Being Bob Marley

Being Bob Marley

EVEN IN THIS age of pop appropriation, I'm not sure I want whoever owns these words when I'm dead to paste them into an article by someone more au courant, more popular, more alive, for the purpose of "bringing" my work to a new audience. That scenario may not be precisely analogous to recent "posthumous collaborations" with Nat King Cole, John Lennon, Biggie Smalls, and Bob Marley. But would any of the above--some of them notorious control freaks--be ecstatic to learn that they would one day become, in essence, disembodied session men for their own songs? And what would a 55-year-old Robert Nesta make of that Ethel Merman of rap, Busta Rhymes, wrapping his tonsils around "Rastaman Chant" on the new tribute/remix extravaganza Chantdown Babylon (Tuff Gong/Island)?

The obvious answer would be, Who cares? Life is rented by the living, and Bob, Nat, John, and Biggie existed as recorded and copyrighted voices before and after their counterparts in the flesh had failed them. Sure, dead legends are easier to manipulate in the digital ether. But I bet remixers won't get any queasy feelings of Being John Malkovich--they can ignore that film's implications about occupying celebrity bodies (of work) like some butcher's hands in hapless meat puppets. Why? Because there's no real moral dilemma if the celebrity is already a corpse, right?

I don't know: Given that the Marley estate is on board with Chant Down Babylon, there's nothing to offend atheists about orchestrating the only sort of tribute pop music understands--a new pop commodity. Though it may smell stale next year, for now let's call the album a fascinating puddle of dead-homie beer, poured on sacred ground and drained from a (Franken)stein that could have produced much worse.

Coming out of an Island pop tradition where voices and songs were routinely stolen by DJ-producers and fitted to current trends, the project of making Marley tasty to fans of Krazie Bone, Lauryn Hill, and, uh, Aerosmith (all guests on Babylon) seems almost benign. The album conjures a hip-hop backdrop for Marley's songs of urban protest and salvation, replacing the Wailers' thick organ chug with a crisp drum sample on urban hymns like "Concrete Jungle" and "Survival." It's the sort of mixture that should have been obvious as we entered the crack years, when rap's birthplaces began to resemble Kingston's Dodge City on sensi.

Unlike Bill Laswell's ponderous Dreams of Freedom remixes, Babylon feels like a natural step. Perhaps the album's executive producer, Bob's son Stephen Marley, took his sense of license from the sort of Seventies 12-inch singles now collected on the new Rare Reggae Grooves From Studio One (Heartbeat). As it turns out, for a brief period in the late Seventies, the rage among Kingston producers was to overdub new beats and studio F/X onto late-Sixties and early-Seventies 45s, thus finding spacey little universes between the grooves of classic vocal-harmony numbers. The results were more poppy and arty than either Babylon or Freedom, and hypnotically danceable in a way that registers as utterly contemporary now that R&B is spliffed on D'Angelo.

Singing legend Ken Boothe and groups with names like the Martinis were harmonizing for one lover rather than one love, but dipping their rocksteady into Clement Dodd's post-Rasta dub combined the best of two decades in a way that would impress today's grave robbers. Boothe, incidentally, was among the seminal vocalists troubled by the increased hegemony of the DJ, and he once met with other singers who agreed to cut only vocal sides--denying jockeys instrumentals to rap over. Now he defies appropriators the best way any of us can, by staying alive.

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