Hanging at a friend’s pad in West Palm Beach, Florida, Slightly Stoopid percussionist Oguer “OG” Ocon is sipping a café con leche in the early afternoon. Despite the chill setting, Ocon, known to most everybody as OG, is slowly getting on his game face. In a few days, the 34-year-old hand drummer heads back to the West Coast to start rehearsals.
Once nestled in the Stoopid Cave, the band’s San Diego studio, the septet will polish new material from Top Of The World, a taut set of reggae-punk riddims. At 21 tracks, it’s a lot of material to keep in your noodle. “Right?” he says. “We actually had trouble getting that down from, like, 50.”
For Slightly Stoopid, hand percussion is no mere ornament. In track after track, Top Of The World’s percussion parts (or “percussions” in OG parlance) have equal weight with Ryan Moran’s drum set. Because reggae has lower bpms, there’s a lot more space for Ocon to fill than your average conguero. “Coming from Cuba I was extremely high powered,” he says. “My tempo was so quick. It was like, ’I need more to do.’ That’s why I started picking up the tambourine on one side and playing conga on the other side. That fulfilled me because if I just played it with two hands it was just too slow. I could play with one hand.”
At first, playing folkloric beats in reggae seemed like two irreconcilable rhythmic worlds. “Never in my life when I was studying in Cuba with everything I was learning there did I think that I would be applying it to modern American music, what most people call ’white-boy reggae.’”
So what’s a Mexican percussionist with ridiculous chops doing in a third-wave SoCal reggae band anyway? In the case of Slightly Stoopid, a kit player and a hand drummer seamlessly meld. “Whenever there is a one-drop I won’t play percussions, I’ll just play the shekere, which is a very protruding sound – tchuk-tchuk, tchuk-tchuk – and I put that on the opposite side of where the one-drop is, so as soon as he hits that one-drop and that hi-hat lifts, I’m complementing it.”
When the drum set player is pounding a dank groove, OG is all about the upbeat, or “ups” as he likes to call them. “That’s where I find my pocket is least disruptive. Most people like to play the downs: the bass, the kick. The only one going to be accompanying you on the ups – the chukking of the guitar – is the keyboards doing their skank and maybe sometimes the horns, but for the most part on the ups it’s all [the percussionist]. So Ryan takes care of the lows and I take care of the ups.”
If there is a Latin hand drummer who has earned the right to slum it in an American pop band, it’s Ocon. After taking a degree at a music school in Cuba, he came to the States with $62 in his pocket without knowing a soul. “I was playing in the streets, dude. I was sleeping under bridges. I was one of those street performers.”
Then he cleaned up – literally. “I mean, I was never into drugs or anything. I took a bath. And then I got a job. I became a cook. I had, like, three or four jobs … I worked at Hooters.” Soon he was teching for reggae-rockers B-Side Players, and not just the drums but guitar, bass, everything. That’s where he met Ryan “RyMo” Moran.
B-Side Players were always touring with Slightly Stoopid. The latter have an informal jam policy in which anyone who can add to the musical stew is encouraged to do so whenever and wherever the band is performing. After OG gave Slightly Stoopid frontmen Miles Doughty and Kyle McDonald a taste during a sound check, they invited him to join. “At first I thought they meant to be their guitar tech and they were like, ’No, we want you to play.’”
Just because Ocon got his jump-off didn’t mean he forgot about his boy RyMo, who at that point was still the drum set player for B-Side Players. So Ocon brought him to the attention of Slightly Stoopid when the original drum set player backed out. “He was a cool dude,” Ocon says. “But he wasn’t cut out for the touring life.”
Together, RyMo and OG are the hardened magma – the rock, if you will – on which Slightly Stoopid’s lilting vocals, melodic arrangements, and island breeziness depend. These elements finally coalesced on radio hit “2am” from the 2007 breakout release, Chronchitis.
When you’re as focused as Ocon, tracking Top Of The World’s nearly two dozen songs boils down to efficient workflow. Having learned from one-time Sublime engineer/manager Michael “Miguel” Happoldt at the ska-punkers’ Skunk Records compound, the percussionist got a crash course in how to make records including transferring reel-to-reels to Pro Tools, mixing, and so on. “I spent a good four months with him and he really put me through the ringer, and because of that I’m able to go into the studio with Expendables, Pepper – they’ll call me to do tracks with them,” he says. “It allows me to talk about gating or, like, ’Oh, can I bring this sound up? Can I get the tambourine equal?’ That kind of thing.”
The tech talk is a world away from the spirit of claves and mozambiques, but it’s just one of many hurdles the hand drummer faced. “We’re tainted due to the dread-locked, white, patchouli-wearing player,” he says only half joking. “My advice to any percussionist out there: You have to become not only the player, you have to learn your engineering skills because that’s the only way people are going to take you seriously. I had no idea coming here to America the damage that these damned hippies had done.”
Rather than going track by track on Top Of The World, Ocon approached the album in terms of key. “I don’t know music theory, but I do know the I-III-V and how to travel within it,” he explains. “So if half of your songs are in G – most people write songs in C and G – I get all of my C’s and G’s ready, boom. The A’s … boom. Out of the way.”