Thanks to the hard work of his son Stephen, Bob Marley gets the Natalie Cole treatment in Chant Down Babylon, a collection of classic Marley protest songs remade into hip-hop duets. The album can be formulaic at times, but overall Chant Down Babylon makes for an interesting hip-hop-reggae fusion that should appeal to Marley and rap fans alike.
Perhaps the best thing going for Chant Down Babylon is its choice of artists for inclusion. Foregoing most of the current big names in the game, Chant Down Babylon primarily offers Marley interpretations by hip-hop's elder statesmen (Rakim, Guru, Chuck D, Busta) and the heirs to the Native Tongues (The Roots, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill, Bob's daughter-in-law). I shudder to think how this could have turned out in the hands of Limp Bizkit, Jay Z, Will Smith, or Puff Daddy (Is this Puff, is this Puff, is this Puff, is this Puff dat I'm feelin'?) Chant Down Babylon also scores with its choice of Marley songs for interpretation. Other than MC Lyte's "Jammin'" and Stephen Tyler's "Roots, Rock, Reggae" (more on this later), the album mostly foregos Bob's more well-known cuts for gems of social protest that dovetail nicely with the hip-hop aesthetic: "Johnny Was," "Burnin' and Lootin'", and "Concrete Jungle," for example.
The biggest problem with the CD is its formulaic approach to most of these remakes. Virtually every song on the album follows the same pattern:
a) spoken Marley sample, usually from "Talkin' Blues"
b) Marley song, with hip-hop beat accentuated, for 1-2 verses
c) Rapper takes the third verse, to the accentuated hip-hop beat
d) Fade out, rapper gives a shout-out to Marley (and in Guru's case, to Biggie and Pac)
The best songs on the album are the ones that sidestep this formulaic approach as best they can to achieve a more perfect synthesis of Bob and the given artist's particular stylo. Lauryn Hill delivers a soulful, sultry "Turn Your Lights Down Low" in the cut that most approximates a standard duet. Mr. Busta Rhymes falls back into the Jamaican flare of Tribe's "Scenario" to give big ups to his spiritual mentor (and deserves bonus points for being faithful to Hassie Selassie and the Rastafari all the while). The Roots' version of "Burnin' and Lootin'" also manages to successfully meld the rhythms of Kingston and Illadelphia into a cohesive whole. Finally, Chuck D's take on "Survival a.k.a Black Survivors" perfectly blends the subtle anger and protest ethos of both men. With the archetypical P.E. siren sound flaring between each of Marley's phrases, you can hear the Terrordome ready to burst from the seams of Trenchtown.
That being said, there are some misses. MC Lyte gets the Will Smith Award For Jacking The Hook of a Classic Song And Adding Absolutely Nothing Of Interest To It with her take on "Jammin'". And the Stephen Tyler/Joe Perry version of "Roots, Rock, Reggae"...hoo, boy. I'll go ahead and incur the wrath and "Not Usefuls" of Bostonians everywhere by admitting that I would have been perfectly happy if Run DMC had never resurrected these fools from rehab back in the early '80s. That being said, Joe Perry does a decent job of creating a guitar riff that fits with the tune. The problem, unsurprisingly, is Tyler. He's either screeching over Marley or, worse still, jabbering "reggaedothereggaedothereggaedothereggae" in a monotonous scat worthy of Cornholio.
All in all, though, this album is an interesting contemporary take on some of Marley's classic tunes. Like Dreams of Freedom, the ambient dub Marley tribute album that came out in 1997, Chant Down Babylon should appeal to both budding rastafari and fans of the genre in question.