Sunday, October 02, 2005

Reggae scion Damian Marley builds buzz for big Reggae Hit!

By Todd Martens Fri Sep 30, 6:37 PM ET

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley took the U.S. pop charts by storm earlier this month, when "Welcome to Jamrock" bowed at No. 7 on Billboard 200, the highest debut for a reggae release since Nielsen SoundScan starting collating data in 1991.

Marley already has a Grammy Award for best reggae album for his 2003 effort, "Halfway Tree," on Universal's Motown Records. Yet the album failed to produce a radio hit, and has sold only 92,000 copies in the States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

After "Halfway Tree," Motown dropped Marley from its roster. But his Universal status changed with the title track to "Welcome to Jamrock." Christy Barber, president of Kingston, Jamaica-based Tuff Gong -- the label started by the young artist's father, Bob Marley, in 1965 -- sent the song to U.S. radio in March. After securing play on R&B/hip-hop WQHT (Hot 97) New York and placing the video on BET, Barber found that Universal was looking to rekindle its relationship with Tuff Gong and Marley.

"He was on Motown," Barber says, "and he was -- what's the nice word -- released? But he was still on the family label."

Barber says the Tuff Gong-affiliated Ghetto Youth imprint, which was founded by Marley's older brothers Ziggy and Stephen, maintained its joint venture with Motown. The labels were prepping the solo debut from Stephen, a co-producer on "Welcome to Jamrock," when Damian's song started to take off at radio.

"We had every major label in a bidding war," Barber says. "We chose Universal because we felt like we wanted to keep the family under one umbrella. Damian did feel a little reluctant, but Bob's catalog is there, and Stephen is there, and there were enough good people who cheerleaded for us, so it made sense."

It appears to have paid off, with a top 10 debut and 86,000 units sold. Marley also set a family record, besting the No. 8 high posted by his father's "Rastaman Vibration" in 1976.

Reggae artists have not been strangers to The Billboard 200 in recent years, with albums charting by Sean Paul, Shaggy, Beenie Man and Elephant Man, among others. With Paul's "The Trinity" (Atlantic) hitting store shelves September 27, retailers are counting on reggae to be a consistent seller this holiday season.

Barber began setting up Marley's third full-length release in October 2004, when Tuff Gong released a 7-inch of the single. A video was shot in December, and Barber worked the song in Jamaica before submitting it to Bobby Konders' radio show on WQHT.

"They really jumped on it," Barber says. "They're not really a key station in breaking reggae. It usually comes out of Boston or Miami."

Tuff Gong hired an independent promoter to help work the single, and soon had a clip on mtvU and BET. What followed was a three-month bidding war to sign Marley.

"I was actually getting married when I was in the middle of negotiating this," Barber says. "I wasn't even at my own rehearsal dinner. I was in the parking lot on my cell phone. On the day of my wedding, I had my cell phone off for the ceremony, but had it on during the reception."

Barber was married June 25, and the new deal with Universal was closed in early July. In November, Marley will open for U2. "They came to us," Barber says. This month Marley will be a guest on "MTV Unplugged:
Alicia Keys."

With his crossover appeal, success in the United States was not entirely a surprise. But Barber will not deny an advantage. "The Marley name always helps," she says.

Reuters/Billboard

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