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Damian Marley and NAS in Oakland

Damian Marley and NAS in Oakland

Damian Marley and NAS in Oakland

By on - Photos by Faith-Ann Young - Comment

The son of reggae royalty and the darling of conscious hip-hop take their show on the road.

Sampler

From the release of 'Roots Rap Reggae' (1985) featuring Run DMC and Yellowman, through the launch of 'Def Jam’s Def Jamaica' compilation (2003) with dancehall artists and riddims laced with lyrical styles from American MCs, the hip-hop and reggae communities have collaborated with mixed results. These days the connection between the two worlds is embodied by DJs and produced projects like Max Tannone’s 'Mos Dub', a collection of Mos Def verses laid down over hip-hop beats with foundation dub and reggae hooks. Rather than producing a project that represents a hip-hop headline with a reggae sidebar, or strictly reggae riddims layered with raps, it seems this year Nasir “Nas” Jones and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley have cracked the code: Using a revolutionary recipe that calls for one third reggae, one third hip-hop, and one third black identity in the modern west, the duo mixed to yield 'Distant Relatives'. And then they brought the project on tour with a nine-piece band making one of their first stops in Oakland.

Although the pre-release publicity for 'Distant Relatives' was nothing short of brilliant, it’s worth mentioning that listening to the leaked tracks one by one left something to be desired. When the full length album hit stores on May 18, all perceptions of the hip-hop reggae fusion project fell by the wayside with the chance to listen to the exceptionally cohesive album front to back. The careful order of the tracks was clearly no accident, as the live show reflected a similar agenda, dotted with crowd pleasing performances from both Nas and Jr. Gong’s respective big tunes.

On the night of May 25 at Oakland's newly restored Fox Theater, Bay Area reggae and hip-hop heads alike flocked to one of the first sold out shows on the Distant Relatives tour.

The crowd inflated, increasingly jam-packed breast to back as anticipation mounted. When the cast (a fitting way to describe the eleven-deep crew on stage) rolled out, they launched rocket-like into As We Enter, the first track on the album and one of the most circulated during the pre-release leak phase. In conjunction with the album agenda, Tribal War followed, thunderous, with a rhythm like a collective heartbeat, with the life force of Nyabinghi drums. The drama up to this point reached heights rivaled by climactic moments a la Disney and would continue to build through the night.

Diverging from the album’s track list order, the duo shook it up with the nostalgic Nah Mean, a throwback to the Marley brothers’ Ghetto Youths Crew original; a revamped head-bobbing number begging, “Yo, Mr. Minister, are you being sinister?”

Three turbulent (in the best possible way) tunes deep, Jr. Gong exited to the wings as Nas took center stage kicking off his solo mini-set with the participatory Represent, from his 1994 debut album, 'Illmatic'. Continuing chronologically with a tune from his 1996 sophomore album 'It Was Written', he segued seamlessly into Street Dreams, a play on words borrowed from the monster Eurythmics hit from the eighties. Like a big breath after a long winded rant, the theater filled with the sounds of Lauryn Hill’s gentle melody from the late nineties billboard-topping If I Ruled the World, launching into a tune thick with crowd contribution.

Upon Damian’s return, things slowed down with Leaders, a tune that, though lyrically resonant, is hard to like as the album’s first slow-tempo, light rhythm tune after three bangers thick with tempestuous percussion. It does, however, represent a rootical reggae feel with a ripe vibe for sitting back to sway on one’s heels. Maybe not all that exciting, but appreciated in the calm before the succeeding uplift anthem, Count Your Blessings, which is, lyrically speaking, refreshingly reminiscent of Nina Simone’s evergreen Ain’t got No / I’ve got Life. Just days after the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency in the grim aftermath of Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s announcement that he’d move forward with the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, this song was particularly resonant among the Oakland crowd, populated with an audience hailing from international motherlands.

Showcasing the incredible duo of women cast as backup singers in the off-Broadway production of 'Distant Relatives', the entire cast launched into Dispear, one of the strongest tunes on the album with a multi-tiered rhythm force and a resounding, punch-packing one-word vocal hook (or two words, “this spear” to reggae fans). Nas, who’s known to spit fire all day, was met in the middle here by a fire breathing Damian who flaunted his own lyrical chops, highlighting one of the many reasons why this project works so well in the first place. There is a common ground foundation from which two very unique seeds have sprouted into massive, beloved life forms with an enduring bond at the roots. 'Distant Relatives' is a return to, and thus a reminder, of the everlasting presence of this link. I know. Big things for music, and man.

Left alone as Nas was earlier, Damian launched into his own big tunes including More Justice, from his 2001 breakthrough sophomore album followed by No More Trouble, a tribute to his immortal old man, Mr. Bob Marley. The show was surreal start to finish like an indoor tornado from a dream sequence, but when the crew (still without Nas) dove into Exodus, it was like Lion King at the Majestic Theater (sans the bomb costumes.)

Slowing things down with the beginning of Patience, pressure began to mount in the foreshadowing of Nas’ return. Sure enough, out marched Mr. Jones to wrap up the song and charge full steam into Gideon Soldier. As if to make up for time lost during Damian’s solo set, here he extended into a vicious freestyle where the song’s end should have been.

Welcome to Jamrock felt obligatory and frankly, was lackluster.

When the stage went dark save for Nas and one drummer wielding a single conga, the crowd was a sea of smiles in a collective, epic, “oh yeah, of course,” as commenced a gorgeously simple performance of his One Mic from his 2001 album 'Stillmatic'.

Giving a nod to the seed that bore the 'Distant Relatives' fruit in all it’s nourishing glory, Jr. Gong returned to the stage for a rendition of Road to Zion followed by Africa Song, which calls for action, “Yesterday we were Kings / Can you tell me young ones / Who are we today?” While Damian dedicated the song “to home,” Nas offered a hard-hitting, spoken side note mid-song: “Division is poisoning the people.”

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