Sly and Robbie

views updated May 14 2018

Sly and Robbie

Drummer and bassist

For the Record

The Ordained Meeting

International Attention

Dub Fade and Dancehall Fame

Selected discography


Although drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are primarily musicians who play backup on other artists albums, they are nonetheless a significant force in the music business and are known as Sly and Robbie, or sometimes the riddim twins. Their bass and drum work has appeared on not just a remarkable number of reggae albums, but particularly on several of the genres milestone productions. They have sometimes been credited with initiating several of reggaes most successful trends, including dub and, mostrecently, dancehall. In 1993, almost 20 years after Sly and Robbie began, Maureen Sheridan described them in Billboard as the drum and bass duo who define Jamaican rhythm. In addition, rock legends outside of reggae, including Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, have sought out the Sly and Robbie sound.

Lowell Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were both born in Jamaica in the early 1950s. They came of age in Kingston, the islands major city, just as reggae was also coming of age. Like so many young musicians living in the ghetto, Sly and Robbie had no access to formal training or even to written music and were largely self-taught. Sly, whose first drum kit consisted of empty food cans, told Don Palmer of Musician that he was all the time practicing in school and playing on the desk.

Sly played his first set of real drums at the age of 15, when he formed a group called the Yardbrooms. He made a brief try at a legitimate jobrefrigeration mechanicsafter dropping out of school; he soon decided to devote himself to music. Hanging around the Kingston music scene, he eventually became a regular with Dave and Ansell Collins, whose band had a good reputation in the city. The Collins brothers gave Sly his first opportunity to record, including his drums on their 1969 release, Double Barrel. Sly would also play with the Mighty Diamonds and I-Roy before meeting his musical soulmate.

Robbie Shakespeare sought out a mentor to guide his musical education. I heard Family Man Barrett playing with the Hippy Boys one night, he recalled to Palmer, adding, I liked the way he played bassstrong, simple, melodic lines with feelingso I asked him to give me lessons. Family Man proved to be a demanding teacher: When I practiced, Robbie told Palmer, Id cry and play. I had a six-string guitar, and I played it with my big finger till blood came from my finger. If I was looking for a note and my ears werent at peak to find the note, Id cry till I found it.

Impressed with his protégé, Family Man christened Robbies career with his first bass and even allowed the young musician to replace him in occasional Hippy

For the Record

Sly Dunbar (born Lowell Fillmore Dunbar, May 10, 1952, in Kingston, Jamaica), drums; Robbie Shakespeare (born September 27, 1953, in Kingston, Jamaica), bass.

First played together under the tutelage of Bunny Lee and began Taxi record label, mid-1970s; backup musicians for many reggae artists, including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, Mighty Diamonds, and Jimmy Cliff; Island Records took over Taxi distribution, 1980, and Sly and Robbie began playing backup for Islands non-reggae artists, including Grace Jones; played backup for other artists, including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Joan Armatrading, and Herbie Hancock; focused primarily on solo work, mid-1980s.

Addresses: Record company Mango Records, 400 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10003.

Boys and Aggravators gigs. By 1970 Robbie had become the Hippy Boys regular bassist. Other opportunities filled out Robbies apprenticeship, including recording two songs with Bob Marley, Concrete Jungle and the legendary Stir It Up, on Catch a Fire.

The Ordained Meeting

Sly and Robbie finally encountered one anotherIt was ordained to be, Robbie told Palmerwhen they were playing at rival clubs in downtown Kingston. Sly was playing at the Tit For Tat, Robbie recounted, and I was playing next door at Evil Peoples with the Hippy Boys. At break wed always check each other out. When I saw Sly, I said, Yes, whenever this drummer touch the recording scene, every drummer have to pack up. Sly, who first heard Robbies bass on a single in 1972, shared a similar first impression of his future partner: It was the whole body of the bass, the sound and the way it flowed against the drummer. At a certain part of a tune hed play like three different lines, change the line on the bridge and the verses after that, and get four different lines.

Sly and Robbie didnt actually play together until Kingston producer Bunny Lee brought them both into the studio for a joint session in the mid-1970s. At first, the two tried forming a band with five other musicians. It quickly turned out, however, that only these two shared a real devotion to the music. Banking on the power of that shared enthusiasm, they created Taxi Records in 1974, one of the longest-living of Jamaicas homegrown labels, and began marketing themselves as producers and a professional rhythm section.

Sly and Robbie soon became regulars all over the reggae circuit, playing with more and more of Kingstons heavyweights, including Burning Spear, the Mighty Diamonds, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, and reggaes greatest legend, Bob Marley. Musicians Palmer declared of Sly and Robbie in 1983, One or both their names appear on probably half the reggae albums in any record store. Robert Santelli wrote in Modern Drummer that Slys sparse yet crisp beats practically defined the Jamaican brand of drumming in the 70s and 80s.

Peter Tosh, second in stature only to Marley, offered Sly and Robbie their first real break in 1976 when he invited them to play rhythm on Legalize It. As Word, Sound and Power, the pair went on tour with Tosh in 1978, winning new fans wherever they played. The Sly and Robbie thing started from there, Robbie told Billboards Sheridan. By 1984 they were so important to the Jamaican music industry that their ten-year anniversary prompted a concert celebration at the National Arena that took over the city and featured most of the reggae greats of the day, including Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Jimmy Riley, and Yellowman.

Sly and Robbie launched Taxi Records with a single by Gregory Isaacs, Soon Forward, which claimed the Number One spot on Jamaican music charts. Taxi gained a foothold outside of Jamaica with Red, a 1981 album by Black Uhuru; the LP has remained one of the landmark releases in reggaes history. While Sly and Robbie played backup for many of the artists who recorded at the Taxi studios, the pair also used the label to present their own musicrecordings on which they headlined an ensemble of guest artists. As of 1980 Taxis international distribution was prospering in the hands of London-based Island records, which managed Taxi through its Mango/Taxi subsidiary.

International Attention

Sly and Robbies second album with disco diva Grace Jones, Nightclubbing, constituted the pairs first significant excursion into pop music. During the same year, 1981, they cut several more releases with British and American pop notables, consolidating their crossover from exclusive reggae celebrity to mainstream acclaim; not only Jamaica, but also Great Britain and the United States were in love with Sly and Robbie. By 1983 they had added Great Britains Joan Armatrading and the United States Bob Dylan to their list of international pop-star connections. When Musicians Palmer interviewed Sly and Robbie in 1983, they were the Jamaican rhythm section whose rise to the brink of international stardom has been just the mortal side of meteoric.

Despite their fame and their tremendous currency, Sly and Robbie remained modest. They were known as highly effective musicians who loved their music and even felt it as a spiritual force, but who avoided all manner of music business drama. Writing for Melody Maker in 1981, Paolo Hewitt commented that Sly and Robbie go in, create consistently high quality music, then go out again. No artistic traumas. No drug or record company problems. Almighty God provides the inspiration.

What made Sly and Robbie great wasnt just their love of music or their professionalism. Rather, listeners discovered an unparalleled artistry in their work. Alan di Perna identified rapid-fire, one-take creativity as a Sly and Robbie trademark in Musician in 1987. Di Perna focused in particular on Robbies bass, noting that he approaches it much as a jazz soloist would a familiar melody, producing infinite and subtle variations that transform, but never obscure, the riff.

[People] said whenever Sly and I played togedder, we dint need drest of dband, Robbie told Roy Trakin in a 1984 Musician interview. Bass and drums are like a foundation for building a house, he continued. Me and Sly each play melodies, though, on our individual instruments. If ylisten to Sly drummin alone, ycould dance off dat. If ylisten to bass alone, ycan dance off dat. The secret is playin someting dats locked in when youre both together, but, at de same time, de parts stand by demselves, too.

As early as 1983, Palmer described Sly and Robbie as innovators and codifiers of rhythmic traditions. He summarized that innovation, listing their achievements: the pair has been credited with popularizing a fleet, insistent cymbal style (flyers ), founding the stepping, martial drum patterns of rockers (a deceptive rhythmic variation marked by an eight-to-the-bar bass drum that, coupled with Slys cymbals, give the impression of acceleration while the tempo is actually slowed), and creating a languid, fluent bass style that is percussive and melodic.

Such innovation, and especially a willingness to play with non-Jamaican pop, was part of the Sly and Robbie magic and had been from the beginning, as Robbie told Billboards Sheridan. I can tell you one thing, he explained, from the early part when Sly and myself used to share a room. We wouldnt sleep at night. We would always talk music; arrange the songs we were going to play, and decide how we were going to do it, without rehearsing it, just by talking it. We would buy dozens of cassettes to hear the difference between American music and Jamaican music, how it was mixed. And after being exposed to all that, we would experiment with our sound.

A shift in the reggae sound in the mid-1980s, however, initiated the end of British and American audiences affair with reggae. As more and more Jamaican musicians, including Sly and Robbie, immersed themselves in the new dub trend, more and more white listeners lost interest, and reggaes overseas fashionability faded.

Frank-John Hadley, reviewing Reggae Greats: Sly and Robbie for Down Beat in 1985, described the new sound with typical disappointment. He argued that their booming, uniform dub makes for a trying listening experience. While Sly and Robbies work as two of the industrys most valuable back-up men suffered no setback, their efforts as solo artists and on the behalf of reggae in general did suffer. They had hoped to see reggae continue to expand as an international music force; instead, they saw its influence narrowing.

Dub Fade and Dancehall Fame

Mat Smith wrote in Melody Maker in 1987 that working with Sly and Robbie has become the accepted seal of approval on any artists career. Alan di Perna described them in Musician as supporting players who have become as recognizable and popular as comic book superheroes. Despite their impact on milestone albums across musical genres, the pair had never yet had a hit with one of their own albums. Solo pieces released only in Jamaica fared well enough, but those marketed to a wider audience never traveled beyond reggae connoisseur circles.

Eventually Sly and Robbies music gained more popularity, but only as general tastes changed. First, the pair had to discover a strong mentor in producer Bill Laswell, with whom they began working in the mid-1980s. The three first worked together on a Mick Jagger album, Shes the Boss, and soon after, Laswell was recruited to help Sly and Robbie get more out of their solo efforts.

The first LP with Laswell, Language Barrier, encountered a lukewarm reception after its 1985 release. 1987s Rhythm Killers, however, produced a hit single in Great Britain, Boops (Here to Go). In an effort to draw in those listeners outside of reggaes consistent market, Sly and Robbie heightened their experimentation with non-reggae sounds, emphasizing funk in particular and tossing in some early hip-hop thoughts. Were trying to get new fans, Sly told Musicians di Perna. Once they come into the funk, theyre going to have to come into the reggae, because thats where were going to take them.

Rhythm Killers won the press attention that had eluded Language Barrier. I listened to this on the fourth of July, wrote a reviewer for High Fidelity, and didnt care that I missed the fireworks. Melody Makers Smith described the album as enthused and fused with a schizophrenic art of noise attack all lashed around a non-stop rhythm that bumps each track nose to tail tight.

Sly and Robbie followed Rhythm Killers with The Summit, in 1988, and earned a rave review from Musician, which called it pure pulse. The real breakthrough, however, came with 1990s Silent Assassin, on which the pair solidified its collaboration with hip-hop. Maybe Silent Assassin can bring some attention back to reggae again, Sly mused to Modern Drummers Robert Santelli. That is what were hoping will happen: to bring reggae, modern reggae, back into peoples ears.

To achieve this, the pair worked with a host of raps most favored artists, including KRS-One from Boogie Down Productions, Queen Latifah, and Young M.C. Dunbar and Shakespeare make the full plunge into rap and hip-hop, declared Santelli, resulting in the duos most exciting record in years.

Sly and Robbie were already paving the way for the next wave in reggaethe combination of American rap and Jamaican dub comprising the new dancehall sound. After breaking the barrier with Silent Assassins, the pair released Sly and Robbie Present DJ Riot in its wake, helping to kick off the dancehall frenzy that spread into the United States in the early 1990s. They filled out their own pioneering rhythm work with the vocals of nine dancehall deejays collected from clubs around Jamaica.

Sly and Robbie, wrote Down Beats Dan Ouellette, bring alive the kinship of reggae and rap. Dancehall would, in fact, finally achieve what reggae artists had been seeking for years: an audience for Jamaican music among African-American listeners. When Murder She Wrote hit the American charts in 1992, creating one of the first major dancehall hits in the states, Sly was credited not only as a producer, but also as the inventor of its new reggae rhythm known as bam bam.

Reggae will be mixed with every other rhythm of the world, Sly predicted at the end of the pairs interview with Billboards Sheridan, Japanese, Korean, African, Indian, all kinds of different musics, a mixture of everything so that everyone can dance. As long as there is a groove, that is the key.

Selected discography

Sly and Robbie Present Taxi, Mango/Taxi, 1981.

The Sixties, Seventies + Eighties = Taxi, Mango/Taxi, 1981.

Crucial Reggae Driven by Sly and Robbie, Mango/Taxi, 1982.

Raiders of the Lost Dub, Mango/Taxi, 1981.

A Dub Experience, Mango/Taxi, 1984.

Reggae Greats: Sly and Robbie, Mango/Taxi, 1985.

Language Barrier, Island, 1985.

Rhythm Killers (includes Boops [Here to Go]), Island, 1987.

Taxi Fare, Heartbeat, 1987.

The Summit, RAS, 1988.

Two Rhythms Clash, RAS, 1989.

Silent Assassin, Island, 1989.

Sly and Robbie Present DJ Riot, Mango/Taxi, 1990.

Sly and Robbie Hits, Sonic Sound, 1990.

Remember Precious Times, RAS, 1993.

With Peter Tosh

Legalize It, Columbia, 1976.

Equal Rights, Columbia, 1977.

Bush Doctor, Rolling Stones, 1978.

Mystic Man, Rolling Stones, 1979.

With Black Uhuru

Sensimillia, Mango/Taxi, 1980.

Black Sounds of Freedom, Shanachie, 1981.

Red, Mango/Taxi, 1981.

Tear It Up, Mango/Taxi, 1982.

Chill Out, Mango/Taxi, 1982.

The Dub Factor, Mango/Taxi, 1983.

With Grace Jones; on Island

Warm Leatherette, 1980.

Nightclubbing, 1981.

Living My Life, 1982.

With others

Bunny Wailer, Bunny Wailer Sings the Waiters, Mango/Taxi, 1980.

Ian Dury, Lord Opminster, Polydor, 1981.

Joe Cocker, Sheffield Steel, Island, 1982.

Rolling Stones, Undercover, Virgin, 1983.

Herbie Hancock, Future Shock, Columbia, 1983.

Bob Dylan, Infidels, Columbia, 1983.

Mick Jagger, Shes the Boss, Atlantic, 1984.

Maxi Priest, Maxi Priest, Virgin, 1988.

Solo LPs by Sly Dunbar

Simply Sly Man, Front Line, 1976.

Sly, Wicked and Slick, Front Line, 1977, reissued, 1991.

Sly-Go-Ville, Mango/Taxi, 1982.


Billboard, April 11, 1992; June 26, 1993; July 10, 1993.

Down Beat, September 1983; July 1985; March 1991.

High Fidelity, September 1987.

Melody Maker, July 18, 1981; July 6, 1985; August 10, 1985; May 30, 1987; March 10, 1990.

Modern Drummer, April 1990.

Musician, August 1981; February 1982; August 1984; August 1987; October 1988.

Rolling Stone, October 24, 1985.

Village Voice, July 7, 1987.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

Sly and Robbie

views updated May 21 2018

Sly and Robbie

Reggae group

Drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are modern masters of rhythm. According to one estimate, the two musicians have contributed their distinctive rhythms to an estimated 200,000 recorded tracks, most of them in the Jamaican reggae style. Constantly active musically, Dunbar and Shakespeare have recorded under the Sly and Robbie name, released recordings by other artists on their own Taxi label, and contributed to recordings for other producers on other labels, both in and beyond the reggae field.

Lowell Fillmore Dunbar (later called Sly, it is said, because of his admiration for the music of Sly and 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 on 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 London Independent. 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 before they ever met. One night in 1974 they were performing with different bands at the rival clubs Evil People and Tit for Tat, which were next door to each other in Kingston. On breaks, each went to check on the other's playing, and the two then 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 have remained devoted 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 hear 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 and 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, such as Peter Tosh's Legalize It and a series of recordings by the group Black Uhuru. 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 band-mate several years earlier. 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's "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 presented 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 and Shakespeare's services. These ranged from the unorthodox diva Grace Jones, whose Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing albums were produced by Sly and 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 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 and 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 and Robbie using conventional instruments. A Sly and 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 and Robbie became as noted for their studio experiments as they had been for their conventional rhythm tracks.

For the Record …

Members include Sly Dunbar (born Lowell Fillmore Dunbar on May 10, 1952, in Kingston, Jamaica); Robbie Shakespeare (born on September 27, 1953, in Kingston, Jamaica).

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 and 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.

Addresses: Record company—Mango Records, 400 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10003.

Many of the pair's most experimental ideas were saved for their own Sly and Robbie albums, which appeared with increasing frequency from the early 1980s onward; Sly and Robbie were one of only a few rhythm makers to record and tour as a named act. Some of their albums showcase 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 Sly and Robbie continued as producers and performers on others' albums; U.K. dance hits such 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").

In 2004 the pair released Version Born, joining with Killa Priest, N'Dea Davenport, and Tricky on many tracks, including a cover of a Eurythmics song. According to Nigel Williamson in the London Times, the team of artists on this album was "as adventurous as it is stellar." Paul Jackson, in the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, praised the tracks that feature hip-hop stars Black Thought and Killah Priest, noting that "a tuff vocal delivery best enhances the fat, spartan bass lines of Robbie Shakespeare and the busy-but-never-pretentious drum patterns of Sly Dunbar."

In 2005 Dunbar told Tom Cardy in the Asia Africa Intelligence Wire that their partnership has lasted as long as it has "because of the respect for each other and the love. There's no ego or anything like that. That's the reason." He also said that they didn't fight because they realized they shared a higher goal: "We always remember where we are coming from. Individually we are strong, but together we are stronger."

Summing up his approach to life and to work, Dunbar told Cardy, "Every day is music. The world today is music. Everywhere you go, whatever you do. If you are in a car driving that's like a rhythm in itself. Anything you hear—the wind blowing out of the air conditioning, you can feel the rhythm." He added, "When I'm sleeping I have the radio going, the television going, all the same time. When I wake up, I wake up in rhythm."

Selected discography

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).

(With Bill Laswell) Rhythm Killers, 4th and Broadway, 1987.

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 and Robbie, Music Club, 2001.

Version Born, Palm Beats, 2004.



Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton, Reggae: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides/Penguin, 1997.

Larkin, Colin, editor, The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae, Virgin, 1998.


Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, April 15, 2004, p. NA.

Guardian (London, England), December 26, 1993, p. Observer Review-2.

Independent (London, England), September 28, 1997, p. Features-66; March 12, 1999, p. Features-11; April 17, 2003, p. NA; July 18, 2003, p. 17; August 29, 2004, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1988, p. Calendar-11; April 28, 2000, p. F22.

Times (London, England), August 21, 2004, p. 17.


"Sly and Robbie," All Music Guide, (February 23, 2005).