Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are the most famous Jamaican rhythm section of all time, and there are at least 200,000 reasons why.
That’s according to the famed drum and bass duo themselves, anyway, and regardless of the veracity of that claim, they are certainly responsible for much more music than is typically acknowledged. Without them, Jamaican popular music would have taken a very different course.
Much of the outside world became aware of the ‘Rhythm Twins’ through their work with transplanted Jamaican sensation Grace Jones, or via later collaborations with the Stones, Serge Gainsbourg, Herbie Hancock and Bob Dylan. In the realm of reggae, Sly and Robbie first caused a stir while backing singer Peter Tosh in the mid-70s, and the spotlight was placed directly onto their own creativity later that decade through hits on their Taxi label with Gregory Isaacs, the Tamlins, Jimmy Riley and Junior Delgado. Their championing of Black Uhuru also helped give that group its stellar status in the wake of Bob Marley’s death, resulting in the first reggae Grammy award in 1985.
Sly and Robbie also made a series of abstract concept albums with underground figurehead Bill Laswell in New York before returning to the dancehall fray in Jamaica for hits with Chakademus and Pliers, Beenie Man, Capleton and the Innocent Kru, among others. Further work with Jamaican actress-singer Cherine Anderson and collaborations with No Doubt and Sinead O’Connor kept them in demand internationally – even Paris Hilton requested their production assistance.
Throughout it all, their music has never really dropped in quality, and anyone who’s had the pleasure of observing them at work knows that their individual chemistry is a big part of what makes Sly and Robbie such a unique musical production force. Sly Dunbar can drum like a metronome and is equally adept at drum programming, while Robbie Shakespeare’s rock-solid bass forms an unwavering melodic anchor. Their personalities are at opposing ends of the scale too – stick-thin Sly is the essence of a calm and courteous gentleman, while the hefty bassist once served time in a notorious Jamaican prison on a gun charge, and has no qualms about making it clear he is not to be trifled with. Together, Messrs Drumbar and Basspeare are a tour-de-force of rhythmic creativity.
Lowell Charles Dunbar was initially raised in east Kingston, but moved to the west Kingston district of Waterhouse at the age of seven, when that neighbourhood was being developed to ease the capital’s chronic overcrowding. He gravitated to the drums while attending Trench Town Comprehensive School after seeing Ken Boothe and the Gaylads perform there. The young Dunbar passed through a club act called the Yardbrooms and was tutored briefly by Mikey ‘Boo’ Richards of the In Crowd band and Carlton Barrett of the Hippy Boys (who was soon to join the Wailers), but it was the keyboardist Ansel Collins who really gave him musical schooling, drafting him into the RHT Invincibles (based at a Rastafarian bakery known as the Rainbow Healing Temple) as replacement for Lloyd ‘Tin Leg’ Adams.
Dunbar’s pronounced drumming helped Collins’ organ instrumental ‘Night Doctor’ to become a huge hit, particularly in the UK, where it surfaced on Lee Perry’s Upsetter label. Dave and Ansel Collins’ ‘Double Barrel’ was an even greater success, and Sly’s superb drumming a significant factor in its popularity. Sly briefly played with the Supersonics in the early 1970s, drumming on Justin Hinds’ ‘Say Me Say,’ but played mostly with club act the Volcanoes, a spin-off of the RHT Invicibles, based on the north coast. This is when he got the nickname Sly, inspired by his love of Sly and the Family Stone.
Robbie Shakespeare was raised in eastern Kingston, and since his older brother Lloyd was a member of the Emotions harmony group, Robbie was motivated to pursue music at an early age, borrowing his acoustic guitar at every opportunity. Hanging out at the Hippie Boys rehearsal sessions, Robbie got Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett to teach him the rudiments of bass, and when Fams left the group to join the Upsetters (which became the Wailers’ backing band), Robbie was the one to take his place. After playing on Errol Dunkley’s reggae rendition of the Beatles’ ‘I’ll Be Back’ (issued as ‘You’ll Never Know’), he joined a band called Big Relation, which led him into Cornell Campbell’s Eternals, which in turn brought him to the attention of producer Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, resulting in a longstanding association. Family Man ensured that Robbie appeared on the Wailers’ Catch A Fire album too, as heard on the tracks ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Stir It Up’.
Following the demise of the Volcanoes, Sly morphed the RHT Invincibles into Skin, Flesh and Bone, the resident act at the Tit For Tat club, one of many nightspots lining uptown Kingston’s burgeoning Red Hills Road. Al Brown’s version of Al Green’s ‘Here I Am Baby’ became a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic thanks in part to Sly’s killer drums. And even though Robbie wasn’t part of it yet, Sly founded the Taxi label with guitarist Ranchie McLean at this time, the first release being Ranchie’s reggae version of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ ‘I’m Falling In Love With You’. (The name of the label was drawn from the battered cab Sly used to get around town.)
Sly and Robbie got to know each other around this time as Robbie was playing with Big Relation at a club a few doors down from Tit For Tat called Evil People. Sly transformed Skin Flesh and Bone into the Revolutionaries, which became the house band at famed studio Channel One, and Robbie was a leading light in the Aggrovators, Bunny Lee’s regular session band, as heard on huge hits by Cornell Campbell, Johnny Clarke, and Linval Thompson. Sly and Robbie played together on some Aggrovators sessions, and Robbie worked with the Revolutionaries too, playing piano on the instrumental hit ‘MPLA’ and contributing guitar on other tracks, before taking over bass duties from Ranchie.
Following their initial spate of work for Peter Tosh, the first Taxi release to credit Sly and Robbie as joint producers was Gregory Isaacs’ 1977 smash hit, ‘Oh What A Feeling’ – a strong first stab in the production sphere. For the next few years they could do no wrong, bringing Black Uhuru to prominence and scoring hit after hit with reggae’s A-listers. Since then, Sly and Robbie they’ve created music in many different genres around the world, reinventing themselves as a digital production duo in the dancehall age whilst continuing to play live and on collaborative recordings.
Here are a handful of the greatest Sly and Robbie releases of all time, each bearing the imprint of their exceptional musicianship and production skills.
Sly Dunbar’s amazing abilities were already in evidence on his early recording sessions. The organ instrumental ‘Night Doctor’ came from his very first recording session (recorded by Ansel Collins, who licensed it to Lee Perry to release), with rock-solid drumming from Sly, while the follow-up for Winston Riley, ‘Double Barrell’, has an equally metronomic quality, with more impressive rolls and fills at regular intervals. When you flip the disc for the version side, you can really tune into just what Sly is doing, with dextrous moves on the hi-hat providing rhythmic contract to Ansel’s piano line.
Perhaps the most outstanding Dunbar contribution from the period appears on the early ‘talking’ record, ‘The Law’, voiced by Dynamic Sounds’ mastering engineer, Linford ‘Andy Capp’ Anderson. Here, Sly’s galloping rhythm leads us in and out of the tune, emphasising the Western theme of Anderson’s voiceover (and made more prominent by the application of delay effects), his intricate drum rolls providing the song’s main propulsive fuel. Both the vocal cut and the organ-led version B-side, which slows down and speeds up towards the end of the track, show that Sly Dunbar’s approach to rhythm was already far apart from that of his contemporaries.
‘You’ll Never Know’
(Gay Feet/Bomb, 1972)
Like the early works of Sly, Robbie Shakespeare’s debut recording already shows a natural affinity with his instrument. The Beatles’ ‘I’ll Be Back’ had been adapted by the Paragons in rocksteady to fine effect, but Errol Dunkley’s reggae recasting has more emotive power, his anguished voice unfettered by vocal harmony, and the languorous rhythm helping to draw out his every word.
Robbie’s bass part provides the melodic anchor that keeps everything in place, and you can hear the influence of Family Man’s guidance in his playing style. To further the elements of synchronicity, consider that Robbie was using a Hofner ‘Beatle bass’ at the time, which was given to him by Fams. The tune also benefits from an understated trombone accompaniment (most likely from Vin Gordon) and although the song was licensed to Sonia Pottinger for its Jamaican release, it is actually self-produced by Errol Dunkley. A fine first effort from Robbie, pointing towards meaty bass lines to come.
Al Brown & Skin Flesh And Bone
‘Here I Am Baby’
(Tit For Tat/Trojan, 1974)
Dating from Sly’s tenure at the helm of Skin Flesh And Bones, ‘Here I Am Baby’ is a reggae-fied rendition of the Al Green soul classic which found favour on both sides of the Atlantic, and again, Sly’s complicated rhythm pattern drives the whole affair. The song is noteworthy on several fronts, not least because it employs a ‘flying cymbal’ rhythm, based on an open-and-closed high-hat pattern – but Sly’s take on ‘flyers’ is totally different from what everyone else was doing with the style, and you can hear this more clearly on the oddball version B-side, which has a kind of duelling melodica line. Production is credited to club owner Dickie Wong, but Sly and Ranchie McLean are fully in control. More evidence that Sly was doing more than many of his contemporaries in this era, taking charge of the band from behind the drum kit.
‘Wherever I Lay My Head’
(Bar Bell/Micron/Horse/Monica’s, 1975)
As was the case with Sly, Robbie Shakespeare began issuing his own productions in 1974, beginning with tracks by Johnny Clarke and his chief rival, Cornell Campbell. Shakespeare had been backing Campbell’s Eternals group so his bond with the singer was particularly strong, and just as Sly enjoyed cutting reggae versions of soul tracks, Robbie does a fine recasting of the Marvin Gaye number ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’ (cut for Motown way back in 1963, but which didn’t made an impact until several years later when it was reissued as the B-side of ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Baby’).
The rhythm is here stripped down to drum, bass and vocal, with just a smattering of guitar behind a choppy keyboard line, which means that Robbie provides the only instrumental melody, paralleling Campbell’s mellifluous tenor. The King Tubby version B-side makes full use of the ‘flying cymbal’ rhythm, and shows the full depth of expression Robbie is capable of imparting through his thunderous lines, his fingers plummeting to the very depths of the bass spectrum before leaping up the neck for the refrains.
‘What A Feeling’
One of Gregory Isaacs’ all-time classics, ‘What A Feeling’ describes the incredible atmosphere of a sound system dance in Kingston, with everyone getting merry and rocking to the rhythm, unconcerned by the divisions that so often result in violence on the island. It takes the singer right back to his childhood, but he notes that even then the landscape was blighted by evildoers; nevertheless, the power of the music prevails.
As the first official Sly and Robbie co-production, this is quite a landmark, though Robbie has said that they did not really score a significant hit on the label until Gregory’s ‘Soon Forward’ took off the following year. In any case, the contrast provided by Sly’s intricate drumming and Robbie spacious, hands-off bass line is partly what makes this such a great tune. Robbie’s rest stops fall in all the right places, and there’s a memorable piano motif that crops up in the midst of Gregory’s verses, with just a bit of guitar to pepper the proceedings. Other Gregory material to check for produced by Sly and Robbie includes a great double-sided 12″, ‘Motherless Children’/‘Going Downtown’, and the ‘Soon Forward’ mega-hit.
‘Let Him Go’
(Taxi 7”, 1977)
Sly and Robbie had a special and longstanding relationship with Black Uhuru. The link between Sly and Michael Rose dates back to the early 1970s because both were Waterhouse residents coming up on the music scene, and it is noteworthy that Sly produced Rose’s cut of ‘Artibella’ for Taxi in 1975, before he and Robbie were a solid production team. After Rose subsequently became Black Uhuru’s lead singer, the intention was for their debut album to be a Sly and Robbie production, but since the duo was on tour with Peter Tosh, Uhuru wound up cutting that disc with Prince Jammy instead.
Nevertheless, Uhuru’s spirited rendition of ‘Let Him Go’ for Taxi points to the tremendous success they would achieve together in the future, and Sly’s inventive drumming is a big part of what makes the single so great. It’s an individual reading of the Wailers classic, re-worked for the ‘rockers’ era, with cymbal crashes and a bubbling keyboard giving the song its irresistible hooks. Once the group returned to work with Sly and Robbie in 1979, there was no turning back: the Showcase album would be handled overseas by Virgin, and the contract Sly brokered with Island made the group the biggest reggae act in the world, following Bob Marley’s untimely death.
(Taxi 7”/Niagara 12”, 1979)
Junior Delgado got his start in Time Unlimited, cutting impressive work for Rupie Edwards, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Tommy Cowan. When the group’s members went their separate ways, Delgado’s gravelly tones graced excellent sides for Perry, Niney the Observer and Augustus Pablo, before his enduring partnership with Dennis Brown also bore fruit. ‘Fort Augustus’ is the harder of the two tracks that Sly and Robbie produced with Jux for Taxi, with Delgado’s anguished wails referencing various penal institutions in Jamaica and the terrible practices meted out on prisoners. Sly’s syndrums give the song an edge of futurism and Robbie’s subsonic bass pattern emphasises the gravity of the tune.
The other Taxi track by Jux, ‘Merry Go Round’, is also a winner, though coming much more from a lover’s rock perspective; to best appreciate the hardness of the ‘Fort Augustus’ rhythm, check the various dub versions, including the extended 12″ mix on Niagara, and the cool cut by Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle on the Raiders Of The Lost Dub LP.
(Taxi 7”/Taxi & D Roy 12”, 1980)
Heavily influenced by American soul, the Tamlins harmony trio began recording in the mid-70s and made their name at Channel One, giving them a long-lasting working relationship with Sly and Robbie. Since part of the Taxi production ethos always involved reggae interpretations of foreign hits, the group was a natural choice to collaborate with. On this intense rendition of ‘Baltimore’, they pattern the song not after Randy Newman’s understated original, but instead after Nina Simone’s individual jazz reading of the tune.
Over Robbie’s throbbing bass and Sly’s intergalactic syndrum patterns, we get a fearsome horn fanfare that underscores the dramatic hopelessness of the song, with lead Tamlin Junior Moore singing his heart out. The extended dub portion on the 12″ and the B-side of the 7″ both put the rough edges of the rhythm fully in the spotlight. Check for Welton Irie’s great pseudo-rap toasting cut, ‘Hotter Reggae Music’, which appears on some 12″ releases, grafting bits of ‘Rappers Delight’ into the mix.
‘Love And Devotion’
(Taxi 7”, Niagara & Yes 12”, 1980)
Soul-influenced tenor Jimmy Riley was a schoolmate of Slim Smith who formed the rival Uniques group because Smith’s Techniques already had a full line-up. Going solo in the late 1960s, he cut innovative work with Bunny Lee and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, as well as self-produced work, and although material cut at the Black Ark and with Ossie Hibbert at Channel One made him an underground sensation, the international breakthrough he craved didn’t happen until he teamed up with Sly and Robbie to cut this post-rockers recut of Smith’s anthem, which finally took him to the top of the charts.
Sly’s complicated drum pattern and syndrum accents totally restructure the tune, while Robbie bobs along with a sparse yet tuneful bass line; Riley wrings the maximum emotion from his spirited delivery, bringing the song to its fullest potential. Don’t miss General Echo’s hilarious kung-fu toasting version, ‘Drunken Master’, which also makes maximum use of the rhythm. As for Riley, the follow-up for Sly and Robbie, ‘My Woman’s Love’, was nearly as popular as ‘Love And Devotion’, and a raspy reggae cut of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ also helped keep his career on track.
‘Heart Made Of Stone’
(Taxi 7” & 12”, 1980)
The Viceroys are one of those harmony trios that have a very complicated history. In the rocksteady era they made noteworthy recordings for Studio One, Derrick Morgan and Sir JJ, moving on to work with Joe Gibbs, Lee Perry, Lloyd the Matador, Sidney Crooks and Winston Riley in the early reggae period. A few line-up changes happened along the way (though leader Wesley Tinglin remained at the helm), and after cutting more fine work for Studio One, they recorded this impressive one-off for Sly and Robbie in 1980.
The rhythm is deceptively simple, yet Robbie’s nuanced bass pattern hooks the listener from the start, and as usual, Sly drives everything with a convoluted drum pattern, made more appealing by the squawks and shrieks of his syndrum accents. Add some strange keyboard and guitar sounds, and you have a suitably eerie backdrop for a tale of a broken-hearted romance, Tinglin and the crew bawling of the woes of a two-timing woman.
‘My Jamaican Guy’
(Island 7” & 12”, 1983)
Chris Blackwell saw the star potential in Grace Jones early on, casting her in Perry Henzell’s abortive sequel to The Harder They Come (titled No Place Like Home) at a time when she was totally unknown and taking a further gamble on her first three albums, which were largely in disco mode but had failed to achieve mainstream success. Blackwell knew that she needed a different direction and achieved the goal by forming the Compass Point All Stars as the in-house band for the state-of-the-art studio he’d built in the Bahamas. Sly and Robbie were naturally recruited to be its rhythmic and artistic core.
They brought guitarist Mikey ‘Mao’ Chung of the Revolutionaries and percussionist Sticky Thompson with them from Kingston (and on some sessions, Tyrone Downie of the Wailers band), but Blackwell did not want the All Stars to be 100% Jamaican, so he drew for Marianne Faithful’s guitarist, Barry Reynolds, and the Benin-born, Paris-resident keyboard whizz kid, Wally Badarou, to broaden the sound. The Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing albums were massively successful, but the final Compass Point collaboration, Living My Life, perhaps showed the greatest complexity. ‘My Jamaican Guy’ is outstanding in part because of its wonderful rhythm, which Sly says was influenced by the Jamaican folk form known as mento. Robbie keeps his minimal bass line at the lower end of the scale and Badarou’s keyboards inject some jaunty melody. The song was apparently inspired by Tyrone Downey, as revealed by Jones some decades later.
One of the truly iconic figures of Jamaican popular music, Dennis Brown’s catalogue is simply magnificent, and many fans feel he had the edge over Bob Marley for much of their respective careers. A pairing with Sly and Robbie was bound to yield excellent results and nowhere is this more evident than on ‘Revolution’, a true Brown anthem that remained a perpetual feature of his live performances. Their initial link in 1981 yielded the censorious ‘Sitting And Watching’ (which led to a great toasting version by Ranking Dread, ‘Lots Of Loving’), and the romantic ‘Have You Ever’, but ‘Revolution’ from 1983 is far stronger.
This time the rhythm is made even more tantalising through Sly’s judicious use of a Roland TR-808 as an embellishment; instead of overpowering the song with the drum machine, he just uses it to provide killer clap sounds, urging the rhythm forward with every bar. Meanwhile, Brown sings with earnest conviction of the need for rebellious action at a time when the world was in the midst of a conservative backlash.
‘World A Music’
(Taxi 7” & Island LP, 1984)
In the aftermath of Bob Marley’s death, Black Uhuru were poised to carry the reggae crown, thanks in no small part to the input of Sly and Robbie. However, as they prepared to record the album Anthem, which wound up winning the first reggae Grammy award, internal tensions saw the ejection of Michael Rose, signalling the gradual waning of their dominance.
At the same time, once Island had signed former community worker and actor Ini Kamoze, there was talk that he would inherit Marley’s stature. Kamoze made his first recordings circa 1982, for the Mogho Naba label, which he’d formed with Jimmy Cliff’s nephew, Sipho Merritt; Sly and Robbie picked him up after getting a hold of a demo tape, and brokered his contract with Island.
‘Trouble You Trouble Me’ (with Sly’s TR-808) and ‘General’ were issued as a double-sided single in 1983, sparking all kinds of interest in the Kamoze, and when his self-titled debut album surfaced the following year, it also had the hard-hitting ‘World A Music’, the sleeper hit that most younger fans know due to its sampling on Damian Marley’s ‘Welcome To Jamrock’. Robbie supplies a disjointed bass line with plenty of rest stops while Sly does some fancy interludes on the snare; piano chords from Robbie Lyn bounce in and out of the mix, which was given extra depth by Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle, as Kamoze’s distinctive tenor sings of reggae music’s enduring appeal.
(Jaguar 7”, Taxi 7” & 12”, Black Roots 12”, 1984)
There is considerable debate about who made the first ‘digital’ or ‘computerised’ reggae record, or even whether such terms accurately describe reggae made with synthesizers and drum machines; everyone points to Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’, produced by Prince Jammy from a Casio preset, but Sugar Minott claimed that ‘Herbman Hustling’ deserves the primary designation. Minott got his start in the African Brothers during the mid-70s, but broke away to go solo at Studio One, where he revolutionised Jamaican popular music by voicing new songs on old rhythm tracks.
Launching his own Black Roots label by 1980, Minott issued a lot of fine self-produced work and nurtured the talents of upcoming hopefuls. He continued to record for a range of producers at the same time and a pairing with Sly and Robbie made perfect sense; Minott had already cut a slow and plodding roots version of ‘Herbman Hustling’ for Bullwackie in New York, but Sly and Robbie’s super-charged digital re-cut was the one to become a spectacular hit, its rugged, durable rhythm and keyboard bass providing ample goods for the growing dancehall movement. It shows that Sly Dunbar was able to adapt to the times, and although they faced criticism at home for spending too much time touring overseas, Sly and Robbie were able to remain a viable production force in the dancehall era, despite the drastic changes digital production brought to bear.
‘One A We, Two A Wi’
(Taxi 7” 1999)
In the mid-1980s, Sly and Robbie created a couple of great fusion albums with New York-based producer Bill Laswell. Language Barrier had contributions from Africa Bambaata, Herbie Hancock, Doug E Fresh, and even Bob Dylan on harmonica, all doing their bit over a slew of driving rhythm, while Rhythm Killers was also multifaceted, drawing on dancehall, hip-hop, funk and electro to fine effect.
Sly and Robbie also nurtured the career of Gwen Guthrie and contributed to Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque album, one of many high-profile overseas collaborations of the time. Then, during the 1990s, they began spending longer periods in Jamaica and returned more concertedly to music production, cutting a great bhangra-influenced version of ‘Mission Impossible’ (voiced by Innocent Kru as ‘Impossible Train’), among many others.
One of the most outstanding records to surface from this period is Michael Rose’s ‘One A We, Two A Wi’, which rides a tough and non-standard Taxi digital rhythm, overlaid by choppy guitar chords and eerie keyboard swirls, over which Rose sings of the vicious cycle that perpetually leads bad boys from the street corner to the jailhouse and back again. Interestingly, production is credited not to Sly and Robbie on this excellent number, but to the enigmatic guitarist Carl Harvey, a longstanding peer from Robbie’s time with the Aggrovators. Note that the song has been reissued in remix form numerous times, with varying degrees of success; the original Taxi 7” remains the preferred format.
Jimmy Riley & Tarrus Riley
‘Pull Up Selector’
(Taxi 7,” 2007)
If anyone had any doubts about Sly and Robbie’s relevance in our contemporary age, just check out this great duet between Jimmy Riley and his son Tarrus. Produced by Sly and Orville ‘Rorey’ Baker at Baker’s One Pop studio, the rhythm is based on a sample from Sugar Minott’s ‘Rub A Dub’ (another classic Sly & Robbie production from ‘84), and Tarrus leads the way on this paean to dancehall’s allure, aided by father Jimmy’s gruff tones in select intervals. Pure niceness!