James Duncan is a name whispered in DJ circles and those in the know. A trained musician with a DJ mentality, James' work as a producer shows his experience as a long time DJ and club devotee as much as it shows his musician background. Duncan has played trumpet in sessions and live for Metro Area. Yet his own productions point to a more loop and groove based direction. Having recently moved back to his native Toronto from New York, and with multiple projects coming up, James may come out from his underground status and into the limelight...perfect timing to catch up with James about what he's been up to.
DT: Many would say that NYC is going through a resurgence as far as Dance Music. Would you agree? Is there as much happening as the media would suggest?
JD: Man, that’s a good question. I can’t really speak to what has been going on over the past few years because I haven’t lived there for a minute now, but I’m really inspired by all of the music coming out of the city these days. The quality is so high, especially on the House front from all the people that have been getting some well-deserved media focus.
NYC is such a strange situation in the sense that, just like anywhere, after a while, even it can begin to feel small. Walking through Times Square just becomes more of a hassle than the total center of insanity that it really is. So I think when one is there, in the thick of it let’s say, it’s easy to feel as if not much is going on at all and take it all for granted. But then you leave that situation and environment and you quickly realize there’s quite a bit going on and it’s all so accessible.
So it’s not like there’s some “oasis” with all of these people sitting around welcoming you with 12”s, but I think all of the various circles of people and their activity combine to make for a very vibrant environment in which to be creative in, even if one takes the stance that NY is maybe a somewhat muted, cleaned up version of its former self.
Having moved back to Toronto recently, what is the difference between working as a producer in Toronto vs New York? What inspires you musically in each city?
Well another great question. I think the things that are different, other than maybe the size and some of the outward focus on NY in general, is merely reflective of me still being some what of a “new comer” back here in Toronto. At my age, I’m not out too much shaking hands and doing a lot of face time. My process is, and has always been, me literally sitting at home alone, listening to great records that I love and then trying to make music.
What always inspired me about NY was that energy you could feel seeping right up into your feet every time you walk outside of the house. What seems to be pretty inspiring about being back in Toronto is a general sense of ease about being creative and to be honest, Health Care. Not having to stress out about getting randomly hit by a cab and then all of a sudden having an $80, 000 hospital bill should inspire anyone to great things.
We spoke at length about the positives and negatives of the Toronto scene. Many Torontonians tend to complain about the state of the scene. As a local who recently returned to the city, perhaps you could expand on your views of the city from a fresh pair of eyes?
Well that was a good conversation mostly because it was so positive. I think I’m a bad guy to ask about scenes because I always enjoy going to more low-key events and I usually go out during the week.
I do try to get involved in scenes but being at home; working in the studio and practicing my trumpet and guitar usually distract me. But I’ve been trying to get out more and more lately. I’m DJ’ing a weekly here in Toronto these days and it’s been great to connect with a lot of people that I knew via 6 degrees of separation and some old friends.
I think the situation here is very good. There are parties and people to both play at them and go to them. There’s so much good history here too, especially for House, so one of my pet projects is to try and get some of the older cats and newer guys (like yourself) to play some gigs around town in some more intimate settings. I tried to get D’Pac to play but Yogi (his brother) said he doesn’t DJ, so maybe there’s a Live PA there waiting to happen. The fact that the guys responsible for one of the greatest house records of all time live here in the city just is so cool. I’d also like to get the Stickmen too.
As far as some fresh eyes, my take is simple - there’s quite a lot of stuff going on and it seems healthy, as well as it’s getting good attention from abroad. A friend of a friend played on David Letterman the other night and Letterman said the band was from Toronto. That’s pretty good in my books, so I’m happy to be here.
Being a musician, producer and DJ, do you identify more with one or do all three have equal importance to you?
It’s funny but I still have problems identifying with any of them! I guess since I’ve been a DJ and musician the longest, I do identify with them, but not really with the ways in which the musical public perceives what those roles are. I started DJing in 1983 but it was on a high school radio station and I was also playing at high school dances, so I still feel at odds with the notion that one is a focal point of attention when one DJs. I’m much more comfortable being quite anonymous, but I do love playing and sharing music I love with people.
How does each role affect the other?
For some people they all go hand in hand, but for me, they all seem to just get in the way of each other. Playing the Trumpet is a very physical, taxing activity and a lot of one’s practice time is spent on musical calisthenics in order to keep up one’s tone and endurance. So people sometimes assume that because one has some degree of proficiency on an instrument, therefore one must be a good producer, but for me it’s been quite the opposite. I guess the only thing that is consistent between all the roles is that I’m not very good at any of them. If I were to play a stock trumpet gig where there were charts, and other ensemble players, I’d fail miserably, even though I studied legit trumpet and have played in Orchestras, playing some bigger pieces in the repertoire. That being said, I play with people I enjoy and am inspired by and sometimes I contribute to the situation and thankfully, people seem to relate to my musical statements, however small and humble they are, in the grand scheme of things.
You’ve mentioned about your musical background progressing from Jazz, Free Jazz into Hip Hop to Disco and Boogie then eventually discovering house music. Do you remember when and how you discovered house music? What were some of the first and most influential house tunes you heard?
Well I remember “house” coming along in around 1986-7, along with the club culture that went along with it and the whole UK Summer of Love vibe. I would intermittently go to the Twilight Zone in the mid 80s, but I was far from a regular or conissuer, just a drunk teenager. I remember hearing Mr. Fingers and some of the other more mellower things that came out around that time. Hearing New Wave, New Romantic, music on Factory etc was such just a “given” growing up in Toronto back in the 80’s that the early, more beat oriented house tunes I heard at the time just initially mixed in. When House really hit, I had sort of thrown myself full into discovering and studying jazz so it was sort of when I got in Disco that I re-discovered (or really closely discovered) House in the mid 90s. I had been playing both indie rock and jazz up until that point, so it was around when I started to try producing and learning how to make tracks and beats. I think the track then that really hit me was Acid Tracks. To me, it just sounded like a punk rock record, which in my mind, it basically is.
Though you are a trained musician, to me your productions convey more a sense of a loop based groove. Do you consciously try to step away from making productions that are “over- arranged” or “over-produced”?
Yes and no. I mean I think Dance music inherently is a very abstracted form of music, so maybe sonically, I like to explore that, plus loving sampling like I do, I guess that work flow just lends itself to loop based music. But I’ve been really trying to make it less “loop” based, but still using samples. I guess for me, every time I try to play arranged things on a keyboard, I just hear my bad clichéd Piano playing and throw in the towel. I guess I’ve also always loved the “happy accidents” of working with samples, so I’ve always stuck to that method. Plus I’m just such a huge Hip Hop fan that I guess that mode of production is now part of my musical DNA.
People have try and push me to broaden my arrangements, but when I sit down to work, I just come up with very groove based things. Personally I have no problems with that reality and if that’s all that comes out, so be it. I just try to get better at it as I go along.
What is your method of production. I believe when we chatted last time you had recently acquired an MPC 2000. Has that changed your approach?
Yeah the MPC 2000 completely changed things for me. In some ways it was what I was always looking for. All of my records from NY (listen to me, “all of my records”. it’s like 5. Producers out there make 5 records a month and here I am waxing on about 5 records in a career) were made on a laptop, but it was literally a portable, digital version of my original set up, which was a Prophet 3000 run by either an Amiga 500 or a early version of Cubase on a Mac Powerbook 140. I used Halion and Battery running though Cubase and that was about it. I was mapping samples onto an external midi keyboard and triggering them. Removing the keyboard has been a godsend. It abstracts the music so that I’m not thinking about pitches or about any little keyboard facility I might have.
Just last week I got a MPC 2000xl and it’s been the perfect transition. The updates to the sequencer section and the way the XL handles switching between various modes have been amazing and I’m already busting through a lot of barriers.
After a long hiatus, your Le Systeme final saw another release with the Friday Night Sessions ep. Have you got more plans for the label this year and releases lined up?
Yeah this year might be busy actually. The next release is by Carlos Hernandez of Balihu and Basenotic fame. Carlos is basically a “go to guy” for tons of friends and peers in NYC when it comes to percussion or various instruments.
I met Carlos originally in 2003 doing some Metro Area Live PAs and we’ve always stayed in touch and done some gigs together. His big connection is obviously to Danny Wang, not only playing on some of Danny’s tracks but also having productions on Balihu proper.
As a producer though, he’s one of my faves and we talked about doing a record on Le Systeme over dinner and drinks in NY when I was there a while back. I’m so happy that it’s almost a reality. The record is getting pressed as we speak and I hope people check it out.
What are some projects, releases, gigs, etc. on other labels to look out for?
Man, it’s been busy, something I’m really not used to. I have a new record coming out at some point on Real Soon and there’s a remix/edit I did coming out soon on Bliq, both from London. Then I’m just finishing up a 12” for Third Strike, run by David Griffiths in London, who does both Jiscomusic and Under The Shade, and who is just a great music person and long distance email friend since his days in the Jigsaw crew when they got in touch with support in 2003. So a lot of London right now. The UK people have always been such massive supporters and it’s so great to do all of these projects there.
As far as my label goes, I want to re-issue the Mantler CD this year (that originally came out in 2000) plus my first 12” that I did in 1999. I’m trying to track down the plates now.
I have a bunch of gigs in NY for the first week in July, some with my friend Jon DeRosa’s Aarktica project and some other things that we’re just getting the details together on now.
I’m trying to get a EU tour set up at some point this year, so working out the details for that over the summer.
And then there’s my weekly gig here in Toronto at Sweaty Bettys. Pow!
Friday Night Sessions Ep is available here