Sly & Robbie
Sly & Robbie
Jamaican musicians and producers
Drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are modern masters of rhythm. Rarely if ever has the sound of an individual genre been so suffused with the sounds of specific individual musicians; according to one estimate, the two musicians have contributed their distinctive rhythms to some 200,000 recorded tracks, most of them in the Jamaican reggae style. Constantly active musically, Dunbar and Shakespeare have recorded under the Sly & Robbie name, released recordings by other artists on their own Taxi label, and contributed to recordings helmed by other producers on other labels, both within and beyond the reggae field.
Lowell Fillmore Dunbar (later called Sly, it is said, because of his admiration for the music of Sly & the Family Stone) and Robbie Shakespeare were both born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up on its mean but musical streets. Dunbar was born May 10, 1952, and Shakespeare September 27, 1953. Dunbar grew up practicing the drums on empty food cans and on his school desk. He dropped out of school when he was 15 to play drums for a living. “That’s all I ever wanted to do,” he told The Independent in London. Although he did suffer through a brief stint as an apprentice refrigerator mechanic. Shakespeare studied bass with the early reggae player Family Man Barrett, and he too had become an experienced musician while still in his teens.
Dunbar and Shakespeare separately played and recorded with various groups in the early 1970s and admired each other’s work on record before they ever met. One night in 1974 they were performing with different bands at rival clubs, Evil People and Tit for Tat, next door to each other in Kingston. On breaks they each went to check out the other’s playing. They fell into conversation and ended up talking for hours. “From the first time we played together we clicked musically,” Dunbar told The Independent. “It was like magic. He knew what I was going to do and I knew what he was going to do.”
Since then, according to both Dunbar and Shakespeare, they have not spent more than three weeks apart. “To be honest,” Dunbar told The Independent, “if I could just wake up, go to the studio with Robbie and come home and go to bed, I would be happy. That’s all I really want to do.” Though they have had girlfriends and wives, they remained devoted above all to the music they make with each other; the key to their incredible productivity lies partly in the chemistry of their personal relationship.
It didn’t take reggae producers long to realize the distinctive sounds created when the pair played together; the first recorded document of the partnership was Jimmy Cliff’s 1975 LP Follow My Mind. An early indication of their ability to adapt to non-reggae styles came that year when they produced and appeared on an album by French vocal star Serge Gainsbourg. Within the next two years, the Sly & Robbie sound (they also became known as the Riddim Twins) was nearly everywhere on recordings that are now recognized as classics of reggae’s golden age: Peter Tosh’s Legalize It and a series of recordings by the group Black Uhuru among them. Dunbar and Shakespeare toured with Tosh in 1978, cementing an image of themselves as a duo in the minds of fans.
That year, the pair began to devote new attention to their own Taxi label, founded by Dunbar and a bandmate
At a Glance…
Born Lowell Fillmore Dunbar on May 10, 1952, in Kingston Jamaica; born Robbie Shakespeare on September 27, 1953, in Kingston, Jamaica. Education: Both left school to play music professionally; Dunbar briefly studied refrigerator repair; Shakespeare studied bass with Family Man Barrett.
Career: Performed separately with various reggae bands, late 1960s and early 1970s; recorded together with Jimmy Cliff, 1975; produced recording by French star Serge Gainsbourg, 1975; numerous recordings with Black Uhuru and other top reggae groups, late 1970s and early 1980s; Dunbar founded Taxi label, operated by Dunbar and Shakespeare, 1978-; recorded as Sly & Robbie, 1979-; produced albums by Grace Jones, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and other non-reggae acts, 1980s; produced several top U.K. dance hits, 1990s; produced soundtrack to film Third World Cop, 2000; have appeared by some estimates on over 200,000 separate tracks.
Address: Label—Mango Records, 400 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10003.
several years before. Shakespeare told the Los Angeles Times that the primary motivation for the move was artistic: “At that time, we were playing on a lot of hits for other people, so we thought we’d start something on our own, to do what we want to do, play whatever we feel. On our label, there’s no one to tell us how to sound.” Gregory Isaacs’ “Soon Forward,” an early Taxi release, topped Jamaican charts and solidified the duo’s reputation as hitmakers. Other artists launched by Taxi, such as Ini Kamoze, have also become important figures in Jamaican music. The 1989 album Hitbound! The Revolutionary Sound of Channel One presents a selection of the duo’s 1980s work.
The duo’s reputation began to spread outside of Jamaica in the 1980s, as artists and producers came calling in search of Dunbar’s and Shakespeare’s services. Those ranged from the unorthodox diva Grace Jones, whose Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing albums were produced by Sly & Robbie, to artists farther afield from the African diaspora, such as the Rolling Stones and even Bob Dylan. Dunbar and Shakespeare have also collaborated on several albums with the avant-garde electronic producer Bill Laswell and have worked with jazz electronics pioneer Herbie Hancock. Their sound also provided the foundation for some of the folk-Caribbean releases of the British star Joan Armatrading.
As Jamaican popular music underwent deep stylistic changes in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the advent of studio electronics, Sly & Robbie made the shift to electronic rhythms without difficulty; some observers contended that the new dancehall and ragga styles followed paths already laid down by Sly & Robbie using conventional instruments. A Sly & Robbie rhythm track might take almost any form according to the nature of the production, but Dunbar’s characteristic style was a hard-edged groove sometimes described as robotic. In later years Sly & Robbie became as noted for their studio experiments as they had been for their conventional rhythm tracks.
Many of the pair’s most experimental ideas were saved for their own Sly & Robbie albums, which appeared with increasing frequency from the early 1980s onward; Sly & Robbie were one of only a very few rhythm makers to record and tour as a named act. Some of their albums compile their work with other artists, while others tend toward innovative rhythm-based music, often in the dub style whose experiments with quotation and timbre have consistently influenced U.S. hip-hop. In the 1990s, however, Sly & Robbie hardly slowed down as producers and performers on others’ albums; such U.K. dance hits as “Tease Me” (Chaka Demus and Pliers, 1993) bore their production imprint.
The beginning of the new millennium saw no slowdown in the duo’s activities, with the release of an experimental dub CD of their own (“Dub Fire,” 2000), a Jamaican film soundtrack (“Third World Cop”), and a contribution to California rock group No Doubt’s Rock Steady CD (“Underneath It All”). By that time it was, in the words of the website allmusic.com, “virtually impossible to imagine modern music without them.” “We’ll never retire,” Dunbar told The Independent. “We’ll play until we’re old men.”
Disco Dub, Gorgon, 1978.
Gamblers Choice, Taxi, 1980.
Raiders of the Lost Dub, Mango/Island, 1981.
60s, 70s, Into the 80s (compilation), Mango/Island,1981.
Dub Extravaganza, CSA, 1984.
A Dub Experience, Island, 1985.
Language Barrier, Island, 1985.
Electro Reggae, Island, 1986.
The Sting, Taxi, 1986.
Taxi Fare, Heartbeat, 1986 (compilation). Rhythm Killers, 4th and Broadway, 1987 (with Bill Laswell).
Dub Rockers Delight, Blue Moon, 1987.
The Summit, RAS, 1988.
Silent Assassin, 4th and Broadway, 1990.
Speeding Taxi, Sonic Sounds, 1993.
Mambo Taxi, VP, 1997.
Friends, East West, 1997.
Dub Fire, NYC Music, 2000. Ultimate Collection: In Good Company, Hip-O, 2001. Good Dubs: The Prime of Sly & Robbie, Music Club, 2001.
Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton, Reggae: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides/Penguin, 1997.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 13, Gale, 1994.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin, 1998.
The Guardian (London, England), December 26, 1993, p. Observer Review-2.
The Independent (London, England), September 28, 1997, p. Features-66; March 12, 1999, p. Features-11.
Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1988, p. Calendar-11; April 28, 2000, p. F22.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim