'It's not reggae' - Stephen Marley explores genre's musical antecedents, offshoots with Revelation Pt II
After being released in July this year, Stephen 'Ragga' Marley's album, Revelation Pt II: The Fruit of Life, has spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Reggae Charts, peaking at number one. On the listing for the week of December 31, 2016, it closes off the calendar year at number 11, one place ahead of Ziggy Marley's self-titled set, and is fifth on the list of top sellers for the year. The Soca Gold set is also named among the top reggae sellers.
Still, Marley definitively tells The Sunday Gleaner that Revelation Pt II is not a reggae album.
"It is a very cross-pollinated record with other genres. And that was the concept, and that is why it kind of name the fruits, you know, the offspring. The offering from the roots. Some of the music in the record derive from music weh influence reggae. Like Nina Simone. Like jazz, for example. Hip hop is a music weh reggae music influence.
"It still inna the same circles, as far as music goes, and the influence of music and our history as Jamaican music. Cause even ska weh come from big band and rhythm and blues, so our ska come. Is them big band tune deh and we jus ... ," Marley says, imitating the guitar sound with his vocals.
"So di whole history a we music still come from a broad influence and we take it and make it we own.
"It wasn't supposed to be a reggae album. It was supposed to be more a offspring of reggae, an as me say, music weh influence reggae. Definitely not a reggae album. When me make a reggae album, you nah go ask. Yu wi know straight. I do this," Stephen said, bursting into laughter. "Wouldn't you say? You never question me about Revelation Pt I."
Among the 19 tracks on Revelation Pt II are Babylon (featuring Junior Reid and Dead Prez), Revelation Party (featuring Joseph Marley), So Unjust (featuring Rakim and Kardinal Offishall), Pressure or Pain (featuring Busta Rhymes and Konshens), Perfect Picture (featuring Damian 'Jr Gong' Marley), The Lion Soars (featuring Rick Ross and Ky-Mani Marley), Father of the Man (featuring Nina Simone and Wyclef Jean), So Strong (featuring Shaggy), Ghetto Boy (featuring Bounty Killer and Cobra), Rock Stone (featuring Capleton and Sizzla, ) and When She Dances (featuring Pitbull). Walking Away and It's Alright - the last track on the set, which closes it on an achingly memorable note - are done by Stephen.
POPULAR MUSIC HISTORY
The Sunday Gleaner asked Marley if he reads about Jamaican popular music's history or if he has acquired knowledge through lifelong involvement in making and performing that music.
"Me know from being in it. Early '70s me born, so Simmer Down an dem tune deh did kinda not new, but ... dem tune deh (he breaks into a snatch of song with "long time, we no have no nice time"). Melody Makers used to sing dem tune deh in we set 1979. It is still a big part of me, and we gravitate to it, and true we love de music, we kinda educate wiself. Weh ska music come from? Where this music come from? And you kinda say, 'OK'."
Bob Marley's influence is not to be neglected, Stephen saying, "Me hear me dad say it as well. Where it come from? Same Fats Domino, Impressions."
He did not speak to Stephen specifically about that influence, but he heard general conversation.
"My father teach we the scales. When I say we, Melody Makers, me, Ziggy, Cedella, Sharon. Him sit down and teach we scales (again the speaking voice morphs into singing as Stephen sings "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do" rapidly). Being around him, you hear him. He was greatly into jazz. Yeah! All inna dem las days deh, a jazz him inna. Him get jazz books. Seeco (Wailers band member Alvin Patterson) was a jazz man too. Hear him scat man," Stephen says about his father - and scatting himself.
"So a part a me."
In selecting the guest performers, Stephen said: "The music, the idea, speaks fi itself as to who fits this style."
He mentions brother Rohan as part of the process of reaching out to some potential guests, and although no one on the wish list says no ("at this level you don't say no, you say scheduling conflicts"), Stephen says he asks one time. And one time only.
Thematically, Revelation Pt II is not linked to Revelation Pt I, but Marley notes that the musical seeds for the second set were planted during the making of the first, five years ago, when he would take a break from the production studio and go to the pre-production room, where people like Damian would be.
"When you go in there, something creative always a gwaan. Kinda more fun - the main room a strictly business. Yeah, dat did a happen. Whenever me in the main room, but when me come out, tun on de drum machine, suppen totally different, an a so Part Two come up, simultaneously," he said. "We in the main part a do some cigarette smoke an dem tune deh, an out inna the B part (he breaks into song again) down in Babylon with a hip-hop beat behind it."
GETTING INTO CHARACTER
It's Alright was the last track done for the album. Taking a spare approach instrumentally, Marley said that the song did not take long to record and the hardest part was to get himself into character vocally, "so me go from 'Jungle to Rema' (he sings high) to 'I've been a stranger' (singing deep)."
"That was the biggest challenge," he said, laughing.
He employs other variations of his voice on different songs in Revelation Pt II, with Perfect Picture a striking example of how much flexibility Stephen has at his disposal.
"True me have to go into character. That's why me say is kinda more a fun record - kinda go into character to fit the song," Stephen said. "That's why me put Stephen 'Ragga' Marley, cause me have to go into character, kinda come out a de Stephen Marley persona into a more open approach.
"Yu never hear Gong give you dem voice deh? Some a dem great man, too - Ray Charles."
There is one kind of general fun that he is not involved with, though. Today is Christmas Day, but Marley does not celebrate it. He observes Christmas Day by the Ethiopian calendar - January 7.