Oguer "OG" Ocon: On The Up And Ups

oguer ocon

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.”

Division Of Labor

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.”

From Busking To Backing

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.

Slighlty Methodical

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.”

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He adopted this protocol because no producer wants to work with percussion at the end. Ocon first mixes what he calls “light” percussion – bells, blocks, and anything from the HandSonic – and then he does the skins. And at the end he sits with the engineer to get the sound correct. “It’s quite an involved method, but it works.”

oguer ocon

Ocon’s Setup

Drums Pearl Richie Flores Signature Congas (Lunar Eclipse finish)
1 9"/7" Bongos
2 12.5" x 30" Tumba
3 11.75" x 30" Conga
4 11" x 30" Quinto

Percussion Pearl
A Low, Medium, and High Clave Blocks
B Assorted toys including shekeres, tambourines, shakers, ganzas

Electronics Roland
C HandSonic

When playing live, he tunes the congas in accordance with the set list. It’s a dying art that he thinks hand drummers ignore at their peril. “I sit there with somebody that tells you what key it’s in, so I hit it, dink, and whether it’s C-sharp and this and that, it’s specifically tuned to the song. That’s why it pops out.”

Good thing, too, because the setup is bare-bones: A trio of congas (tumba at far-left since he is lefty), a pair of bongos, and a triad of hard-plastic block-style claves. Starting out, Ocon would bring every exotic piece of percussion in his arsenal, but now he gets all the drum tones and cymbal sounds he needs from the HandSonic pad. “Actually it’s all three of us,” he says. “Ryan has an SPD pad, and then the keyboardist [Paul Wolstencroft] – so all three of us are making crazy noises and textures.”

It’s a testament to doing more with less. It’s also a reflection of musical and even spiritual growth. “It took me a long time to get my pride out of the way, like, ’No, I’m fully traditional. I will never go to electronic blah-blah.’ That stupidity and stubbornness cost me a lot of money, but once I did, it was beautiful.”

The other concessions to technology are the synthetic heads. With Slightly Stoopid touring the world and its myriad climates, animal skins would only last for six weeks or so. “At first [making the switch] was weird because with the synthetics you can’t grab the heads as much. I keep my wrist a little higher on them [to compensate]. So you actually have to have more chops to go to the synthetic.”

Ritual Slayer

Slightly Stoopid keeps the hand drummer busy, but Ocon still works like the hungry freelancer he was ten years ago, doing cuts with The Expendables, Pepper, and most recently, the Karl Denson Beastie Boys Tribute band, a project with Denson (Lenny Kravitz, Greyboy Allstars) where Ocon plays the role of Ad Rock, singing Beasties covers and wearing ridiculous costumes. (Google it.)

An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Ocon likes to steps out from his forté on occasion. On the 2008 live album Slightly Not Stoned Enough To Eat Breakfast Yet Stoopid, he plays guitar on “Tom And Jerry,” holding the instrument upside down as southpaws will so that the E string is on bottom, giving the riff its distinctive chukking. “It’s like a fast blues swing,” he says. “I love the music on those cartoons. It’s just so jazzy, and I started listening to that and wrote that song, dude. And then Kyle wrote this amazing lead for it. I don’t know how he fingerpicks so fast.”

Fun as this stuff is, Ocon never strays too far from his craft’s roots. In fact he is on a quest to master the orishas, an ancient African ceremony based around batá rhythms that – via the slave trade – became an integral part of the Santería religion in Cuba. For the ceremonies, Ocon assumes the guise of hijo de chango – son of Chango, a Yoruban god. In this mode, he and a bunch of other Cuban cats shed to a near frenzy.

“The oro seco for batá? That’s no joke, dude,” he says, referring to the specific suite of drum patterns. “That’s like the hardest thing to learn.” The oro seco requires four years of study on each of the bata’s drums: okónkolo, itótele, and iya. Ocon has finished with okónkolo and is three years into itótele. It’s a discipline that is not undertaken lightly, especially since there’s no formal organization or school curriculum that supports it. “This is personal training,” he says. “This is like if you want to be with the big dogs, if you want to be called to the spiritual events that nobody gets invited to. You have to show people that you know your material.”

As if the crossover from Santería to Top 40 isn’t blasphemous enough, Ocon’s tipping another sacred cow with Top Of The World’s cover of “I’m On Fire” from Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. “Hell, yeah. I’m a big Boss man,” he says. “English is my second language but Mexicans love the Boss man. We wear cowboy boots too!”

Initially Springsteen’s management vetoed the cover, but Bruce himself ended up liking it. “So I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get sued is what I’m telling you. [laughs] We’ll have to dish out some cheese, though. Nobody is going to give up their song just like that.”

Ain’t No Fakin’ It

With artists including Chali 2na, G. Love, Angelo Moore, Angela Hunte, and more gracing Top Of The Word, it would seem that Slightly Stoopid’s credibility issues with the hardcore ragamuffins are a thing of the past. After jumping on a tour in 2008 with reggae legends Sly & Robbie, a Jamaican celebrity mag did a big piece on the band that brought them respect in the Caribbean world. To be sure, dancehall icon Barrington Levy, who does vocals on the single “Ur Love,” is not going to be associated with something whack. “It was super-awesome just standing there with him in the green room and going through the lyrics,” Ocon recalls. “He’s going, ’Maybe I’ll sing this.’ We’re like, ’You’re Barrington Levy. You can do whatever you want, sir.’”

As you might predict, Ocon’s Latin music brethren – the puristas – give the hand drummer no shortage of flack for what they see as selling out. “When I go back, they’re like, ’So, you still remember how to play a clave?’ Oh, they bust my balls hard, man.” But the hand drummer takes it with humor and patience because the progressively bigger checks he’s clocking allow him to take care of his mother and a niece and nephew.

And yet it’s the little things that often say the most. A few weeks ago Ocon was at the Belly Up Tavern, a Solana Beach club where he used to cook and sell merchandise. There he ran into the owner, a surly guy he always used to steer clear of. “I’m having a cocktail at the bar and he’s like, ’Mr. Selling Merch, now Mr. Rock And Roll – how have you been doing?’ He’s like a hardcore Italian dude. This man never comes out to say hi to anybody. And he just straight up gave me a big hug, lifted me off my feet, and said, ’I am so proud of you.’”