Born in 1972, the second son of Bob Marley, Stephen was dancing and singing onstage during his father and The Wailers’ live shows (alongside older siblings Ziggy and Cedella) by the time he was old enough to walk. As a young boy, he stayed at home-as Ziggy and Cedella entered school-where he would shadow his father, mimic his speech and quickly fall in love with such future reggae anthems as “Lively Up Yourself.” At seven, he began learning guitar on a nylon-stringed acoustic.
In 1979, he made his official debut when he, Ziggy, Cedella and Sharon-collectively known as The Melody Makers-cut their first single, “Children Playing in the Streets,” followed in 1985 by their debut LP, Play the Game Right. Over the next decade, the group would follow in their father’s footsteps, racking up Grammy awards and bringing conscious songs and one-love rhythms to every corner of the globe.
With his highly anticipated debut album, not only does the sound and soul of Stephen Marley come into vivid focus, but the 34 year-old artist is now inevitably stepping to center stage for the first time in his 27 year career. Appropriately, Mind Control is all Stephen and a cornucopia of the sounds and styles that he loves: a blend of reggae, rock, R&B, nyabinghi rhythms, flamenco and hip-hop. It’s an album with the grit and flavor to rock old-school Kingston sound systems and slippery, waxed Miami Range Rovers alike.
Featuring cameos from roots-rock star Ben Harper, hip-hop hero Mos Def and younger brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, it’s a collection of songs that range from conscious critiques of society (“Mind Control”) and politics (“Chase Dem”), to the sweet and open-hearted (“Hey Baby”), to the simple and fun (the sexy, club-rocking, Latin-tinged grinder “Let Her Dance,” which features Maya Azucena & Illestr8).
“My joy and my pain, this is me,” Marley says, humbly. “It’s a page from my book: Every page tells a story, but at the same time is a continuation of the page before it or the page to come. This is just one page.”
The album’s breezy, horn-spiced title track casts a light on a modern day form of slavery, its words conscious, its groove monstrous: “That song is about subliminal slavery, hi-tech slavery, subliminal suppression,” says Stephen. “It holds you down, it holds a man down from being wholesome.” It’s a call to arms for us to take back our lives, free our minds, regain our spiritual souls and think for ourselves: “Don’t let them mold your mind/They wanna control mankind/Seems like their only intention is to exploit the Earth.”
Tapping into the disillusionment triggered by elected leaders in both the U.S. and Jamaican governments, the vintage, easy-skanking roots reggae of “Chase Dem” rips into the insincere, crooked politicians by shouting “run them away.” If the balance of Mind Control sounds wholly created in the 21st Century, “Chase Dem” blasts out of the subwoofers like a long lost jewel from Bob himself. With that song, Stephen says, “It’s like me post a bill saying, ‘Just say no to politics.'”
The softer and sweeter side of Stephen is also on full display in the album. A smooth, smart slab of hip-hop featuring a dose of Brooklyn flow courtesy of Mos Def on the album’s first single, “Hey Baby,” is based on a song Stephen would sing to his children to keep them from being sad while he was on tour with The Melody Makers: “Hey baby/ don’t you worry/ even though the road is rocky/ I’ll be coming home to you again.” The hypnotic “Lonely Avenue,” is a sweet, harmony vocal- and organ-soaked take on the Ray Charles classic-done Marley style. “I’m a big fan of Ray,” says Marley. “I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard him, but I could tell ya what I remember is hearing him and feeling him in pain.” Blending modern sounds with classic roots vibes, Mind Control finds Stephen carrying the Marley legacy even further into the future with such samples as the smart piece of the Martina Topley Bird song “Sandpaper Kisses” heard throughout “You’re Gonna Leave.”
The album includes a trilogy of sorts (“Officer Jimmy Interlude,” “The Traffic Jam,” featuring Damian, and “Iron Bars,” featuring brother Julian Marley, Mr. Cheeks & Spragga Benz) inspired by the few hours that Stephen and Julian spent in a Tallahassee jail in 2002 for marijuana possession: On “Iron Bars”-the song in which he sings “Let me out!/Let me out!/I’m an angry lion!”-Stephen asks himself, “What am I doing here, among the wolves? For some herb? It’s like I’m a murderer. Ya know what I mean? Ya make me feel like I’m a murderer, for some herb, where, ya know, it’s my culture.”
The genre-meshing “Fed Up” is a flute-led lament of romantic missteps-“She said, ‘How could you treat me this way?’/What we had was more than words could say”-while the album closing “Inna Di Red,” featuring Ben Harper, is a thoughtful, shaker-dusted meditation on inner peace.
In addition to recording his debut album, Stephen has been hunkered down in the studio serving as the secret weapon behind both of Damian’s past two Grammy winners as well as behind the Ghetto Youths International and Tuff Gong imprints. In addition to executive producing 1999’s lauded, star-studded tribute to his father, Chant Down Babylon, his production skills can be heard on albums by Buju Banton, brothers Julian and Ziggy, Spearhead, Eve, Erykah Badu, Capleton and Mr. Cheeks. He’s performed as a vocalist, percussionist or guitarist on albums by all the above, as well as albums by Eric Clapton and others. Marley continues to work on new music for all of his brothers. If they felt it important to carry on their father’s legacy, it’s not something that Stephen-nor his brothers-think much about anymore. “That work has been done”, he says. “We are the legacy now.”
Stephen also embarked on two U.S. concert tours this year, including the acclaimed “Bob Marley Roots, Rock Reggae Festival,” where brothers Stephen and Ziggy Marley joined together for the first time ever with reggae pioneer Bunny Wailer.
Stephen has built and laid the foundations for a full-blown Marley family renaissance and with Mind Control, Stephen has achieved that: It’s an album full of confidence and diversity in styles and emotion. “I don’t want to be just another artist. I want to make a statement, and to continue this legacy, this musical legacy, with my family. Just like my brothers… I aspire to be a reckoning force, when you hear my name, you know quality comes with that: good music, good message, good vibe.”