If Freud was even in the ballpark, it would necessarily take reggae deity Bob Marley's male children to emasculate his majestic body of rebel music. And, with Chant Down Babylon, that's exactly what has happened. Stephen, Damian and Julian Marley have, admittedly, assembled an impressive cast of African-American hip-hop and R&B artists to deliver Marley's message to today's consumers. Erykah Badu, the Roots, Lauryn Hill (who's a Marley by marriage), MC Lyte, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr's Guru and Chuck D. are all in attendance to pay tribute. It's appropriate that Marley's message be delivered to a hip-hop audience which buries the original music that its heroes sample a generation further every time a hit record hits the shelves. But mere tribute is not enough reason to lay down tracks, and too often this comp seems an exercise in not-so-savvy cross-promotion. Stephen Marley, this comp's producer, simply doesn't dig deep enough to make the journey worthwhile. With Marley's OG music — raw power, poetry, angry defiance and downbeat funk and earthiness — there's no middle ground: Either go deep or go home.
The tracks are rebuilt upon the foundation of original recordings of the elder Marley's vocals — and this is the saving grace and fatal flaw of Chant Down Babylon. After all, what do the "Aw, yeahs" and pale posturing of Krayzie Bone mean in the face of Bob Marley staring down the barrel of "Hey mister cop. What you saying down dere?" in his "Rebel Music"?
This is the curse of covering Marley, though. His work (and, importantly, the music he made as a member of the Wailers) defies crude appropriation.
There are few stunning exceptions that make the uninspired cuts stand out all the more: "Johnny Was" (featuring Guru) has hints of the protest-filled scrappiness that made the original make your heart and fist pump faster. The Roots' "Burnin' and Lootin'" actually updates the original's emotional poetry of terror-revolution-nocturne-empowerment.
While this ain't Puff Daddy (no pun intended), the Marley kids would do well to stipulate that the performers here listen more closely to what the old man has to say.
Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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