Where are you?
I'm in Miami at the moment. It's about 5pm. I'm just rising. I record all night and sleep all day. It started because you're excited about the music and you want to stay up longer, but over 15 years it's become a habit. In my circle I think a lot of musicians operate like this. When the place is quiet you're more creative. I have plenty of people I can call at 4am and know they'll be up. The Marleys had a family base here even before I was born, but everyone's developed families now and my brothers and sisters live in the surrounding blocks from me. It's become a home away from Jamaica.
Can you be more anonymous in Kingston?
More people would recognise me in Kingston, but it's rare to go on the road and not get recognised by someone. The problem now is everyone has a camera in their pocket, on their cellphone – at the airport it's difficult to get from point A to point B without taking half an hour because there are so many people taking pictures.
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Someone's posted a very strange video of you on YouTube. You're putting your hair into a backpack.
Yeaah! I was aware that somebody was filming. I'm about 5' 10", and my hair is the length of my whole body now. We grow our hair because of faith, but it's getting heavy. Most of the rastas (1) I know with hair my length are elders, and they keep it tied up, but for a young person who's active and running around the weight is a big thing. So to play sports I put it in a backpack. I might end up with a backpack on stage.
You're playing the Respect Jamaica 50th festival shortly. You've lived through 33 years of the country's independence. Has it changed much?
Technology has changed things, same as everywhere. But the economy has changed drastically. When Jamaica first won independence our dollar was stronger than the US dollar. Now ours is about 90 to one. That's had a big impact on crime and poverty. There's less opportunity, less strength as an island, less things to share. That's been the biggest and most important effect on the lives of the general public, which for the most part is poor.
There were a lot of poor people when I was a child, also. But I think things were easier. When I used to ride to school, my stepfather would tell me about English money, a dime or a shilling or whatever. He'd tell me what these things would buy. It's funny because now I can tell my nephew about when I was going to school and I used to get a dollar for lunch, and that would buy a lot of stuff compared to now where you need $500 or $1,000 for school. In Jamaica, we used to have a one and two dollar bill; they don't exist any more.
Did you used to buy records with your pocket money?
I used to buy records in high school. Mainly dancehall: Super Cat, Buju Banton.
Can you remember the first music you ever made?
I can remember the first time I ever recorded my vocals on to a beat. Cat Coore from Third World – a legendary Jamaican band (2) – had a little demo set up at his house. I'm very good friends with his eldest son, Shiah, who plays with me now. So we were rhyming over a track by the dancehall artist Peter Metro. I've still got it somewhere.
A lot of your music features collaborations. Did that spirit of making music with other people start then?
No, that came more from making music with my brothers. A lot of my first album (3) was collaborations with my brother Stephen. We've always done it together as brothers – there are a lot of professionals in my family, with production and so on.
How did you get to make the Distant Relatives album (4) with Nas?
I'd been a fan for ages, and I invited him to be on Road to Zion on the Welcome to Jamrock album (5). Since then, we always wanted to do something else. I had a few tracks that didn't make that album. One of them was based around Africa, and my band's manager had the idea of making an EP around Africa with Nas.
Once we started we had so much fun we decided to do a full-length album. The rest is history. I can't think of any show we did together that wasn't well received. Nas would probably be one of the only candidates I could have done that project with.
They call him a "conscious rapper".
Yeah, he doesn't like that title. He doesn't really like any title. He doesn't want to be framed in any way, but he is a conscious person, the way he speaks, the books he reads.
We have crazy conversations: music, world history, African history, all kinds of things.
Have you spent much time in Africa?
No, I want to spend more time there. I've visited the east and west coast and they were very different. Ethiopia was a very spiritual place. You'd wake up in the morning and hear the churches and mosques, and chanting. Lot of poverty there, but it doesn't seem to have the link to crime.
There was a lot of red, gold and green (6), but Ethiopia didn't remind me of Jamaica at all. And the people don't look Jamaican.
I played in Ghana, and a load of people met us at the airport and I thought they'd flown over from Jamaica for the concert. They were even speaking patois! It was only when you start listening to their accent you realise its not quite spot on, but that's west Africa. As Jamaicans, a lot of our ancestors come from those places.
Your albums mix social commentary and love songs. Do you have a preference?
I like singing all songs really, but I find that writing social commentary comes naturally. My father (7) was big on that and then some, but my stepfather is a politician in Jamaica – and one of Jamaica's leading criminal defence lawyers – so I've been exposed to different ways of thinking. He's defended all kinds. He was Jim Brown's lawyer – a notorious Jamaican gangster. Many of the top gangsters! Nas is interested in this stuff. It makes great subject material.
You're one of the handful of people on the planet who knows what it's like to be in a band with Mick Jagger (8). What's that like?
Erm … that was a great learning experience for me. To be in a band with Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, AR Rahman was a great opportunity.Mick Jagger was working with Peter Tosh (9) in Jamaica in 1978, but I'd never met him before. In Jamaica maybe some of the younger people wouldn't know what he looks like, but they know his name. He's Mick Jagger!
That name is already a brand by itself. But when you're in a studio with him you don't feel like you're with Mick Jagger the brand. It's very human-to-human. He was calm and receptive to me, he didn't make me feel like I was being overwhelmed. He liked my hair but he's used to this kind of stuff. I noticed that for his age he's very energetic and fit, more hair than most. He was jumping around in the studio to the songs.
You've always been known as Jr Gong, after Bob Marley who was Tuff Gong, so why have people suddenly started calling you Gong Zilla?
Yeeeah! An engineer who was working on Distant Relatives gave me that name. I walked into the studio one day and he just went "Gong Zilla!". It's kinda catchy, after Godzilla, who was a big lizard!] (10)
Have you seen the film Marley?
Yeah. I think it was kind of cool. Put together well. It wasn't that weird watching it because there's two dozen books, hundreds of songs! But when you look at a man's life there's so many facets and it's so hard to sum it up in an hour and a half. So it's not the full thing. I liked seeing the original footage that everyone has been poring over for years. That was nice. One or two stories I hadn't heard before – places my Dad had been that I didn't know about.
It must be wonderful to have such a vast record of your father's life – the back catalogue, the books, and now that film …
Yeah, but for me it's bittersweet, because most people get to grow up knowing their parents and I didn't. When he passed away I was very young (11). So for me yeah, OK, I get the chance to see him moving around. The way he ran, and so on. I see a lot of my brothers and myself in him. Physical things, and we operate the way he would have operated.
Does it bother you more as you get older than you never knew him?
I wouldn't say it bothers me, but it's something that I'm more aware of as I get in older and understand more about life. I've got a son now who's about the same age I was when my father passed, so that brings you to that way of thinking. He's called Elijah, and is already playing drums.
Is he Junior Junior Gong?
I guess! Mini Gong.
How old were you when you first smoked ganja? (12)
Whoah. In terms of really smoking probably 13 or 14. It wasn't often. We had to hide it from our parents and things, but every now and then on a weekend I'd get together with friends and someone would smuggle in a pinch of herb from somewhere. We'd spend an hour trying to roll it because we couldn't roll a joint at the time. The first time I giggled the whole night and ate down the whole kitchen. People say it makes music sound different, but in all my years of making music I've been smoking, so I don't know what songs sound like without smoking!
You call yourself a spiritual revolutionary. What does that mean?
A revolution is to bring on change and we're spiritual people trying to bring on spiritual change. It might sound like I'm a dreamer, but economic models have reached their height of evolution. Technology has evolved. What hasn't evolved is mankind's spirituality; everything is from 3,000 years ago. With spirituality comes morals, a better way of thinking.
In Jamaica, the way rasta became popular spread a message of love and one love. But it's a work in progress. I think after a time there won't be anything left to be interesting for mankind. Computers are about to do everything for us. Cellphones are smarter than we are. We'll embrace spirituality because we'll be bored of everything else.
Do you have a favourite Bob Marley song?
No. My favourite one is the one I haven't heard in a long time, and when I listen to it my favourite will become the next one that I haven't heard in a long time.
Damian Marley headlines the Respect Jamaica 50th concert at the O2, London on 26 and 27 July.
SOURCE: The Guardian