Nas and Damian Marley unite for the album Distant Relatives

Distant Relatives is testament to the fact that hip-hop has reached another level.

by Ericka Blount Danois

Photo by Nabil Elberkin

It was 1988 when twenty-five year old Queensbridge housing resident Richard Luke choked to death on his own vomit, lying face up in a restraining blanket in police custody. It was only determined that he died from choking after a state investigation refuted the New York City medical examiner’s conclusion of cocaine intoxication and heart failure. There were two days of protests in Queensbridge, culminating in a visit by an irreverently coiffed, jogging-suit-wearing Reverend Al Sharpton. This was a year before the mob death of Yusef Hawkins, four years after the deranged rampage of Bernhard Goetz, who shot four black teens on the subway, and two years after Michael Griffith was hit by a car in Howard Beach after avoiding a confrontation by a mob. But for some reason, Richard Luke’s name doesn’t make the roll call of New York’s infamous string of murderous racial tensions in the ’80s. But a then-fifteen-year-old Queensbridge resident named Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones remembers it well, because he was there at the protests, where two hundred city police officers stopped an equal number of demonstrators from blocking traffic on the Queensboro Bridge. And he was also there for the riots.

“Robocop—that was [the cop’s] nickname,” remembers Nas, sitting with Damian Marley in Quad Studios in midtown Manhattan. “Dude was a nut. We rioted, we tore shit up, we had a standoff with the cops. The neighborhood wasn’t having it. When [Luke] was killed by the cops, that was around the time a lot of race crimes were happening, whether it be police or just being in the wrong neighborhood in New York. Cops were always acquitted. We tore up the neighborhood, ran in the store, grabbed forties. We ran in the rental store and grabbed the movies we wanted. And we acted a fool. We turned some cars over, set some shit on fire. I think even Al Sharpton came to the hood that day.”

Nas and his crew, which included Willie “Ill Will” Graham, had been making plans to get out of the hood for some time. They would regularly travel to Macy’s on Thirty-Fourth Street in Manhattan to record videos with their original lyrics or remake videos like Big Daddy Kane’s “Aint’ No Half Stepping.” Or they’d wait for Willie’s mother to leave for work and practice rhyming over Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” in his mother’s apartment. Marley Marl and MC Shan and the Juice Crew were the inspiration.

“I remember listening to WBLS at night when the Rap Attack would come on, and a large part of the stuff being played on the radio was produced in my hood, by this dude on the Forty-First Street side of Vernon,” says Nas. “Dude was making beats, but not only that, he’s like in the forefront of the game right now, and he’s recording those records right there in the neighborhood. I saw Marley [Marl] with the BMW in Queensbridge. I said, ‘He’s not a fly-by-night guy; he’s the real deal.’ MC Shan was the crown prince of rap to me, because he was representing the neighborhood with “The Bridge.” You’d see the whole neighborhood go ape shit for that song, ’cause that’s our anthem.”

Photo by Nabil Elberkin

The plan was that, like Run-DMC, who by then had put Queens on the map, Nas would be the MC, and Will would be the DJ. But a beef while collecting money for a Queen’s River Park barbeque, that led to a murderous retaliation from dudes from Brooklyn, cut Ill Will’s dreams short. They came to Queensbridge and shot Will once, then twice more in the back before turning on Nas’s brother Jabari, shooting him in the leg, and trying for another shot before the gun jammed.

“Nas took it really bad,” remembers Stevan Smith, Willie’s first cousin. “Even at the wake, he kept coming over to me asking if I was okay. It was almost like he felt he had to take care of everybody because Will was dead. Not that he had money at the time.”

Nas’s advance for his first album, Illmatic, was $17,000. And in 1994, for a hip-hop album, label execs weren’t dishing out much more, and for a seventeen-year-old artist from Queensbridge, that was more than enough. Columbia ended up having to rush the record out because it was getting leaked, and bootleggers were selling it around the world. It ended up selling a little over 300,000 units that first year, modest by industry standards, but standard for hip-hop at the time. “That was a big thing for a rap group to go gold back then,” says Bobbito Garcia, who showcased Nas’s talent on he and Stretch Armstrong’s seminal radio show on WKCR  89.9 FM in New York City, with freestyling that he describes as a “time capsule.” “It might have been the best show we’ve ever had. Illmatic had the most anticipation of any album from that decade, unequivocally,” says Garcia.

Three years later, Columbia A&R representative Faith Newman-Orbach had heard the buzz about him and had been searching for him when one day MC Serch brought Nas’s demo to her office. It was seven o’clock in the evening as she walked down the hallway of Columbia Record’s offices to her boss, David Kahne, and told him, “I know I’m new, but if you don’t let me sign anything the entire time I’m here, you have to let me sign this kid. I said, ‘You have to trust me.’ Then I told Serch, ‘We’re gonna do this, don’t bring it to anybody else.’”

Photo by Nabil Elberkin

In 1988, in Kingston, Jamaica, a ten year old Damian Robert Nesta “Jr. Gong” Marley was practicing singing in his aunt’s living room and approached her about starting a group called the Shepherds. “She was one of the first persons that really believed in me,” says Marley. “She said, ‘If you want to do the music, I’ll help you.’ She took us and made it public.”

In Kingston, among rude houses of cardboard and corrugated metal, roots reggae was being transformed into something grittier, harder, and less endearing to international audiences. This was the same year—1988—that the death sentence was imposed on the street vendor Dennis Lobban, for Peter Tosh’s murder. The jury deliberated for six minutes before delivering a guilty verdict. This came only months after the Wailers’ drummer Carlton Barrett, Wailer’s drummer and writer of the popular songs “War,” “Them Belly Full,” and “Talkin’ Blues,” was shot to death. The Wailers’ leader, Bob Marley, had died of cancer in 1981. Roots reggae was literally and figuratively dying.

Three years later, MC Tommy Cowan introduced the Shepherds at Reggae Sunsplash 14, featuring the singing and rapping of a twelve year old Damian, eleven year old Shiah Coore (son of Cat Coore and current bassist in his band), twelve year old Yeshemabeth McGregor on keyboards (daughter of Freddie McGregor and Judy Mowatt), Noel Parks on bass (son of legendary bass player Lloyd Parks), seventeen-year-old Richard Bertram on drums, and twenty-year-old Howard Christian on bass. It was said to have been the largest audience at a Sunsplash performance, with Dennis Brown, Doug E. Fresh, and the wildly popular Shabba Ranks, who was lowered onto the stage in a cherrypicker that year, upstaging his previous year’s entrance by helicopter.

“Shabba wouldn’t come on until 7 AM—imagine us kids, Shabba is our idol, and he’s coming down in a helicopter. He was like Superman,” remembers Shiah Coore. “I’ll never forget it. It was a big influence on me and Damian.”

Damian didn’t have to look far musically for his inspiration; musicians were doing covers of his father’s songs at Sunsplash. But he was also inspired by the self-assured dancehall movement, as well as and hip-hop artists from the States. Damian’s mother, Cindy, would buy them hip-hop albums; the first Coore heard was Method Man’s Tical.

Culturally, places like the House of Lair, an outdoor venue, and the sound system Stone Love, provided the musical sustenance for him to develop his style, and The Harder They Come, the classic counterculture film starring Jimmy Cliff as a struggling musician, was a source of inspiration for the tone and directness of his music.

“Where’s Jose? Who you looking for, Jose?” Damian says with a whisper. “I use that on Half a Tree. A lot of interludes come from The Harder They Come. It’s like our Superfly, our Menace to Society, Boyz n the Hood, all of that in one.”

Quad Studios sits in relative obscurity, amidst midtown Manhattan’s cramped bustle. The studio became infamous in 1994 when Tupac Shakur was ambushed in its narrow entrance, shot five times, pistolwhipped, and left for dead. The seeds of the media-fueled East Coast/West Coast hip-hop war were planted in that bloodshed. It was a foreshadowing of his irrational murder and the thread of chaos that frazzled the hip-hop industry for a period afterwards. Since then, hip-hop, reggae, and its offshoot, dancehall, have each had alternating periods of brilliance, corruption, and commercialization, only to rise again from the ashes by those unabashedly committed to the craft.

The thought of that time period and the more recent lyrical warfare of Jamaica’s Vybz Kartel and Mavado beef that was squashed all brings to mind for Damian Marley and Nas, who sit in the studio doing media interviews, the competitive nature of dancehall and hip hop—is it being fueled by the hip hop industry? Is there a such thing as the top five R&B singers?

“It’s an interesting question, because when hip-hop reaches the point [when] you don’t have to choose who are the best five, we’ll be in a real mature…a real great place,” says Nas as he leans back in his chair dipped in black and white shell-toe Adidas and a black Yankees cap tilted atop his head. “That’s one more level rap hasn’t reached yet.”

“Hip-hop has reached that level where you have two generations,” says Damian, wearing a Ghanaian National soccer jacket, with a spliff and Guinness Stout as his accessories. “In Jamaica, one them gots sagged the pant, the generation before us be like why you doing that, where dis come from? The other day, I was hearing somebody spaz out about Soulja Boy, and cursing and things, but I was like, ‘Remember when Snoop came out?’ ’Cause when you were younger, you were on his side. Now you’re on the big man’s side.”

The Distant Relatives project is testament to the fact that hip-hop has reached another level. It’s the first time a reggae artist and hip-hop artist have collaborated on a full-length album. Nas and Damian have been documenting the process for a documentary that will be released soon after the album, and there will be a worldwide tour beginning in the States and Europe, with dates to be set in the Caribbean and Africa.

“You got a lot of dudes doing something different, not a lot, but you got a few dudes doing something different, whether it’s Kanye, or Ghostface, or the Roots with Jimmy Fallon,” says Nas. “It’s not really that different, it’s really just going back to where it all started.”

There’s no disputing the legacy of either artist musically. Damian is the youngest of the Bob Marley clan, and Nas’s father, Olu Dara, is a respected jazz trumpeter and cornetist who, besides having worked with giants like Henry Threadgill, Art Blakey, Doug Carn, and Cassandra Wilson, was noted in Miles Davis’s 1990 autobiography as a trumpeter to watch.

Both of their fathers had unconventional views on romantic love. As a musician in the Navy, Olu had lovers, and children by many different women, he says. Bob Marley and Cindy Breakspeare had Damian outside of Bob’s marriage to Rita. But still, Nas believes monogamy is a possibility. “Yeah, I do,” says Nas. “I mean, live your life as you see fit. I’m just saying it can be done.”

“Is it possible?” Damian asks. “Yeah, it’s possible. Still, my view is kind of unique, ’cause if it wasn’t for someone who didn’t subscribe to that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Nas and Damian each had their own sons last year, about a month apart. “It was crazy,” says Nas. “Some things are just written. It was already planned by someone higher than us. It’s just another sign that I’m doing the right thing, that he’s doing the right thing, by what we’re doing together. It’s an incredible sign.”

It’s easy to think that the prevailing theme that pounds throughout the reggae-heavy Distant Relatives album is one of spiritual, diasporic unity. The unforgiving fusion of reggae, hip-hop, live instrumentation from Damian Marley’s band, production and vocals from Stephen Marley, and samples from Mulatu Astatke and Amadou and Mariam offers the best musical confirmation to that narrative.

What could have easily been a quietly disjointed album, with musical genres touching but never blending, ends up folding sweetly into a bass-heavy dough of some danceable reggae fusion and hip-hop, with thought-provoking lyricism, rapid-fire patois freestyling, and up-tempo classic roots reggae, all of it a testament to the soul of African-born music.

If there’s any common theme to the album, it’s that risk-taking and entertainment can still be romantically involved, even in a musical landscape flush with fading marriages of convenience. Distant Relatives is ambitious, relevant, universal music, and a laid-back, chasing-a-cotton-mouth-with-a-Heineken kind of adventure. On the intro of “Promised Land,” the iconic voice of the late Dennis Brown sums up the album’s evocation best: “Africa/Just the mention of it/Just to mention it, man/Is like you call mi name, man.”

Distant Relatives dropped on May 18.

 
 
 

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