“There’s a simple explanation,” says Stephen Marley, with a laugh. “It’s called DNA.”
Just about everyone agrees: of all the children of Bob Marley, Stephen received the lion’s share of his father’s musical genes. As the family’s “go-to” producer, the 36-year-old has earned a slew of Grammys for his work through the years. More than that, however, Marley simply sounds like his father. As evidenced on Mind Control, his 2007 debut album, his voice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of reggae’s greatest practitioner.
All that said, however, Marley has proved adept at pushing the boundaries of traditional reggae. On the pioneering 1999 reggae/hip-hop fusion album Chant Down Babylon, and on his brother Damian’s Grammy-winning Welcome to Jamrock, the producer-songwriter wove a mix of contemporary styles into reggae’s solid foundation. And even on Mind Control, on trip-hop flavored tracks like “Hey Baby” and “Traffic Jam,” he sometimes sounds like a modern-day equivalent of madman reggae pioneer Lee Perry.
Just as important, Marley seems to have inherited his father’s formidable work ethic. In the midst of a mini-tour, and with several projects in progress, he spoke with us about his music, his guitars, and why he likes country-western songs.
How did you become the go-to guy for most of the family’s projects? Does it have more to do with your personality, or with your musical versatility?
It’s more about my personality. I’m the member of the family who was born in April. In the Bible, April is from the tribe of Reubin. Reubin was the first son of Jacob. That type of personality — being a leader, a big brother — is part of me.
Which do you enjoy more — working on a project of your own, or working on someone else’s project, where you’re sort of behind the curtain?
It’s hard to say. Everything we do is done the same way. Obviously there are small differences, but with the Mind Control project, for example, Damian and Julian were there with me. Nothing changes, really, in our approach.
Is it different working with members of your family, as opposed to working with people with whom you aren’t related?
It is different. There’s more of a bond in the conception, with family. Everyone kind of thinks on the same wavelength. Working with people outside the family involves communication that has to be sort of broken down.
Looking back, the Chant Down Babylon album, where you incorporated hip-hop into your father’s songs, seems especially significant. Did you have reservations about doing that?
Yes. We were very cautious, but the relevance of that record was very important. The way it came together, it was clear it was meant to be. For example, we were in the studio talking about Erykah Badu (http://www.erykahbadu.com/), and she just happened to come to tour the Bob Marley Museum at the same time. I said, “You know, we were just talking about you.” I told her about the project and she came on-board. It was effortless.
Do you think your father would have been a fan of hip-hop?
Yes, mon. He was a big fan of dancehall music. He liked Big Youth and Dillinger — those types of artists.
People might be surprised to learn that you’re a big fan of country-western music.
Yeah, very much. Country music reminds me a lot of Jamaican folks who live in the country. Music with just an acoustic guitar, or a banjo, has that folk style, where most of the songs tell stories. A lot of Jamaicans love country music. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s there was a lot of country music there — Kenny Rogers and so forth.
When you begin work on a song, which of your guitars do you usually pick up?
It’s usually an acoustic guitar, usually an Ovation. But on-stage I play a Gibson, a Les Paul Custom. And now I have my first Gibson acoustic. It’s a beautiful guitar. I’ve been playing it a lot while I’ve been out on the road — getting to know her, so to speak. I’ve been writing on the Gibson acoustic a bit as well.
Your father also played Les Pauls. Do you still have his guitars?
Yes, the family has them. He used to call his main Les Paul “Old Faithful.” He would tell us children, “Go and bring ‘Old Faithful’ to me.”
Do you ever use his guitars in the studio?
Your father had an incredibly strong work ethic, which is something you seem to have inherited.
We inherited the lessons from that, in the sense of knowing what a strong work ethic brings. After that, it’s up to you, whether you want to work hard or not. Seeing the results of my father’s hard work — what that hard work brought — is the best lesson we learned. If we want similar results, then we too have to work hard too.
His legacy has never seemed burdensome to you. Instead, you’ve always seemed to cherish the responsibility that goes along with that.
That’s true. That responsibility makes you a better person. It keeps you in line, and helps you in life. It helps you in life because his example is so positive.