As hip-hop journalist Harry Allen writes in the liner notes, "though black people in the United States would seem to be natural recipients for Bob Marley's message of peace, unity and race liberation, in his life he never reached the African-American audience the way he'd truly felt possible." Allen seems to feel that a national breakthrough, thanks to a planned tour with Stevie Wonder, was imminent. Tragically, Marley died of brain cancer before the tour was to begin. You can speculate all day long what Marley's influence would have been had he lived. As it turns out, reggae has exploded among young white kids who love the music and love the ganja, but don't have the slightest idea what "Ras Tafari" actually means.
Whether this CD helps bring about a reggae renaissance among its intended target audience remains to be seen. The line-up, including Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu and Marley's daughter-in-law, Lauryn Hill, is stellar, and even holds a few surprises. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, who contribute to "Roots, Rock, Reggae," might seem like a novelty choice a la "Walk this Way." But they pull it off, mainly because of Perry's fluid guitar work, and because Tyler's manic scatting never overpowers Marley's soulful croon. In general, though, Tyler and Perry's treatment is one of the less successful tracks because, like Erykah Badu in the opening "No More Trouble," the duo doesn't do a whole lot to make the song totally their own. That's understandable: Marley is a legend, and the idea of significantly tinkering with a legend's music is pretty intimidating. Nevertheless, Guru ("Johnny Was"), Busta Rhymes ("Rastaman Chant") and Chuck D ("Survival a.k.a. Black Survivors") and MC Lyte ("Jammin'") all manage to walk the line between interpretation and hero worship without losing their identities or smothering Marley in the process.