One of the most positive musical surprises this year for yours truly has been the recently released Distant Relatives, which sees reggae scion Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and hip hop veteran Nas teaming up for an Afrocentric album on the theme of our common heritage.
Far from an assured success, the collaboration and the thematic focus the two have selected make for a remarkable consistent album, containing moments of vocal fire as well of spiritual oomph. The maturation Marley exhibited with last year’s remarkable Welcome to Jamrock continues on this record—his vocals are more varied and self-assured than ever—while Nas has not been this consistent on a whole album for many years.
Musically, the album could have been a little more adventurous, sounding perhaps a little too polished, but it is skillfully and melodically composed by Damian and his brother Stephen and carries the amazing vocal performances perfectly, with nary a weak track and only one or two instances of ill-advised sentimentalism.
I caught up with the two of them on their tour stop in Copenhagen the week before last, a few hours before a fantastic, sold-out show at Store Vega and got the chance to ask them some questions for Rapspot.dk. I was joined by my buddy, DubCNN’s PTA. Since we were in his hotel room, we started talking to Marley, but Nas showed up about half-way through.
Matthias Wivel: How did the album come to be? What made you decide to work together?
Damian Marley: The album came to be because we were respecting and being fans of each other’s music. I invited Nas to be on the Welcome to Jamrock album, on a track called “Road to Zion”, and he had invited me to do some work with him on the Hip Hop Is Dead album—unfortunately, the song that we did together didn’t make it onto that album—so we always had an interest to do more work together. And then our management teams came up with the idea to do an EP of four songs based upon Africa. And when we started working on that EP, it became an album, so that’s how it happened.
PTA: Nas is one of the few rappers that are still talking about Africa in his music—was that something that drew you to him, or was it something else?
DM: Yes, that’s something that drew me to him over the years—Nas is someone who can communicate with the streets and can still keep it real in terms of being human, he doesn’t try to be this super perfect person, but has respect for his history and for his ancestors and for spirituality. So Nas always displayed that in his music, while at the same time keeping it hard and something that you can relate to.
MW: About the theme of common ancestry in Africa, it runs through the whole album. It’s very tightly conceived in that sense…
DM: Yeah. We had two songs from my last album that we couldn’t use, because we couldn’t get clearance on them at the time—one of them was with K’Naan, which ended up becoming “Africa Must Wake Up” on this album now. So because we had those two songs, we decided to record two more songs and do the EP, and then we just decided to keep going and make the whole album about Africa: a lot of the music on the album is sampled from African songs and the topic of songs is Africa—every song in some way has a connection to Africa. We liked that, so we kept that theme.
PTA: You also shared something in that both of your fathers were, and are, musicians. Is that something that came through in your relationship?
DM: No. I learned about Nas’ father being a musician right before starting work on this album, and I didn’t know how much of a legend he was, so I never really had much knowledge of it during the process.
PTA: Something I found interesting about the album is that there are spiritual songs, but there’s also some great emceeing, where you guys almost go head to head—on “As We Enter”, “Nah Mean”, and so on—what was it like recording that? Nas is one of the best spitters in hip hop, so did you have to step up your game?
DM: Yeah, I mean, it’s something that keeps you sharp. I was really in the zone working on this record, because I was really inspired and enjoying myself. For “As We Enter”, the first track on the album, we were in the booth together, literally on the same mic, going back and forth. That in itself was a lot of fun, a great experience.
PTA: Nas describes you as “two Obamas” on that track; there was a great feeling of change when Obama was elected, and both of you have been very vocal about politicians not doing their job—how do you feel about the political scene now?
DM: The greatest thing to me about Obama is not the individual, it does not have to do with Obama himself—it’s really about the people who have elected Obama. It demonstrates that people are ready for change, and I think Obama knows that, because he really came up from the people, the young generation especially. He motivated a lot of African Americans who never voted before to go and vote. In Jamaica, I can’t say there’s been much change in the political scene—same shit, different day.
MW: How did you approach the music in terms of mixing hip hop and dancehall reggae, both when came to your deejaying and singing, and when working on the music, did you and your brother [Stephen] have to adapt your approach to accommodate hip hop emceeing?
DM: Not really, my albums have always had that kind of flavour. We’ve always listened to hip hop, I’m a fan of hip hop music, so I always used a hip hop element in my music anyway. What it was really about was bringing in the African element—that was new. We sampled a lot of African music and used a lot of African influence. I listened to a lot of African music during the process of creating this album, just to look for pieces to use. So that was a learning experience. Also, it was different for me, knowing I was making music for Nas, somebody who is already a legend in his own right, has a lot of experience, and knows what he wants—that was a challenge; it helped me to rise to the occasion, and I think I really grew as a producer during the making of this album.
MW: Being in charge of the music on the album, you must have set the direction to an extent?
DM: Musically? Yeah, to an extent.
MW: So maybe Nas was the one who had to adapt more?
DM: I think if you asked him, he would tell you ‘yeah’. I’ve heard him say that some of the grooves we used are not really typical of hip hop music, so for him I think, in that sense, it was kind of a challenge. For me, it was a challenge to have the music be up to his standard and liking.
[There is an interruption as Nas arrives, greets everyone, and sits down]
DM: We were just talking about you [laughter].
Nas: Nice room—you know Damian gets the better rooms [laughter].
DM: It’s the press room, dawg [more laughter]
PTA: One of the things I really like about dancehall is the idea of teaching the youth, and it’s also been a tradition in hip hop, but it’s been gone for a while—[to Nas] your song “I Can” is along those lines, but on this album there’s a lot of it, “My Generation” is a great example. Was this something you set out to do and was there anything specific you wanted to communicate?
DM: Well, like you say it’s always been prominent in dancehall reggae music, and when you do an album about Africa, you can’t be too superficial. One of the things that Nas and I have in common is lyrics that say something, that you can learn from. So it’s just building upon common ground.
MW: [to Nas] For many years now, conscious rap has been less prominent than it used to be, and this is a thoroughly conscious record, maybe more so than any of your previous albums—could you describe your ambition in moving in that direction with this work?
Nas: To me, it’s an honour to be accepted as a hip hop artist, it gives me a lot of opportunity to express myself. At this point in my career, within myself, this is the kind of record I wanted to make. Probably, a lot of artists have not reached that far in their own thing—maybe they’re too new, maybe they’re scared, maybe they’re just comfortable in their zone—I’ve been lucky enough to reach a place where I can speak what’s in my heart, and people know that it comes from a real place; I don’t have to worry about doing what someone’s not doing—I can do me. I think hip hop allows us to talk about everything, and this is what I choose to talk about now. If people are not talking about Africa, that’s them, that’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with that. But this is who I am, this is what I have to say, this is what I have to offer.
MW: You also put some pretty personal stuff on the album—there’s a very mature vibe to it.
Nas: Today, with the media, the internet, things get out there about anybody, anytime, so there’s nothing wrong about talking about your life, because someone else is going to talk about it and mess it up.
PTA: What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned from doing this album and touring with it?
DM: How much people love it [laughter].
Nas: Yeah, yeah.
DM: How much people appreciate it; they don’t just love it, they love it with a kind of appreciation that’s different than just loving the average party record. Learning that has been something that feels like what we’re doing is worth it.
PTA: It definitely feels like you guys are reaching each other’s audiences, as well as a whole new audience, not the least over here.
Nas: Yeah, we’re broadening each other’s audience at the same time. This thing is universal—you can’t put it in one place. Me and D are doing something that’s different from what we’ve been doing, this is opening up new things for us, and it’s great.
MW: [to Nas] is there also a feeling of connection back to the origins of hip hop for you? I mean because hip hop evolved to such a significant extent out of Jamaican music?
Nas: Oh man, big time, this is like getting into my roots—this is me doing my own soul searching and letting the world watch me as I’m digging into myself. Yeah.
Photos from the Copenhagen show by Kenneth Nguyen (see more of them here). And here’s a Rapspot drop from the duo: