GUY RAZ, host:
Though the Bronx is widely regarded as the birthplace of hip-hop, there's a raging debate over whether it's a purely American creation. The man many believe originated hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc, was Jamaican by birth. So it might not sound like a huge leap for a hip-hop megastar to join forces with a reggae singer from a legendary musical family. But what rapper Nas and reggae singer Damian Marley have been doing over the past year is actually unusual.
Nas is best known for using pop, jazz and even classical sounds in his music.
(Soundbite of song, "I Can")
NAS (Rapper): (Rapping) B, boys and girls, listen up. You can be anything in the world, in God we trust, an architect, doctor, maybe an actress, but nothing comes easy, it takes much practice...
RAZ: The track is "I Can" by Nas. Damian Marley scored a worldwide hit in 2005 with his Grammy-winning record "Welcome Jamrock."
(Soundbite of song, "Welcome to Jamrock")
Mr. DAMIAN MARLEY (Singer): (Singing) Welcome to Jamrock, camp whe' da' thugs dem camp at. Two pounds a weed inna van back...
RAZ: Damian Marley and Nas are in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion that took place last night at the National Geographic Museum. It was about the links between hip-hop and reggae, links that they're exploring in an upcoming record called "Distant Relatives," and Damian Marley and Nas are in the studio with me. Welcome.
NAS: Thank you.
Mr. MARLEY: Thank you. Thank you.
RAZ: Nas, as you heard earlier, there's kind of a debate about where hip-hop actually comes from. Some people say it's a purely American invention, but actually, you guys are trying to trace the lineage between hip-hop and reggae back to Africa.
NAS: Yeah, a lot of ways I see it, you know, coming from Africa. You know, rap is sort of like a form of talking, right? So it's like you can hear, you know, the slaves doing it. You can hear, like, you know, Africans and Jamaicans doing it just kind of as, like, a rhythmic, poetic conversation, you know, to a rhythm.
RAZ: Damian, you of course grew up carrying the legendary Marley name, and early on, you were making pretty traditional reggae music.
(Soundbite of song, "Me Name Jr. Gong")
Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Me name Jr. Gong, me tellin' you. Youngest veteran...
RAZ: Do you ever feel pressure? I mean, do you - are you sort of beyond that point where you feel the pressure of your famous family name, or is it still with you sometimes?
Mr. MARLEY: You know, coming where I'm coming from, really, my family name isn't a pressure because, you know, music is not like sports, where you can go and do a hundred reps in a gym and come out and be all buffed up. Music is an expression of what's inside of you. And that's how I make music. So, you know, it's not like I go into the studio and say I'm going to try to make music to prove to somebody that I can make music. You know, I mean, but I was (unintelligible) make the music (unintelligible) love, and hopefully, they will accept it, you know what I'm saying? So that's really how I look at the situation, still, you know?
RAZ: Were you listening to hip-hop as a kid? Was it a big part of what you were hearing around you?
Mr. MARLEY: Yeah, it was something that I was learning about. I used to have - you know, I still do have - cousins who at the time, they used to live in America. So every summer, they would come to Jamaica and bring down whatever was the latest music from America. One of the first albums that I remember, rap albums, I remember really listening to was LL Cool J "Mama Said Knock You Out." You know what I mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARLEY: So, you know, the rise of, like Snoop Dogg and those, you know, that generation of artists is when I really started to get deeply into hip-hop music.
RAZ: Nas, I want to ask you about your career and your earlier career. You grew up in one of the biggest housing projects in America, called Queensbridge, a pretty tough place, and you broke out with a record, "Illmatic," in 1994, and early on, you were using jazz riffs, for example, in your music, like in this track, "The World Is Yours."
(Soundbite of song, "The World Is Yours")
Mr. NAS: (Rapping) The world is yours. The world is yours. It's mine, it's mine, it's mine. Whose world is this?
I sip the Dom P, watchin Gandhi til I'm charged. Then writin in my book of rhymes, all the words pass the margin...
RAZ: I know that as a kid, you were surrounded by hip-hop, but were you ever exposed to reggae? I mean, was it music that you were ever interested in?
NAS: Big time, big time. You know, my earliest memories of rap music was mixed with my earliest memories of reggae music. They were big sounds around the way, heavy bass lines, strong messages, definitely.
RAZ: And you talk about messages because a lot of, of course, the music of Damian's father, Bob Marley, was political. There was a social message in what he was singing about, and a lot of your lyrics have sort of tackled that, as well.
Mr. NAS: Yeah, I see Bob Marley. Marley is someone before his time, man. He's - he's almost - he's like a deity, like almost, you know what I mean? I just talk about what's going on, but of course, you know, Bob, before rappers, was already laying that kind of thing down.
RAZ: Now, back in 2005, you guys actually put together I guess what we might call a prototype for this project. It was a song called "Road to Zion" off your album "Welcome to Jamrock," and you guys collaborated on that song.
I want to play a bit of that song first.
(Soundbite of song, "Road to Zion")
Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) We got to keep on walking on the road to Zion, man.
NAS: (Singing) Yeah you gotta keep walking y'all. Yeah, yeah. You gotta keep...
Sometimes I can't help but feel helpless. I'm havin daymares in daytime. Wide awake try to relate. This can't be happenin like I'm in a dream while I'm walkin 'cause what I'm seein is haunting. Human beings like ghost and zombies. President Mugabe holding guns to innocent bodies...
RAZ: That's Damian Marley singing and Nas rapping. Damian, I gather that for you, sort of taking your sound and kind of melding it with hip-hop seem kind of natural because there are elements of hip-hop in reggae. I mean, there is something called toasting. Can you explain that before we continue?
Mr. MARLEY: Toasting is basically what you call rapping. It's the same thing. It came off of, you know, playing the beats at the parties, however it be. You find a space in the beat, and you have - in Jamaica, we have the dub versions, where there's not a lot of voice on it, and you'd have somebody live, you know, just basically saying rhymes over the beat. So it started off of just being, you know, one and two rhymes till it became a whole song of rhymes, you know what I mean? So that's what toasting is.
RAZ: Could you give us a sense of what it would sound like?
Mr. MARLEY: Well, you'd have to have some music playing, you know what I mean, but, you know, it's: (Unintelligible). You know, just different things. And some of - not all of it made sense in the early days, you know?
RAZ: Now, I know the record you guys are working on isn't finished, and it won't be released until next year, but we do have a snippet from one track. It's called "As We Enter."
(Soundbite of song, "As We Enter")
Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) As we enter come mek we tek you on di biggest adventure.
NAS: (Singing) Must be dementia that you ever thought you could touch our credentials. What's the initials?
Mr. MARLEY: You be jamrock the lyrical official send out di yarda, laws and di rituals.
NAS: (Singing) Burn candles, say prayers, paint heroes, it is true we big news, we hood heroes.
Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Bruk past di anchor, we come to conquer, man a badman we nah play Willy Wonka.
RAZ: How is it to work together? I mean, how do you guys actually sort of figure out who does what?
NAS: It was just real natural. You know, it's the first time of me recording a whole album - Damian, for you, too, with someone else?
Mr. MARLEY: Yeah.
NAS: Yeah. So, you know, I'd say, you know, you're working on an album by yourself all the time, and, you know, I'm used to that, but working with someone else is different by all means, you know what I'm saying? But at the same time, it's like, wow, you know, because you're going in a direction that you wouldn't normally go in on your own. So it was all good.
RAZ: And I know that you guys call this album "Distant Relatives" for a reason. Can you talk about why?
NAS: I think that's what we all are. That's what we are. You, me, Damian, people out there, you know, we all go through a lot of things, and we're just trying to live our life and get through life, and it's just so hard on a day-to-day basis for most of us. No matter who you are, black, white, green, there's going to be things in your way, you know what I mean? And I think "Distant Relatives" is a hope thing. It's like we're all in this together, you know?
RAZ: That's rapper Nas, and earlier, we heard from reggae singer Damian Marley. Together, they'll release a rap-reggae hybrid album called "Distant Relatives." It's due out next year.
Nas, Damian, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. MARLEY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "Road to Zion")
Mr. NAS: (Rapping) So save me your sorries, I'm raising an army. Revolutionary warfare with Damian Marley. We sparkin' the ions, marching to Zion. You know how Nas be NYC state of mind I'm in.
Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) In this world of calamity. Dirty looks and grudges and jealousy. And police weh abuse dem authority. Media clowns weh nuh know bout variety.
The youngest veteran a go murder dem slow. Ragga muffin sent to call me from the bush bungalow. Unnu watch mek I clear out my voice now Figaro. Emerge from the darkness with mi big blunt a glow. Mi hammer dem a slam and spectator get low. Some bwoy coulda big like Bam Bam Biggalow.
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.