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Studio Sessions | Bonzai Caruso helped Damian Marley make magic with Nas, Bobby Brown, and more

James “Bonzai” Caruso was the engineer behind the boards when Damian Marley made the timeless ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ album and its title track, the singer’s collaborative album with Nas called ‘Distant Relatives,’ and more.

Bonzai Caruso, Damian Marley’s engineer

For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

James “Bonzai” Caruso was the engineer behind the boards when Damian Marley made the timeless Welcome to Jamrock album and its title track, the singer’s collaborative album with Nas called Distant Relatives, and more.

“It was great, it was magic. [Nas and Damian Marley] had done one track on the Welcome to Jamrock record called ‘Road to Zion’ he’s on. That was prior to the Distant Relatives thing and the energy was there. It’s really a body of work that tells the story,” Bonzai tells REVOLT.

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the Grammy award-winning engineer discusses the making of Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” how a collab with Bobby Brown happened, and working with Diddy in the 1990s. Read below.

You worked on Faith Evans’ debut project. How were those sessions like?

Oh, those were great sessions. At the time, I was doing some work with Puffy and that’s how it all came to be with Mary J [Blige], and Puffy, and Missy, and then the whole crew for, in fact, three New York City days. And yes, it was amazing. What a talent! What a voice!

What was the creative process like working with Faith?

I was just working out in the studio working out the song structures, the harmonies, the vocal arrangements, all the vocal parts, going over them as a team together and working them out with the song, and then just recording just all night, her ideas and harmonies, and vocal arrangements.

How involved was Puffy in those recordings?

He was the executive producer and producer, and oversaw everything. He was there. But, he basically let her do her thing, and not only her, but other artists as well. It’s just overseeing and letting them have creative license to just come up, and do what they do best, and give them free rein to let them have the time in the studio to work...

What was different about those sessions in the ‘90s?

Oh my gosh, on so many levels, so much has changed and evolved. Back in those days, dealing with analog tape and analog equipment, and having X amount of tracks to record on, and that’s it. Your two-inch tape machine, your 24-track machine. We had our limitations, but at the same time, it was good because you really spent time focusing on each part of each song to make sure they were good enough to occupy that space on the tape. So, it was the way the arrangements came together and stuff. They were connected in that way.

What was your involvement in making “Welcome to Jamrock”? What was Marley’s insight when it came to putting the lyrics together?

My involvement was right from the beginning recording it with him and laying down the programming that he had done, a lot of editing time, making things fit and work properly together, and the simplicity of that track, the power, the impact of that track. Just maintaining that integrity.

Were you there recording with him when he made it?

We were working on the whole album for, I don’t know, over a year, a year and a half probably, maybe more. We worked on a lot of different tracks. We’d revisit stuff like track a vocal or track an idea, and then revisit it a day or two later...and either edit it or redo it or add something to [it].

So, it just wasn’t one session for that song?

Oh no, many sessions for every song.

How would you describe the inside of Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica and what is it like compared to an American studio?

The difference? The vibe (laughs). The vibe and energy, man. It’s in the walls, it’s in the floors, it’s in the ceiling, it’s in the equipment, it’s in the room, it’s in the air. The creative juices that flow in there, it just welcomes creativity.

How did that Marley and Bobby Brown collaboration “Beautiful” happen?

Yeah, I know it’s an interesting story going on here too because Bobby came down. We pulled up that track and we all listened to it a few times, and Bobby was like, “I got to throw my voice in that. I got to remix that track. I love that track.” And Stephen [Marley] just reeled off the top the head and came up with the lyric, and the melody like, “Sing it like this. Beautiful, here we go.” And boom, that was it (laughs). He got the mic and turned it up.

What are some of your creative inputs on the Welcome To Jamrock album?

All those delays and reverbs that you’re hearing... I’m a musician, as well. I’m a producer, as well, and I’ve been playing music my whole life. So, it’s often understanding of timing, of tone, of balance, where things are applicable.

Has there been a problem getting equipment into Jamaica?

Yeah, a couple of technical issues, nothing that couldn’t be worked through. Maybe a little extra day needed here and there, of course, to make things connect properly and work because there are little snags and hang-ups. Obviously, it’s quite different there. But overall, not really much.

What does he need in the studio to make his best music?

The most important thing to have is the vibe. Every song is different, so, every approach is different. So, it’s really about setting up that vibe and maintaining, and keeping an eye, and then moving on to the next track, which could be a completely different vibe.

When did you know that you were recording him and Nas for Distant Relatives? What was that first session like?

It was great, it was magic. We had done one track on the Welcome to Jamrock record called “Road to Zion” he’s on. That was prior to the Distant Relatives thing and the energy was there. It’s really a body of work that tells the story.

How long did it take you guys to record?

It’s quite a bit. On that particular album, I came in mostly once everything was pretty much recorded or not completely not 100 percent. But, I came in towards the mix the final editing, the final prep for mixing, and then all the final mixes. So, I know that even during that mixing process and editing process, there were heaps of hours together just working things out...

Are there any memories you have of Marley outside of the studio?

We got to take breaks, of course. I remember travel days when we’re just traveling on planes from city to city with equipment and whatever. I can remember a couple of really scary flights that were going through like hurricanes, thunderstorms, and I’m freaking out.

When did you know he was making his Stony Hill LP a double album?

At first, I was under the impression it was just either your typical 10-12 song album LP. As time went on, it suddenly became a double album. It just kept snowballing and becoming this thing as he was putting it together with all his tracks that he had...

Are there any loose unreleased tracks from the Distant Relatives and Welcome to Jamrock sessions?

There might be (laughs). I’m sure there’s an arsenal of ideas. Every project is different. So, if you set out, you are going to do a five-song EP, or you set out like I’m going to do [with] a 10-12 track long album.

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