Damian Marley | Roots Rap Reggae


Nas (left) and Damian Marley

Photo: Nabil Elderkin

Mixing musical genres can be tricky, but it feels more natural when the styles share as much as reggae and hip-hop do. For Damian Marley (aka Jr. Gong), the youngest son of reggae legend Bob Marley (who died when Damian was two), this stylistic juxtaposition is familiar. He had begun experimenting with it on his previous album, the double Grammy-winner Welcome to Jamrock (Universal/Tuff Gong/Ghetto Youths International, 2005)—particularly on the track “Road to Zion,” which featured the rapper Nas.

Their collaboration was so successful that they subsequently decided to work on more material together. The result was Distant Relatives (Universal/Republic/Island Def Jam/Ghetto Youths International), their new joint release. According to the album''s publicity, the idea is to “celebrate the correlations and deep-rooted connections between reggae and hip-hop,” and to trace the music''s common African roots.

Marley produced most of the tracks, and his brother Stephen handled the others. For Damian Marley, who has been developing his chops as a producer and did some producing on Welcome to Jamrock, Distant Relatives is his most ambitious production effort yet. “It was the first time I stepped out so much as an individual producer,” he says.

Distant Relatives is a sonic feast. It''s an eclectic, yet cohesive collection of 14 songs featuring heavy layers of percussion, lots of live drums (but programmed drums, too—sometimes layered with the live, sometimes separate), and a melodic and lyrical sensibility from Marley that clearly carries on the family tradition. Marley''s vocal sections are reggae- and dancehall-reggae-infused, and the intertwined rap segments by Nas offer contrast, but still feel like part of the whole.

The album includes guest appearances by a number of musicians including Lil Wayne (“My Generation”), K''naan (“Tribes at War” and “Africa Must Wake Up”), Stephen Marley (“Leaders” and “In His Own Words”), and Junior Reid (the bonus track “Ancient People”). The album was engineered by Tim Harkins and Mark Lee at studios in L.A., Miami, and Atlanta. It was mixed by James “Bonzai” Caruso (see sidebar “Bonzai Mixing Techniques” on p. 32), who deftly handled some massive track counts, and who frequently adorned Marley''s vocals with artfully deployed reggae-style delay effects.

I had a chance to speak with Marley, about a month before Distant Relatives was due to drop, about the production and aesthetics of the new release.

Hip-hop was heavily influenced by the reggae, dancehall, and dub traditions, so blending these musical styles together makes a lot of sense. And then there''s the whole African side of it, as well.
Definitely. If you look at the history of hip-hop and reggae music, you can see that they''re both very much intertwined. A lot of ''80s hip-hop was influenced by Jamaican culture; they have very similar beginnings. The drums, which have origins back to Africa. Hip-hop and reggae music are coming essentially from a black, impoverished community.

Listening to your previous material, you do a mixture of songs with singing, as well as ones that involve toasting, the dancehall rap-style vocals.
Yeah, I was heavily influenced by dancehall music when I was growing up. Eighties dancehall music was the first kind of music I really bought for myself. Back in those days, it was guys like Peter Metro and Tiger. It had a great influence on me as a kid growing up. It kind of influenced my style now.

I guess your dad''s music must have had a big influence on you, too.
Naturally, that goes without saying. That's not just me alone [laughs].

Let''s talk about the album specifically. Would you agree that although it mixes the two styles—your vocal sections are reggae-influenced and Nas'' are hip-hop—it leans overall more toward reggae than hip-hop?
No, I wouldn''t agree with that 100 percent. It definitely has a reggae flavor to it. But the reggae purists might hear it, and say, “It definitely has a hip-hop influence.” It''s universal music. We tried to use a lot of African elements without really just making it sound like tribal drums; you know what I mean? 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.

Have you been producing for your whole career?
For quite some time now. I''ve been doing some production with my brothers. We work together as a team. I did a lot of the production on my last album, and some on the one I had before that. I find that as the years progress, I get more involved in the production side of things. The more I do, the more I learn and grow.

Did you track the album in Pro Tools?
Yes, the whole album.

Marley (left) and Nas in the studio. Marley produced more on this album than on any of his previous efforts.

Were the songs written in advance or did you write them in the studio?
We wrote in the studio. For a lot of the tracks, what we did was a lot of jamming—drums, keyboard, and bass, set up along with myself in the vocal booth—and we''d do jams and just freestyle music. That''s where we''d come up with melodies and ideas. And once we found a jam that we really liked, then we''d stop and start focusing on that jam a bit more. So there''s a lot of live stuff on this album, which is new ground for me. My previous album, while it had a few live drum tracks, the majority of it was programmed. On this album, there''s a lot of live instrumentation.

Hip-hop doesn''t use a lot of live players, but reggae does. Integrating Nas'' raps with the mainly live-played tracks was another way to blend the two traditions.
It ended up being that way; you could say so now, in retrospect. But it was kind of like [Nas and I] were in L.A. doing some other work and my band was [with me], and it was just kind of like, we were just making music. It wasn''t that I sat there, and said, “I''m going to use more live drums.” Not really. It was kind of searching for music and that was what we did.

Were most tracks recorded with drums, bass, and keyboards playing together?
Like I was saying, we''d do the jams, and once we''d got, like, a drum take we were really satisfied with, then we would overdub the bass and keyboards again to make sure everything was proper tight.

Once you settled on a jam section, then you''d edit it into a song form?
In Pro Tools, we''d tighten up things. We''d loop certain parts that we liked, and parts that were loose we''d take out, and arrange the songs from there.

Were there some songs that did have programmed drums?
Yes, there were.

What did you program the drums in?
An [Akai] MPC 5000 and a 3000.

Was that what you were using on your previous albums?
Yeah, I cut Jamrock on an MPC. The MPC is my instrument. You ask me what I play? I can jam on a keyboard, I can jam on a guitar, but I really know a drum machine.

What is it that you like about the MPC?
The feel of the machine. I started making beats back in the days before [Propellerhead] Reason and [Apple] Logic and this new stuff that you have now, all this computer-based software. Back in those days, the MPC was the sh**. That''s what I grew up learning to use, and what I''m most comfortable with using now.

Were you generally just putting down a couple of bars and looping them, or do you play through an entire song on your MPC?
That would depend on the particular track, but for the majority of the times, I would come up with like a four-bar loop or something of that nature. And then once you have a song with lyrics and stuff arranged, maybe in Pro Tools you''d change a few things or overdub a roll, or whatever, here or there, to accentuate what''s being said.

Did you program the synth parts?
No, that was [Phillip] “Winter” [James]. A lot of what I did physically, and musically, was a lot of programming and basically just direction in terms of arranging things and deciding what samples to use. I had a full slew of musicians who were there who played all of the instruments.

The percussion parts on this album are amazing.
All the percussion on the album was played by Leon Mobley.

Was it all live rather than programmed?
Yeah, for the most part it was live percussion. The majority of the music that was live—with the exception of the songs that have samples in them—was all a result of free jamming, as opposed to sitting down and saying, “We need this,” and, “We need that.”

Did Mobley do multiple percussion overdubs on each song for the most part?
Well, there''s one or two songs where the sample [from the basic beat] had a lot of percussion in it. He basically played over what''s on the sample. In this album, one of the things that I''ve been experimenting with, that I''m really trying to do, is, you know a lot of the breakbeats and stuff that are sampled, I''m trying to recreate these things. I''m really curious to know, for example, in that drum loop from “Impeach the President” [by The Honeydrippers], how they did that live. How did they come up with that sound in the studio [on the original song]? That''s the direction I''m trying to go into now. I''m really curious as to what snare did they use? What drum set was that? What mics were they using? Was it a big room? A small room? That''s the direction I''m really trying to go now is how to capture some of those songs live on my own; make my own breakbeats.

Did you do some of that on this album?
Well, I think I''m coming closer [laughs]. We did some of that on this album; I think I''m getting closer.

How long did the entire production of the album take?
Well, we started recording in the beginning of last year. And we stopped for a few months to go on tour in the summer and started back at the end of the year. So I''d say maybe nine months or 10 months, but we''ve been going at it for a year and a half.

Distant Relatives is the first album-length collaboration between Damian Marley and Nas, but not their first recording together. Nas appeared on Marley''s “Road to Zion” on the 2005 album Welcome to Jamrock.

The use of delay on the record was masterful.
That''s something that''s traditional in the reggae sound. Bonzai, who mixes for us, who has mixed my last two albums, he''s very familiar with our sound.

How much were you involved in the mixing? Did you basically let Bonzai get the basic mix together, and then give him some critiques? How did that work?
There are some songs where I would have the arrangement and the whole sound of the mix in my head already of how I would want it to be. Meanwhile, there were other songs where I was curious to see where he would take it.

Were you in the control room during the whole mixing process?
I''d say for half of it. He started doing some mixing while we were still recording in another room. So he would spend a couple of hours and then bring over the mix, or I would go and visit and see what''s up. Toward the end of the process, when I''d finished my overdubs and recording and stuff, I''d spend all of my time just mixing.

With some of the songs having more than 100 tracks, the mix process must have been pretty intense.
Yeah, some of them were tricky. Some have live drums playing right through and there were also programmed sounds on top of the live drums. To get the right blend between what was a programmed kick and the live track was tricky. So we would do a few mixes, we''d pull up stems and develop a couple of tweaks, turn up a horn here or a snare there, whatever the case may be. But for the most part, it went well. It wasn''t that tedious of a process.

Do you live in Jamaica now?
Jamaica is still my home, but if you really want to look at it, the majority of my time is now spent in Miami.

Do you have a home studio setup?
Yeah, we have a family studio setup here in Miami. I''m currently putting in a small studio in my house.

It will be Pro Tools-based, too?
Yes, but I would love to get myself a 16-track tape machine just to have some analog—especially for the drums.

How has the availability of home-studio gear affected the music scene in Jamaica?
There''s tons of home recording going on. I don''t know if you''re aware, but Jamaica is credited—I think it still is credited—with releasing the most singles in a year of anyplace in the world. Music is basically the Jamaican industry. So there are hundreds of those little studios. And with the size of an [Avid] Mbox or a Digi 002, or these other small interfaces and stuff like that, you have lots of young producers who have been evolving and coming up over the years. Previously, you had like a community of producers [who], because they owned studios, were really the top producers in Jamaica. But now, you find that every other week there''s a new producer.

Do you think that''s changed the sound of music being made in Jamaica?
Yeah, I do. I think it has its ups and downs. Whereas once upon a time, someone would have to go to a studio and be an apprentice and learn a lot about the technical side of things and how to place things in a mix and all that kind of stuff. You don''t have that apprenticeship system anymore. At the same time, you have an outburst of creativity. People are free to try anything because you don''t have to worry about the time or [cost].

Do you think it''s pushed the music in a more electronic direction considering that those are the instruments that are the easiest to record in a small studio?
Yeah, I think so. And also because a piano is a piano is a piano. They''re also looking for new sounds, and electronic sounds are really the only kind of thing you can experiment with to a certain level these days.

Are you going to tour in support of the new album?
Yeah, we''re going to tour for this one. We start in May, late May, we do the West Coast of America, which is about two weeks long, that run. Then we go to Europe for a month, and then back here for another two or three weeks for the East Coast. That''s all I have confirmed at this point in time.

What has the general feeling been of people who have listened to it?
The general feeling, to tell you the truth, has been good. The people think it''s a breath of fresh air. It''s good music; it sounds somewhat familiar, but it doesn''t really sound like anything else, or everything else that you''re hearing right now. And I think that when you hear about Nas and myself doing a project together, what you hear in your mind is not what you hear on the record. What you expect the album is going to be is not what it is. But at the same time, most people see it as a very pleasant surprise rather than being disappointed.

So, overall, you''re pretty happy with how it all came out?
I''m very pleased with how it came out. I really wanted to be creative in the process of doing this album, and I think it came out that way.

“Bonzai” Caruso has been mixing for several of the Marley brothers since 1995.

So, overall, you''re pretty happy with how it all came out?
I''m very pleased with how it came out. I really wanted to be creative in the process of doing this album, and I think it came out that way.

Since 1995, James Caruso (aka Bonzai) has been mixing records for Damian Marley, as well as for Marley''s brothers, Stephen and Julian. Caruso was the lone mix engineer for Distant Relatives.

One of the challenges he faced on this project was that many songs had massive track counts; “The Strong Will Continue” had close to 140 tracks. In track-heavy situations like that, he says, “I have different techniques of breaking things down, taking things in and out. As I''m mixing, I''m kind of playing DJ. I''m like, ‘Let''s pull out all the guitars in this section; I just want to hear drums bass and vocals.'' ‘Let''s check it out with the guitars.'' ‘Now let''s do the reverse.'' I do a lot of different arrangement approaches so I can see what elements of the song are taking up frequency ranges.”

His penchant for muting tracks has earned him yet another nickname: The Reducer. “They''re the producers,” he says of his clients. “I''m the reducer [laughs].

“Damian and I have been working for so many years together that he gives me that creative control,” Caruso continues. “And I''ll show him. I''ll say, “I think you should do a drop here,'' and he''ll either agree or we''ll modify it when we sit down together.”

Delay has always been a staple effect in reggae, especially in the subgenre of dub, and one of the striking production aspects of Distant Relatives is Caruso''s artful use of delay.

“Depending on the track, and the rhythm of it, the feel, depending on how much swing there is,” he says regarding his delay techniques, “I just dial it in. Usually the delays are either triplets or dotted-eighth or dotted-quarter notes. But sometimes just a straight eighth or a straight quarter will do.”

It''s important, he adds, that it “fits in without really stepping on anything, and becomes a cool little ear-candy thing. And, of course, not overdone, but tastefully done.”

Caruso used both outboard and plug-in delays on the Distant Relatives mixes. “Sometimes I''ll just use a PCM-42, the analog Lexicon delay, which is my favorite,” he says, “and I''ll get it to degenerate with every repeat. So every time there''s feedback, it gets more and more lo-fi. My favorite plug-in delay is [Line 6] Echo Farm. Basically, Echo Farm and SoundToys Echo Boy are the ones I reach for first.”

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.