“Welcome to Jamrock — the scene and the album — is what exposed me to a broader audience, for sure,” Damian Marley says when we meet on a New York City penthouse patio – on Marley’s birthday, no less — about his breakthrough 2005 album, the moment he says felt he’d begun to move out from the enormous shadow of this father, reggae legend Bob Marley.
But when I ask him what are, in his estimation, the standout tracks, he has to pull out his phone to consult the tracklist via Tidal.
“It’s been a while,” he says with a grin, and we both break into laughter.
Damian Marley was just two years old when his father died, but more than any of his prolific and gifted siblings – Ziggy, Cedella, Stephen, Rohan – he has continually pushed the creative envelope of what reggae music is capable of achieving.
His collaborations with Nas, Mick Jagger (in the supergroup SuperHeavy) and, most recently, with Jay-Z, have carved new avenues for the genre, and brought the message of peace and love (and, yes, ganja, too) to new audiences around the globe. And his production work on his own records with his half-brother Stephen, a formidable producer in his own right, especially in league with reggae bass and drum legends Sly and Robbie Dunbar, have always been as clever and groundbreaking as the best of his father’s work, even if the long shadow that Bob Marley casts has made those achievements seem just a little less special than they truly were.
But this summer, with the release of his remarkable new album Stony Hill and a tour that’s currently underway across America, Marley has once again put his stake in the ground, with a challenge to anyone who might think that being one of Bob Marley’s progeny allows you to coast on your laurels.
Rock Cellar Magazine: This record is very much of the moment. It’s got a lot to say. But you’re also able to balance politics – songs with a real message and point of view – with love songs.
Damian Marley: Well, it’s a long album. That gave me the space to say a lot. But that was one of my concerns; if the record is too long.
It’s going to be three vinyl!
Damian Marley: Ya, right. It’s a long one. And I’ve got to say that I was kind of worried about that originally. I was looking for more like twelve tracks. But we had a problem. We had a hard time trying to delete anything; trying to figure out what to sacrifice.
The thing that struck me is there’s not a lot of artists now who will make CD-length albums — you know 80 minutes or so — because there’s a lot of dull moments, usually. But there are no dull moments on Stony Hill. It really kept my attention. I guess because the collaborations are so strong. Is that what made it hard to cut anything? I mean, who would you have cut?
Damian Marley: Right! So that’s it for me. It’s more I’ve been working on the songs for so long, that I get emotionally attached. It becomes hard to decide which ones you think should make it. And then you speak to other people and they ask, “Well, where’s that one…” You know, like my mother started asking about some songs that weren’t there or listed. So I had to go back to those and add them on because, rightfully, they were good tracks. I mean, probably somebody else has to do the job apart from myself. I’m too close to my own music!
But who could you rely on to do that? Stephen?
Damian Marley: He would be, yeah. He would be one of those persons for sure.
“Time Travel” for me is epic. It was funny to me, you’ve got ISIS in there, you’ve got climate change in there, and you’ve got FIFA and Madden in there! So your kids must help, but how do you stay aware of what’s going on and what’s affecting the culture?
Damian Marley: I have a son who is 7 — about to be 8 — but with FIFA and Madden it’s moreso my friends. I’m not a big video game junkie, but some of my friends go at it on FIFA like it’s a real deal! Like it’s a real competition. Of course I want to remain relevant to the culture, especially what young people are into… I try to communicate with young people. You know, we have to try to keep ourselves up to date.
Two of the songs that stood out to me were “R.O.A.R.” and “Slave Mill.” The vocals are just tremendous. To me, those are the closest anyone’s come to what your dad might be doing today.
Damian Marley: “R.O.A.R.”? Really? “R.O.A.R.”?
Yeah, that’s what I hear.
Damian Marley: That’s an interesting opinion, because that is a more dancehall track.
Well. but it’s 2017. I mean, what would he be doing now? I’m not thinking “Lively Up Yourself.” I’m thinking it’s 40 years later.
Damian Marley: True, true. Right, I’ve got you.
You know, he would have assimilated all the different elements of reggae that have exploded in the last 40 years, and the melodic elements, too. So that, to me, is where I imagine he might be.
Damian Marley: “Slave Mill” I could definitely agree with you in that sense. “R.O.A.R.” is a surprise. But I understand. The approach to the song, about the city he was very much a part of and that a lot of his songs of reflect, so I can agree with you on that, too. That was a late addition, you know? “R.O.A.R.” was a late addition, after we had kind of sketched out the majority of the album. I felt that we needed something to kind of up the temperature.
Is that one your mom requested?
Damian Marley: No! Actually she requested “Living It Up.”
I’m going to bet that your mom was high on “Looks Are Deceiving,” “Grown & Sexy.”
Damian Marley: Ha! Yeah, she likes “Grown & Sexy,” for sure. She was like, “This is so clever.” And that was a funny one to me, too, because I was thinking that might get a little bit too cheeky for her. But she liked it.
Getting ready for the interview the other day, I was reading some articles, and it’s funny, because writers refer to you as a “spiritual revolutionary.” That seems like a lot to live with.
Damian Marley: Yeah, you know. I said that in an interview years ago, and for some reason it seems like a lot of writers liked it. It piqued their curiosity. So it comes up a lot in interviews since. Yeah, I mean, in a sense I’m saying that it’s a battle, but it’s not a battle of the flesh. It’s a battle of the mind. It’s spiritual.
So you prefer being called Gongzilla?
Damian Marley: Yeah!!!
Now where did that come from?
Damian Marley: That came from when I was working on Distant Relatives (2010). An engineer came into the studio one day and he was doing, like, Saturday Night Live: “The Gongster.” “Gongzilla.” “Gongorama.” And so I stuck with Gongzilla.
You know, the thing about Gongzilla that struck me is that — while “spiritual revolutionary” is easy for writers, and a way to circle back to your dad — Gongzilla doesn’t involve your dad. That’s you.
I understand why you would prefer it. But you’ve been making records a long time now, do you feel since Jamrock you’ve been able to carve more of your own path, and especially now with Stony Hill? I mean, this is another step towards being your own artist, with your own fans and your own legacy.
Damian Marley: You know, I’ve always said, mostly I think about it when doing interviews. I’m not ashamed when you use “spiritual revolutionary.” But it doesn’t leave you much space to make mistakes or to express yourself in other ways that might not be about spiritual nature. You know what I mean?
And I do a lot of things that have nothing to do with spirituality. But even when it comes to being my father’s son, and all that kind of stuff, I don’t feel that when I’m making music. It’s only after I make the music and I end up in an interview and somebody asks me about the comparisons. That’s more when it would come to my mind, as opposed to when I’m in the studio making a song.
So what inspired you growing up? I hear Gregory Isaacs. I hear Buju Banton. I hear a lot of things that are really far from your dad. What did you listen to as a teenager?
Damian Marley: Dancehall music was the first music I started to buy for myself. I mean, obviously my family’s music was always in the house, but people like Tyga, Shabba Ranks, Peter Mitchell, Super Cat, Professor Notes… These were my heroes when I was growing up. I had an opportunity to go to a lot of concerts as a kid, and I would watch those guys perform, and I would say, “I want to be like him.” As opposed to me wanting to be like my dad. It was more like, “Yeah, I want to do what Shabba Ranks is doing!” So even as a teenager I would get into tiffs with my mom because I would want to do very raw music. I would want to use curse words. I would want to be aggressive. And she never liked that, especially when I was really young.
Closer to “R.O.A.R.” than “Lively Up Yourself.”
Damian Marley: Exactly! As I got older and more mature, I don’t feel the need to express myself so aggressively anymore. But that’s the music I grew up listening to, so a lot of I would still be able to recite. A lot of those songs I could recite word for word before I was able to recite my dad’s songs word for word.
There are a lot of very smooth moments on Stony Hill, and I hear a lot of Gregory Isaacs. You didn’t mention him.
Damian Marley: No, I’m a big fan of Gregory Isaacs, and a huge fan of Dennis Brown. And outside of the genre I listen to a lot of Ray Charles. So I experiment.
When you look back on your first recordings, what do you see in that kid? Because you were trying to be a lot of things that you weren’t yet, but that’s what it takes to get where you want to be as an artist.
Damian Marley: I appreciate all of it. I can listen to it and I can hear when I was searching for something. I listen to a record that came out a few years later and that was the tone I was looking for on that one and each one is another bit of growth. When I would hear things I would say, “I remember when I wanted to change that line” when a line wasn’t perfect. But I let it go. Moving forward. Moving forward. But now I remember last time and I don’t let a line go that I shouldn’t have!
But that’s having the confidence as an artist that a young guy doesn’t have.
Damian Marley: Yeah. You develop. I’ve learned to appreciate the earlier works being the building blocks for where I am now.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations for different reasons – Stephen, a lot, and Nas — and the new Jay-Z collaboration is really cool and fascinating. For kids watching it who know almost nothing about Jamaica, who know nothing about the fight for independence, it has to be eye-opening. So it’s a collaboration with Jay-Z, but you’ve got a message there, don’t you? You’re trying to educate people the same way your dad did. Was that you or was that Jay-Z?
Damian Marley: In that moment, in the video, I was really trying to educate Jay-Z! That was the first time he had been to Kingston, and especially in the streets like that. He said he wanted to get the history of Kingston, so I gave him the history of Trenchtown and especially my dad’s legacy and how much Trenchtown had been a part of reggae. A lot of great stuff had come from Trenchtown, and what went on in Trenchtown was a really like a school for musicians back in the day, so it was really an opportunity to show Ttrenchtown and to explain the history of the island, that is, not the pop culture version a lot of people know, but what I was trying to get across with the song “Jamrock.”
And I thought it was cool that the voices on the track, and the people in the video, they don’t care who Sean is. They don’t care Jay-Z. That doesn’t mean anything to them in their lives. That’s nothing.
So what was his reaction?
Damian Marley: His reaction is on the record, and in the video. But he said it reminded him of Africa and it reminded him of his upbringing, too, because he came up through hard times. So looking at some of the buildings in Trenchtown he was like, “Yeah, this kind of reminds me of where I grew up in the projects.” At the same time he still understood that this is a third world country, so it’s still a different scale, you know?
Even in the projects you can hop on the subway and get to Manhattan. In Jamaica you can’t do that.
Damian Marley: Exactly! At the same time, Jamaica is still small, so you can still get around. But a lot of people don’t! That’s the funny thing: There’s a lot of people in Negril who’ve never been outside of a few blocks.
You brought up Africa, have you spent any time there?
Damian Marley: We were just there in May, June. That would be my third visit to the continent.
What did doing those shows there mean to you as an artist?
Damian Marley: Not just as an artist, but as a Rastaman, and as someone who pays so much to Africa and their music, I’d started to feel hypocritical that I wrote so much music about Africa and it had been so long since I went. It really began to bother me. It was like I was talking the talk and not walking the walk. I was like, “We have to go!” So I felt very pleased that we went and we were able to string together six dates and twelve different countries.
What kind of crowds come?
Damian Marley: Nice crowds. Pretty big crowds. And of course those who come have a great love for my family’s heritage.
You went to Africa as an artist in 2005 for the first time. That had to be overwhelming.
Damian Marley: Yes, 2005 was the first time I went. It was Ethiopia and it was a big celebration for my father’s birthday. Up to that point that was one of the biggest concerts I had played. 300,000 people came out. It was a free concert. A lot of artists and family were there.
When you stand in front of a crowd like that, and a lot of them were coming because of your dad — now it’s different, they know who you are and you’re established as an artist – but did you feel “I need to come here more and figure this place out”?
Damian Marley: For me, my first time in Africa and Ethiopia, I wasn’t even thinking about career or industry. I was just I’m visiting the place; I’m observing everything.
A couple of years ago you did the Jamaica 50 concert. Your family is so tied up in Jamaica and its independence, what is your perspective on Jamaica today? Because now it’s 55 years, and it’s still a struggle.
Damian Marley: There’s a lot of different things going on, I think. The younger generation have that same kind of pride and being that independent nation as the generation before, even though they didn’t fight for it. I’m not really up to date on the struggle — what it means, really – but I do some reading on it and that’s how I kind of stay aware. But it’s not something that the average citizen feels very connected to.
It’s very “Once Upon a Time…” However, I think that the mentality of Jamaica has grown with artists like my father and many other reggae artists, and there is a new generation of people coming in now — there’s a prime minister now who’s a few years older than I am — whereas generally over the years it’s been run by older people. So younger people are involved, and I think they have a little bit more of a moral compass, perhaps, when it comes to the people and the struggle.
So what’s your big hope for Stony Hill? It’s hard in this streaming and download world we live in. What’s your hope for an album like this? We talked about how it’s a long album — it’s a lot to digest even with such great collaborations like with Jay — or is it the live experience for you because you’re going on the road?
Damian Marley: It’s something I really love doing. When I’m at home, I’m in the studio every night. And when I’m not home, I’m on tour. I love both. But I’d love for the album to be as big as it can be. As musicians, I think we would love for as many people to hear it as possible and become fans of it.
But there’s a message in the record. To Jamaican kids, or American kids, coming to your shows, what is it that you want them to take away from it?
Damian Marley: That’s very hard. I always say I would like to hear what people take from it. It’s presumptuous to say, “You should take this away.” What I’ve found over the years is that people interpret lyrics differently. People come back with lines of mine and describe the lyric to me and the meaning to them is completely different from what I meant, but it does make sense. I’m like, “I didn’t even think of it that way, but if it makes sense, that’s okay, too.”
So I’m looking forward to hearing the stories when people come backstage and say, “This is what that story meant to me.”