After Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley won two Grammy Awards in 2006 for his hit album, "Welcome to Jamrock," he was inspired to continue working with one of the project's guest artists, hip-hop star Nas, who rapped on the track "Road to Zion."
Their initial collaboration led to "Distant Relatives," an album released last year that celebrated the connections between reggae and hip-hop, and traced the music's common African roots.
"If you look at the history of hip-hop and reggae music, you can see that they're both very much intertwined," says Damian Marley. "A lot of '80s hip-hop was influenced by Jamaican culture. Hip-hop and reggae music are coming essentially from a black, impoverished community."
Hip-hop icon Nas (left) will share the outdoor stage with Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley Sunday at the MACC
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
The recording features guest appearances by a number of musicians including Lil Wayne and Joss Stone (on "My Generation"), K'naan ("Tribes at War" and "Africa Must Wake Up"), Damian's brother Stephen Marley ("Leaders" and "In His Own Words") and Junior Reid ("Ancient People").
Many of the songs relate to African issues (including poverty, AIDS and the diamond trade) and some proceeds are being funneled toward building a school in the Congo.
"We tried to use a lot of African elements without really just making it sound like tribal drums," Marley continues. "They have great jazz musicians in Africa. A lot of people aren't aware of this. So I wanted to bring a lot of that to light."
* Damien Marley and Nas perform in concert at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Gates open at 5. Tickets are $39.50 in advance and $44.50 day of show (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC box office, 242-7469; Request Music, the Green Banana Internet Caf and Old Lahaina Book Emporium.
One of the tracks, "Tribes at War," features African percussion and Arabic strings and a cameo from Somali-born K'Naan, who raps: "I drink poison then vomit diamonds, I gave you Mandela, black Dalai Lamas, I gave you music, you enthused in my kindness, so how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus?"
"Never before in either genre has there been such a deeply successful collaboration album," raved RapReviews.
"The most political mainstream rapper and the most talented Tuff Gong scion make this a true collaboration," praised veteran critic Robert Cristgau on MSN. "The result is an exceptionally melodic reggae album that's intensified by rapping devoid of dancehall patois and a hard edge unknown to roots revivalism."
And an All Music Guide review concluded: "It's a royal and a striking reminder of why these two artists have reached legendary status."
A hip-hop icon since he burst out of the Queensbridge housing projects, Nas has sold more than 20 million albums. With a history of challenging conventions, his 1994 debut, "Illmatic," explored urban blight, while his rap fusion song "Bridging the Gap," featured his father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara. In 2006, he released the album "Hip-Hop is Dead."
Damien Marley was only 2 when his father died. Raised by his mother, Cindy Breakspeare - who won the Miss World crown for Jamaica - it was natural that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and siblings.
"Growing up when your father's a musician and your bothers are musicians, it definitely helps," he says. "And I had a lot of music influences outside of my family. When I was a little kid my mother took me to concerts to see dancehall performers like Shabba Ranks, Tiger and Supercat. A lot of my influence comes from that dancehall era."
At the age of 13, he formed his first band, the Shepherds, which also included the son of Third World's Cat Coore and the daughter of Freddie McGregor. The teen group opened up the 1992 Reggae Sunsplash festival. By 1994, Damian was working on his own solo project, and with the help of his father's label, Tuff Gong, he recorded "Mr. Marley." Assisted by brother Stephen he next recorded "Halfway Tree," which won a reggae Grammy in 2001.
Released in 2005, the accolades poured in for "Welcome to Jamrock."
Both Rolling Stone and Spin magazines included it in their annual lists of top recordings. The New York Times hailed the title track as "a contender for Reggae Song of the Decade," and New York Magazine named it the Best Single of 2005.
"Pop's hall of fame isn't exactly crammed with the offspring of pop legends, but Damian Marley may well succeed where Julian Lennon, Jakob Dylan and Ziggy Marley failed," noted a review in the U.K.'s The Guardian. "After taking two albums to find his feet, the 27-year-old has produced an album that is a colossus. He will surely become a huge star."
The recording won Marley a Grammy for Best Reggae Album and another for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. He was especially pleased to win in a non-reggae award.
"It felt great," he reports, "that I'm making steps in the direction I want to be stepping toward, speaking about reggae winning Grammies outside of just the reggae category."
Armed with an air horn, an Ini Kamoze sample, and a gritty tale of life in Jamaica, Marley made a huge splash with his massive single "Welcome to Jamrock." The rough reggae-meets-hip-hop track dominated urban radio during the summer of 2005. Not since Shabba Ranks had a Jamaican artist made such an impact on mainstream American radio.
"A lot of Jamaicans face struggle, and that's what it's about," Marley notes.
Another fierce track, "Move," features a sample of his father's classic "Exodus." "It just happened more than sitting around trying to make a conscious decision as to what song to use," he reports. "Somebody else had sampled 'Exodus,' who worked with us and we ended up re-sampling it, making another beat."
As one of Bob's sons, Damian says he doesn't feel any special responsibility. "As the youngest I have a lot of support and experience to draw from," he says. "I'm always free with my music. I say whatever I want to say at a given time. Over the years sometimes those things cause repercussions but they don't stop me. When I'm making music I don't get too conscious about images and what people think."
So what's the greatest blessing being a son of such a legendary artist?
"The biggest blessing is the family, the whole legacy and heritage," he says. "We have one of the greatest examples to follow. My father laid a foundation, an infrastructure that we could plug our thing into. Having so many brothers and sisters that love and support you is a blessing. We work very close together and work on each other's projects."
Just like his father, he feels a mission to inspire and uplift and provide a voice for the oppressed. "I use music as a means of communicating about what my thoughts and ideas are about the issues that face my generation today," he explains. "It's communication to learn from each other and uplift life globally. Music can transcend a lot of barriers. Ultimately people have to make the change but music helps to influence people."
Legendary U.K. ska band the English Beat returns to Maui on March 5 playing the Hard Rock Caf. Formed in the late 1970s they're famous for such memorable tracks as "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Twist and Crawl," "Stand Down Margaret," and their inspired cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown."
Their dynamite show on Maui in late 2009 was a highlight of the year.
Among the Maui winners at the recent 15th Annual Hawaii Music Awards, Napua Makua won Traditional Hawaiian for her album "Mohalu," Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom won the Contemporary Hawaiian category for "Amy Hanaiali'i and Slack Key Masters of Hawaii," George Kahumoku Jr. won Compilation Album for "Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Vol. 3," and Cindy Paulos was honored with the Inspirational/Gospel Music award for "Practicing Aloha."
The Children's Music category was won by Tia Carrera for "Huana Ke Aloha," the lullaby collection that Grammy voters somehow figured was this year's Best Hawaiian Music Album.
Carrera's album features original kids' lullabies sung in Hawaiian with mostly solo piano accompaniment, based on classical works by composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Satie. While it has Hawaiian lyrics, and she has a lovely voice, it's a stretch to call it Hawaiian music.
With many folks wondering how this win happened, it's worth noting that the winning album is determined by National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences members who vote for the finalists in the American Roots field, which includes bluegrass, zydeco, Cajun, American Indian, folk, blues, Americana and Hawaiian music categories.
Thus a Cajun music fan who might have little clue about Hawaiian music gets the same vote as a Hawaiian member. And they've probably heard of an island-born actress name Tia.
In other Grammy news, Nas' manager, Steve Stoute, bought a full-page ad in The New York Times, criticizing the awards, saying the show has become, "a series of hypocrisies and contradic- tions." He was particularly upset that Eminem and Justin Bieber were snubbed, while invited to perform on the show.
Having covered just about anything you might want to know about Sir Elton John in previous columns, with show time upon us, here's just a little more.
In early December, the superstar was invited to guest edit a special World Aids Day issue of U.K. daily newspaper The Independent. He selected news, features and commentary that highlighted the plight of AIDS sufferers around the world. All circulation revenues from the issue benefitted his Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Beside a long interview, it included some of the pop legend's likes and dislikes.
So among the "10 things I didn't like when I was 25 that I like now," he included table linen, baseball and boats. "10 things I don't like, period" included mobile phones with cameras and tweeting.
And among the "10 songs I like," he included "All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle," "I'm a Pink Toothbrush, You're a Blue Toothbrush" and Monty Python's "Sit On My Face."