ROOTS 'n' RAP
Bob Marley: Global Black Revolutionary
Most people think
Great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth
And now you see the light,
Stand up for your rights! Jah!
Get up, stand up!
Stand up for your rights!
Get up stand up!
Don't give up the fight!
- Bob Marley, "Get Up, Stand Up" (1973)
I funnel through the tunnel, disgruntled
Tryin' to find me some light
In the rim of darkness, a'ight you see
I may not be the darkest brother
But I was always told to act my age, not my color
Not knowing that my color, was that of the original
So now I sing the new Negro Spiritual
Get up, stand up!
Stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up!
Don't give up the fight!
-- Common Sense, "Book of Life" (1994)
Bob Marley is the most revolutionary Black voice in music in the
past three decades, and his death in 1981 has done nothing to
change that. It's not without reason that Common Sense talks
about the "new Negro Spiritual" -- and what's new about it is
that, unlike songs about the sweet by-and-by, it demands justice
in the here and now. It's a legacy that stretches from the alleys
of Trenchtown to the streets of the South Bronx, from the tin
shacks of Soweto to the mean streets of Compton. And, however
different the hip-hop beat may be from reggae riddims, the message
remains the same: Don't give up the fight! It's a message that
echoes through the history of hip-hop; as Kool DJ Herc says, "Yes,
a de Yardman start it, yes it came from de roots, de island ... "
The story of Bob Marley is bound up with the history of 'slavery
days,' the Trenchtown ghetto, and the struggles of oppressed
people around the world.
Robert Marley was born on February 6, 1945 in a rural area in the
north of Jamaica; his mother was a young Black woman named Cedilla
Booker, and his father was Norval Marley, a white quartermaster
for the British army. As a teenager, he moved to Kingston with his
mother and settled, like many new arrivals from rural Jamaica, in
the neighborhood known as Trenchtown (after the long open sewer
that ran through its midst). It was here that Bob met Bunny
Livingston (later Bunny Wailer), and here that they began their
long musical collaboration. At the time, American R&B,
particularly of the New Orleans school, dominated the music scene.
DJ's with portable speakers and turntables, the so-called "sound
system men," ruled at local parties. And, while most of them spun
imported American vinyl, a few had begun to make their own
recordings. Marley first hooked up with Leslie Kong, a small-time
entrepreneur (and arch-rival of Prince Buster and Duke Reid, then
the major forces on Kingtson's Orange Street music row). Marley
cut only a few sides with Kong, only one of which -- "Judge Not"
attracted much attention. Discouraged by the poor support Kong
offered, Marley went to Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, the undisputed
king of the system men. This time, he brought Bunny, as well as
Peter Tosh, with him to the studio, and Dodd was duly impressed.
The new group, known as the "Wailing Wailers," released their
debut on the Coxsone label in 1963, and within a few weeks it
rocketed to the top of the Jamaican charts. This was the only the
first of many sides the Wailing Wailers recorded for Dodd, though
eventually the group grew dissatisfied with the rigid house style
Dodd tended to impose on his recording artists. Marley himself
produced some of their final sessions in Dodd's famous Studio One.
After leaving Dodd, Marley re-organized the group, and set up his
own independent label, Wail 'N' Soul, in 1966. Yet like many
other such efforts, Wail 'N' Soul was unable to stay afloat
financially. Marley and the Wailers floated around in chaos for a
while, working with different producers, including a brief return
stint on Kong's Beverly label. After another falling out with
Kong (legend has it that Bunny put a curse on him, and Kong in
fact died not long after), the Wailers went in search of a new
producer. In the meantime, the musical tide had turned; a new
generation of Rude Boys preferred the slower, bassier beat of
rock-steady to the more upbeat ska rhythms. The optimistic spirit
of Jamaica at independence was fading along with the hopes of the
thousands who came to Kingston only to find that the jobs they
sought were nowhere to be found. The Trenchtown ghetto was growing
along with the frustrations of this new generation. It was at
this time, in a fateful alliance, the Wailers hooked up with the
legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry. Perry, then as now a producer with
a strange mix of genius and insanity, brought a new sound to the
Wailers. Check out 1970's "Soul Rebel"
I'm a rebel
Let them talk!
Talk won't bother me!
The Wailers/Perry tracks -- among them "Soul Rebel," "Sun is
Shining," "Don't Rock the Boat", "Small Axe," and "Duppy
Conqueror" -- opened the way for a new, conscious style of music
that was built around a larger ensemble, with driving bass and
vocal choruses. It was music built on a Rastafarian foundation,
but with an international message to oppressed peoples everywhere.
All that was missing was the kind of distribution that would
enable the Wailers' music to reach the global audience. It's hard
to imagine in retrospect, but in 1970 only a few Jamaican records
broke into the international market, and they were all singles (or
compilations of singles). In many cases, the licensing fees paid
were substandard, and even if paid tended to enrich the producers
more than the musicians. The idea of a reggae artist cutting a
studio *album* was unheard of -- but all that changed with _Catch
a Fire_. Chris Blackwell's Island Records, which at the time was
one of the largest independent labels in the world, provided the
backing and distribution. Given the money and studio time, Marley
created a new sound, what Linton Kwesi Johnson has called
"International Reggae." The bass was funkier, the keyboards more
up front, guitars alternated steady riddims with rock riffs, and
Marley's rich voice drove it all home. Part of this sound was in
fact due to Island's owner, Chris Blackwell, who felt Marley's raw
sound might turn off white audiences; he re-mixed the original
Kingston sessions, pulling back the bass, pushing up Marley's
vocal and bringing in British session guitarists to add fills.
Yet, while true reggae fans may still prefer the Kingston
versions, aspects of this new sound were soon incorporated into
the Wailers' recordings and stage shows; check out the live 1975
recording of "I Shot the Sheriff," where scathing guitar fills
dynamize the rhythm, at no expense to the pulsing bass. The
Wailers' albums crossed into the U.S. market with increasing
success, and by the time "Rastaman Vibration" came out in '76,
Marley showed that he could drive a single straight up the charts
without any need for a cover version.
Trouble was brewing, though. On a return trip to Jamaica to hold
a free concert in Kingston to promote peace among warring gangs in
the city, Marley was shot and wounded. He survived the gunshot,
but left Jamaica for an extended time, settling for a while in
London where he recorded the "Exodus" album. The UK had long been
home to a large community of Jamaican emigres, and reggae was
beginning to have a powerful influence on the entire English music
scene; the album spent over a year on the UK charts. Marley
finally had the full international audience his music deserved. A
return concert in Jamaica, along with full-fledged American
concert tours, brought the energy of the Wailers' live
performances to tens of thousands. Concerts in Africa followed,
along with a European tour of stadiums, including a crowd of
100,000 in Milan. Yet it was just then, at the pinnacle of his
career, that Marley found he had cancer. Various herbal
treatments were tried, but they proved of no avail -- Marley died
on March 21, 1981.
Marley's death left a huge vacuum in the international reggae
scene. There was no other artist with his stature, and in fact
while the audiences in the U.S. were still swaying to the Wailers'
beat, music in Jamaica has already taken many different turns.
The development of dub (remixed instrumental tracks) by the
legendary King Tubby had opened the door in the early '70's to
many new kinds of artists. Sound system DJ's who were pumping dub
began to use more elaborate rhymes and toasts, and some took on
stage personas harkening back to the days of King Stitt and Count
Machuki. Among leaders of this new school of DJ's were U Roy, I
Roy, and Big Youth. And, while some early DJ hits such as U Roy's
"Wake The Town" (1970) were filled with crazy rhymes or slackness,
there were many conscious grooves as well. U Roy, the microphone
madman, dropped "Dread inna Babylon" in 1975, as heavily
Rastafarian as any Marley album, and I Roy's "Black Man Time"
(1974) was still more militant:
I talk to break oppression and set the captives free
So you got to understand I talk to rule the musical
Nation with justice and equality.
So black man you got to be free like a bird in a tree
And live in love and unity for I and I
So maybe you can make it if you try
Say it's a black man time. It a black man time.
At the same time, the spread of dub led to a new school of
conscious "dub poets," led by Linton Kwesi Johnson, who brought
together the deepest dub grooves with lyrics that, like Marley's,
give voice to the 'sufferin man' (and woman -- dub poets such as
Ranking Anne, Queen Majeeda, and Breeze have been on the forefront
of political poetry in Jamaica in the UK, though they are less
well known in the U.S.). Check out Johnson's "De Great
Insurrekshun" and Ranking Anne's "Kill De Police Bill" for their
powerful comment on the Brixton uprising of 1981; when rappers
have stepped to the mic to talk about Rodney King or the L.A.
rebellion, they are following the footsteps of these dub poets. At
the same time, the deeper instrumental strands of dub have
interwoven with all kinds of music, from the almost catatonic
"ambient dub" of Bill Laswell and his various groups (Material,
Praxis, etc.) to the high-bpm UK "Jungle" school. Dub continues
to evolve and expand its territory, carrying its bassy meditations
to every corner of the globe, and among DJ's and dub poets alike,
Marley's influence was still strong.
But back in the dancehalls, a different kind of DJ's ruled -- and
in his hands, the tempos grew faster and the beat more insistent,
and the toasts and shouts were more likely to be slack than
conscious. By the late '70's and early '80's, dancehall artists
like Yellowman, Frankie Paul, and Tenor Saw held sway on the
Jamaican charts, even though their music had a much harder time
finding any airplay in the U.S.. Rock stations which had played
Marley scorned them, and Black radio tended to avoid anything that
violated its silk-sheets R&B flow (this even though the Wailers
often toured with R&B groups, from Sly and the Family Stone to the
Commodores). In fact, Marley's death showed up another strange
twist in the airwave apartheid of the music industry; while Marley
and his imitators were certified "safe" for white radio, the
dancehall sound was taboo, while Black radio outside of NYC hardly
ever played reggae in the first place. It was in some ways the
death of Bob Marley that challenged these exclusions, renewing the
connection between Jamaican music and urban Black audiences.
The return, in both New York and Kingston, to the "raw ghetto
sound" signaled the reclamation of riddim by urban Black youth.
The historical connection between hip-hop and dancehall became a
tactical alliance. Jamaican emigres in the New York area were part
of the earliest hip-hop scene, and many Bronx DJ's, like KRS-One,
put a strong taste of ragga flavor in their rapping. The New York
club scene was a formative ground for hip-hop and dancehall alike,
and hits such as CJ Lodge's "Telephone Love" (1988) proved that
there was an immense overlap between the two audiences. But it
wasn't just musical style that linked Jamaican DJ's with their New
York and Cali brothers, it was the sense of music as a form of
cultural expression and resistance in the face of oppression.
Marley was the one who forged the way, turning Rude Boy antics
into global Black consciousness, and while in its early days the
dancehall scene was heavily into slackness, the underlying energy
was still the same. As Beres Hammond said, the music was still
"puttin' up a resistance." By the time Shabba Ranks was officially
hailed by the industry powers-that-be with his Sony debut, he was
a sure thing, and in his wake numerous other acts from Buju Banton
to Tiger to Terror Fabulous have broken into the U.S. market.
In the fertile crossroads between ragga and hip-hop, collaboration
and competition have forged all kinds of likely and unlikely
alliances. Doug E. Fresh and Papa San, Asher D and Daddy Freddy,
KRS-One and Shabba Ranks, Ice T and Black Uhuru, Scringer Ranks
and Queen Latifah, Tiger and Q-Tip -- the list goes on and on.
Switching in and out of the Jamaican patois has become a test for
prowess on the mic, and ragga rhythms and casio keyboard sounds
are as much a part of the hip-hop mix as P-Funk loops and Malcolm
X samples. In recent years, crews such as Worl-a-Girl and the Born
Jamericans have proven that hip-hop and dancehall are part of the
same transatlantic mix. A new generation of artists, such as Mad
Lion, Jamal-ski, Red Fox, the Poor Righteous Teachers, the Fugees,
and Mad Kap are as at home with ragga riddims as they are with
Yet while breakneck riddims and roughneck rhymes still rule in the
East, West Coast beats just seem to get deeper and slower every
year. Is the metronome swinging in the other direction? One
thing's for sure, whether it's the ganja or the Chronic, that
blunted feeling is back, and it's not just a Cali thing, as the
Philly sound of groups like the Roots and the Goats proves. But
it's at times like this that you realize that it's not the tempo,
the bass lines, or the horn riffs that make the music, it's a
consciousness, an awareness, a solidarity. The music industry
wants to put it all in bins with labels like "Hip-Hop," "Reggae,"
"Dancehall," "Dub" or "World Beat," but true listeners know that
the same heartbeat that pulsed through Bob Marley's veins is still
pumping out speakers all around the world. It was Marley that led
the way, that provided the model without which a wide range of
artists -- from KRS-One, Queen Latifah, or the Fugees, to Patra,
Buju Banton, or Beres Hammond -- might never have commanded the
massive audiences they do.
Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom (4 cd's) -- Island 512-280-2.
Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music -- Mango/Island
Word Sound 'Ave Power: Dub Poets and Dub. Heartbeat CD HB 15.
Ranking Anne: A Slice of English Toast. Ariwa/RAS ARICD 002.
Linton Kwesi Johnson: Making History. Mango/Island CCD 9770
Ice T and Black Uhuru: Tip of the Iceberg. MESA R2 76003.
Funky Reggae Crew: Strictly Hip-Hop Reggae Fusion. Warner 9-
World-a-Girl: Worl-a-Girl. Chaos/Columbia OK 57549.