Bridging the gap between reggae’s foundation and its future you’ll find Marty Dread—along with his original songs grappling with the struggles of modern times. Hawaii’s reggae ambassador has released seventeen albums during a lustrous career that spans more than two decades and multiple continents. Marty has taken the stage in Harlem at the Cotton Club. And he’s played many major festivals including Reggae on the River, Farm Aid, Reggae on the Rocks, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. He’s even played at the White House in Washington, D.C. and Moscow’s Red Square—where he inadvertently made his musical debut.
Impressed by where he’s played? That’s nothing. Marty Dread has recorded and worked with a ton of famous artists including the legendary Willie Nelson. They’re friends. Dread used to play in a band with his two sons. He’s also played with singer-songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson as well as Michael McDonald and Junior Reid. He’s of course shared the stage and studio with many reggae superstars like Ziggy Marley, Pato Banton, Toots Hibbert, Inner Circle, Mad Professor, Sly & Robbie just to name a few.
We’re insanely happy to be part of his new release; Marty Dread and Friends. The compilation features collaborations with heavy hitters like Willie Nelson of course as well as greats like Sly and Robbie, Mad Professor, Inner Circle and the Luminairies. It celebrates two of our favorite things— marijuana and marijuana—oops we mean marijuana, music and friendship. Wait what’s three things? Oh never mind.
Marty Dread and Friends is available now on our new record label—Sticky Fingers/Stuff Stoners Like Records in association with Earth Dance and Five Corners Music. The new label is the brainchild of Maui’s Will Grinnell. Along with managing Marty, Will led the careers of every reggae artist you can name—from Gaudi, Black Uhuru, Third World, Skatalites, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lee Perry and Mad Professor. He now breeds unique, high-quality strains in Hawaii including Maui Dream, Wonka Dream and soon Purple and Orange Stuff Stoners Like. Visit Sticky Fingers Seeds for more information.
We recently had a chance to chat with Marty about the new release, his killer career and what he has planned for the near future. Here’s how it went down, man…
SSL: Tell us about how you started playing live music, Marty?
Marty: When I went to Russia I realized that music was going to be my whole future. I started out as a watercolor artist chosen to go there to paint the “Maui to Moscow” mural in 1987. I was with a group called the Youth Ambassadors of America. Our mission was to get the children of the world to become friends and pen pals.
While there we walked into a gymnasium filled with 2,000 kids. The announcer came on the mike and said that these kids came all the way from America to be your friends and they want to be pen pals. No one said a word. You could have heard a pin drop in that gymnasium. They were simply not interested.
So I look around backstage. I see this acoustic guitar—missing a string mind you. I didn’t really know how to play guitar so much, just few chords and a few songs. So I grabbed the guitar. Something told me to play the Beatles, Twist and Shout so I just started rocking that tune with that guitar and went up to the microphone and started singing. By the end of that tune all the kids had come out of the bleachers and were dancing on the floor, hugging us and shaking our hands. This one song just obliterated all political barriers, language barrier and ideology. I was like, “Whoa, this will be my thing—I’ll be a musician not a painter.
SSL: No wonder they call you the Reggae Ambassador. So tell us about this latest release, Marty Dread and Friends
Marty: All those songs are collaborations either musically or production wise with people that I’ve been introduced to either via Will from Sticky Fingers seeds or via Willie Nelson. We cherry-picked this collection. But a lot of them are the bigger names of some of the collaborations I’ve done in my life. The collection celebrates meeting these people that I’ve been admiring for years and creating music with them. It’s almost like an audio documentary of how much fun I’ve had with music in my life.
SSL: The first track, Light It Up featuring Willie Nelson—element number seventy on the Periodic Table of Stuff Stoners Like—is all about marijuana. Tell us about it?
Marty: I think what’s important about the herb is the way that it has the power to change how you feel about a song. If you listen to something sober and you listen to it after you smoke some weed you just have a different listening experience. And I think it’s powerful that some of the most iconic music in the world was probably conceived, or written, or recorded or performed when people were smoking herb. I think that is a cool connection. I mean Fela Kuti smoked herb. Bob Marley smoked herb. Willie Nelson smokes herb. One of the biggest icons of music in the history of our country—some say The Godfather of the Blues and Rock—was a big weed head. I’m talking about Muddy Waters. He was a huge advocate. He smoked weed every day. These are people that changed the history of music and a lot of them were really big smokers. So I think that connection is very powerful.
SSL: Monsanto / GMO’s has become a global issue. However you were one of the first artist to call attention to their malevolent practices musically. Tell us about the track, Say No to Monsanto?
Marty: When I wrote that song Producer Will Grinnel (of Sticky Finger Seeds fame) had a long-standing working relationship with Sly and Robbie. But one of his current acts was from Amsterdam called Twilight Circus Dub. They had just gone to Jamaica and had all these fresh rhythms with Sly and Robbie. Will sent me some of them to write some songs to—this was before people in Hawaii were even talking about GMOs and Monsanto. I always knew about it because I’m an organic farmer since high school. I majored in horticulture. So this was right up my alley.
I knew that Monsanto were here and using Hawaii as their testing ground for all their GM and Terminator seeds. Hawaii is actually the biggest testing ground they have in the world because we have three growing seasons. So they can maximize their madness as I say. I just wrote the song asking them why would they choose Hawaii,—this beautiful blessed place with spiritual connotation to do that stuff. So I wrote the song about how the people have the power—that if we don’t buy the products Monsanto and others sell then they’ll go out of business. If we wake up to the fact that they’re doing this here and our power is in our pockets—if we don’t buy those products like Round Up or the other poisons that they sell—then they’ll be forced leave.
So the song was sort of a rallying call. There was a radio station here in Hawaii that just had the bravado enough to make that a top request on the radio. They spun it two or three times a day and within two days it was the number one requested song on the radio—stayed there for a good six months.
Every person I bumped into in the streets, nine out of ten at least, would ask me what are you singing about in that song—what is Monsanto? Like what is that? No one even really knew at that time but it was such a cool vehicle to raise the awareness of the genetically modified foods issue and the fact that Monsanto was and still is spraying massive amounts of chemicals right next to a school and neighborhood. Anyhow all this dialogue started happening basically because of the song. It was a major coup for me to actually get that conversation started in our community.
SSL: How did you get to know and record with the legend Willie Nelson?
Marty: It just happened super organically. I used to have a band back in the day called Culture Shock. It was my first band when I got back from Russia. We formed the band, made our first record and were playing around the island when a big hurricane struck. It was 1992 and hurricane Iniki just completely obliterated the island of Kauai.
So there was a lot of need for aid. Everyone over there lost homes, cars—jobs. It was literally like a war zone. We were promoting the record but we were also gathering money to send to our friends and families on Kauai. We did a series of concerts around the islands— a couple in Oahu, the big island, Maui. It just so happens that Willie was doing a lot of similar work. If there’s a disaster relief or a farm aid or a typhoon or something like that you know he’s always playing those shows and so am I.
Willie saw me several times during this time. One day he and Kris Kristofferson were in the audience. When I got off stage both of them approached me and the gist of what they said was that it was really refreshing to see you guys speaking to your generation about what matters right now. You’re not trying to say what someone said in the 60s—you’re not trying to educate people about apartheid, you don’t even live in South Africa—you’re literally talking about issues that are happening right here in Hawaii.
So real casually Kris said that we should do something together. I immediately offered to bring him in the studio. That’s how Kris guested on the song, Reggae Blues on our debut record “Versatile Roots”.
Several years later I saw Willie and his family having lunch in Pa’ia. I just sort of walked in and said hi and he said “hey I remember you—we should do something together someday,”probably not even serious. Anyhow this was two weeks after the Iraq war broke out—what I called Bush war 2. So I literally went home that night and wrote the song Take No Part. Two days later I told him about the song and said I’d love to have you sing on it and play guitar. And he was like, “book the session I’m there. Come pick me at my house.” So I picked him up, went to the studio and we knocked out the song. We’ve been friends ever since. I was in a band called Harmonic Tribe with his sons Lukas and Micah. I got to tour the whole country from Florida to Texas all through the south doing forty-two days or something crazy like that. We opened for Willie a couple times. But they were already on their way when I joined. When it became obvious that Lucas was the focal point I gracefully eased my way out.
SSL: What’s your favorite track on the album?
Marty: My favorite song is Laws of Nature because of the way it happened. It was so magic—so organic and so meant to be. Willie Nelson is such a prolific songwriter. He’ll just have an idea one day and scratch it on a piece of paper or something and stuff that in the corner of the room. One day he handed me this crumpled up piece of paper and he’s like; there’s a song on there, there’s no melody, no chords, just a bunch of words. So I found a piece of music for it, built a melody, wrote the whole song top to bottom and took it to him. I was scared and wondering to myself, oh man what’s he gonna think of this, this is his song that I’ve completely done a completely different number on. But he said this is fucking great, let’s go record this. Let me sing a verse, you sing a verse. I’ll play trigger” (Nelson’s famously battered guitar he’s used on many if not all of his recordings). So we just went in and it became such a special song.
The lyrics are what makes it so special to me. I love it when Nelson sings, “I get my oxygen from the air, I get my water from the rain, and if it doesn’t rain I’ll “die”. But the bridge part is like so poignant. It’s so deep when he sings; “I plant my seeds in the howling gale but the laws of nature still prevail. Look at those seeds and look at me, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree”. He’s talking about his sons becoming full blown musicians right in front of his eyes—going from little boys playing with Tonka trucks to being touring musicians in their own right. I thought how could I not feel special about this? It was such a special thing for him to entrust me with that song.
SSL: What’s on the horizon?
Marty: I just went to Jamaica and recorded some songs with Sly and Robbie. (Editor’s note: The Riddim Twins as they’re known are widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest rhythm section, have been together for over 35 years, and have played on or produced more than 200,000 recordings.) We all sat in the same room and made music together which was a lifelong dream of mine. I’m sort of making haste to get this project finished so that I can get out there and share these songs with the world. That’s my next musical endeavor and you can expect it to be done before Christmas—but you know how that goes.