy who wants to play on the team but doesn't really want to be the star. He just wants to get out of class and travel around and have a good time. That kind of was my motivation. Because I had a good ear and I would just hear things, I was able to sing in the older choirs and we went to different competitions around the country. I mean I've done things like sing for the 50th Anniversary of Mickey Mouse and that kind of stuff. For me - it was not just the experience of singing with people but it was the exposure to the places and the scenarios. You look at Mickey Mouse or at Disney and you think it's just a little cotton candy place but when you get there, you realize that there is a double layer of a city underneath the whole area of Disney World and they're moving you around… it's almost like some kind of James Bond flick. They're moving people underneath the ground with carts and it's like a whole new world down there! There are actual rooms, areas and buildings. It's what I imagine the Pentagon to be like. You just go down one level and there are supply rooms and storage areas and on another level, there's something else and it's all connected to the entire city of Orlando it seems like. It's so amazing when you realize that a trash can is not really a trash can, it's actually an entrance.
How old were you?
VD: I was about ten.
When did you perform for Prince Charles?
VD: It was somewhere around that same time because I joined an organization in Philly called the Philadelphia Boys Choir which at the time pretty world-renowned and we were guest vocalists with different opera houses and famous orchestras and things like that. We were doing a tour of England and since William Penn was the founder of Pennsylvania, we went to see his grounds and all those kinds of things. I used to consider it campy but it really had some kind of significance. We got a chance to see the crown jewels as well. Actually, what happened was it was the middle of the Falklands War and we were supposed to travel on the Queen Elizabeth II. Before the trip happened, I was nominated to be in a core group to sing with [Luciano] Pavarotti, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the ballet in Philly so I missed the chance to go on the QEII - my first cruise.
I was a little upset but [the performance] was a full-fledge production that ran on PBS for three years. It was an incredible experience working with Pavarotti and seeing the energy of theater and how beautiful and powerful that can be. But what I was supposed to do was meet the group in England and the fortunate thing for me but unfortunately for the boys, was they had to take the stabilizers off on the boat [during the trip] and send it to dock before continuing to the Falklands so it wasn't a good cruise for them. They all got sick. It became a really bittersweet experience for those guys. I met them there and we did a tour of the royal palaces including Windsor Castle and at one of those things, Prince Charles and his entourage was there. But it wasn't really like a major kind of thing.
When you think about those experiences now and say they weren't so corny, what were you thinking about it then?
VD: I was into it for different reasons. Because I was always traveling, it didn't seem different and I wasn't the type of person who just sat at home and dreamed about being on a plane. I was on a plane every summer and sometimes every holiday, back and forth to Georgia. My family always took me out to cultural institutions within the Philly city limits and I had seen a lot of other things that people dream about - The Empire State Building, the Twin Towers and all that stuff… I had been there. I wasn't an isolated child but [rather] I was experiencing other cultures head on. I think Americans have a notorious reputation abroad for being all about the monuments, all about what they see in the magazine, or in the history book and for not really being interested in what the people are like. What happened for me was I became drawn to differences in culture. And even though it was England and an English-speaking territory, the attitude and energy of the people was very different. I think that became a bit seductive to me at a young age and I have always paid attention to that and have always been fascinated with people from different places. That was the beginning of it and that planted the seeds for me being a world-traveler.
So fast-forward a bit to being a teenager, starting to mess around in the studio then meeting King Britt and Jazzy Jeff, etc. How did you get into working together and everything else?
VD: Well you can't really fast-forward to the teenage years because it didn't happen in the teenage years. It happened in the pre-teen years because I was the young DJ. I was the one that was able to do the things that Jeff and all those other guys were doing, [but] as a child. There was a movement going on; it was the hip hop movement before it had a name. It was about roller-skating rinks and block parties.
Well I have to stop you on the roller-skating because that was big for me too at that age in the Bronx. What was it like down there?
VD: It was massive! That was where everyone went - the roller-skating rink. They went to hear all the tunes and all the popular DJs - the old school guys like Grandmaster Nell and Grandwizard Rasheem, DJ Todd, Cosmic Kev. Cosmic Kev is actually still a DJ now on the radio in Philly - he's on a Power Station there. They would have these all-night skate jams, which of course I was not old enough to go to at ten. So, I would sneak out to get a glimpse of that excitement. I saw the groundwork of hip hop taking form with Run-DMC coming around to the different rinks. I guess they probably did East coast tours free-styling over beats with Jam Master Jay as the DJ. I got a chance to see them do the "Here We Go" routine live at the rink many years ago.
The people would still be skating while the show was on right?
VD: Of course! It wasn't really about the shows because I don't think people really understood that especially in Philly. In New York it was kind of different, the MC was more important but in Philly, the DJ was more important. The music was the thing. I think that was because of the history of the companies like Philly International and all the tons of musicians that have come out of there. That's why it's always been about that. I think I fell in love with electronics because of my trips to Europe and things like that. I think Europe is a bit more of an electronic culture even in the sense of design. You have the contrast of the very old buildings with a very sleek and modern approach to remodeling inside. So it was very James Bond. James Bond is the center of my whole thing. The concept of it is great. I love it. I've looked up to that for many, many, years. When I first saw Playboy magazine, I looked at the women and I said, 'hey, that's nice', but then I turned to the electronic section where I got really excited.
That's just a little bit backwards…
VD: What they would have is the bachelor pad spread or the yacht - they would show you the inside of a yacht.
So, the high life…
VD: Yeah… But it was more like the hi-fi section. I was like, 'wow look at that receiver!'
What was your first coming out professionally?
VD: Well I started doing house parties in my neighborhood and the interesting thing about it was the serious parallel that began to define the lyrical content of the music at this era. Because while I am experiencing the growth of hip hop and I'm moving in a direction that's really good creatively - I'm starting to make beats and buying a drum machine and things like that, it was also starting to become very dark and very violent. A lot of bloodshed is happening in front of my face. And as a child it's exciting, "Wow, so and so got shot yesterday. Did you see that?" Yeah I saw it. But you're not realizing that one day you're going to turn twenty-five and be really stressed because you have finally realized that those friends of yours that you saw get shot are really gone and its added up. It's not just one or two, it's a hundred or two hundred and that somehow feels very normal because everyone around you has experienced the same thing but it can't be normal, you know?
And watching how the industry changed from 1983 - when I was twelve or thirteen and music was so fun - to 1985 when you had to duck your head down from random bullets because everyone was trying to be from the Godfather, Miami Vice or whatever was out at the time. It got worse as Scarface and these other characters became popular. Then the rappers started to talk about guns and things like that. I know hip-hoppers have a tendency to deny that they had any participation with anything that is not their fault - "I didn't make the weapons," and I'm not saying that they are or that they aren't but I do remember a direct correlation between KRS One [saying] "Look at my nine-millimeter go bang!" and people having nine-millimeters in the street. It was just the kind of thing, if you don't know about it, you don't have it, you know what I mean?
That's the same conversation we have now about the kinds of images the media is stuffing down our kids' throat or the collective communities' throat.
How did you finally get put on to begin making music and what were you doing to learn how to be in the business?
VD: I was doing demos in Philly and I started to engineer at a local spot called Third Story. I quickly went from an assistant engineer to their top gun when I was about seventeen - it was right after High School. Jazzy Jeff, who was my friend since I was eleven or twelve, had his first big album around the same time. He had a couple million dollars in the bank and didn't know what he was doing when he decided to build a studio and a company. He went and spent eighty percent of his money on equipment and there was the studio, but he didn't really know how to engineer. He knew how to make tracks of course but that was it. No special expertise in studio management or things like that, so we started to work together. That was the birth of a A TOUCH OF JAZZ. We messed with that for a few years trying to figure it out.
What does that mean, "trying to figure it out?"
VD: There was an illusion. There was a time when the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, LA [Reid] and Babyface, Teddy Riley thing was going and that was all you kept hearing about. So you felt that all you really needed was the track, the equipment and you could be them. And that wasn't really the case, it was also the reputation. So of course Jeff and [the Fresh] Prince [Will Smith], they had the reputation but I think the industry viewed them as fluke artists or as unique. We couldn't go into an R&B A&R's office and say 'hey, give me one of those Teddy Riley deals' because they were like, "based on what? Based on you Jazz? Well I can give you some work you can get some money and you can produce a couple of tunes but you're Jazz from NBC. Why would you even want to come in here?" It was kind of a strange thing. His success worked for him and at times, worked against him as well because Jeff was a bit stubborn too. He did not want to expand and become a better musician. Also no one really teaches you how to run these businesses, you just have to do it. That's the dark part of the music business, there's no blueprint.
At least not then, but when you mention that the sound was one thing/type, and if you were always focused on being an individual, didn't you have problems trying to fit into that in the first place?
VD: Absolutely. It manifested in the form of trying some experimental things and being rejected by companies on a regular basis. Taking that approach and saying what are we going to do? Are we going to continue or stop? I think we took the approach of continuing and suffering. It would have been very easy to start sampling and just copying what everyone else was doing, but I think that because we were in Philadelphia and not really being aggressive in New York or LA, that we made some mistakes by being a bit isolated and we became somewhat of introverts. I think that helped develop me for what I am doing now but it made me suffer financially at the time because I was a bit out of the loop of what society listened to. We were going to Pat Metheny concerts and then into the studio. Something about that vibe wasn't really matching with Dr. Dre. (Laughs)
Now does King Britt enter before or after Gamble & Huff?
VD: King went to High School with me. I didn't know he was a DJ and I was the big DJ in High School. He said that I was his inspiration but King was a different breed. He was a guy from the hood who was looked at as, 'he's Mr Weird guy.' You have to [keep in mind] that Philly is a really segregated city and though it's getting better now, back then it was really segregated. [So if] a black kid had ninety-percent white friends, he was weird. And King was that guy who hung out with the white kids and did things like take acid and listen to Led Zeppellin. And we were like, 'Why you doin' that?' (Laughs)
Did he win you over?
VD: Well...yes and no. I think it's just a growth thing for me. We ended up going through a period of not identifying with the hood as much. I wasn't really impressed by that; with that energy. I am what I am but at the same time, I think that a lot of brothers and sisters are trapped in that because of social reasons - a lot of ignorance and lack of exposure.
And that's the key, the exposure.
VD: Fortunately I was able to go back to my roots. Like I said, my family laid the roots down for me - Open. And King, he is the extreme; he's an optimist and is a very positive person and that is very inspiring to me. Sometimes our environment is not great but we were able to find ways, especially through music, to escape. He turned me on to an even broader escape than where I was already which was the international music scene - the nightclubs and the high fashion, that kind of thing. That was very refreshing and was someplace I could lose myself in and be happy.
So if you were the King DJ back then (no pun intended), when did you buy your first record and do you remember what it was?
VD: Oh man, all the records that I ever bought starts back with the James Brown 45"s I had when I was baby! So, it's just been an on-going process. I'm not really a record freak. I like the music, but I don't like the vinyl.
VD: And that's what all my friends do, they laugh at me.
Just like me!
VD: Because DJs have a tendency to go to cities and spend days in a record shop. I run from the record shop. If I feel the need to get some new fuel, I'll go, but it just takes up so much space that it's hard for me to deal with it and I don't like to carry it when I travel. I'm all for technology, you know, having my library on a computer disk. I'm good for that.
So, you don't have the 20 to 50 thousand deep record collection.
VD: No, that ain't me.
Let's move forward to discuss your experience of working with Philly International and being mentored by Kenny Gamble, what are some of the things you learned from someone like him who's so widely respected?
VD: It was great but he has not taught me a lot about music, he teaches me about life. My relationship with him is based on understanding what it takes to be successful and the sacrifices of success. The dedication to your fans because you can't teach someone how to be great and you can't try to imitate someone else's story. Because in those really phenomenal cases like Philly International, they don't know how it happens. You can sit there and fantasize - like I always hear people from Philly say - we want to be the next Gamble & Huff or I want to be the next Philly International. Me, I spent many years there and I will be the first one to tell you, I don't want to be them, I want to be the only me. That's what they did. They wanted to be the only them and they got lost in it. They dug in and found something that was phenomenal and lasting for generations and generations. That's all I want to do.
There are a lot of hot, multi-talented artists coming from the Philly scene (including Jill Scott, The Roots, Eve etc), what's the vibe of the city like to foster so much great talent? Are people reaching back to help each other then or now?
VD: I'll give you a song, a Philly International legendary classic - "Backstabbers." That's the energy of Philly. We're at a point now where we're trying to get past it but that's the personality of the city. Now understand they are still aggressive, but what the place appears to be is a hodge-podge of musicians that work together in harmony but in reality they really work together to the point of getting something out of each other. And I think we haven't really used our resources well enough to unify and stay stronger. It's also because radio doesn't support us there either. When I go to Europe and people are like "The Philly Sound, The Philly Sound" and when a group of French interviewers came to see me [here] one time, they were listening to the radio and said, "We don't hear Jill Scott, we don't hear the Roots, we don't really hear Musiq Soul Child. Where is the Philly vibe, where are the people with head wraps?" They were really surprised and shocked to hear mainly mainstream music.
That's just because Philly has a bit of an identity crisis - not quite New York, not quite D.C. and then being really arrogant about it. Philly is also a bit of a closed town because there's not a lot of international traffic. Once you go in that town, it can pretty much get you and lock you in. That's the hardest town to make it in the U.S., way more than New York, because at least there, you can find people who are down with you. There are enough people there with different experiences that kind of relate to where you are coming from, Philly is much tougher. The artists that have gotten out of here have had to get past and endure periods of being the sore thumb or the one that sticks out in crowds because the support is not there until you get validated from outside of the city.
How did you avoid that? Your friends / peers are all successful, how did you reconcile that drama?
VD: Just by finding the ones who were on [my] side, and continuing to develop and nurture those relationships. Then educate other people on how to do business as a team, as a unit. Try to teach people that's it's all about strength in numbers and not about you being the man, or you being the greatest. It's really about pulling the industry together and creating something similar to what Atlanta did when it was hot. There was a push from everyone. They probably did not all love each other but the city embraced it and it was just one gigantic Atlanta movement throughout the nineties. I think in Philly we have the talent we just need the wherewithal to do that. I think we have a classic music industry scenario where we have the talent but we don't have the promoters, and the management and the business people to match. We don't have the same kind of savvy at that level and I think we suffer because of that. It's going to get there though. I think the younger people are realizing that if we don't stick together, we're not going to get anything. That's why a lot of the albums you hear coming from the city, are heavy with Philly producers and writers now. I think that is good. Most of the [touring] bands and all the musicians in the R&B and hip hop realm, are coming from Philly. So, the energy is definitely moving back, we just have to grasp it and do something with it.
What has your experience as a performer been like since the early days with your first single "Messages," to you now as a full-on artist?
VD: The performance at Legends was my first and the tough part about "Messages" [on MAW Records] was I [didn't] expect that to be something that launched my career, but it was. I was just smart enough to say, 'Hey, if something happens, go with it.' I was experienced enough in the industry to say… a lot of people try and figure out how to get here, and here it is I did it by accident. So let's see what happens, see where it goes. It was really based on people actually liking what I did and those kind of shows were opportunities to get a taste of what people liked about me. It was like food feeding my brain and setting me up for where I am now and where I will be in ten years. It's all a part of growth and that was my "chitterlin' circuit" so to speak, to coin an old-school phrase. That was the black music circuit, which doesn't exist anymore. That's pretty much what DJ culture has been for me, a way for me to go around the world and do a PA here or sing over one of my tracks while I'm spinning there, and see the reaction. [Recently] I did a strictly house club in LA called Deep with Marques Wyatt and people were frustrated because I wouldn't sing all my songs there. I had a guy come over to me at the end of the night and say "Listen, I'm sorry for harassing you but you make me sexy to my girlfriend. So if you don't sing, it's going to be a problem because she came to see you. I gave her the CD and it's been working for me ever since."
(Laughing) And then what do you do?
VD: At that point, I sang a song for everybody but of course it was a DJ set and I didn't want to do a live show too, it gets too confusing. So that's how I learn first-hand what people are into and what they like about me. I take that into the studio, into the marketing meetings and into the interviews [where] I try to spread the word on what's going on with me - as an artist and an individual - and what the effect of what I am doing has on people. It makes them feel really good. That's my whole intent for being an artist, to just do more of that.
Well that does nicely segues to the next topic of all the sex, sex, sex in your work. Is that purposeful when you create something to have that in there? Some of my favorites like "I'll Do It For You", "Satisfaction" or "Come See Me"… I hear a trend here!
VD: It's not sex as much as it's passion. When you listen to the album [INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, HOLLYWOOD RECORDS] I talk about everything from love to specific romantic scenarios, to bedroom business to survival and I am very passionate about all those things. I believe all those things passionately and I live my life passionately. So, no matter what I am saying, singing or talking about, I feel and try to convey the emotions and the sincerity - the raw openess of the issue. I think that is something that comes off as sexual to people because if you are a very open lover, that's how you have to be. You have to be very passionate, you have to be very open and that's how I live my life.
Thanks for spending time with us!
On the surface, producer / DJ / songwriter / vocalist Vikter Duplaix looks every bit the international man of mystery whose affinity for the James Bond lifestyle seems a perfect fit for this smooth crooner. But before you get too comfortable with that perception, Vikter himself is quick to refute the notion as he reveals a childhood lived on the frontlines of volatile Philly streets and as a member of a large musical family where diversity was a way of life. Something of a child prodigy, Duplaix has sung with everyone from Teddy Pendergrass to Pavarotti, worked with everyone from Phyllis Hyman to Jazzanova and been mentored by everyone from Kenny Gamble to King Britt. But as with the perfect joint, when all the elements are all rolled up together, allowed to blaze and slowly savored in deep pulls, there's just no doubt how good it really is. From the release of his first headlining single "Messages" (Masters At Work) to his first full-length original album INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS (HOLLYWOOD RECORDS) it's been first-class all the way and a wild ride on which he's learned more than most of us will ever know. For our in-depth chat, he takes us on the trains, planes and automobile trips of his formative years and inside the Philly scene's own musical formative years for a rare glimpse inside what will certainly someday be our storied time…