STEPHEN MARLEY / “Problem With My Woman”
"He would say music is serious and if you're not serious, better you go study to be a doctor." —Stephen Marley recalling his father’s advice[Links, selected photos and more info courtesy of http://www.melodymakers.de They are absolutely the best website for info on the Marley family. —Kalamu] I never was a big fan of Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers. Almost all of my favorite musicians—Bob Marley included—have an indefinable ‘something’ that separates them not only from ordinary folk, but from ordinary musicians as well. But when I listen to Ziggy Marley albums, I can usually put the songs into one of two categories: the ordinary-sounding ones that I like and the ordinary-sounding ones I don’t like. Except for little brother Stephen’s songs. You can go all the way back to 1991’s Jahmekya.* On a 16-track album full of earnest but slightly boring songs, the only standout is Stephen Marley’s solo tune, “Problem With My Woman.” At the time, Stephen was only 21 years old, but he sounded at least a couple decades older. Stephen has a singing voice that can’t be taught or intimated—you have to be born with it. It’s a high-pitched, squeaking groan that sounds like it’s covered in dust, like it doesn’t get used much. It’s 50% Bob Marley, 50% Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and, for me, 100% mesmerizing. The song is basically a chant—“Another problem with a woman again / Another problem with your woman again”—but I liked it the first time I heard it, and a decade and a half later, I’m still digging it. Over the years, Stephen remained reliable. Every time the Melody Makers dropped an album, I’d pick it up, then sit through all of Ziggy’s earnest but slightly boring songs until it was Stephen’s turn. Whether it was a remake of one of his Dad’s lesser-known songs (“African Herbsman” from 1993’s Joy And Blues) or one of his own songs (I’m going with “Rebel In Disguise” from the same album), Stephen never failed to provide that special spark of ‘something’ that makes me want to hear more. Early in the Nineties, I saw him live at the House of Blues. He displayed none of the personal magnetism of his famous Dad, but man, that voice! Stephen sounded exactly like he sounds on his records: intense, mystical, slightly stoned. In other words, next to perfect. (I have to say too, the Melody Makers as a whole are better live than on their records. You could definitely tell that they were stage veterans. Then again, they were playing with the Wailers Band, a bunch of cats who could probably make me sound halfway decent on stage.) In 2000, the Melody Makers broke up and Stephen started free-lancing, first as a vocalist and later, as a producer. Actually, I take that back, because Stephen had been doing guest vocals on other people’s records for a while. In ’96, he’d teamed up with the Fugees to do a ‘remix’ of their cover of “No Woman, No Cry.” (It’s a completely new version that has nothing to do with the version on the Fugees album, so I have no idea why they called it a remix. You can get it on a Fugees collection called Bootleg Versions.) Four years later, Stephen showed up on Erykah Badu’s second album, Mama’s Gun, and the two strange-voiced, dreadlocked singers made weird-but-beautiful magic. The only ordinary thing about their duet is the title: “In Love With You.” In the studio, Stephen has become to the Marley family what Delfeayo is to the Marsalis family. He rarely records under his own name, but if you check out the various Marley brothers’ frequent releases, Stephen is usually the producer. Then, in 2004, someone at Island caught wind of the existence of tape containing a previously unheard Bob Marley, “Slogans.” The song was just a demo, with Bob singing his new (circa 1979) lyrics over a drum machine. So Stephen and Ziggy put together a music track to go with the vocals and the first ‘new’ Bob Marley song in years was born. The song is good, not great, but it’s hard not to enjoy hearing something ‘new’ from Bob. (“Slogans” is available on Africa Unite: The Singles Collection.) If I had my way, Virgin Records would put together all of Stephen’s songs with the Melody Makers, then throw in some of his work on other folks' releases and call the whole thing ‘The Collected Stephen Marley.’ I’d recommend that release in a heartbeat. Until then, this week’s jukebox will have to do. —Mtume ya Salaam * I can’t believe it, but typing that title, I just got the play on words: ‘Jah mek ya’ (Jah makes/made you.) I always thought it just a funny way to spell Jamaica. [Mtume, when I was down in Jamaica in the early eighties, I remember laughing when I realized that in the patois they were saying “Jah-make-here” rather than Jamaica, as one would pronounce it in proper English. —Kalamu] The Seed Is Now A Tree Almost from time he walk, he dance; from first talk words, he sing; from his little hands touch upon something, he play instruments. But him not the oldest, so it not just his father shadow cover him, also Ziggy, his older brother, seemingly the more charismatic of the two. And then later of course his younger brothers, particularly Damien, who be the Marley family reggae ruler as far as popularity go. But even so, when we look upon the inscription carved into the cornerstone, what we ah see? We see the words: Produced by Stephen Marley. You see, Stephen is the invisible hand. And a mighty hand be he. I do not mean to take away nothing from the talents of any one or even all a them together of the Marley crew, it’s just a reality that Stephen was at the controls even as the spotlight might a shine down on some of the others. Ziggy and the Melody Makers albums, Ziggy might be the captain, but you got to check navigator Stephen steering the ship. Them Damien Marley albums, including the mega-hot Jamrock, the secret of all of that be Stephen at the controls. Plus—and this is just speculation on my part from the outside looking upon the inner circle—it seems Stephen has the personality to produce the others without resentment or rancor. Even though the Marley family is a model family in terms of working together, I know there has got to be some sibling rivalry going on. (Especially when you consider they are composed of children from two diffrerent fathers and four different women, or to put it in more blunt terms, from a wife and three outside women.) Perhaps, Stephen putting off his solo debut and instead supporting his older and younger siblings is not only a mark of talent but also maturity far, far beyond his earth years. Could it be that he has inherited his father’s legendary ability to get the best out of others even when it would seem that there would be jealousy and backbiting going on? I am not suggesting that any one of the Marley clan is infighting with any other one specifically, instead I am thinking that Stephen has been not just the musical glue but also a social stabilizer holding together a musical family, a family that literally will be on the road for months upon months. For those who don't know: touring can cause people to get on each other's first and last nerve simultaneously. My supposition is that had Stephen been in the spotlight he could not have been the one to hold things together. Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, but you know the man has won Grammys for his brothers and sisters and well into his thirties has yet to drop his own project. But then that's precisely the point; putting it all together is what good producers do. That’s one. Two: like Mtume said, Stephen got the most arresting voice of them all—not the best stage presence, not the most attractive look, not even the most fire as a performer—but the best voice, or should I say, the most distinctive voice. He is both clearly his father’s son and also clearly has his own not-to-be-confused sonic identity. But three, and to me, the real key, the man got taste. He know how to bend the notes, drop the beats, find the little intervals that make the music attractive, memorable. Of course, true too, he has had years of practice and dues paying, still him a do interesting things with whatever and whomever he work with. I started not to even listen to “No, No, No,” his collab with Eve on her Scorpion album. I just knew that had to be throwaway. But “yo Eve, this is Steve,” is some a that smooth club down tempo skanking. Far from a classic but nothing destined for the trash bin. I smile at the hilarity of Stephen’s turnabout of “Jammin’” and laugh at the feigned naiveté of “Traffic Jam.” Why in the world would the police stop Stephen and detain him for smoking marijuana? You think? By the way that acoustic version of "Traffic Jam" was Stephen with an unidentified accompanist on guitar, taken from a showcase that was done in New York, January 2007. “Traffic Jam” is the first single from Stephen’s forthcoming Mind Control debut solo release. He’s making a solo debut at 34 years old and the man been performing since he was a boy one-digit old. What a turn this is. We’re also sharing the title cut from the forthcoming Mind Control project. Of course you know Mtume has already tagged the duet with Ms. Badu. Of course it’s weird. Of course it’s beautiful. Of course you gotta like it. It’s Badu working with Stephen Marley. We’ll be forever loving Marley, especially if the progeny can keep up the pace of making quality music for to uplift the masses. Looking forward to Mind Control. Much respect and a whole lot of love to Stephen Marley. Him is a top drawer producer. Stephen is not only for real, but of all the Marley family, his career will probably be the longest running. At thirty four he has already been performing longer than his father did and imagine, he’s just now debuting as a solo artist. Talk about living up to the hype. The mantle draped cross Stephen’s shoulders fit him like a second skin. Marley forever! —Kalamu ya Salaam
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