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Rude boys inna da hood
Rap meets reggae with Sean Paul and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley
Related Links

Damian Marley's official Web site

Sean Paul's official Web site

It may come as a surprise to some that Bob Marley, worldwide icon and Third World superstar, finds less favor in Jamaica than maybe anywhere else.

Don’t get it twisted: "Bob," as most Jamaicans call him, is as much a legend, if not a demigod, in JA as in, say, New Zealand, Nigeria, or the Navaho reservations. But Bob’s success — not to diminish the greatness of his music — was achieved in part through the savvy marketing and executive production of Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell, who remixed Marley’s music in London studios, overdubbing rock guitars and "cleaning up" the raw and ready sounds of the Wailers, and who sold Marley to the (First) world as a righteous rock star, a Rolling Stone Rasta for the middle-class masses.

Although Kingston’s dancehall massive — which at its core is far from middle-class — has generally endorsed Bob’s success, giving thanks for the minds and markets his musical ministry opened, its members have long embraced performers who speak more directly to their concerns in a voice they better recognize: Dennis Brown, Yellowman, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer. It’s still a problem for reggae artists who seek to move the massive at home and reach the masses abroad, to strike a balance between international appeal and local taste. Two recent reggae releases, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock (Universal) and Sean Paul’s The Trinity (Atlantic), reveal different ways of walking this tightrope.

Where Damian takes on social issues, Sean Paul socializes. Where Damian rasps his raps somewhere between Buju’s gravel and his father’s moan, Sean Paul emulates the smooth sing-song of Super Cat. Where Damian flashes his locks, Sean Paul flashes his watch. Jamrock features American mainstays Bobby Brown, Black Thought, and Nas; The Trinity brings along uptown brethren Looga Man and Kid Kurup, Wayne Marshall (no, not me), and newcomer Tami Chynn. (Of course, Jamrock also hosts Eek-A-Mouse and Bounty Killer, two dancehall DJs with impeccable cred.) Damian and his brother Stephen program their own beats and use a crack Jamaican house band on several cuts; Sean Paul employs dancehall’s hottest producers: Lenky, Snowcone, Don Corleone, and mastermind Jeremy Harding.

Yet despite the differences, their struts are the same. There’s an uptown air about both artists, a cosmopolitan flair, an ease about floating through the world. Unlike many Jamaicans, they’re free to move: Sean Paul’s been to Egypt twice since "Gimme the Light" set the world on fire, and Damian has called Miami home for many years now. For all their mobility, however, you feel the tug of Jamaican roots. Anchoring themselves to reggae’s foundation, Damian and Sean Paul ride the waves of international pop (which is to say, hip-hop smoothed out on an R&B tip with a dancehall-feel appeal to it), and they do so with buoyancy and flow. Both performers display a hip-hop sensibility, mixing dancehall’s rocksteady declamations with rap’s multisyllabic over-the-bar rhyme-schemes while peppering their patois with "jiggy" slang that’s often outdated but still resonant in Kingston.

And neither has ever been fully accepted by dancehall denizens. Sure, each has his anthems and his hits — tracks that selectors "pull up" even at the most downtown venues. But in general they’re ignored, overlooked, and sometimes reviled. Sean Paul records on most of the popular riddims that come out and thus gets some play in the dancehalls, juggled alongside more hardcore acts; Damian operates as more of an outsider, reaching the island’s open ears on such smashes as "Welcome to Jamrock" but otherwise appearing as a specter, occupying that hallowed but somewhat hollowed place reserved for the Marley dynasty. Damian’s 2001 Grammy award tells you something about the way he self-consciously positions himself: Half-Way Tree refers to the city square where uptown and downtown meet.

Not that Jamaicans of all stripes didn’t long ago embrace hip-hop — and, more generally, the sounds of black America. Only a few months after "Rapper’s Delight" brought hip-hop to the wider world in 1979, Welton Irie worked part of the track into his tune "Hotter Reggae Music." In Jamaica, hip-hop can signify militant, pan-Africanist blackness, t(h)ug/hustler pragmatism, and cosmopolitan, pan-American dreams. Most Jamaicans, however, draw the line between embracing reggae’s Yankee cousin and falling victim to "foreign mind." Enduring inequalities that correlate all too well with one’s shade of skin, and one’s freedom to move, exert no small pressure on the meanings of music and culture in Jamaica.

But meanings shade differently in different contexts, and there are many — in Jamaica and abroad — who revel in the success of Marley and Sean Paul with that consummate pride that West Indian folk feel for their fellows. The ever-increasing number of people invested in reggae — an international audience of aficionados and devoted practitioners — itself ensures an enthusiastic reception of any tunes big enough to go international. Mainstream America has already demonstrated its approval of both acts. The Trinity is the biggest reggae debut in the US, with 107,000 copies sold in the week after its release on September 27. The previous record was held by Welcome to Jamrock, which moved 85,000 units when it was released two weeks earlier.

This success is well earned. Author Jeff Chang pronounces Damian’s album to be "the best Marley album ever by someone not named Bob." Damian’s got flow, sure, and the Marley boys prove themselves to be competent, versatile producers, if a bit hit-or-miss. At times they range a little too far across the map, falling into SNL-sax-style smooth-jazz sinkholes and taking a few too many cues from Eric Clapton’s "I Shot the Sheriff" rather than from their father’s version. But overall the beats are hard and polished, and Damian’s vocals show both growth and potential. His righteousness is as inspiring as it is cloying, which makes for a bumpy ride but gives you a good sense of the lay of the land. And "Welcome to Jamrock" is itself worth the price of admission — my own and others’ qualms about its contradictions notwithstanding.

Yet for my money, Sean Paul’s album is the better of the two. The Trinity is power pop par excellence, with those fancy dancehall producers boasting the better riddims. No schmaltzy overproduction here, just bear Triton funk. And Sean Paul has always been wicked when voicing in the studio: his sing-song hooks are well-crafted and tuneful (if simply so), his verses immaculately delivered, and his overdubs sweet as ever in their strange-but-smooth harmonies. His songwriting rarely strays from seduction or sexual prowess, but perhaps that’s for the best: a couple of ventures into more serious topics lack the grace of his regular efforts. Mainly, they lack the levity we’ve come to expect from Sean Paul. His music is lighter than Marley’s. Maybe that’s why his confections go down easier.

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley | Avalon, 13 Lansdowne Street, Boston | Nov 30 | 617.288.6000


Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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