Published Oct 01, 2006Ever since its incarnation its been an uphill battle for reggae to make serious inroads in the mainstream music pantheon, largely because it has faced below the belt criticism that has claimed all reggae sounds the same and suffered infantile stereotypes that propagate the notions that reggae is first and foremost the product of stoner culture, and is largely a feel-good novelty genre not fit to sit on par with serious music.
Enter Sly and Robbie. Heres a duo that has made it their mission to see to it that the reggae beat does not remain stagnant, to break stereotypes and constantly move the goalposts of reggae music. Sly himself is quoted as saying that if a drummer plays the standard reggae beat the one drop every night, eventually hes going to get bored and change the beat. Sly and Robbie must have been getting bored a lot over the last 30 years because theyve furiously changed the beat and style of reggae so many times that many people ceased to call what they were doing reggae, using names like drum n bass, dancehall and ragga to explain what was going on between intro and coda. Theyve injected everything from funk, folk, heavy metal, avant-garde, disco, hip-hop and techno into reggae while still looking to its roots of ska, mento, Kumina, and Rasta Burru drumming. Theyve helped to write the soundtrack to the political, social and religious lives of Jamaicas sufferahs. Whats more, after a bad experience with ganja onstage with Peter Tosh they gave up the herb talk about busting stereotypes. The only reggae backing musicians whose names are known by even the casual fan of Jamaican music, Sly and Robbies constant innovations and tireless work ethic have enabled them to have more influence over the direction of the last 30 years of Jamaican music than any other single artist, duo or band.
It would be harder to name the reggae artists that Sly and Robbie havent played with than to spend the weekend it would take to list off the ones theyve either backed up or produced. Such is the ubiquity of their names on the Jamaican music scene that one statistician estimated they've played on approximately 200,000 tracks, and that doesn't count remixes, versions, and dubs, and Sly himself estimates that he probably played on half the sessions in Jamaica in the late 70s.
1952 to 1966
Lowell Fillmore Dunbar is born on May 10, 1952 in the Windward Road area of Kingston, Jamaica to airport employees. His mothers nickname for him is Charles but the rest of the world would eventually know him as Sly. At the Trenchtown Comprehensive school Sly is infatuated by a performance by Ken Booth and the Gaylads and later falls under the spell of Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibbs after watching him on Jamaican Bandstand. Instead of spending his school lunch money on nourishment he takes to dropping it in the jukebox.
Robert Warrendale Shakespeare is born September 27, 1953 in East Kingston. His father works for the Water Commission and his mother is a domestic helper. During high school he listens to heavy British rock bands and country and western and soon falls under the spell of Treasure Isles resident bassist Jackie Jackson.
1967 to 1968
Studio One singer Lloyd Parks gives Sly his first exposure to playing music. The two sit in Slys kitchen and record using a home tape recorder with Parks on guitar and voice and Sly playing drums.
"Before I even started recording in a studio or playing in a band Lloyd Parks would come around my house and I would play on the table or on pans and pots and we would record and listen back to what we were doing. Where the teaching really came from was from listening back at an early age. We had the privilege of listening back to what we were doing so then we could go and correct ourselves again. At that time I had never sat around a drum set.
Robbies older brother, Lloyd, and his bandmates in the Emotions, including Max Romeo, often hang out in his yard where each one is expected to take a turn on an acoustic guitar. "We used to light a spliff, lick a chalice, and then any man reach for the guitar and just play something, he later remembers. But it wasnt until watching Aston "Familyman Barrett play bass in the Hippy Boys that Robbie decided that was the instrument for him. "When I heard Familyman play the bass up live and personal I say you have to teach me to play this. I remember the next morning I was sleeping and he come and woke me up and say you want to learn, here is some new thing. Everyday he would come and do that. Ronnie "Bap Williams from the Hippy Boys gives Robbie an acoustic guitar to play bass on. Robbie practices relentlessly, bandaging his fingers when they bleed, and breaks old 45s to use as guitar picks. His first bass is a Hoffner violin style "Beatles bass, given to him by Familyman.
Sly leaves school at age 15. He is supposed to go to Kingston College but tells his mother he wants to play music instead. He starts his first band called The Yardbrooms but they only play one show at the Teens and Twenties Club. Not long after Sly goes to a rehearsal with his friend Ranchie McLean for the RHT Invincibles. They are based out of a Rasta bakery named the Rainbow Healing Temple (thus the RHT) and led by organist Ansel Collins. The bands drummer, Lloyd "Tin Legs Adams, leaves the rehearsal early and Ranchie tells Sly to sit in. Ansel is impressed by the teenager and soon sets up recording time at Federal Studio for a four song session. One of the songs they play is "Night Doctor. Collins holds onto the song for a year and then eventually sells it to Lee Perry who puts it out as an Upsetters track on the Return of Django album. Sly also records his first vocal on a song called "Diplomat. Ansels becomes a mentor to Sly during this and teaches him about the music business, including how to play for the popular limbo and fire eating floor shows at the hotels. But at this point Sly isnt keen on playing the accompanying Jamaican folk style called mento.
"Night Doctor is a hit as far away as England. The deejay at The Lord Palmerston in South East London cant manage to take it off his turntable on the night of its release in the UK. Slys drumming propels the instrumental at an entirely new pace, making the record a stand out among organ instrumentals of the time.
Robbie joins the Hippy Boys when Familyman gets busy, first with the Upsetters and then with the Wailers. As Familymans commitments grow Robbie, as his protégé, is able to pick up the extra work in clubs and in the studio. His first recording session is for Sonia Pottingers Gay Feet label. The song is "Youll Never Know by Errol Dunkley, a cover of the Beatles "Ill Be Back. "Everyone hear about me, this little bass player that play like Familyman, he remembers. He goes on to follow in Familymans footsteps in more ways than one the Wailers bassist got his nickname because of his large progeny. For his part, when asked, Robbie isnt exactly sure how numerous his offspring are.
1970 to 1973
Sly plays on massive Jamaican and UK hit "Double Barrel by Dave Barker and Ansel Collins. The song goes on to reach number one in the UK National Charts in the spring of 1971. Sly thinks he has made it in the music business and his success leads to steady work in the studios and the clubs.
Sly and Ranchie leave Invincibles and join Tommy McCooks Supersonics and The Volcanoes. It is the latter bands manager that gives Sly his nickname after his fondness for funk stars Sly and the Family Stone. "When I was playing in The Volcanoes the band leader used to say, everyday you listen Sly, Sly, Sly. Whats up with Sly? I said I dont know, I like him. Everything I do I say just like Sly, everywhere I go I say just like sly. I was playing in a hotel for like a month outside of Kingston and when that was finished we came back to town and he started calling me Sly.
The Volcanoes have a regular Wednesday gig at Dickie Wongs Tit for Tat Club on Red Hills Road, Kingston. The band evolves into Skin, Flesh & Bones a name evoking American bands like Earth Wind and Fire. Robbie Shakespeare is playing bass with Big Relation down the street at Evil People Club. During breaks each band would go and listen to the other play. This is the first time the two musicians meet. Typically bands would spend the day in various studios playing reggae and the evenings working in the clubs playing the more popular American soul and R&B styles.
Sly and Ranchie start a record label (the exact year is unclear some say 1972, others not til 1975) called Taxi. One of their first productions is future Black Uhuru singer Michael Rose doing a cover of Ken Boothes "Artibella. Around the same time Robbie also starts a label called Barbell to record his own productions. He has some success with Johnny Clarkes "Its True and "Fancy Make-up and Cornell Campbells "Two Faced Rasta. Neither label ends up being very active, however.
The Wailers are recording their Island Record debut, Catch a Fire, at Harry Js but Familyman is temporarily out of the country. Robbie is asked to come and play bass on a few songs in his place. He lays down tracks for "Stir it Up and "Concrete Jungle and later has a hard time convincing people that it is him, not Familyman, on those songs, such is the similarity of their sound and style.
Robbie also joins Bunny "Striker Lees Aggrovators, an active recording and live band.
Robbie initiates the historical partnership by convincing producer Bunny Lee to get Sly in on an Aggrovators session at Channel One studio.
"After I saw Sly play I said Bwoy, Bunny Lee, I saw a little drummer, we have to try him. Book a session now. Bunny Lees a man confident with what I say so he called the session and I went for Sly. The pair first record on a John Holt session.
Lee Perrys Black Ark studio also opens in 1974. Both Sly and Robbie make up Perrys ever-changing session band, The Upsetters, at this point, but not on a full time basis. Other commitments would keep them moving around the island.
Sly tours with Jimmy Cliff throughout the US and Canada, making a stop in Toronto. Over the years his contact with Canada is positive and Toronto especially becomes one of the main places he feels reggae has taken hold.
"These people in Canada are die-hard reggae lovers, he would later say. "When you go to these places you really have to play good. I cant remember playing a bad concert or getting a bad review in Canada.
Robbie shares bass duties with Familyman on Burning Spears seminal debut for Jack Ruby, Marcus Garvey, and is part of Inner Circles studio band.
A fairly new studio on Maxfield Road named Channel One hires Sly as the bandleader of their new house band, The Revolutionaries (in true Jamaican fashion the same band would also record at other studios under he name The Professionals or The Mercenaries). The studio is owned by two Hookim brothers (Jo Jo and Ernest) and also houses a bike repair shop run by two other brothers, Kenneth and Paulie. The Revolutionaries are largely responsible for defining Channel Ones sound and making it the dominant studio on the island for almost 10 years. Initially Ranchie handles the bass duties with Robbie sitting in occasionally on either piano or guitar. It isnt until later, during the song "Jah Jah Give Us Life to Live, that Robbie and Ranchie switch.
Slys first major contribution to reggae, a drum beat that becomes known as rockers, shows up on a Mighty Diamonds song call "Right Time. The rhythm track for the song is recorded in exchange for free session time that engineer Ernest Hookim gives to Sly. The new sound essentially a double hit on the rim of the snare on first beat and offbeat of the bar (1 and), is designed by Sly to combat the flying cymbal sound that competitor Bunny Lee is having hits with on songs like Johnny Clarkes "Move Out A Babylon. Unlike most musicians at the time, Sly is not content to copy whatever style is popular. He figures if he can come up with a new sound Channel One will have an edge in the market. He is right. Rockers makes the dominant one drop of the day outdated and marks a new era for reggaea fresh urban sound with a hint of American disco. The style is rapidly copied by nearly all the islands producers. Even Studio Ones Coxsone Dodd the man responsible for many of the original rhythms Channel One versioned for their earlier hits, updates many of his classic tracks by adding his own version of Slys double drumming style. This heightens the hostility between the two studios with Channel One winning out when it rejuvenates the careers of many of Dodds former stars by voicing them over the new rockers riddim. The rhythm is so popular that all reggae for the next two years ends up being called rockerspopularized even further by a feature film of the same name in 1976.
"Right Time was the first time I experimented with breaking out of the typical one drop thing, Sly would later say. "I could sense that if everybodys going to play this fly cymbal then after awhile everything is going to sound the same, so I was trying create something else.
When "Right Time becomes a hit Sly is given carte blanc by Jo Jo to experiment how he sees fit at Channel One. Ernest and Sly spend days at a time in the studio tweaking the drum mix, Sly always trying to achieve the high quality mixes he hears on American hits. In an attempt to get the right vibes for sessions they would even energize the musicians by flinging bottles against the studio wall. He would later say that Channel One was like a family all "trying to move the music forward.
"This is when I really started going for it. I would go home in the evening and I would just work out patterns in my head and I would listen to things that Lloyd Knibbs would play and I would take ideas from that and develop on that.
The rockers style would help to make Channel Ones name, changing its reputation from a studio that produced mainly soul covers to a place producers could go for rootsy and militant sounds. Ernest and Slys drum production gave the studio a much sought after contemporary sound causing it to be popular not only for inhouse productions but also as a studio for hire. Over the next few years some of Jamaicas top cuts ("Woman is like a Shadow, "C.B. 200, "Ballistic Affair) would come out of Channel One.
Slys first solo album, Simply Sly Man, is released on Virgin. The rhythm tracks are recorded at Channel One but while the tapes are owned by Jo Jo, the studio owner gives them to Sly after already paying him to play on the sessions. In return Sly gives Jo Jo the rhythm track to a new song hes working on. The song, a futuristic proto dancehall, is used by Hookim to voice already rising star deejay Dillinger on a new song "Cokane. The track becomes a massive hit. Such a beneficent relationship is rare between a studio owner and his musicians. In normal circumstances the producer/owner finances the sessions and owns the rights to it, paying musicians only a pittance on a per track basis.
Sly decides to invest the advance money from Virgin in a new record company as a way for he and Robbie to have more control over their creative output. With the Taxi and Barbell imprints already created, though largely dormant, they choose to resurrect the Taxi name for the new company because of Slys habit of having his own personal taxi driver on retainer.
Robbie remembers: "Sly used to love to take a lot of taxi at the time. He had a permanent taxi used to carry him around with a driver by the name of Shorty. We used to get a lot of joke outta that. (interview)
Among many other acts, the duo work closely with conscious roots vocal group Culture, producing and playing on the bands ominous debut album Two Sevens Clash. They stay on as the groups rhythm section until the band splits in early 80s and are able to create some of most enduring roots and culture tracks of the era, thanks largely to their ability to marry traditional roots reggae and contemporary beats.
The other main collaboration that begins this year is a four year recording and touring relationship with former Wailer Peter Tosh. When Tosh starts own band, Word Sound and Power, he asks Robbie to play bass. Originally Carlton Barrett and Santa Davis plays drums on the first release, Legalize It, but Robbie convinces Tosh to get Sly for the tours and subsequent albums. Robbie puts himself in charge of the music and actively creates rhythms that separate Tosh from other acts. He encourages Sly to stray from the one drop style of the dayeven having to argue with Tosh about itand brings more melody to the bass to compliment Peters voice. While on a world tour with Peter Sly and Robbie live on bread and eggs and save their money to invest in Taxi.
"When we started with Peter Tosh, the first tour we were getting like $100 a week for pay and like $240 for lunch money, remembers Sly. "What we did was go to the hotel and take the bread and the egg and put in a black garbage bag and we keep it about. Then we take our money and buy equipmentbuy tape and then bring it back home to do our recording. We dont buy any food.
The tours with Tosh prove fertile for other reasons too. While opening for the Stones it dons on Sly that reggae drum beats dont sound as powerful or loud as rock rhythms. Ever in search for a new sound he starts to incorporate straight rock drumming into his performances.
"When we get up to the rock festivals we realize with the one drop not every engineer could really mic it in a live situation to really make it come more powerful, but the rock and roll drummers drums were powerful, he remembers. The lessons learned from rock drummers will come in handy as Sly helps to create a form of militant reggae drumming with bands like Black Uhuru over the next few years.
Another development for the duo comes when they realize that ganjathat ever present mind altering accessory for reggae musiciansnegatively affects their playing.
"When I used to play with Peter I used to smoke one spliff and thing like that, recalls Sly later. "When you playing with Peter and youre a youth you want to show that youre big and everyone in Jamaica was smoking most of the time. Then, after awhile, it sort of make me feel laid back. I remember one night we did a concert with Peter and Robbie and myself had smoked a lot of herb before and when we went on stage the bass sounded like it had one string and I could hear all night this doo-doo-doo. And I remember trying to lick the cymbal and I miss the cymbal. So I listen to the playback of the concert and it wasnt sounding that great for us, you know?
The duo vow not to smoke before a session or concert again and by the early 80s theyve given it up totally. But even while they abstain Sly in particular believes that ganja smoke adds something to the studios sound and encourages musicians he works with to smoke if they wish.
When Bob Marley arrives back in Jamaica after recovering from his assassination attempt to do a session with Lee Perry the international king of reggae wants Slys magic on the new tracks. Marleys long time drummer Carlton Barrett is known for his mastery of the one drop but Marley understands the need to update his sound. Perry initially tells Sly to play a one drop but Marley convinces him to try the more modern steppers sound where the kick drum hits on all four beats of the bar.
Sly recalls: "Lee Perry said I want a one drop. But Bob said "no, I dont want a one drop from Sly. I want your kind of beat.
While Sly doesnt remember the songs recorded that night, and doubts theyve ever been released, it is possible he laid drum tracks for either an alternate take of "Smile Jamaicathe first instance of a Marley song with a steppers riddim, or "I Know a Place. Marleys next album, Exodus, features Carlton Barrett playing the same rhythm on the title track.
Later Sly is contacted by Perry to do another Marley session, this time the song is a Perry/Marley collaboration called "Punky Reggae Party. Perry initially records it in England with ASWADs drummer but isnt happy with the track. Sly finds there is no count in and must find the beat using an odd snare pattern at the beginning of the song.
At Marleys cue Sly does a drum fill to introduce the verse and ends up finishing the song in one take. "Punky Reggae Party ends up being one of Marley and Perrys best and most inventive collaborations.
Slys releases a second solo album, Sly, Wicked And Slick, a potent mix of jazz and reggae with unbridled drums pummeling the mix, the first instance of a reggae bass solo complete with snapping and popping, and free jazz saxophone. The genre bending also features Lee Perry-esque clashing gongs and noises coming in and out of the mix. It is daring by Jamaican standards.
The revolution Sly and Robbie helped start at Channel One shows the first signs of unraveling as tragedy strikes. Jo Jos brother Paulie is shot dead at Greenwich Town beach during a dominoes game. The political violence and warring gangs spill over into the area and many musicians stop going to the Maxfield Rd studio. Jo Jo relocates to New York. With Jo Jo largely out of the picture and Sly and Robbie in demand at other studios, as well as on world tours backing up Peter Tosh, Channel Ones popularity dips until 1979 when the Hookims invest more money into the studio and bump its capacity up to16 tracks. But by this time a new band, The Roots Radics, must try and fill the Revolutionaries shoes as the studio experiments with the early dancehall sounds of Lone Ranger, Yellowman and Barrington Levy.
The ubiquitous violence on the streets of Kingston touches many musicians, some fatally. Robbie takes to carrying an unlicensed gun and is arrested. Soon after he purchases a licensed one. Sly would later point out that many musicians carried guns for protection during those days: "At night time you have to go home late at night from the studio and a lot of the people you encounter dont know youre a musician. Youre just protecting yourself and your family.
The duos first worldwide hit produced and performed by them, is the Peter Tosh/Mick Jagger duet "Dont Look Back. The world starts to take notice of Sly and Robbie but the duo still have charts to top at home. They begin in their production partnership in earnest and look for an artist to feature on Taxi. But they face opposition from other producers, not surprisingly in such a competitive music industry and are told their projects wont succeed because of lack of funding. At first no one wants to be a guinea pig for Taxi but everything does work out when Robbie contacts Jamaican star Gregory Isaacs and he walks through a door a few days later to record six songs for the new producers. One of those, "Soon Forward, marks their first number one on the local hit parade and makes Isaacs the biggest solo artist on the island.
The Taxi label takes off with the help of longtime musical comrades, AKA The Taxi Allstars: Ansel Collins, Ranchie McLean, Radcliff "Dougie Bryan and Geoffrey Chung. They forge a new style focused on Slys mechanized beats and Robbies ability to synchronize an old school rocksteady sense of bass melody with sparser heavier and more modern grooves. They constantly look to UK and US pop music for inspiration and, or course, push the volume of the bass and drums even further up in the mix, often relegating organ and guitar to the background. Among Slys new arsenal of beats is the "Sly Tacklea beat built around a military style drum roll, and a stutter roll on the snare based on the sound of a basketball dribbling. Robbie continues his fiercely independent mindset making sure each bass track is unique.
"If a man tell me to play a song like that I would say yo, go and get that person that play that song. Dont ask me to sound like another man. I was one strong against that. Each man have his different style.
It would be futile to name all the artists that are to pass through Taxis ranks but among them are most of the islands best such as Yellowman, The Viceroys, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Jimmy Riley, Ina Kamoze, The Tamlins, General Echo, Junior Delgado and the Wailing Souls.
Robbie is supposed to be one of the stars of Ted Bafaloukoss ragamuffin Robin Hood movie Rockers, along with Burning Spears drummer Leroy "Horsemouth Wallace and Dirty Harry, but the cameras draw too big a crowd on the Kingston streets and he gets camera shy. His part is small but memorable and with no script to speak of the actors do an admirable, if not highly entertaining job of improvising the entire dialogue.
Early in the year there are signs that the world is paying attention to Sly and Robbie when French singer Serge Gainsbourg travels to Jamaica to record a reggae album called Aux Armes Et Caetera with the duo. The will go on to record with Gainsbourg again and tour his native France.
Sly and Robbie begin a partnership with Black Uhuru, a Rastafarian vocal trio newly reformed around singer Michael Rose. The duo hone their arranging skills as they match Roses modal vocals and dread lyrics to a new style of rhythm. They are put in charge of Uhurus second album, Showcase, and build new rhythms around the rock and soul beats Sly picked up while on tour with Peter Tosh. During that tour he also falls in love with the sound of the syndrums on Ms "Pop Muzik. He buys a set to take back to Jamaica but finds during the first sessionBlack Uhurus "Guess Whos Coming to Dinnerhe is unable as yet to program them. As such he ends up playing the electronic kit manually, using its preset sounds. Robbie shifts gears as well and hands the melodytraditionally the basss role in reggaewholly over to Rose, keeping the low end more rhythmic and less harmonic. This new bass style would influence not only the burgeoning dancehall and ragga but also drum n bass, jungle and American hip-hop. They mix the bass and drums as the highest instruments on all tracks even burying out Keith Richards guitar riff in "Shine Eye Gal despite Robbie later claiming "that phrase is one of the wickedest. Thats what makes that song. The results took Jamaican music by storm and set Black Uhuru on the path to become the worlds most famous reggae group when Showcase is picked up by Virgin Frontline.
The 1980s will see Sly and Robbie burst onto the international scene with everyone from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Carly Simon and Joe Cocker queuing up for their services. There is even an ill pairing with James Brown where the godfather of soul gets bluntly scolded by Robbie, irate over Browns megalomaniacal behaviour.
"I told James to fuck off because James was handling people like dog, the gregarious Robbie would later say. "He was a bully. We were supposed to reach the studio for a 2 oclock session but James never come til 6 or 7 in the evening. And when he come he want everything to be now, now, now. So when I tell him "look James, I dont know how you handle people in the States but fuck you dont come and handle us like this. I tell him he must have respect for people. I stop the session and tell we play no more.
The international spotlight begins to aim for Sly and Robbie when Island Records head Chris Blackwell employs the Rhythm Twins to put together a super studio band for his new Compass Point Studio in Bahamas and record a project with Jamaican born model Grace Jones. The ensuing slices of dance-o-licious commercial pop blend perfectly with Sly and Robbies deep dubby grooves and Jones becomes irresistible to club audiences around the world.
"Thats when things started turning for us, says Sly of the Grace Jones period. "We were trying to develop that sound for a long time. The sound of Grace Jones came from a Black Uhuru record called Sinsemilla. When we went to Nassau we took that tape to Chris Blackwell for him to hear the groove. We played Sinsemilla for him and he was knocked out. He said it was wicked, it was the freshest thing he heard. And then Alex Sadkin [co-producer] say we should probably listen to the drum and the bass on this recording an try and keep this sound. That drum and bass sound became the sound for Grace Jones.
Impressed by the cutting edge sound of Sinsemilla, Blackwell also decides to sign Black Uhuru. The crisply produced tracks feature new digital innovations such as Slys syndrums subbing in where organ and guitar tracks would traditionally go. Like many of Sly and Robbies milestones, this set of songs bares little resemblance to the reggae that came before it. Black Uhuru subsequently tours the world and is widely acclaimed as the only reggae band in Marleys wake with the potential to achieve superstar status internationally. Sadly, they never cash in on that promise but are still regarded in Jamaica as one of the great reggae acts of all time.
Sly and Robbie contribute to albums by Joan Armatrading (Walk Under Ladders), Ian Drury (Lord Upminster), and, using the name Bits & Pieces, Sly, Robbie and Tyrone Downie (Wailers keyboardist) record a single at Compass Point that makes history. The cover of Yarbrough & Peoples "Dont Stop the Musicwith all three Jamaican musicians handling the deejaying, is the first DJ song to enter the Billboard charts. Rock critic Robert Christgau names it his seventh favourite song of the year. In addition their first dubs appear, and Black Uhurus third album, Red, is released and includes a track about violence throughout the black Diaspora specifically aimed at Toronto called "Youths of Eglinton.
A Grace Jones follow up (Nightclubbing) is also recorded and one of its hits proves to be a song Sly had previously released on his own. "Pull up to the Bumper reaches number five in US black charts causing one reviewer to remark about Jones: "Never before and never since has a precisely chipped block of ore been so seductive.
Black Uhuru release Chill Out and then open for a world tour with the Rolling Stones. While in London this year they record shows for a live release and issue Tear it Up. As far as live reggae albums go it ranks among the best with studio ready performances and extended drum and bass break downs.
Slys third solo album Sly Go Ville is released. Slys solo material is not always up to par with duo stuff, prompting one critic to admit that while Sly and Robbie are responsible for some of the greatest reggae music out there, as a solo artist, Slys solely responsible for some of the most boring (and sometimes downright fatuous) albums in the genre.
In April Sly and Robbie begin work in New York, under the direction of producer Mark Knopfler, on the new Bob Dylan album Infidels. The sessions rank among the easiest and most memorable the duo undertake, finding a remarkably symmetry with Dylan who is open to the gentle reggae leanings they bring to the album. Besides recording enough songs for Infidels, outtakes of the session find their way onto future Dylan records Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove and the Bootleg box set.
While in New York Sly buys an electronic Simmons drum kit and flies it to Compass Point to record with the Stones. He overdubs a space age snare on "Too Much Blood helping to give Undercover an obvious electro club sound. Robbie is nowhere on the albums credits but insists he plays on three tracks.
On buying the Simmons drum, Sly recalls: "At that time I was looking for reggae to go to the next dimension. I thought that people were getting bored with the acoustic drums so I wanted to move it to the next level. I put myself in the frame of mind of the buying public, the listener, and if I start feeling bored then I know probably the people are feeling bored.
Despite stories to the contrary, Robbie never forsakes his bass in favour of a keyboard or computerized space bass. "I can make my bass sound anyway I want he stubbornly retorts when asked if he ever played bass on a keyboard.
Because reggae is embracing the digital realm with so much zeal, many of the regular session musicians find themselves out of work, unable to adapt to the new sounds and technology. Sly and Robbie, on the other hand, only get busier. Whether playing electronic drum, backing up touring musicians or producing, they rebalance the music industry scales in Jamaica that traditionally leave producers and studio owners holding all the cards. Few other Jamaican artists are been able to grab the reigns of their own career so independently. 1984
Sly and Robbie produce their fifth and last studio album with Black Uhuru. Anthem will win the first reggae Grammy but when Michael Rose quits the band to become a farmer, the band is unable to capitalize financially on the fame the Grammy afforded them. Sly and Robbie stick it out for two more albums as sidemen not producers but the magic has disappeared and Black Uhuru never again achieves a similar creative or commercial height.
While the Rhythm Twins are busy recording albums with Mick Jaggar (Shes the Boss) and Yoko Ono (Star Peace) in Nassau, Jamaican music undergoes its most drastic upheaval in a decade. King Jammy releases the Sleng Teng riddim constructed using a Casio keyboard for the bass and one of its beatbox presets for the drums. Only in Jamaica could this start a musical revolution but it means that anyone, no matter how musically inept, can now get a piece of the music industry. With their grip on the pulse of Jamaica a little loosened, Sly and Robbie enter into their most noncommercial but groundbreaking project to date. Their first of many collaborations with fellow sonic pioneer Bill Laswell doesnt sit well with critics or record buyers but Language Barrier is cut in the spirit of pure musical exploration. It features performances from Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock and Doug E. Fresh.
1986 to 1987
Sleng Teng and its hundreds of versions finally start to tire Jamaican listeners who are hungry for the next phase of reggae. Robbie later says that competition makes you more creative and this time their creativity helps to kick off a new style called ragamuffin or ragga. Theres still a heavy reliance on electronic rhythms but the production is up to Taxi standardsno Casios in sight and, in the case of raggamuffin pioneer Half Pint, the vibes are entirely righteous. His "Greetings, produced by George Phang but helped along mightily by the fattest riddim to come out of Jamaica during the entire 1980s courtesy of the Dynamic Duo versioning of Vin Gordons "Heavenless, literally demolishes dancehall crowds. It becomes an instant classic and a ragamuffin anthem and manages to put Sly and Robbie back on top. On recording "Greetings Robbie insists that Slys unique drumming is inspired by fellow artist Josie Wales dancing in the studio. Sly points to Phangs instruction for the inspiration: "George Phang say bwoy Sly, play some drum that when you go to dance it mek people fire gun and all that. He was conducting the session and listening to all these rolls I was making and he was walking up and down the studio and come back to me and say "ya man, mek the rolls longer. So I was playing off his inspiration.
A second Laswell produced set comes out called Rhythm Killers. Featuring Shinehead among others and including tracks by the Ohio Players and the Pointer Sisters, Sly and Robbie splice funk and dancehall into avant-groove. This time around they include more nods to the current Jamaican scene by adding "Boops, one of many such versions to be inspired by Super Cats hit of the same name.
1988 to 1989
The duo again strike gold when they produce slick cross-over star Maxi Priests eponymous breakthrough album. "Close to You goes to number one in the US and covers of "Wild World and "Some Guys Have all the Luck receive serious airplay.
"Some people think when you produce a number one record you make a lot of money. You make some money, but not really a lot, Sly later admits.
Switching gears from highly commercial to highly experimental by now is second nature and the next album the Riddim Twins work on is a hip-hop/reggae hybrid produced by KRS-ONE called Silent Assassin.
1990 to 1996
While working abroad with artists like Bill Laswell (on Materials Third Power), Sly and Robbie take a more active role in the Kingston scene. They try their hand, rather unconvincingly, at a one riddim album called DJ Riot, sample vintage Skatalites for an international hit "Tease Me and then spark a movement to bring live instruments back into reggae, resulting in the new roots scene. Their knowledge of computers and what digital technology is capable of enables them, as always, to effortlessly fuse old and new. They oversee many up and coming Jamaican artists such as Junior Reid, Spragga Benz and Snagga Puss but it is a seasoned singer/dj combination that benefits most from their innovations. The rhythm Sly and Robbie lay down for Chaka Demus and Plierss Murder She Wrote rewrites the book on reggae yet again. Using digital and live percussion on bhangra rhythms Sly picked up while in England, the song is actually devoid of traditional reggaes most important instrument bass.
"One thing about me and sly, if anything sound good we leave it, Robbie later says about the decision to have Gitsy play a bass-style line on guitar instead of the actual instrument.
"Murder She Wrotes international fame goes a long way to achieving a goal Sly and Robbie have been striving for since they started working together international credibility for reggae, and dancehall in particular, as an art form.
"A lot of people put dancehall down as the lowest form of music, Sly later comments "The future of Jamaican music is with dancehall. If you look at what Jackie Mittoo and all these guys did for ska they found a formula and they took it to the level. But dancehall is still undeveloped; it is still young. When we were growing up there was a lot of groups, a lot of instrumentals and a lot of female singers. But dancehall still hasnt covered that amount of diversity.
1997 to 1998
Sly is approached by Steinberg to record samples for their recording software Cubase. Sly spends two days in the studio playing an encyclopedia of reggae beats that eventually are packaged as "Reggae Drumsplash, a collection of 843 sampled loops.
The duo work with top dancehall musicians Beenie Man, Chevell Franklyn and Sizzla, plus achieve their second Grammy win with an album of largely commercial collaborations called Friends. Keith Richards returns to record with the duo again, this time lending his riffage to a cover of his own "Satisfaction.
The duo enter into the small Jamaican film industry and act as music supervisors for the excellent tough-lawman-versus-ghetto-gang flick Third World Cop. Robbie gets his second acting credit in the movie as "Don next door alongside reggae stars such as Elephant Man, Buccaneer, and Cutty Ranks.
Work with old friend Michael Rose begins again on a new album, the aptly titled X Uhuru, credited to all three musicians. Its not exactly a return to form for the X Uhuru-ites but does prove to be a fresh update sort of like what Black Uhuru would have sounded like had they started two decades later than they did.
No Doubt are the latest to mine the Rhythm Twins for reggae gold. The American chart toppers solicit the pair to produce "Underneath it all and "Hey Baby for their Rocksteady album, for the first time giving the band the full reggae treatment for their Jamaican inspired music. During sessions in Kingston Sly and Robbie bring in Bounty Killer and Lady Saw to handle deejaying duties and Robbie makes No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal throw away his pick and use his thumb to get a true reggae vibe.
Even though Sly and Robbie now have control over their artistic output the injustices of the past still dog them. Burning Bush Records releases a retrospective dub album of Sly and Robbie cuts recorded at Prince Jammys in 1982-3. In typical Jamaican music industry fashion all the cuts are credited to Lloyd James, AKA Prince Jammy. Robbie, now at peace with the situation, still points out, "Jammy cant play bass. What he do is take the tracks that were played for him and put his name to it. That is a form of piracy.
2004 to 2005
Sly is the voice of DJ Marshall Peters and Robbie is the voice of DJ Johnny Lawton in the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game. They also remix "Train Wreck for Sarah McLachlans Bloom Remix album. Despite being in their 50s they still tour relentlessly: in 2005 alone they do a spring tour of US with Tony Rebel and Half Pint, a summer tour of Europe and UK with Third Worlds Bunny Rugs, and spend the fall on the road with Sinead OConnor. It is with Sinead that Sly and Robbie craft one of the finest albums of their career Throw Down Your Arms. Featuring vintage roots reggae and OConnors righteous take on Rasta reasoning, it surprises even the duo how fun and powerful the album is.
After recording on what some estimate being over 200,000 sessions Sly and Robbie still keep a breakneck pace and demanding work ethic. Besides the production of Michael Franti and Spearheads new Yell Fire! album the duo release another solo production called Rhythm Doubles on Taxi and start another album where they will both share the vocals for the first time since the 1970s. Never content to rest on their accomplishments, they continue to work with new collaborators and work towards new innovations. Robbies philosophy of always trying something new causes him to look with dismay on the current state of music: "A from B everything sound the same to me right now and I hate it. It fuck up the music. I always try to come up with new ideas. And new ideas no doubt, they will hatch.
Essential Sly and Robbie
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Heartbeat, 1981)
Slys drumming changes reggaes beat yet again, this time by ignoring traditional reggae rhythms altogether in favour of heavy metal and R&B grooves. It reads like a greatest hits collection, and was a defining moment for reggaes militant era.
Sly and Robbie
Rhythm Killers (Island, 1987)
With its 80s production and sometimes off the wall electronic mayhem, many listeners find this album a dated funk-dancehall experiment, but Rhythm Killers marks the first time anyone got this ballistic with reggae. It's virtually a one-off sub-genre of experimental dancehall, much more ear friendly then the previous Laswell collaboration Language Barrier. An excellent tutorial on what Slys Simmons electronic drums were all about and collaborators Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Henry Threadgill and Karl Berger keep this from ever getting boring.
Throw Down Your Arms (Rocket Science, 2005)
Sly and Robbie tap into the vibes of the classic 70s reggae, but what makes this phenomenal is that the Riddim Twins once again go against the grain with an unlikely collaboration in what has been unfairly male territory for too long. Purists will hate this; thats why its so great.