Song: "Judge Not"
Album: Judge Not (single)
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For a handful of artists, the mere mention of their name instantly brings to mind a certain era, genre, or other cultural significance. Due to their massive impact in one of these areas, it is often difficult to separate the artist from the incident or sound, and while this proves that they had a large impact on society, it can also cause people to miss other parts of their career. Strangely enough, there are few artists who this effects more than the one and only Bob Marley. Often tied exclusively to the reggae sound, as well as having an unnecessary tie to stoners across the globe, many people fail to see that not only was Marley one of the greatest lyricists in history, but there is far more to his recorded catalog than his reggae hits. Truth be told, before forming The Wailers, Marley made his name with a string of ska/dub songs released only in his home country of Jamaica. These songs give a fantastic view into the diverse sound which Bob Marley was capable of creating, as well as showing that his lyrical prowess was present from the start. In many ways reflecting one of his greatest lines, "...if you know your history, then you will know where you're coming from," to properly appreciate the amazing body of work that Bob Marley left behind, one must experience the stunning moment that is his very first single, 1962's classic, "Judge Not."
After quitting school and moving, Bob Marley secured an audition with local music entrepreneur, Leslie Kong, and Kong was so immediately impressive with Marley's sound, that he instantly got him into the studio to record a single. Though Kong was also producing records for Marley's friend, Desmond Dekker, this did not help him to earn the audition, though Dekker was perhaps Marley's biggest source of encouragement at the time. Recorded at the legendary Federal Studios, and released on Beverley Records, the song shows that, even at this early stage, Marley was already a fantastic lyricist, and the music behind him is pure ska bliss. Though it has never been confirmed, popular belief is that the backing musicians on "Judge Not" are, in fact, players that would form The Skatalites a few years later. This is solidified by the fact that the sound very closely matches their later recordings, and the fact that the band members were known to have been connected with Kong even at this early stage. Regardless of who it is playing, the mood of the song is absolutely amazing, as the signature ska sound comes through clearly in both the guitar and the horn playing. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the music is the constant flute progression, and this is in many ways what gives the song a lighter, bouncier feel. It is in many ways the fantastic juxtaposition between the upbeat music and the powerful lyrics that make this song such a classic, and also make it understandable why Leslie Kong was so impressed by the sound of the teenaged Bob Marley.
Even though "Judge Not" was released years before Marley would gain great fame, one can instantly recognize his voice, as it did not change much over the course of his career. His distinctive and pure voice were always one of the keys to his powerful lyrics, and on this song, the trend begins. Based around the biblical quotation of "judge not lest ye be judged," the lyrics here rank among Marley's finest, and they also give a peek into the stylistic approach that dominated much of his career. One of the keys to the lyrics of Bob Marley is that he never placed himself "above" his listener, and is always as quick to indict himself as quickly as any of those around him. This ability to keep a "level playing field" is one of the reasons that his songs have had such amazing impact, and why his lyrics continue to carry weight over the decades. In many ways, "Judge Not" is as much of a youth rallying cry as has ever been recorded, as Marley opens with the lines, "...don't you look at me so smug, and say I'm going bad..." As a notorious, early "rude boy," Marley certainly received his fair share of being looked down upon, and many see this as a clear reference to that reality. However, it is the line, "...so while you talk about me, someone else is judging you..." that gives an early look into Marley's amazing talent for penning simple, yet amazingly powerful lyrics. The combination of the voice and brilliant lyrics of Bob Marley are what makes him such an iconic artist, and it is stunning to hear that he had this ability literally from the beginning of his career.
Few artists in history have had as wide-ranging and long lasting an impact as the songs and spirit of Robert Nesta Marley. Also representing one of the many artists that were taken from the world far too soon, Marley's recorded catalog continues to be cherished by generation after generation. Unfortunately, Marley's music has become somewhat improperly associated with potheads over the decades, and this has surely prevented many people from being able to fully understand and appreciate his music. Though he is most well known for his countless reggae classics, one cannot overlook that he was without question one of the finest lyricists ever, and in this vein, he was also one of the greatest writers of protest songs that he world has ever heard. However, when one looks back to his beginnings, Bob Marley was a ska and dub musician, and sonically, his early songs are quite a contrast to the sounds for which he is most well known. His early singles, produced by Leslie Kong, brought him little success, and they were rarely heard outside of Jamaica until after he had established himself as an international icon. Even then, it was not until the 1989 compilation Scandal SKA that the song was readily available. It would later be released on the indispensable Bob Marley box set, Songs Of Freedom, and original copies of the 7" remain one of the most highly sought items for collectors. Regardless, one cannot deny the power behind the song, as well as the amazing early insight that is provided from Bob Marley's first ever single, 1962's "Judge Not."