Lowell Charles 'Sly' Dunbar was born in 1952, and while still in his teens formed a deep love of music, his nickname being taken from US funk-master Sly Stone whom he admired greatly. By 1969 he was already a session drummer, reportedly making his recording debut on the immortal 'Night Doctor', recorded for organist Ansel Collins. Collins later sold the track on to Lee Perry, who gained a big hit with it both in Jamaica and the UK. Among many other formative hits, Sly was also responsible for the sticks-work on the chart-topper 'Double Barrel' and Al Brown's excellent Reggae rendering of Al Green's 'Here I Am Baby', cut towards the close of 1973. By this time, the drummer was an integral part of the Skin Flesh & Bones backing band and it was through his work with the group that he met bass-playing Robert Shakespeare. Born in 1953, Shakespeare had travelled a similar musical session path and with the same interests and age, the pair quickly formed a bond and took to working as a bass and drum team.
Rapidly the duo became the backbone of a multitude of hit records as the 1970's moved into the Roots and Rockers era, heading notably the Aggrovators and the Revolutionaries studio bands. Within these fluid groups of session players, Sly and Robbie were able to reinvent old Rocksteady rhythms, and create entirely new backing tracks to order, constantly shifting the structure of the music to new horizons. It was said that by the time other drummers had replicated Sly's latest style he had already moved on to yet more original rhythm patterns.
As the Revolutionaries, the band exploded the then conventional Reggae tempo with their groundbreaking rhythm styling and with Sly's rim-shot drum licks, propelled artists such as the Mighty Diamonds and Leroy Smart in to the charts. And as the in house band of the new studio complex of the Hookim brothers, where the hits were recorded, they made Channel One the tops as the 1970's slid past the half way mark.
Their Taxi production house and label was inaugurated in 1979 and nearly every artist great or small made the trip to their studio, and to a mutually satisfying conclusion. Major players, such as Gregory Isaacs and the Black Uhuru vocal trio passed through the Taxi doors, and laid down some of their best and most lasting work. As early as 1981, the clanking, mechanised backing to vocalist Junior Delgado's 'Fort Augustus' showed the pair's interest in new technology - in this case the electric syn-drum. In lesser hands it would have turned Delgado's impassioned vocals into an easily forgotten slice of vinyl, but with Sly at the helm it gave a foretaste of the new music of the 1980's.
Sly and Robbie can be thanked, (along with major songwriter/lead vocalist Michael Rose), for taking the roots group Black Uhuru from underground appreciation to almost mainstream acceptance, and becoming the top international Reggae band following the death of Marley in 1982. With Sly and Robbie's mesmerising, almost motorised rhythm structures and Rose on lead vocal spitting out his fearsome reality lyrics, Black Uhuru became hot musical property. Island signed them and they toured the world with Sly and Robbie, complimented by a full contingent of crack JA session-men, until Rose left in the mid 1980's to again pursue a solo career. The group struggled on with Junior Reid replacing Rose but it was all too apparent who was the backbone to the song-writing and overall sound, and without their lynchpin the group slowly lost all the international ground it had gained.
By this time Sly and Robbie had moved the boundaries of their production work from Reggae to mainstream, and had begun projects with such diverse artists as Grace Jones, Ian Dury and Bob Dylan. It seemed the Rhythm Twins could do no wrong and their brand of dense rocking rhythms were applied to many international hits. Sly's embracement of new technology and interest in other musical styles furthered their international cause, and too, continued to push the boundaries of Reggae music further out from the tight rhythm-copying studios which constantly tried to replicate the each other's hits.
Major world recognition came in the 1990's with Chaka Demus & Pliers Bhangra influenced 'Murder She Wrote', as Sly and Robbie infused slinky Indian beats with modern dancehall reggae. Further evidence came with a trio of recordings for the Taxi label with their old friend Michael Rose, who had by then become a very successful solo artist. The highly addictive 'Monkey Business' being the peak of their production work with a mesmerising almost-Reggae beat rippling under Rose's tirade against crack-cocaine. A whole album of the pair's work with Rose was issued on a white label pressing and remains a high point in both party's careers.
Whilst creating exciting new rhythms and recording just about everybody in Jamaica, the pair also laid down some exemplary instrumental and dub albums. Sometimes they collected together the version flip sides from their Taxi singles and at other times using their productions such as the 'Soon Forward' album by Gregory Isaacs. Some tracks from this album appeared on 'Slum Dub' crediting Linval Thompson as the producer, although Sly and Robbie can be heard to great effect on the stripped down rhythms.
New material was also recorded, or the rhythms were reused with the vocals removed, such as on the two instrumental albums Sly headed up for Virgin Records in 1979, with of course, Robbie ensconced on bass guitar. Here major hits of the day like 'I Know Myself' from vocalist Ernest Wilson was transformed into the semi-instrumental delight called 'Ah Who Say', with disco echoes as the nightclub era of the 1970's drew to a close.
More traditional dub albums were also mixed, and have become sought after items by collectors such as 'Disco Dub' from 1978 and 'Gamblers Choice' from 1980. Not content with the vast output of their Taxi work, Sly and Robbie also undertook mixing dubs for various other producers, notably Bunny Lee who owned a vast amount of rhythm tapes. Lee had always favoured King Tubby as his dub mixer, with his wild soundscapes completely changing a mediocre vocal track to a scintillating new creation with just some deft manipulation of the board. But as the 1980's rolled in, Tubby had taken less and less interest in actually mixing, and much of the duties were performed by his assistant Lloyd 'Jammy' James who ultimately would set up his own studio. Hence Lee looked towards Sly and Robbie to not only play in his rhythm section but to take over board duties as well. The production credit of many early 1980's tracks may say Bunny Lee but no doubt plenty of input came from the bass and drum duo along the way.
A few other bass and drum partnerships have come from the reggae world such as Aston and Carlton Barrett, Steely and Clevie, and the UK's own Mafia and Fluxy, but they have all remained fixed in the Reggae idiom. Sly and Robbie stand astride modern popular music, and have tasted mainstream success way outside of the small Jamaican sphere. Like King Tubby who has sparked the whole dance-remix-dub world, Sly and Robbie introduced Bhangra to Reggae, which in turn influenced the rise of Ragga, which in itself has altered the shape of modern club music.
The pair still continue to twist and change the shape of the modern Jamaican beat, while remaining almost unknown and unaccredited by today's hip dancers for the major influence they've made on the club scene.
MICHAEL DE KONINGH