In 2005, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley took Hip Hop on an all expenses paid trip to Jamrock. For many, the gold-selling Welcome To Jamrock was a return to the music of the islands, presented to the Rap masses not with a feel-good Red Stripe commercial lens, but with both the soundsystem and the imagery of a true Jamaican journey, by a very gracious host.
Three years later, the accomplished singer, accomplished producer and frequent Hip Hop collaborator announced that he and Nas were at work on joint-album Distant Relatives. For over the last year, Nas has been hard at work at the Marley Family US studio compound in Los Angeles. Largely under wraps, the camp has plugged away at an album that takes the "Hip Hop is Dead" themes, and Damian's authenticity, and focuses on Africa. The continent of 53 countries birthed a music, that through the Mid-Atlantic slave-trade traveled to America and the Caribbean alike, and embedded its way into Reggae then Hip Hop respectively.
Distant Relatives stands for not only Marley and Nas, but Reggae and Hip Hop, and the universal population today. Speaking with HipHopDX late last evening, Damian, who was presently finishing mixing the completed album, promises to deliver it to the people by early 2010. With two of the most intimate songwriters of our time tucked away in the studio for so long, the anticipation is high, and the intentions are deep. Talking about the recording process, his own father, Bob Marley's awareness of Hip Hop and the responsibility of man, he says, "We'd really love to let a lot of people know that Hip Hop and Reggae are very much intertwined in terms of their beginnings and their destinies." The Distant Relatives may very well be Sankofa.
HipHopDX: On your last album, Welcome To Jamrock, you recorded "Road To Zion" with Nas. Did that experience have any influence in sparking this album? Also, for anybody familiar with that record, how telling is that music of what we'll be hearing on Distant Relatives?
Damian Marley: The same reason why we did "Road To Zion" is the same reason why [we are doing Distant Relatives], in terms of those sparks. [Me and Stephen Marley] are big fans of Nas' music, and are very respectful of Nas an as artist - both from a love of the music itself, but also from the respect for what he says in his music, and the lyrical statements that he makes. "Road To Zion" was proof that we could work together. That was proof that both of us go well together on a song. The idea of Distant Relatives itself, more kind of came from [Damian's manager Dan Dalton] and management's side of the fence. [There was just a chemistry], in terms of trying to work together - Nas and myself, the statements that we make in our music are very similar. That was the birth of the dream.
DX: In many genres of music right now, when people are doing a project that isn't nearly as signficant or special as this one, they're constantly telling the media, using social networking, etc. to let the world know. After the initial annoucement in last April, you've both been very quiet about Distant Relatives. I've seen photographs from the recording sessions, and they look very intimate as well. Has that aspect of secrecy and mystique given this project more authenticity for you?
Damian Marley: To tell ya the truth, I cannot say that, from my standpoint, so much really. It's not something that we did on purpose, you know what I mean? My family itself is very self-contained, as far as music. A lot of us create music. A lot of us know how to use equipment and so forth. We have a very tight-knit unit. We are very close to our engineers. We have worked with the same engineers for years, things of this nature. So it wouldn't even really be something that we'd consciously do, to be a secret. It's more, like I said, self-contained. The mystery [enhances it though], on the up-side. That's us working like that, building a mystique to the project. Build anticipation. I'm also aware that over the years that Nas has always had problems with tracks of his leaking, and stuff like that. So we've been careful not to have music in any idle hands and things of that nature. Protect the music. It's kind of [normal] when you work with a family unit like this.
DX: From looking at those photographs, they tell so much about how this music may sound, I think anyway, and the true vibe that you and Nas have together. Can you talk about these studio sessions, and these nights you guys were going in out in Los Angeles? There had to have been some really interesting conversations and experiences. Can you speak about the pacing too? Because it looks like it was a much slower process than a usual Rap record.
Damian Marley: We've been using this word a lot: "serendipity." We've been using that word a lot to explain this project. [Sometimes this project seems] meant to be, as if it couldn't be coincidence. That's just been the energy throughout the project. Working with Nas, has been...wow, that's been a dream come true. We've just been trying to figure out organic qualities; it's a homegrown album: the whole concept, and the melodies and the whole feeling of the album - cats really work off of feeling. That's how I approach music still. I'm not really somebody who has to overthink too much about the format of the music. It's about feel. That's what really what the experience has been about: making music that we feel and love. Whatever Nas feels and loves, we come together and make music based on that.
We've been gettin' to know Nas, in terms of outside career and music and these kind of things. We've been just trying to, like you say, have conversations with him. Sometimes lyrics will lead to hours of conversation and things of this nature. The whole experience behind this has been a lot of fun also.
DX: I'm excited to see what's going to come of this symposium in Washington DC on December 12. As you realized that Distant Relatives was bigger than just an album, that it was going to be a documentary as well as a recognition of African music's lineage into Reggae and Hip Hop, I have to ask: what was the most interesting thing that you learned in the course of all the research going on around you?
Damian Marley: [Laughs] I guess how much people are ready for it...how much people are willing to embrace this. Most of what we are doing is already known. It's just us wanting to expose our knowledge and expose the way we feel about what's going on, in both genres of music, Africa, everything. It started off being a sound that was really inspired by Africa and grew into something else, where we're talkin' about the relevance of Reggae to Hip Hop and how it all comes from Africa. That's something that we've been speaking about for years. We'd really love to let a lot of people know that Hip Hop and Reggae are very much intertwined in terms of their beginnings and their destinies.
DX: There aren't many opportunities where DJ Kool Herc speaks, let alone sharing a stage with Daddy U-Roy.
Damian Marley: Yes sir! [Laughs]
DX: In 2008 and 2009, over the course of recording this album, you can read a newspaper, turn on the BBC, listen to a conversation, and you'll hear about the Recession, poverty, climate change, civil rights violations, war, etc. Both you and Nas are musicians for the people. How did current events inspire Distant Relatives and which are you discussing on the album?
Damian Marley: Yeah. We're interested in all of that. Regardless of Recession and depression and all that kind of thing. America is still a lot better off than a lot of places, bro. America is in one of its worst recessions right now, and even still, it's a lot better off than Jamaica, let alone a place like Sudan. That is the whole thing. There's so many opportunities here in America. Somebody can get a diploma in jail in America. The opportunities here are crazy, when you compare it to a lot of other places. That's the first thing. Furthermore, we're living in a global community right now where no country is bigger than another country. Through the Internet and things of that nature, it's just one country now. America is in a recession, yeah, but [compared] to the globe? It's time that people take certain responsibilities of their own right now, you know what I mean? That is kind what the album is about: people understanding people.
DX: Of all the songs confirmed for this album, "Tribal War" with K'Naan stands out to me. That's very impressive, and a perfect recognition of his breakthrough Troubadour album this year. Can you tell me about that song, and his role in this extended project?
Damian Marley: K'Naan has been like a family member since long before he did his Troubadour album. Actually, he is part of the inspiration and part of the begininng of this album. We also have a track called "Africa Must Wake Up" that recorded early, also. Originally, that's a track K'Naan and myself were just doing together. K'Naan appears on that track, and there's another one on the album that he appears on, ["Tribal War"], which is a more driving song than "Africa Must Wake Up." Like I said, K'Naan is like family; we met around 2005 or so. We've been building together since then, and we'll do a lot more things together in the future also.
DX: You were very young at the time of your father's death. So was Hip Hop. But looking at the greater conversation of Distant Relatives, I'm very curious to know, if from your older brothers, bandmates or relatives who might have known, was Bob Marley at all aware of Hip Hop, and what were his thoughts on it?
Damian Marley: Like you said, in his time it was very early on, in the beginning of Hip Hop itself. But I can tell you, for example, seeing Daddy U-Roy and some other stuff Hip Hop was born off of-type stuff, stuff that my father was involved in [I think he would have been supportive]. At the time, there were artists like Dillinger, and those early Dancehall artists like U-Roy. So he was very much in touch with that sound-system culture and that wave that ended up as the birth of Hip Hop.
But as far as somebody like Kurtis Blow, guys like that, I don't know how familiar he was with that kind of thing. But even if you check "Could You Be Loved?" and some of those tracks that were on some of the later albums, you can hear that influence of American music in his music. So it wouldn't suprise me if he was up on that. But what I can tell ya is Bunny Wailer, who is still here with us now, is very much up-to-date in it. That would be a sign to me that [Bob Marley] would be also.