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For Jr. Gong, Passion For Reggae Is A Family Legacy

BANG A GONG: Damien Marley pushes the old-school Jamaican "one-drop" beat on "Welcome To Jamrock."

By Makkada B. Selah | Posted 4/20/2005

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley plays the Funk Box April 22.

Damian Robert Nesta Marley (aka “Jr. Gong”) has his father’s smile. And though he doesn’t smile very much during a recent interview, as he sits on the couch in the lobby of his and his brothers’ recording label headquarters Ghetto Youths International in Miami, he does so immediately when his father, reggae star-turned-pop music legend Bob Marley, is mentioned.

“Our father sang all types of songs,” he says. “The songs encompassed life. So, we have songs that are about love, songs that are serious and funny, songs that are political—we have all kinds of fruits in the basket.”

The “we” the 26 year-old refers to is himself, the son of Marley and former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare; the basket is his own upcoming, as-yet untitled LP; the fruits the wide array of song styles the young lion has been known to deliver within the reggae framework. This talent captured him a 2002 reggae Grammy for his 2001 Halfway Tree. Marley the younger is obviously interested in continuing his father’s legacy.

“Naturally a child is going to be influenced by his father, but every reggae musician is influenced by Bob Marley right now,” he says. “That goes without saying.”

Indeed. Not just reggae musicians, but arguably all musicians have been touched by Bob Marley. It’s difficult to go anywhere and not hear a snippet of a Marley song wafting from a driver’s open car window, being used as ambiance at a sidewalk café, or blasted at a social gathering. Jr. Gong wears a Bob Marley T-shirt this April night, in which the son of the silkscreen icon takes a break during a rehearsal for his upcoming “Welcome to Jamrock Tour” to chat, but so do many, many others.

Nyahbinghi drumming can be heard from the rehearsal room, outfitted with a red, gold, and green Lion of Judah flag by the door. Earlier the young Marley stood in the center of the room, his waist-length dreadlocks swinging as he went through the set, which featured a few cuts from Halfway Tree, a few of his father’s, and about four or five completely new ones. Bass lines from Marley’s oeuvre pervade Jr. Gong’s songs: “Me Name Jr. Gong”? Same bass line as “Crazy Baldheads.” After he finishes his song’s rap, Jr. Gong actually sings his dad’s classic. Then he launches into a rendition of “We Don’t Need No More Trouble” and then raps over a track of “Exodus,” adding a dancehall snare.

Some reviewers have criticized Jr. Gong’s earlier work for being so derivative of his father’s. Admittedly, quite a few songs in the set are straight-up Bob Marley renditions. But is it fair to say he’s playing covers? If an artist sings songs written by his parent, is it a cover or an inheritance?

A generous spread of fresh fruit, water , juice, and chips and dip sits on a table in the lobby for the rehearsing musicians and observers, quite a few of whom are a part of the Ghetto Youths International nonprofit program that mentors youth in the music industry and provides an opportunity for them to tour and record with the Marleys. “We’re working with a new young set of musicians,” Jr. Gong says stroking his beard. “One of the things we want to do is garner some experience for them. And we have the single out now and the album is coming, so we want to make people aware of this.”

The single “Welcome to Jamrock” is getting heavy rotation on reggae radio, particularly in Jamaica. The downtempo dub describes the mean Jamdown streets in raw, rough, and rugged rhymes over the sample of Ini Kamoze’s “World-A-Music” riddim, which features the cry “out in the streets they call it murder.” Komoze must have been talking about Marley’s lyrics, which rip like a 12-gauge shotgun. Aiming at the state of Jamaican politics and the neglect of ghetto youth, Marley rhymes:

 

To see this sufferation sick me

Dem suit no fit me

To win election dem trick we

And dem don’t do nuthin’ at all

Come on, let’s face it

A ghetto education’s basic

And most of the youths dem waste it.

And when dem waste it

That’s when dem take the guns replace it Then dem don’t stand a chance at all.

And that’s why ’nuff little youth them have some fat matic

With the extra magazine inna dem back pocket

An reach a night time inna some black jacket.

And dem won’t think twice to shot you

Don’t make dem spot you

Unless you carry guns a lot too

A pure tuff thing come at you.

Then comes the mocking “Welcome to Jamrock” chorus. With lyrics this solid, it makes you wonder why “Jamrock” isn’t getting more mainstream play alongside Sean Paul and Elephant Man. It’s not just the political content that most commercial Jamaican DJs eschew in order to get mainstream play, it’s also the “one drop” riddim.

“Dancehall is taking center stage in America on a commercial level,” Marley says. “But right now the roots, one drop, is running Jamaica. I don’t know if you know what one drop is, but one drop is the original cultural feel of the music as opposed to dancehall, which is the fast, giddy thing. In Jamaica right now, on the radio, the roots is really running things. You have Fanta Mojo, I Wayne, and Jackplip. You have a whole heap of riddim that are one-drop, original-riddim style right now, as opposed to the fast giddy thing. In America, you get fast stuff for the club.”

Though he’s more of a one-drop DJ himself, Marley does more than dabble in the dancehall, and has respect for those who do it. “Over the years [you] find that there is only one reggae artist that is really out there in the marketplace at a time,” he says. “But recently you see a whole heap of different artists emerging, like Elephant and Sean and Shaggy, and even listening to radio in Miami now you hear a lot of dancehall. So we give thanks for that. It’s just the elevation of the music and the years of really pressing and trying to break that barrier seems to be opening, know what I mean?”

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