The members of Morgan Heritage couldn’t have chosen a more fitting title for their latest album. Taken from one of the album’s songs, “Mission in Progress” couldn’t better encapsulate where the famed sibling group is at the moment: in transition.
Mission in Progress captures the band as it tries to bottle the power of its live stage performance on disc; as it tries to fuse its older and younger audiences with an album that appeals to both; as it infuses its songs with a heavier dose of hip-hop; and it continues to bolster love for reggae music through romantic, street-wise and conscious songs built on slabs of spirituality. If anything, the groups seemed to have many missions in progress.
Produced by Morgan Heritage (with a few songs helmed by Shane Brown and longtime friend and supporter Bobby Digital), Mission in Progress is, more than any of the band’s previous discs, the realization of its “rockaz” concept: reggae music with an edge. It arrives after the band’s second stint on the Vans Warped Tour, the most consistently successful festival in the States over the past 10 years, and a haven for harder-edge bands, especially punk acts.
The give-and-take, tension-and-release moments the band has experienced on the Warped Tour comes across on Mission in Progress: the band made sure of it, replicating tricks they use onstage, like doubling a horn line with an electric guitar-thus giving a particular track a beefier sound. “I think this record is the most aggressive one that we’ve ever done,” says vocalist/keyboardist Una Morgan. “A lot of our inner feelings are on this record, on songs such as ‘The Fight,’ and ’12 Shots.’”
“What we have worked on for the past three albums is to mainly bring the stage to record,” adds vocalist Peter “Jahpetes” Morgan. “A lot of people come to our shows and they’re like, ‘Wow, you sound so much better than your record, it’s unbelievable.’ And we’re like, ‘Wow, what is this difference that they’re noticing that’s not on the record?’ They say they love the records, but when they come to the concerts, they fall in love with the group all over again.
“A lot of those punk bands we’ve toured with on the Warped tour,” he continues, “when you put their record on, it’s the same energy that you get. We generate such a vibration at our concerts that it’s unreal, so we’ve learned that you can get that on record.”
But the record isn’t only aggressive. It veers from the hard-hitting and gritty to the straight-up romantic on songs like “Love You Right.” Says Una, “I love that song, it’s just a song between a man and a woman, and it just talks about how I’m loving what you did to me.”
“Mr. Francois” is a testimonial from vocalist/percussionist Memmalatel “Mr. Mojo” Morgan, whose MC skills take on a bigger presence than ever before on Mission in Progress. The impassioned track remembers a regrettable marijuana bust in Europe that left the band and a member of its crew in hot water. Says Peter, “He felt so guilty, and wrote this song that blew us all away, and even brought tears to our eyes, because of how true the song is. That’s why we call our music ‘life music,’ it’s not just gimmicks and ‘sex you up.’ We write love songs and different types of music, but the majority of the time we try and make our music relate to anyone.”
If keyboardist/vocalist Roy “Gramps” Morgan revealed a powerful, inner cry side to his rich, deep voice on Buju Banton’s “23rd Psalm,” he does the same on the Mission in Progress track “Don’t Make Me.” Meanwhile, the title track sums up where the band is at the moment, says Peter: “We know there’s a higher mission in progress,” he says. “There’s a mission in progress. What’s the mission? Jah mission, led by the most high. We know there is a god, and there is a purpose to life, and we know your riches are stored in Zion.”
Elsewhere, the disc features reimagined, renamed covers of songs by Steel Pulse (“Blues Dance Raid”) and Jimmy Cliff (“You Can Get It If You Really Want”). “It’s a motivational song, an inspirational song that says that once you believe in anything, you can do it if you really want it,” Una says of the latter. “It’s one of my favorites because it’s a driving force behind what Morgan Heritage has evolved into right now.”
Comprised of five offspring of reggae veteran Denroy Morgan, Morgan Heritage is comprised of vocalist/keyboardist Una, vocalist Peter (“Jahpetes”), keyboardist/vocalist Roy (“Gramps”), rhythm guitarist Nakhamyah (“Lukes”) and vocalist/MC/percussionist Memmalatel (“Mr. Mojo”).
Born in Brooklyn’s tough Bushwick neighborhood, the band’s five members were raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, and spent their summer vacations back in New York’s hippest outer borough, where they returned after high school. “Brooklyn and Jamaica,” the first single from Mission in Progress, is the first song to represent both the old neighborhood and their home for the past 11 years: Jamaica.
“We’ve never written a song about where we come from and what we know about what we come from. Finally, it’s time to write a song about where we come from,” says Peter, who sings on the track “We don’t know nothing about Beverly Hills/We don’t know about working for the system/We don’t know about life on Miami Beach/But we can tell you about the streets/Just ask me about Brooklyn.”
The brothers and sisters came together for the first time professionally in 1982, when they recorded their first songs. “When people first heard the combination of Una, Peter and Gramps’ vocals, how they blended together, it was like magic,” says Mr. Mojo. “Everybody in our dad’s band was blown away that these guys could sound so good at such an early age.”
The band signed to MCA Records in 1992 (following a much-talked about performance at Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash festival), issuing its debut album, Miracles, in 1994, triggering one of the most impressive streaks in modern-day reggae since. In a dozen years, the band has racked up several hits in Jamaica and abroad, thanks in part to collaborations with such lauded Jamaican producers as Lloyd “King Jammy” James and Bobby Digital.
Through such singles as “Let’s Make Up,” “Don’t Haffi Dread,” “Down by the River” and “What We Need Is Love,” as well as such discs as 2001’s More Teachings and 2005’s Full Circle (both of which enjoyed extended stays in the Top 10 on Billboard’s reggae albums chart), the band has emerged as a bridge between reggae’s rich history and its promising future.
Raised with intensive vocal and instrumental training, the Morgan children were exposed to everything from the godfathers of roots reggae to top 40 American radio: everything from Duran Duran and Tears for Fear to Metallica and Van Halen.
“Morgan Heritage is a roots-reggae band,” says Gramps. “There’s a lot of rock and roll influence, but also a lot of R&B influence, and a lot of gospel influence. Vocally, it’s more like an R&B influence: James Ingram, Sam Cooke, Charlie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, New Edition, Sade, whatever was Top 40 in the ‘80s. That whole pack, that whole bundle is in Morgan Heritage.”
“The main point in Mission in Progress,” says Gramps, “is that we’re on a musical mission, trying to take reggae to the next level, and put our stamp, and mark our history in reggae. Yeah, a lot of reggae bands have been here, and have come and gone. And there’s a lot coming, a lot here: There’s reggae bands from all over the world. You got German reggae bands, Italian reggae bands, Canadian reggae bands, Brazilian reggae bands. So what does Morgan Heritage bring to the table? We bring reggae music that rocks.”
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