By Lee Zimmerman
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What the Jackson Five did for Motown, what the Osmonds did for... well, whatever kind of music that is, Morgan Heritage has done for reggae. The family conglomerate's distinctive, grassroots style is crammed with calming, melodious rhythms and conscious lyrics. Echoes of late reggae vocalist Garnett Silk or one of Marley's musical sons can be heard throughout the group's songs.
As they approach the end of their U.S. tour, the band members are physically exhausted but mentally alive. "Some nights have been outrageous, and our energy's been totally zapped from the positive reception we've received," says vocalist/keyboardist Roy "Gramps" Morgan. "But we've kept on going, as the fans deserve the best from us each time."
The others in this Rastafarian quintet hailing from Springfield, Massachusetts, are Peter Morgan (lead vocals/keyboards), Nakamyah "Lukes" Morgan (rhythm guitar/vocals), Memmalatel "Mr. Mojo" Morgan (percussionist/vocals), and sister Uno Morgan (background vocals). With a few hours to go before their next performance, they're chilling in the California sunshine, leaving Gramps to conduct the telephone interview.
Previously an octet, the reduced assembly is a small representation of 29 siblings, all fathered by reggae veteran Denroy Morgan. Aiming to keep the tranquility among such an outsized family, their philosophy for dealing with the laws of physics that can prevent perfect harmony has been drummed into them since they were youngsters.
"We have a rule that we've been raised on," offers Gramps: "'Don't let the sun set and you haven't discussed it.' This is what allows us to express ourselves and to keep the peace." No sissies when it comes to touring, the members of Morgan Heritage have been on the road repeatedly since the group's 1991 inception. Making history, they were the first and only reggae band to be included on the punk-fueled summer excursion the Warped Tour two years in a row.
"It was amazing to be on tour with all these energetic, spiky-haired, tattooed punk-rock bands, performing in front of over 5,000 people each time," Gramps says. "A lot of the kids in the audience were like, 'Whoa, what kind of music is that?' So I asked them what they thought it was, and they answered, 'Acid punk or something?' I told them, 'Nah, man, this is reggae music!'
"We performed in places that had corn and wheat for miles around," he laughs. "Places where reggae music hadn't reached yet, like Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, Utah -- mainly because there was no audience for reggae music there. It was very enlightening."
As a result of the Warped Tour, their current solo trek brought back many of the same faces they saw before. "This proves that our music can reach out to anybody," Gramps continues. "It's about the message of Jah and the upliftment and love. Basically, there are no barriers when it comes to understanding that message."
Coincidentally, one of the tracks featured on their new album, Three in One, contains a hybrid remix with Good Charlotte, one of the groups from the tour. Called "Jump Up," the track is shot through with rock guitar riffs that rip, nip, and tug at the melody.
"We became friends with several bands on the tour, including guys from Rancid, Bad Religion, Good Charlotte, and New Found Glory. They became fans of ours and vice versa," Gramps explains. "We realized that as artists, there's always room for growth."
"Over the years, we've really expanded musically," Gramps says. "You'll notice more diverse styles coming from us, little twists and shifts in the music that'll make you stand up and take notice. We wanted to bring out some of the scope that has inspired us."
Their main growth spurt came in 1995 when the young group hooked up with popular Jamaican reggae producers Bobby "Digital" Dixon and King Jammys. Before that, all their music was self-produced in New York City. "We allowed ourselves to be fed, to be produced, and to see what other people had to offer us," Gramps summarizes. "Knowledge is power, and we gained so much knowledge and experience after doing this; it was a wise decision."
Now armed with their sixth studio album, released at the end of April through VP Records, the family describes Three in One as its most creatively evolved work. "The first album that we recorded for Bobby Digital, Protect Us Jah(1997), contained rhythms that were presented to us which we wrote songs to go with," Gramps explains. "The next two albums, Don't Haffi Dread, and More Teachings, were a mixture of songs first, our own rhythms next, and other rhythms given to us. But this album was built from the ground up, creating the songs first, then the rhythms. As a result, the album is 100 percent original material produced by both Bobby Digital and ourselves."
At last comfortable, Morgan Heritage easily exists within the patchwork of influences lifted from here and there, stitched together to create a harmonious whole. For this, Gramps gives thanks and praise.
"Our message is that life is a miracle and a gift from God. What we do with our lives is our gift in return."
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