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Walking in the footsteps of a legend

Observer Scene | Thursday, November 3, 2005

In the music industry, a famous last name does not always guarantee success. The somewhat dismal careers of Ben Taylor (son of James) and Sean Lennon are a testament to how coming from a heralded legacy can have its own pitfalls.

Yet for Damian Marley, 27, the youngest son of Bob Marley and former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, success and talent have come quite easily. Fame and global recognition are just beginning to come into his life, though, especially after the recent release of his new album, “Welcome to Jamrock.”

A close musical family

Damian Marley has had immeasurable help from his brother Stephen Marley, a well-respected producer and performer in his own right, who co-produced “Welcome to Jamrock” with Damian Marley. Their collaboration shows on the CD, which is both scathing and wide-ranging in subjects addressed and diverse in the musical styles represented and explored.

Stephen Marley has often been joining Damian Marley on his recent fall tour, which has been highlighted by numerous opening tour dates with U2. Damian Marley and his father are perhaps the world’s best-known politically conscious and concurrently popular artists known today. During Damian Marley’s recent tour stop in Philadelphia before his first time opening for U2, he spoke with The Observer via telephone.

“Most of the shows we do with some brothers or siblings,” he said. “I have at least one brother with me on stage … you have more energy with your best friend. I don’t have to go too far in my life to find great musicians or people to work with. I’ve been surrounded by a very musical family and support my entire life.”

The memory of Bob Marley

Although Damian Marley was three when his father passed away, he feels that he still continues his father’s musical legacy in spirit, especially since he is constantly working with his siblings on challenging and experimenting with reggae and roots music.

“The master has come back on this record – it is multidimensional music. In a way, I’m saying that I have returned and am trying to create a culture of uplifting Rasta influence. I say that the old-school style [of reggae] is coming back, and we’re creating a multi-generational feeling,” said Damian Marley.

Marley’s Jah-conscience songs on the record are full of incisive chants against the corruption and sadness that permeates modern Jamaica. Already a controversial release in his home country, “Welcome to Jamrock” has come to be viewed as an antithetical collection of anthems for the current reggae and dancehall communities – eschewing the lightweight ganja influenced ramblings of artists like Elephant Man and Shaggy in favor of the substance of political commentary and melodic rage.

“Some songs start with just ideas … may just be with one line. Sometimes I take good topics, things I feel and see, and use the vibe for the majority of lyrics. But, many are also written to the beat, so we get a centered beat, with a dancehall feeling. You can’t come up with a plan or device with inspiration for music, it has to be natural,” said Damian Marley on the conception of the music of “Welcome to Jamrock.”

Continuing the tradition

“Welcome to Jamrock” is Damian Marley’s third studio album, following “Mr. Marley” in 1996 and “Halfway Tree” in 2001, for which he won a Grammy Award. Although “Halfway Tree” was highly praised by music critics, it never really caught on commercially in the United States, mostly due to its lack of an infectious single. In “Welcome to Jamrock,” Damian Marley made sure to fix that problem by writing the title track and first single, titled “Welcome to Jamrock,” which has been called the “reggae song of the decade” by the New York Times.

The first single, “Welcome to Jamrock,” is about the side of Jamaica that often goes unmentioned. It speaks to the people of the ghettos, the downtrodden and all of those in Jamaica behind the plush tourist facades that have come at times to define the country’s image. Even though Damian Marley acknowledges that he did not have a childhood like the impoverished he describes in his songs, or even like his father’s in the villages of Kingston – he still feels that he can speak out against the cultural and political forces hurting his brethren.

“The majority of citizens don’t live a luxurious part of life, so that song [the single] is depicting people who think they know about Jamaica, but really don’t,” he said.

After the “Welcome to Jamrock” single began to receive major radio airplay during the summer of 2005, the anticipation for Damian Marley’s upcoming album of the same name became huge. Rumors spread in the reggae community that Damian Marley, the youngest child of the legend himself, could be releasing the most aware and innovative record from a Marley family member in years.

When “Welcome to Jamrock,” the full-length album, was finally released on September 13, it entered the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart at No. 7, which was the biggest opening week ever for a reggae artist in the United States. A powerful record founded upon epic lyrical observations of society and violence, it has found a fan base that none of his previous work was able to. Damian Marley has worked tirelessly to bring a newfound sense of intelligence and history to the current reggae community, and even the pop community, by not straying from subjects that seem a bit uncomfortable.

“My music is about Jah, but it’s about life, it’s about finding the way to look at things and say here is what exists, here is why, here is why we must see and understand,” he said.

Fresh addition to the Marley Canon

Although Damian Marley is now the heir to the Marley name, it does not mean that his new album is an instant classic. Lyrically, “Welcome to Jamrock” is just as powerful as “Trenchtown Rock,” but its droning dancehall vibrations hinder it from exploring the dark corners of Jamaican culture like his father’s early albums did.

However, Damian Marley doesn’t venture into pop territory like his brother Ziggy Marley did during the 1990s either, nor does he copy much of anything his family has done in the past. In looking to the present reggae scene, Damian Marley has presumably found a comfortable niche. Preferring to blast vocal rhythms at numerous subjects instead of holding a guitar, Damian Marley is able to redefine Marley-style reggae, but at times just adds to the noise being created in reggae’s current hip-hop/dancehall craze.

Listeners looking for crazy beats should look to Kanye West’s recent “Late Registration” or Sean Paul’s “The Trinity.” Co-producers of “Welcome to Jamrock,” Damian and Steve Marley, are hardly reggae’s answers to Dr. Dre. Still, this Grammy Award winner (for 2001’s “Halfway Tree”) does bring the verbal rants to some phenomenal crescendos on songs like “Pimpa’s Paradise” and “The Master Has Come Back.”

An album that will make you get up, stand up and dance, “Welcome to Jamrock” is a fresh addition to the Marley canon, even though it’s more about “Top 40” accessibility than Marley-esque gravitas.