- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To music lovers, the surname Marley is synonymous with sun-splashed anthems electrified by political lyrics and Rastafarian vibrations. Damian Marley, known as “Junior Gong,” the youngest son of the charismatic reggae legend Bob Marley, embodies similar principles but presents them in a combustible hip-hop soundscape on his most recent disc, “Welcome to Jamrock.”

On the album’s title track, Mr. Marley steers listeners through the gritty streets of his native Jamaica. Spitting rhymes over a lilting bass line, he describes situations “where people are dead at random” and buttresses his verses with the ominous chorus, “Out in the streets/They call it murder.”

The album spins an array of styles, including dance hall, rhythm and blues and reggae, in addition to hip-hop. There are ample cues to Mr. Marley’s heritage, including the gruff, weathered vocals on “Road to Zion” and the sampling of Bob Marley’s “Exodus” for the chorus of “Move!”

The album, released in September, rocketed to the No. 7 spot in the Billboard chart of top-selling discs, the highest debut for any reggae artist.

Mr. Marley visits the 9:30 Club tonight.

The popular success of “Jamrock” helps solidify Mr. Marley’s stature as a musician who can transfer his talent and fame in the reggae community to the mainstream. His peers recognized his abilities by presenting his second full-length disc, 2001’s “Halfway Tree,” with the Grammy Award for best reggae album.

“Halfway Tree” marked the first time he wrote all of the lyrics; his brother Stephen contributed the majority of the words on the first record, 1996’s “Mr. Marley.”

Elevated by the ascent of “Jamrock,” Mr. Marley rocked arenas, including two nights at the MCI Center, earlier this fall as an opening act for U2’s massive “Vertigo” tour. He came away from the experience with an important lesson about the music business: The best artists don’t take a fast-track approach to their careers, he says.

U2 has taken its time and “built up something that’s an entity [of] its own,” Mr. Marley says during a phone interview.

Like U2, Mr. Marley infuses his music with spirituality and political messages. Ironically, Mr. Marley points to a hip-hop star better known for toasting his love of women and weed, rather than chronicling the struggles of the oppressed, as the original source for his devotion to the genre.

“Growing up, one of my biggest idols was Snoop Dogg,” Mr. Marley says. “That’s who got me into hip-hop.”

Mr. Marley mines his inspiration from early New York City hip-hop stars such as KRS-ONE and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the artists who painted a very real, very bleak image of poverty, but ultimately wanted to uplift their listeners. The conscious lyrics and rugged, boom-bap beats attracted him to their records.

At this point in his career, Mr. Marley says he does not spend time worrying about the tenuous balancing act between commercial appeal and music that mirrors his soul. “Thankfully [I’m] not torn between the two anymore,” he says. Now it’s about “hard work, being true to myself” and finding a path for his future.

“Not many people can say they have a legacy,” he said. “I want to have a legacy.”

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Reggae is the hot genre for artists in search of a comeback. In July, Willie Nelson released a country-meets-Jamaican-rhythms disc called “Countryman,” and Irish crooner Sinead O’Connor interprets reggae gems from Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Lee Perry and others on her newest disc, “Throw Down Your Arms.”

While Miss O’Connor is the star of her Tuesday appearance at the 9:30 Club, the show holds special interest because “Throw Down Your Arms” producers Sly & Robbie will perform an opening set.

A powerhouse Kingston, Jamaica-based rhythm section for the past 30 years, drummer Lowell “Sly” Dunbar and bassist Robert “Robbie” Shakespeare helped popularize the expansive, wall-shaking production style known as “dub” and were early supporters of digitized sounds and computer-enhanced recording methods. In her search for authenticity, Miss O’Connor couldn’t have found two better mentors.

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