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Marlon Orlando's Rockwood

BrownxRISD

Marlon Orlando's Rockwood

Graham Straus

Album art courtesy of Marlon Orlando

Review by Graham Straus

Marlon Orlando’s summer release, Rockwood, begins with a quiet piano line that twinkles up and down the scale - like sound-water streaming out of a technicolor faucet. He hooks you in and then lays down a timeless love long,Satisfaction,” sung soulfully and forcefully. An 808 – and it actually sounds like the Roland TR-808 drum machine – drives the song forward with snaps, claps, and kicks. Shakers and synths build out the sound with groovy 2/4 hits and seamless transitions. On top of this foundation is Orlando’s resonant tenor which is the centerpiece of the song, and the whole EP.

Rockwood is a self-produced and recorded four song, twelve-and-a-half-minute experience that starts with a love story told by Orlando and Brown student Belu Olisa. The second song is
”M.A.A.D,” a nod to a guy from Compton who you probably wouldn’t know. “M.A.A.D” changes the energy from pretty love song to an inspired and introspective rage. This bleeds into the third song, “No Mo,” which uses the hi hat pattern from KOD as a subtle nod at yet another influencer, J. Cole. “No Mo” is the song future music executives will point to when they say things like “Orlando has always had a star quality about him. Back in 2018....”

“No Mo” is beautiful in the same way as a clear wristwatch – you can see the gears behind the machine. It’s a thin drum part, a light bass line, strong wordplay, and deep humming done close to the microphone with gain added to thicken the track while preserving its intimacy. “Keep Up” is the final song on the EP, made with repeat collaborator Ben Ryan. The bass line on “Keep Up” features straight eighth notes which are an instrumental representation of Orlando’s signature intensity that is somehow riled up and chilled out at the same time. It’s stately confidence and chivalrous humility.

Let’s back up. Marlon Orlando is a musician who moved from Kingston, Jamaica to Glastonbury, Connecticut when he was ten years old. He eventually went to Glastonbury High School where he became really interested in soccer and continued with soccer at Springfield College in Massachusetts. It’s a D3 program with a well-regarded coach who has a FIFA coaching license and European connections. The coach pulled a vicious bait and switch on Marlon, promising him playing time and giving him very little. Marlon was told one summer that he had to earn more playing time by working on his cross, agility, and defense. He focused on these three things per the coach’s request, but when he came back to school, the coach ignored the results of his practice. Marlon began playing around with the campus chapel’s ornate piano to cope with the stress from soccer. He would play it at night, just for himself, learning his favorite tunes like Chance’s “Sunday Candy” by ear. One thing led to another and Marlon had quit soccer, written a song, and performed a show at Springfield College.

Fast forward a few months and Marlon has been working on music with his friend Jaden. Jaden graduates and Marlon decides school isn’t worth it, he’s dropping out to pursue music. People tell him it’s a bad idea; he persists. He releases a steady stream of music on Soundcloud, and then this past April an EP called Fake Trill comes out. He visits Springfield and has “college friends, or acquaintances, who come up and say condescending things like ‘Hey I heard your little EP.’”

 His mom moves to Florida and he has to figure out where to live next. He was seeing a JWU student at the time, so Providence made sense.

Rockwood wasn’t made in Providence, though. Rockwood says screw you to the naysayers, and it says it loudly. Maybe it’s easier to say that when you’re not writing at home. Marlon, Jaden, and Lucas piled into Lucas’s camper van (the Ford van has “ROCKWOOD” in bold face on the hood, hence the name of the EP) and set out for South Dakota. “There was a national park there” and it seemed interesting. They made it to Western Pennsylvania and found a nice place near Pittsburgh to set up, South Dakota didn’t happen. “The days started to blur together” between songwriting and recording and hanging out. To get a sense of where it was made, look at the album cover. And while you’re there, stay a while, and take in the downright sexy photo of Marlon Orlando sitting on the hood of the van with the MIDI to his right and a speaker cabinet propped up on his left shoulder.

 Marlon went to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play, it was his first major league ballgame, and afterwards he and Jaden “rolled up on a group of kids, all dreadheads, so we did our spiel.” When Marlon says spiel he means the well-rehearsed pitch where he walks up to a stranger, says “Hi, can I rap for you,” and then he blows them away, they follow him on IG, they fall in love with his music, you get the story. Marlon has found that people have so many assumptions when he says “I’m a rapper” with no context. It’s much more effective to rap for them so they actually see and hear what he’s capable of. “It’s been surprising how receptive people are to it, especially young people.” For instance, after Marlon rapped for the group of kids outside the Pirates game they confided in him and Jaden by explaining their own musical ambition. 

Marlon used to walk three miles to and from work (the Whole Foods on Main Street). Brown’s campus was the 1/3 marker on the walk home, so sometimes he’d stop for water in the campus center, stretch his legs, that kind of thing. One night he walks in and hears “incredible music coming from the end of the hall. 

I bet that you’ve had the same experience, serendipitously hearing live music. Many of you have probably had the same thing happen in Faunce. It’s Wednesday night, you walk in there and see a CS student downing his 4th caffeinated beverage of the night, everything’s fluorescent and miserable, and then ~~aaaahhhhh~~ what’s that? It’s jazz. The Brown University Cats have assembled for another week of jams.

So Marlon hears the jazz coming from the Underground and goes over to check it out. He sees his friend from Block Island, Brown student Thea Monje, and she tells him to get up there, to try out some of his stuff. He takes over on keys and plays a few chords, something small he’s been working on. The other players – drums, bass, trumpet and sax – immediately pick up on what he’s playing and they “riff all over it,” knowing exactly how to fill the space.

Marlon went to three jazz jams last year, and they ended up playing a part in Rockwood. He said that the jazz jams “helped with confidence.” This is huge for a musician getting his feet on the ground. He said that before the jazz jams “I didn’t know if people were going to give a shit about what I was doing.” And he still doesn’t know that, you can never know that, but at the jazz jams people gave a shit. Strangers were voluntarily listening to HIS MUSIC. Confidence.

Marlon was listening to an interview with Cozz, who said that J. Cole would assign him writing exercises during their recording process. One exercise was to pick an artist and write a verse in that artist’s style. Marlon decided to do this with Logic’s album Bobby Tarantino II, specifically the song “Warm It Up” featuring Young Sinatra. So Marlon wrote the first verse of “Keep Up” in the style of Young Sinatra. Even before Orlando had written that verse, he sent the instrumental to his friend Ben Ryan who sent Marlon a hook. Marlon heard the hook and knew immediately that “Keep Up” would be the single. However, the hook that Ben sent was only coming out of the right ear so Marlon had to double Ben’s file and pan it to the left ear in the final mix. Better keep up.

When interviewing Marlon, I was impressed with the number of people he listed as influencing his work – J. Cole, Kendrick, Logic, and Chance. But he did a lot more than just mention their names to me, he built these artists’ ideas into his own EP. If you listen to Rockwood in 10 years, you’ll still know what Marlon was listening to when he made the thing. That’s impressive to me.  There must be a cohort of diehard iconoclasts who disagree with me, they think it’s totally unoriginal to use the hi hat pattern from KOD in “No Mo,” and it’s unfair to produce a song called “M.A.A.D” in a style similar to Kendrick’s. That’s bullshit. Studying the greats and emulating them is good practice and takes artwork to the next level; if everything is supposed to be “totally original,” it’s going to end up as unsophisticated juvenilia before it’s actually groundbreaking.

Marlon has played at Dusk and at the Met in Providence, but wants to play out this year as much as possible. He and Jaden called a bunch of schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and a few in New York. Certain colleges were receptive but they’ve had more success calling Greek organizations and saying something along the lines of “Hey, next time you have a social, consider having us play it.” One of Marlon’s friends in North Carolina might invite them down to play UNC this year. Marlon tries to avoid rapping over mp3s when he can, and luckily Jaden has experience as a DJ. Lucas has been encouraging the two of them to devote serious time to rehearsing the live set, but for the past few months the focus has been on putting out high quality music on Spotify and Apple Music, which are more professional platforms than Soundcloud. Marlon said that for live performances he likes to put the hook at “about 50-60% volume” and then he puts the verses at “10-20% volume” so he can take a breath without deadening the song.

If you like Moana, the heart of Te Fiti comes up on Rockwood. If you like Batman, the joker comes up on Rockwood. If you like the concept of Pandora’s Box it becomes Orlando’s Box on Rockwood. If you just like a good rhyme or two, Rockwood’s got that for you. Check it out.