Bob Marley comes across as the ultimate musical rebel, though everyone—from American frat boys to Malian army officers—loves his music. Wildly successful, Marley is an enigma: Someone who managed to put obscure local music on the world map; who turned a marginalized community (Rastafarians) into admired trendsetters; who remained a humble barefooted guy even when tooling around in a BMW; who sold a boatload of records by sticking to his guns and making his music, his way. How did he do it?
He didn’t. Marley sold out.
Before you protest, think about it. Imagine, for a second, that a major figure in a subcultural movement—Minor Threat/Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye of the U.S. hardcore punk scene, let’s say—joined forces with a mainstream hip hop producer like will.i.am, and made a really great record that stayed on the charts for eons and moved units in the gazillions. Though some die-hard fans might scream that he’d sold out, he would have transformed the musical landscape.
And that’s exactly what happened with Bob Marley.
To create the Wailers’ breakout world hit, Catch a Fire, Marley compromised. He followed the lead of a producer from outside his scene and changed his music just enough to redefine reggae (including who listened to it). He did this with seemingly perfect and unrepeatable timing, but what he did has clear relevance for global musicians today. “Selling out” smartly can mean changing the game forever—and arguably for the better.
Truth be told, Marley and his fellow Wailers had been trying to sell out for a decade or more. They wanted to make money from their art. They had scored hit after hit in Jamaica, evidence that their work with an outside producer was not the only ingredient to their success. They had landed an international record deal and toured with a major pop name at the time (the reggae-inspired crooner Johnny Nash). But they were utterly broke and increasingly bitter, as producer after producer ripped them off or disappointed them.
Enter Chris Blackwell, a White Jamaican from a very wealthy family who used his resources to found Island Records. Blackwell wanted a reggae act for the mostly rock-oriented label, as Jimmy Cliff, flush with international stardom in the wake of the film The Harder They Come, bailed on Island. Blackwell signed the Wailers on the spur of the moment, and the band soon delivered the furiously recorded Catch a Fire.
Blackwell liked what he heard. But he also heard something else for the music. Marley, determined not to get screwed yet again, joined him at Island’s London studios, sitting with Blackwell in the booth as Blackwell sliced, diced, and expanded the Wailers’ reggae tracks. (Journalist and biographer Christopher John Farley tells the story well in Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.)
What Blackwell did was instructive. He made a series of changes that were fairly subtle, but propelled the album from obscure Jamaican music into the realm of rock. And Marley approved.
Blackwell cut the number of tracks on the album to nine, which he felt made it more rock in feel. He added instrumental solos, calling on other Island artists to lay down rock guitar licks and keyboard parts. (Several of these White players were not credited on the album until reissues came decades later.)
Blackwell and Marley together fudged the framework of one genre—reggae—to make the music fit into another, more commercially viable genre, rock. They found the commonalities that would allow the Wailers’ songs to be heard as rock, without, thanks to Bob’s insistence, pushing it too far out of reggae (and Rasta) territory.
Thanks to Blackwell and Marley’s efforts, reggae became a kind of ”Black adjunct” to rock, a genre where the African diaspora could sound raw, rebellious, and raucous, without pushing racial buttons. (It is the sunny sound of Jamaica, after all, and it’s in English.) To get it there, Blackwell mixed in “White sounds,” but maintained the image of Marley and the Wailers as bold Black musicians. A complicated racial dance, to say the least.
Yet, even with all this gerrymandering of the Wailers’ music and identity, Marley won greater control of the final product, greater exposure, and greater compensation for his work than ever before. We don’t listen to Catch a Fire and think, wow, what a decent slice of 70s rock guitar playing or what a good bit of rock engineering. We think, wow, the Wailers are amazing and authentic and the epitome of reggae.
And isn’t this what happened with Ry Cooder and World Circuit’s Nick Gold on the Buena Vista Social Club?
What’s intriguing in this process for a global artist today is how musicians can pick up on fairly subtle cues in more mainstream music, and use them to break new ground. Musicians who want to take a cue from these crossover successes might think about:
- changing track length, by expanding or paring down;
- adding instrumental sections or solos where they traditionally do not feature in the music;
- playing with arrangements, by moving traditional melodies to new instruments associated with another genre;
- getting traditional instruments to play in different modes or explore different rhythms associated with another genre;
- experimenting with bilingual approaches or using indigenous forms of English within a traditional format, to get your lyrics or message across without completely abandoning the original cultural and linguistic context;
- jamming with musicians from other scenes or countries or regions, just to see what happens;
- reaching out to producers, remixers, or audio engineers whose work you like but who don’t normally tackle your music.
Marley’s “sell out” points to the potential commercial and cultural benefits of working with producers outside one’s generic comfort zone, folks with an intuitive sense of where to find the mainstream touchstones in unfamiliar music. When a relationship like this really works, the artist shines through.