Distant Relatives, Distant Destinations
Hip hopâ€™s links with reggae are clear-cut. It was a Jamaican, Kool Herc, who brought the breaks to the steaming summer streets of The Bronx in the 1970s, taking what heâ€™d learned from the Kingston sound systems, applying it to soul music, and putting in place the framework for a whole new genre.
With such a clear connection between the two styles of music itâ€™s a little baffling it took until 2010 for a fully-fledged cross-genre collaborative album to appear. But what â€˜Distant Relativesâ€™ lacked in expeditiousness it made up for in craft, Nas and Damian Marley fusing together their artistic know-how to create one of the most distinctive listens of the past 12 months. â€œDamian called me to record on his last album on a song called â€˜Road To Zionâ€™, and from there we were cool,â€ Nas explains from his home in New York. â€œWe just had a big respect for each other and a big respect for each otherâ€™s work, so later on down the line we just thought about it and it just came to us. We were talkinâ€™ and just thought about workinâ€™.â€
Until then, reggae and hip hopâ€™s dalliances with each other had been limited to remixes and featured guest spots, so when Nas and Marley originally announced that theyâ€™d be working together on a fully collaborative effort that promised to open up new avenues of musical expression, fans from both genres began to get excited. It didnâ€™t help, then, that it would take over a year for the record to finally appear. â€œI dunno why it took so long, really. I think we recorded a little bit, we took off for the holidays, we toured a little bit to let people know that it was coming and we just took our time to get it right. I canâ€™t remember what other things that might have come into play to slow it down, but I guess we took our time.â€
While â€˜Distant Relativesâ€™ is a record that crosses hip hop with reggae â€“ the United States with Jamaica â€“ its real focus is Africa, the African diaspora, and the shared ancestry of the entire human race. The album includes some heady samples from African artists such as Mulatu Astatke and Amadou & Mariam, and a significant portion of its proceeds has been directed to a schools project on the continent. Nasâ€™s interest in Africa and African music came at an early age. â€œI have a personal connection to African music, and mainly to [Malian Afro-pop singer-songwriter] Salif. As a kid, because my pop [jazz musician, Olu Dara] would play that kinda shit sometimes, and Iâ€™d say, â€˜What is it?â€™ â€“ and itâ€™s not shit,â€ he laughs. â€œI mean itâ€™s beautiful music".
But I had all kinds of musical love as a child, from The Police to Boy George to Prince to Michael Jackson, but African music has been in there also. â€œIn my adult life I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye and also listen to a lot of Salif, the African artist. And with the Marleys who produced the album, I think that their connection to music is really strong because they were born into it and I think they just have a really strong connection to African music, which made them the right people to produce the record. They produced the record, not me.â€
After the release of â€˜Distant Relativesâ€™ in May of last year, Nas and Damian Marley hit the road to let their obvious chemistry percolate onstage. The eight-month tour is now set to check in to Australia, something that Nas is obviously excited about. â€œI love, love, love Australia. Love it,â€ he says. â€œI first toured there with Kanye West and I went on before him. Kanye couldnâ€™t believe that I would go on before him because he started out a lot later than I did, and heâ€™s like a little brother to me. So Iâ€™d tell him, â€˜I have no egoâ€™. Kanye, he has a huge, huge audience, and it was great for my first time in the country; it was just an honour to tour with him. That time and then when I came back with Damian: itâ€™s just been a great experience every time, so Iâ€™m lookinâ€™ forward to getting back out there.â€
Nas & Damian Marley play Good Vibrations, Gold Coast Parklands, February 19. gvf.com.au