If there is an ultimate example of music being a family affair, it could well be the first family of reggae, the Marleys.
The tradition began with Bob & The Wailers and carried forward to multiple offspring-first with Ziggy Marley and then his younger brothers, Damian "Jr. Gong,"Julian and Ky-Mani. The latest of the Marley brothers to step out as a recording artist is Stephen, who along with sisters Cedella and Sharon, made up Ziggy Marley's backing band, The Melody Makers.
Usually, siblings don't play well together in music, as proven by The Everly Brothers, Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks and The Black Crowes' Chris and Rich Robinson. The Marley clan breaks from that dysfunctional norm.
"I think one of the reasons is [that] our father plays such a dominant role in our lives, as far as being our mentor,"Marley says. "His physical presence not being here, it kind of makes a bond-you appreciate the brothers and you appreciate each other so much because of that. It makes the bond strong. You don't really go off of the physical; you kind of go off of a spiritual vibe, and we share that. That keeps us, you know what I mean, together."
For Stephen Marley, there was never much question that he would follow his father into music. He was just 7 years old when Ziggy formed The Melody Makers in 1979.
"As far as I can remember, I was always writing little songs,"he says. "So that was something that came natural."
And even though he was just 9 when his father died of cancer, Marley says he was old enough to appreciate and be influenced by the many days he spent watching his father and The Wailers work in the studio or perform on stage. In particular, Marley recalls his father's work ethic and dedication to the craft.
"He said, "I could write a lot of songs, but I pick specific songs to write,'"Marley recalls. "So that is a lesson. And [his] dedication in rehearsal-you would hear my mother complain about being there for hours and hours and hours to get it right.... His whole approach to the music and the wholesomeness of it and the pureness of it, that is what we learned from him."
Marley said he and his brothers have never felt burdened by the idea of carrying forward his father's legacy because music was such a natural pursuit for them. "My blood comes from my father. That's the blood that runs in me. [Being musicians], it's not anything we really have to try to be, more than we're just being ourselves, and these are the things that come out of us."
Until now, though, Marley has largely stayed out of the spotlight. His role has always been behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer. He co-produced and collaborated on songs from Damian Marley's two acclaimed CDs, Halfway Tree and 1995's Welcome to Jamrock, which sold more than 500,000 copies and netted both brothers a Grammy. He has had similar roles on albums by Julian, whose most recent CD, A Time and Place, was released in 2003, and also produced the 1999 Bob Marley tribute album, Chant Down Babylon. Marley has produced tracks and appeared as a vocalist-percussionist-guitarist on CDs by Eve, Erykah Badu, Spearhead and Capleton.
"The first person I ever tried to produce was my grandmother, my father's mother,"he said. "No one else would sit down with her and take the time to teach her the beats and the bars. And me and her at that time had a friendship where I could be, like, "No, grandma.' That's how it started.
"I had a little knack of getting good things out of people,"he said.
And Mind Control strongly suggests that Marley has a knack for getting good music out of himself. Like Damian's two albums, Mind Control liberally mixes a variety of styles with reggae. In fact, only a couple of songs, "Chase Dem"and "Lonely Avenue,"come close to being pure reggae tracks. Instead, the song "Iron Bars"(one of three about his and Julian's 2002 arrest for marijuana possession) mixes hip-hop beats and raps with the rhythms and clipped chords of reggae.
"If you take [my father's] music... the foundation is reggae,"Marley says. "But he'd find a Hawaiian guitar and a steel drum, and those things, I think, are the ingredients that make that music so vital today."
Marley is currently touring to support Mind Control, with his brother Damian and rapper K'naan also on the bill. He promises a show that goes beyond his current release.
"Of course Mind Control is in the loop,"he says. "I'm [also doing songs] from my Melody Makers time, songs of my father's."
Mind Control is a good enough album to put Marley on the road to a productive career. But regardless of how his solo albums do, he plans to remain focused on producing albums and writing songs with his brothers.
"All my life I have been a part of something. Nothing has changed. No, we're successful already with just the love we share together. We're self-contained."
Stephen Marley plays with Damian Marley and K'naan at House of Blues on April 25. Doors open at 8 p.m. $21-$24. 619-299-BLUE.