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Oct. 5, 2005

"Welcome to Jamrock": Old-school message, new-school flavor

by Ethan Kuhnhenn, Online Managing Editor
Before rappers rhymed about life in the projects, social injustice and getting that green, reggae artists in the 70's and 80's were some of the most vocal icons in poor black communities. Artists like Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Lee Perry countered pop music in the 70's with songs about racism and brotherhood, good and evil and the sins of capitalist society. Today the voice of rising reggae presence Damian Marley, the youngest son of reggae legend Bob Marley, reverberates through city speakers, echoing the same message that pioneers of his genre sang about 30 years ago.

Damian Marley's third album, `Welcome to Jamrock,' marks the re-emergence of reggae without the dancehall influence that is the trademark of other Jamaican artists like Elephant Man, Beenie Man and Sean Paul. `Welcome to Jamrock' mixes surprisingly complex lyrics with beats that reflect both traditional reggae baselines and hip-hop percussion. However, the emphasis of the album is on the content of the songs and not the production. In nearly all of "Jamrock's" 14 tracks, Marley makes a statement about the impact of poverty, crime and capitalism in Jamaica.

It's important for Marley to address these issues, which have been largely ignored in recent years as mainstream Jamaican music has solidified to the mostly beat-oriented Dancehall. Marley's powerful and well-conveyed message is complimented by track production that is simple, but does not hesitate to stray from mainstream, sort of like Marley himself.

Even after winning a Grammy for his second album, `Halfway Tree' Marley's name was still relatively unknown in the United States until the Sept. 19, 2004, release of his hit single `Welcome to Jamrock.' The single immediately became a radio favorite and is one of the better tracks on an album that is filled with many potential hits. The song's heavy baseline and simple rhythm reflect the era of reggae dubs in the 80's and 90's, while the lyrics, sang in Marley's one-key pitch, describe the violence and poverty in Kingston, Jamaica.

On the following track, `The Master has Come Back,' Marley shifts from 80's dub reggae to a livelier, thumping style highlighted by a tribal baseline and heralding brass. The song strays from the politics that is the focus of most of the album, but Marley still displays his lyrical skills sans the social statement. `Master' is also one of the few tracks where Marley exhibits cockiness. `A new face will fulfill the prophecy/ It's too late for two-face apologies,' cries Marley.

By far the best-composed and most thoughtful track on the album is `Road to Zion,' an eerie duet that combines Marley's observations on the life of poverty with militant-minded rap artist Nas' harsh, provocative and image-filled lashings. `Road to Zion' combines the most poignant of Marley's lyrics with a wailing harp and a subtle hip-hop beat. The faint and scratchy verses, along with the lonely melody of the harp is almost creepy and fits with the foreboding message in the song. However, it's really Nas who puts the emotion and desperation into the track. `Human beings like ghosts and zombies, President Mugabe, holding guns to innocent bodies,' raps Nas.

Stephen Marley, Damien's older brother and the album's co-producer, is guilty of over-production in a few of `Jamrock's' tracks. On `Khaki Suit,' Marley and the incomprehensible reggae artist Bounty Killer rhyme about nothing that has to do with khaki suits on a beat composed primarily of random noises, beeps and undistinguishable melodies. Similarly, on `All Night,' Marley—the elder—produces a monotonous track that is not enhanced by Marley—the younger's—typical lyrics about a fanatical girlfriend.

Overall, Damian Marley's scratchy voice and substantial lyrics are a welcome change to the Dancehall which has emerged in the past five years. The album's few problems do not detract from Marley's thought-provoking messages or the overall listenability of the album.

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  • Samurai Rasta (View Email) on October 6, 2005 at 5:04 PM
    I disagree with your comments on Khaki Suit track. A khaki suit is the dress of most school children in Jamaica. The song is about growing up and the things he sees along the way. Also, it is a message to the younger generation to beware of politions and to prepare to fight and celebrate rastafari. The song is aptly titled.

    The song is done in an early 80's style akin to supercat, brigadaire jerry, josey wales, yellow man, etc. The beat of "random noises" (which is a trait of Dub by the way) is also paying homage to 80's dancehall. There is also an appearance by the legendary Eek-A-Mouse on that track. His stylings are similar to scatting in Jazz and he speaks of growing up in Jamaica.

    Bounty Killer, a dancehall icon, has only a brief stint in the middle and an introduction. He reinforces Damian's lyrics and comments on anyone who speaks about social injustice is labelled as "a beast in the eye of the beholder, comparing to Hitler and Iotola."

    Just a comment on your last paragraph, dancehall has always been a voice for the poor and under-represented. The past 5 years have brought Sean Paul and Shaggy to mainstream USA, but they are NOT representative of all which is dancehall. For more than a decade, the likes of Luciano, Buju Banton, Sizzla, killa, Capleton, Louis Culture, TOK, and recently the fifth element and the list continues- have been at the forefront of stopping social injustice through Dancehall.

    If you would like a transliteration and translation of the lyrics, let me know. There're many subtleties and "Jamaicanisms" in there. For example, the Welcome to Jamrock sample "out in the street, they call it murder" is from a late 80's Ini Kamozie song but I won't go into that.

  • DeAnna (View Email) on October 27, 2005 at 4:55 PM
    Wow, how can a producer as innovative as Ragamuffin (Stephen Marley) receive a meager and somewhat negative "shout out" in this review. Who but a pure, righteous genius could produce the most haunting reggae song ever recorded "And it Was Written" and then in pure, soldier fashion turn around and mix Irvin Berlin & Ella Fitzgerald (Russian Lullaby) with Jr. Gong & NAS in Road to Zion?

    I may not be able to provide the amazing history lesson that Samurai Rasta unleashed (mad props), but I can provide a lesson from the heart. My heart tells me that Stephen Marley is a gift and a giver in a world of clowns and takers like P.Diddy. With that, let's savor every word, every lyric, every beat that Ragamuffin chooses to share with us.....Peace!
  • 123 on December 22, 2005 at 9:58 PM
    who is the man in the gritty footage he looks like a leader
    can anyone imform me please?
  • KT (View Email) on August 20, 2006 at 9:22 AM
    Hello! I've been listening to Welcome to Jamrock, and loving it. I'm pretty new to reggae, so I was wondering if anyone could tell me exactly what all the lyrics mean? I get the gist, but some of it is a bit confusing.
  • Preatorius (View Email) on October 18, 2006 at 8:25 PM
    "all Night" is one of the best somgs on the album. It is not political. It titilates. . .and we like it.

    Is the girlfriend fanactical, or his he just a very talented lover? She can't get enough.

    You obviously don't get it. I wonder why. . .
  • delilah (View Email) on February 19, 2007 at 6:03 PM
    Barry White- Practice what you preach
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