Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley & Nas
North Coast Music Festival at Union Park
September 5, 2010
Nas & Damian Marley recently passed through Chicago, IL’s Union Park for the North Coast Music Festival as part of their tour that is in support of their collaborative album, Distant Relatives. Although Damian is a performer and producer in his own right and unto himself, he would be remiss to not play into the hand that life dealt him as being born to the most renowned reggae artist of all time, Bob Marley. He plays into it well and slips in rhythms of his father’s that are twisted up and remixed for the hip-hop/dancehall audience. As a result, audiences both young and old are met from right where they are standing.
The debate over whether or not there is a connection between reggae and hip hop is as old as the genres themselves. This debate is immediately put to rest when one first witnesses the alliance between Marley and Nas, but the history of how such a collaboration came to pass is noteworthy and dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid-sixties, men in Jamaica ran sound systems and competition clashes with speakers that were stacked as high as a basketball rim. Music would blast with the bass cranked to the plus coupled with a microphone that would be plugged into the mixing board. Reggae infused 45 inch records would spin while one DJ/producer would try to outdo the other by the tracks that each one possessed. After a few rounds of battling, the 45 would be flipped to the B side. The B side would simply be another and "overproduced" rendition of side A. If a DJ had a particular hit song with a B side, he would be declared the winner of the competition.
Many of these Jamaicans migrated to London and New York City, and not only brought their dialect, but also their music and culture. Many stateside bands such as Johnny Nash, Blondie, and The Pretenders took notice of what they heard and saw in the Jamaican communities, and in turn, implemented some of those sounds into their own music. Through the evolution of sound, hip-hop eventually became a front running force in popular music. Jamaican roots naturally took hold in New York native artists such as Busta Rhymes’ and Notorious B.I.G.’s sounds. Nas, being from Brooklyn, has been familiar with these influential sounds for an extended period of time and through his cooperative effort with Damian, any argument about whether or not the sounds of hip-hop and reggae blend or if one was derived from the other has now been officially put to rest.
The beginning of the night’s show began with a DJ set that mixed old school cuts tied together by a MC that revved up the audience. The crowd was a melting pot of that ran the gamut between young suburban high school and college kids all the way to Rastafarians. The outdoor event was packed. Nas and Damian came out together with the ever present dread from Damian’s crew waving the Ethiopian flag and thereby representing the Rastafarian influence.
Each artist took a bit of stage time to play some of their solo material for their loyal fans. The floor was initially yielded to Nas, but soon would branch into the collaborative work that opened with "Leaders," a cut off the new album, which reminded us that we can be the leaders of tomorrow. This number segued into a Nas original, "If I Ruled the World." "Count Your Blessings" came out of the gate and provided the first true rush of energy in the crowd with an upbeat, almost disco inspired rhythm that casts smiles amongst the massive gathering. "Dispear" would come shortly and served as the militant call to arms track of the evening with the thumping of the bass serving as crowd control. A surprising audio clip from the late Dennis brown was inserted as an over-fill in the tune. Taken from a 1982 interview, when asked about what Africa means to him, Brown replied "…Africa, Africa, Africa, just the mention of it… just the mention of it mon, is like you call my name mon. Well you know, Africa is the motherland and Africa is where we rightfully belong and it’s where I want to be." This quote reverberated into another homage paying to Mr. Brown, a Nas/Marley rendition of Brown’s classic, "Promised Land."
Damian called for the Reggae fans in the house before launching into "Shoot Out," a Mykal Rose hit, and then onward to "Justice," "Love & I-nity">"Punky Reggae Party," and "War">"No More Trouble" and through a series of Nas originals that melded into Damian’s "Welcome to Jamrock." Through "Jamrock," the vast concert field began to glow with cell phones and lighters being held in the air and a swaying glow suddenly permeated the audience.
A fitting closing tune, "Africa Must Wake Up," from the new album would round out the evening. This track is a call to both Africa and the people therein and also to all of those who love, understands, and respect Africa. Its main purpose was to call attention to those who have been scattered through the African diaspora and it left the audience almost in a reflective state of prayer. It served as a perfect culmination and wrap on an emotionally fueled set. Further, it solidified the fact that hip-hop and reggae unite in a manner that reaches and touches many from right where they are standing and that rather than having to pluck the listener out, the listener is instead drawn into the message. It worked.