Bob Marley once said that, while he knew he’d only be remembered for his music, his children were his true gift to the world. Bob Marley, a poet and a prophet.
With the recent release of Stephen Marley’s great new album, Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life, it’s time to start taking a closer look at the Marley kids, and the talents of Stephen Marley in particular.
Since Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers debuted in the mid-80s, and had a hit with Conscious Party in 1989, everyone has accepted and taken for granted that “Oh yea, Ziggy’s pretty good. Not quite his daddy but that’s ok cuz Bob was a legend.” And while most fans knew and appreciated Stephen’s presence and contribution to ZM&MM, the masses viewed the Marley kids as Ziggy and all the rest of ’em.
I don’t have the time or resources to research the 11 or so official children fathered by Bob Marley. With apologies to Ziggy, Bob’s beautiful-voiced daughters Sharon and Cedella, and his sons Rohan (who played football at University of Miami, has 5 children with Lauryn Hill, and runs the Marley Coffee business [seriously]), Julian (a few surprisingly decent albums to his name), Ky-Mani (a book and 6 [SIX!] albums to his credit), and even Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, he of the smash hit Welcome to Jamrock and recent collaboration with Nas, Distant Relatives… (did I miss anyone?)… I’d really like to shine the light on Stephen.
As much as most casual fans probably thought Ziggy “looked and sounded just like Bob Marley,” it was always Stephen whose voice really sounded eerily similar to Bob’s. Cherry-picking the Melody Makers CD’s and assembling all the tracks featuring Stephen on lead vocals would probably be a worthwhile endeavor.
It turns out that Stephen isn’t just a pretty voice and good musician. His production skills have blossomed over the last decade, as he was the maestro pushing the buttons behind the various high points of the Marley kids recent output (Damian’s Jamrock and Nas albums, Julian’s Grammy-nominated Awake, and both Stephen’s own solo albums). Add that to his contributions to some of the best tracks from Ziggy’s heyday (91-99, in my opinion), and you can see why I’m writing this article.
Of course no one will or should be considered on the same level as Bob Marley. But I think Stephen Marley deserves to be recognized as an important artist in his own right, not just separate from his dad. He stands out among all of his musical peers, not just his siblings or within the reggae genre.
So many of us like to complain about a lack of substance in current music, be it musicianship or lyrical content. I don’t think any of us are “looking for the next Dylan or Bob Marley or John Lennon,” as those artists continue to inspire us and generations to follow. But I think we do crave artists who can transcend celebrity and marketing and actually write some really good songs, and record them in a manner that just sounds so damn good.
Listen to Stephen’s new album. Listen to the way he makes a kick drum tap your chest without rattling your car speakers. Hear how crisp every rim shot and guitar sounds. Feel the bass, and listen to the man sing. Revelation Part 1 is a revelation indeed. Along with Mind Control, it solidifies Stephen Marley as a great artist, and not just a master producer with talented siblings. Part 2 is supposed to showcase how reggae is moving into the future with other more electric and modern styles, but Part 1 is mostly a rootsy affair, as the name suggests.
After opening the opening meditation, “Made in Africa,” really jumps off with track 2, “False Friend.” Marley has a home and studio in Miami, but he still also works at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica. Judging by the crispy sound of “False Friend,” as well as “Break Us Apart” and “Tight Ship,” plenty of ghosts and vibrations from the old Tough Gong days are still in Stephen’s blood and spilling out of his suitcases as he goes between Miami and Kingston to record.
“Jah Army” is the sounds-great-loud single in the vein of “Welcome to Jamrock,” and features Damian Marley and Buju Banton turning in great guest verses. It’s balanced out by the chilled-out lovers jam “No Cigarette Smoking (In My Room)” that’s hot and tight with no cheese. Tracks like “Can’t Keep I Down,” a harmonica-driven workout, counter the more somber but effective ones like “She Knows Now” and “Old Slaves. The understated acoustic closer “Now I Know” is stunning for its simple beauty.
Ziggy makes an appearance, returning the favor of sharing vocals with Stephen on Bob’s “Selassie Is the Chapel.” It’s a classic Rasta chant over a track built over hand drums. And it contains perhaps the album’s most-fitting line: “In the Revelation, look what I find.”