What we’re about to do right now is go back. Back to a time when rap’s greatest hits were created in basement soundrooms, not corporate boardrooms. When dancehall and hip-hop music was all about moving the crowd not “moving units.” Before Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and Nasty Nasir Jones first began treading the long and winding “Road to Zion.” The artists’ first collaboration went so well that they decided to do a full album together, and that album is Distant Relatives.
Unlike all previous collaborations between Jamaican and American artists, Distant Relatives is neither a remix nor a featured guest spot on a single track. It’s a fully collaborative effort filling an entire album and opening new avenues of musical expression. Distant Relatives traces the direct line from dancehall reggae’s breakthrough moment forty years ago to the rise of hip-hop several years later—from Run D.M.C. and Yellowman’s groundbreaking collaboration “Roots Rap Reggae” through Supercat introducing Biggie Smalls to the world on the “Dolly My Baby” remix and Shabba Ranks and KRS-One joining forces on “The Jam.” That line continues right up through Damian Marley and Nas’ double-Grammy-winning “Road To Zion.”
Distant Relatives is an album created by two serious artists to explore and celebrate the correlations and deep-rooted connections between reggae and hip-hop, tracing both sounds back to the African motherland that is both the cradle of humanity and the wellspring of mankind’s music.
And who better to fulfill this mission? The youngest son of the legendary Bob Marley, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley garnered his own place in music history when he became the first ever reggae artist to win a Grammy Award outside of the Reggae category, taking home an award for Best Urban/Alternative performance for his smash 2005 single “Welcome To Jamrock.” The acclaimed breakthrough album of the same name also won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.
A hip-hop icon since his immortal guest verse on Main Source’s 1991 “Live At The Barbeque,” Nas burst out of the Queensbridge housing projects, a hotbed of rap artistry since the early ’80s. The son of jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, Nas has since gone on to sell over 20 million albums worldwide over the span of his legendary career, and has acted as an ambassador for hip-hop culture throughout the globe.
“When we first started working, I was thinking about what direction we should go in,” Nas explained during a recent discussion at the GrammyMuseum. “Cause it’s all kinda like the same—reggae, rap. But it went to its own thing… We had a few concepts. All basically around empowerment in a way, cause if we’re talking about Distant Relatives we’re talking about the human family.”
The sound of Distant Relativesfeatures live musicians as well as studio production by Damian Marley and his elder brother Stephen Marley, a distinguished award-winning artist and producer in his own right. Featured artists on the album connect other diasporic dots— New Orleans’ own Lil Wayne as well as the critically acclaimed Somali-born, Canadian-raised MC K’NAAN.
“I didn’t want it to sound like something that would be typical of me, neither typical of Nas,” said Damian Marley, who produced much of the album. “But something where you can still see how there’s a middle ground in the music…where you can still hear something that is reminiscent of either of us… It’s been really fun. Cause we’ve been going in the booth together. Especially as a lyricist, it’s really like iron sharpen iron. You can’t slack off right now. It’s a great learning experience for me too.” And that experience extends to young listeners who will surely be enlightened and educated about the shared cultural legacy of Africa, America, and the Caribbean.
“The whole process is gonna be fun,” Nas adds. “I think we can have fun helping people. When I think about things we wanna do with this album, it’s just limitless.”