It’s a funky reggae party
Stephen Marley hasn’t exactly lived in anonymity. As a member of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, and producer of a pair of high-profile CDs ” “Halfway Tree,” by his brother Damian Marley, which earned the 2001 Grammy for best reggae album, and “Chant Down Babylon,” a 1999 album that featured posthumous “duets” between Bob Marley and Lauryn Hill, Chuck D, Steven Tyler and others ” Stephen had his share of notable triumphs. And any Jamaican with the Marley name is bound to attract an inordinate amount of attention, even if he doesn’t sing a note.
But two years ago, Stephen Marley was finally ready to put his own name forward. “Got Music?” his debut as a solo artist, was scheduled for a June 2005 release. Marley was looking forward to his turn in the spotlight. “I’m ready, Sharp and ready,” he said in an interview with The Aspen Times several weeks before the scheduled release.
Balancing that sense of anticipation was a considerable display of patience. Marley had just turned 33 in the spring of 2005, and had been performing as part of the Melody Makers for some 25 years. Several of his brothers ” Julian and Ky-Mani, as well as Ziggy and Damian ” had albums to their credit. But Marley was taking the long view, and the perspective of a team player whose duties included more than advancing his own career.
“Longevity is everything. It’s not an explosion and then it’s over. I want to roll like a thunder and keep rolling,” he said in that 2005 conversation. He added, “I’m part of a unit and picking me out is not something I’m going to do. I’m a part of something.”
The quality of forbearance has come in handy. “Got Music?” an album three years in the making, was never released. It had nothing to do with questions of artistic achievement of even commercial viability. Marley was just waiting his turn. “Welcome to Jamrock,” an album Stephen had produced for Damian, was also scheduled for a 2005 release. And while Damian’s album was set for a later release than Stephen’s, in September, the title track had become an enormous hit upon its release as a single in Jamaica. So Stephen put his album on the shelf, to make way for his brother.
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“I had to take a break to concentrate on what was happening, not what was to come,” said Marley, who said family and record company politics played some role in the decision. “At that time Damian’s record was picking up momentum, but his album was far from finished. It was my decision to stop at that point, because I had more to do with Damian’s record. It needed attention.”
“Welcome to Jamrock” got all the attention it needed from the Marleys, and all the attention it merited from audiences. Spurred by the confrontational single, which painted a far less idyllic portrait of Jamaica than the tourism industry would have preferred, and with contributions from rappers Nas and Black Thought, the album entered the Billboard album charts at number seven, the highest ever for a reggae artist. Damian, who goes by the nicknamed “Jr. Gong,” earned a pair of Grammys ” for best reggae album, and for best urban/alternative performance, for the title track.
The success of his brother’s album spurred Marley to put the brakes on “Got Music?” But he didn’t put a halt to his creativity.
“Tell you the truth,” said Stephen recently by phone, “it’s hard for me to sit and wait on something. So I kept on touching it up and touching it up. That’s what an artist has to do.”
Stephen, who turns 35 on April 20, has finally released his debut CD, but it’s not “Got Music?”
“Mind Control” was released last month, and the differences between the two albums go beyond the title and the timing. “Mind Control” features several tunes slated for the earlier CD: the title track, whose message decrying mental slavery is in a similar vein to the Bob Marley hit “Get Up, Stand Up”; “Iron Bars,” a song inspired by Stephen’s arrest for marijuana possession in Florida in 2002; and the revolution-minded “Chase Dem.”
But the emotional and sonic tone of “Mind Control” is a step away from “Got Music?” The single on the new album is “The Traffic Jam”; featuring vocals by Damian, the track is a cutting-edge example of the dancehall style of reggae, and would have felt out of place on the roots-oriented “Got Music?” Gone from the earlier album are such easier-going songs as the acoustic “Winding Road” and the bluesy “My Way”; in their place are “You’re Gonna Leave,” “Let Her Dance” and a reworked version of “Iron Bars,” all of which add tension and hip-hop elements to Marley’s music. The guest list has been reworked; “Mind Control” features Mos Def, Ben Harper and soul singer Maya Azucena. (Marley said that several of the “Got Music?” songs that didn’t make it onto the American version of “Mind Control” have been included on in U.K. and Japan releases.)
“‘Got Music’ was more rootly, more earthly. ‘Mind Control’ has a little more swagger in it,” said Marley, who performs Saturday at 8150 at 10 p.m. (Joining him on the bill are his brother, Jr. Gong; Somalian singer K’Naan; and rapper Guru, with Superproducer Solar.) “It’s me; it’s really me, just like a man with many moods. I have a playful mode, a serious mode. Sometimes you feel like lashing out; sometimes you feel like uplifting. You don’t segregate the two.”
Apart from Marley’s shifting moods, “Mind Control” appears to have been influenced by “Welcome to Jamrock.” Marley says he learned new production techniques while working on Damian’s album that he put to use on his album. And the reception given “Welcome to Jamrock” might have opened his eyes to what audiences were looking for in contemporary reggae.
“In ‘Got Music?’ there was nothing for the dancehall, nothing for the core,” said Stephen, who splits his time between Jamaica and Miami. “There was nothing for what is happening today, designated for them. ‘Traffic Jam’ is for them.”
Marley is currently producing the new album by another brother, Ky-Mani Marley. As with “Welcome to Jamrock,” Stephen finds working on someone else’s record a learning experience. Ky-Mani, he says, does a lot of rapping on the album, which he chalks up to his brother’s having grown up in Miami.
With another two years added to his wait to make his solo debut, Stephen is somewhat less patient than he was in 2005. “I’m anxious to get the work out there,” he acknowledged. But he remains calm, looking at the long haul, and believing in the idea that the fate of all things ” including his singing career ” are in bigger hands than his own.
“As we say, when man plans, God wipes out those plans sometimes,” he said. “I listen to the father, and I don’t doubt my father, the Almighty.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.