“Some people say it’s 200,000, but I think it’s probably going up to a million”, jests Sly Dunbar backstage at London’s Jazz Cafe. And no, he’s not talking about the sales of his latest record, his yearly earnings or the members of his fan club, but how many tracks he and his Riddim twin, Robbie Shakespeare, have played on in their incredible musical lifetime.

When I ask him to ponder which might be his favourite of the lot, the list is incredible, in both quality and quantity.  “When I was 16 years old I played on a song called ‘Double Barrel’ [by Dave and Ansel Collins], that’s one of my favourite songs. Then there’s Grace Jones’ ‘Private Life’ or Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Soul Forward’…the riddims are different, the emotions are different but I like it all”.

In fact, with a list like that, the drum and bass duo really do provide the up yours to the hypothesis that reggae all sounds the same, having worked with musicians from Serge to Sinead, Grace Jones to Gwen Guthrie…even the likes of Ian Dury and the Rolling Stones have succumbed to the might of their production. And despite being mostly at the back of the stage on their respectiveinstruments – Sly on drums and Robbie on bass – the pair have been atthe forefront of musical production in and out of Jamaica for over 30years. Last year saw them contribute to Grace Jones’ Hurricane LP and provide production for the likes of Madonna and Michael Franti.

The pair met on the Kingston nightclub circuit in the early 70s, forming a friendship from what began as an appreciation of each other’s musical prowess. In those years, Sly tells me, the duo took part in the inauguration of Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio and made up the core of its legendary house band, The Upsetters. Sly moved on to provide the backbone of the prolific Channel One studios, where he and Robbie changed the face of reggae as part The Revolutionaries – a group that lived up to its name, with Sly’s militant drumbeat and Robbie’s groove moving reggae away from rocksteady and into a new era. Their sound would become known as ‘rockers’, and in many ways paved the way for the conscious reggae that defined the 70s.

Sly also tells of how the UK defined his early career on the international scene: “I remember when I came here in 1974, I did a tour with Al Brown, Mikey Richards and Toots. The first time I played was in Hyde Park and then I came back in 1976 to do the Mighty Diamonds and U-Roy tour. That was when I got my breakthrough…everyone was checkin’ me out ya know?”

By the end of the decade the Riddim Twins were pulling their heavy rhythms to the front of the mix for Jamaica’s finest: Barrington Levy, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown and more. They had also set up their own prolific label, Taxi Records – which is “still going strong” – and become ubiquitous on the production scene. But their biggest success at the time was their partnership with Black Uhuru, which landed them a record deal with industry giant Island Records and permanently etched their names as reggae royalty. As Black Uhuru became the world’s biggest reggae band, Sly & Robbie were propelled into stardom, with artists from anywhere and everywhere lining up for their adventurous and cutting-edge production.

One such artist was Grace Jones, whose 1981 album Nightclubbing featured an unparalleled welding of funk, dub and mechanized beats courtesy of the Twins. Sly’s sonic arsenal had been steadily growing alongside his interest in computer-generated sounds, and he began to experiment on the syndrums, whilst Robbie kept his innovation steady on the analogue. He says he was “prepared for the digital revolution”, but he was more of a pioneer than a mere participator. Sly’s new-found signature sound, the robotic digital beat, led to the rise of the now-ubiquitous digital dancehall rhythms. “It wasn’t just about keeping ahead of the game … What I wanted was to take reggae forward, to make it as modern as it can be, not just for me but for the industry in Jamaica”, Sly muses.

It not only took reggae forward, but sideways into other genres – soul, funk and rock – and later into other burgeoning styles where the drum and bass ruled, like jungle and D’n’B itself. Unlike many reggae artists in the 1980s who were struggling to find work, Drumbar and Basspeare thrived, rewriting history again with Half Pint’s 1986 hit ‘Greetings’, which moved away from the digital impact of Sleng Teng. The duo managed to perfectly combine the best of the old with the freshness of the new. It was the first Raggamuffin anthem, launching the genre we now know as Ragga.

In the early 90s, they produced the hybrid pop-reggae hit ‘Murder She Wrote’ with Chaka Demus and Pliers. Sly was heavily influenced by the UK music scene, where he had heard Bhangra and Asian beats, fusing them with his natural reggae style. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the tune was completely devoid of Robbie’s distinctive bass. Such innovation boils down to their incredibly progressive and open-minded attitude to reggae. “The sky’s the limit for reggae. People go to the club to hear fun music, but we also need some more sounds, some more melodies in the dancehall”.

Sly & Robbie mix the adventurous with the serious, innovation with enjoyment. And it shows at their live performance, where they and their band, The Taxi Gang, play slick riddim after slick riddim – Swing Easy, Real Rock, Ballistic Affair, Bam Bam. There’s no doubt these riddims will surely keep going: “we’re working on a bunch of things, we’re gonna be in the studio in Jamaica working on some new instrumental stuff.”

Sly is kitted in dungarees and a beanie hat, while Robbie is dressed a little like a priest in a baseball hat, a towering figure to Sly’s slender physique. They are a sort of reggae yin yang, the perfect dancehall balance. And when I ask if he and Robbie will forever be best mates, Sly simply replies “yeah man. We have a lot of respect for each other and I always figure two heads is better than one.”

Susannah Webb



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