Outside Sonic Sounds studio, Robbie Shakespeare is gesticulating wildly as he shouts a string of expletives into a mobile phone. Someone owes him money somewhere, and he’s apparently unhappy about it. He’s a big guy with a hefty frame who once served time in a notorious Jamaican prison on a gun charge, so whoever’s on the other end of the line must be sweating. Inside the studio, Sly Dunbar is the essence of calm as he adds some live percussion to a new computer rhythm; once the basic structure is in order, Robbie plugs in his instrument and deeply locks into the groove.
Sly is the yin to Robbie’s yang: if Robbie represents the sonic brawn of the partnership, Sly clocks in as the mechanical brains, a human machine virtually driven by the drums. Their unique chemistry has made them one of the greatest rhythm sections in the world.
Robbie says the two first met in the early 1970s while working the Kingston nightclub circuit. “First time I see Sly was on Red Hills Road where there was one club named Tit For Tat and one named Evil People. I was playing with the band Big Relation at Evil People and when we finished [keyboardist] Touter Harvey said he’s going to check this band named Skin Flesh and Bones. I go over there and see Sly and it sound wicked. We was doing a lot of recording and I was one of the main man with the Aggrovators band, so I call in Sly and we build a lot of tracks; everybody say Sly Dunbar sound wicked and the two [of us] together sound good. After that, I was one of the main Peter Tosh bass players, so me just draw fe Sly and there was no looking back.”
“I always liked Robbie’s bass,” adds Sly, “because when we start meeting in sessions down by Randy’s studio, we talk and ask questions. In those times, every musician used to respect each and every one, so we go and check one another, sit down and work out some music, design a few chords and things. That was then in Jamaica, but it doesn’t exist no more.”
After Sly appeared with Robbie on early Aggrovators sessions, Robbie was often a feature of hit-bound sessions held at Channel One studio with Sly’s in-house band, The Revolutionaries. Sly names a 1976 concert at London’s Lyceum ballroom, in which the duo backed the Mighty Diamonds and U-Roy, as a defining moment in their evolution. “They said that dubwise music couldn’t be played live, so when we came and start doing it live–went to drum and bass and worked it–the people said ‘No, I can’t believe it! They’re really playing it!’”
The following year, producer Derrick Harriott released Go Deh Wid Riddim, the first album to credit Sly and Robbie as artists. A natural next step was entering the production field as a duo, but Robbie says the initial recordings for the Taxi label, which they relaunched as a team in 1978, met with much resistance. “We got some free studio time for ourselves and nobody didn’t want to play at first. I remember I even stand up and cry and Sly said, ‘Cool it, Robbie man, everything will just work out.’ Then one day Gregory Isaacs came and give us six songs, and in those six songs was ‘Soon Forward,��� our first hit.”
It quickly became clear that Sly and Robbie were changing reggae forever. Previously, reggae was limited to strictly roots styles with spongy rhythms. Sly and Robbie slowly began to infuse harsh, mechanized action behind innovative beats, adding a rougher, more metallic edge to the music. Sly’s early tinkering with drum machines and Simmonds electronic drum pads was soon copied by others, ultimately presaging dancehall music’s computer-driven production values.
Sly’s growing obsession with synthetic sounds coincided with a fruitful reconnection with harmony trio Black Uhuru, leading to a contract with Island Records. Sly and Robbie’s dynamic backbeats helped make Uhuru the world’s most popular reggae act in the wake of Bob Marley’s death, and the Island link also saw the Rhythm Twins provide beats for three albums from androgynous funk chanteuse Grace Jones, including the backbone of her groundbreaking single “Pull Up To the Bumper.” Working solidly at Island founder Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point studio in the Bahamas, the team had state-of-the-art equipment at their disposal, leading Sly to experiment further with semi-electronic drums and basic drum machines.
After Michael Rose left Black Uhuru (following the group being awarded the first-ever reggae Grammy in 1984), Sly and Robbie delved further into the international arena. They made a series of collaborative recordings with genre-bending pioneer Bill Laswell in New York, resulting in the multi-textured Language Barrier, a landmark release featuring guests as diverse as Doug E. Fresh and Bob Dylan. “The Bill Laswell connection starts when we were in Compass Point and I was using the Simmonds drums,” recalls Sly. “We had done this song that was really made for the James Bond soundtrack Never Say Never Again, but I don’t think it came out too good, so we used that rhythm track to create something else and that song became ‘Language Barrier.’ Then Chris [Blackwell] mentioned Bill Laswell; I don’t remember if he was in Nassau at the same point, but we got turned on to him and we shared ideas. We did that album and the second album, Riddim Killers, which had that hit song ‘Boops.’ He hooked up people like Bootsy Collins, Mudbone, and Bernard Fowler on that album. It was great–he’s a very creative person.”
Because they had spent so much of the ‘80s abroad, Sly and Robbie’s status had taken a knock in their homeland; by the dawning of the 1990s, they were seen as out of touch and passé. But Sly is never one to sit still for long, and his ongoing fascination with technology meant the duo was able to bounce back with innovative dancehall beats, based largely on the bhangra form made prominent by Asian musicians in the UK.
“Me realize that everything was changing,” Sly explains. “Most of the records coming out in America, they was programming beats. To get the sound that they were getting on the records, there’s no way you could get it by live instruments; the whole sample thing came in and everybody start use drum machines, so we get to change too. When I was in England, I heard bhangra and, being a percussionist, I said ‘This will be wicked to work with.’ So I went back down and we cut [Chaka Demus & Pliers’ anthem] ‘Murder She Wrote.’ When I first used the bhangra thing, I used it on a song called ‘Almshouse’ with Capleton–used the tabla, but in Jamaica they call it the water drum. I’m pretty much into the Indian and Arabian sounds.”
After re-establishing their credentials in Jamaica, Sly and Robbie reached greater international glory with Strip To The Bone, their 1999 collaboration with ambient mix man Howie B. “I don’t know if Howie B’s a musician, but Howie B is very creative–more creative with this than I would think,” says Sly. “We never met him before, never really listened to his work, but once there’s music to go in and make, we just go in and make it, do what we have to do. There was no ego: Either it work or it don’t work, but you’re not going to know until you try.”
Awarded Orders of Distinction by the Jamaican government for their services to the music industry, Sly and Robbie show no sign of slowing down. After presiding over a Black Uhuru reunion in Jamaica, they recently released The Dub Revolutionaries and Version Born. The former, cut in London, is a finely crafted album with dubmeister Mad Professor featuring live instrumentation; the latter is another star-studded, multi-dimensional Bill Laswell collaboration. So what else is next for the Rhythm Twins? As I make my way out of Sonic Sounds, Drumbar and Basspeare assure me there is plenty more to come. “I think the future of reggae depends on Jamaica,” says Dunbar, “but we need different sounds. With good songs and good singers to sing them, the future for reggae is great.”