Nestled among the industrial flats of Santa Monica, Calif.'s business district sits producer Bob Clearmountain's private studio, Apogee, where Thursday night an intimate crowd of no more than a 120 people gathered to watch a private performance from Nas and Damian "Junior Gong" Marley. The extremely special set -- taped and hosted by famed independent radio station KCRW -- featured five new songs off the two musicians' hip-hop and reggae mash-up album 'Distant Relatives,' as well as Junior Gong tracks 'Welcome to Jamrock' and 'Road to Zion', and Nas' 'Made You Look.'
"Jamaican music and hip-hop music were doing a lot to the people in New York City where I grew up in the Eighties," Nas said during a mid-set interview with KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad. "I'm hearing early hip-hop records, I'm hearing early reggae albums -- they have a lot of similarities. The artists come from similar situations, politically, and the conditions of their life."
"Both are a voice for a class of people," added Junior Gong.
What started as a suggestion from both artists' management for a 4-track EP inspired by Africa, morphed into a 13-track album that pairs Nas and Damian Marley as more than just 'Distant Relatives.' Throughout the set the two would trade off on verses so seamlessly that you thought the project had been born from two long-lost brothers. Even Marley, who referred to the project as "serendipity" throughout the evening, noted that the album's success stemmed from them being both "fans of each others music." "Destiny was slated for this record," he said at one point.
The evening started off with 'Distant Relatives''s most up-beat dance track -- 'As We Enter,' and what each artist contriibution to the project was as immediately apparent as the hats they were wearing: Nas donned a pulled down Yankees cap, repping his native New York City and hip-hop's birthplace, while Marley's floor-length dreads were stowed away in a Rasta hat. They quickly segued into 'Count Your Blessings' a song Marley said served to remind "of the things that we take for granted in the Western Hemisphere," naming running water among them. The sounds and themes of Africa were present, especially with the conga intro and tribal hut chants of 'Dispear' and more subdued, slow rolling 'Land of Promise.'
The comradery was even there during Nas' 'Made You Look' when the rapper sang his chorus "Where them gangstas at? Where them dimes at?" and Marley rapped back -- "Jamaica." But the bond the two artists have most in common is their famous fathers, which they both talked about with Trinidad. Nas remembered his father -- jazz great Olu Dara -- bringing back foreign money from his travels and always looked up to him for being his own boss. Junior Gong said he had his father -- legendary reggae musician Bob Marley -- to thank for his close family ties and "what his dad stood for outside of the music."
They ended the evening with 'Africa Must Wake Up,' a track that came together when K'naan, a Somalian refugee, came into the studio. The song had the two leaning against another while spitting out the verses -- a raw and true testament to their musical kinship and heritages, that never aims to alienate, but to inform.
"We wanna thank you for coming on this musical journey with us," Nas said closing out the evening. "Our record companies did not want us to do this and that's why we did it more ... not just for Blacks, Jamaicans, but for everybody!"
The musical journey arrives to radio airwaves during Trinidad's KCRW (89.9FM) show on Thursday, June 3.