Twenty Years Strong – Sly and Robbie
by Howard Campbell
Sly Dunbar smiles when asked what he thinks about the inevitable comparison of himself and partner, Robbie Shakespeare, to the legendary Clement “Coxsone” Dodd as Reggae’s greatest producers. “He’s [Coxsone] the greatest man,” says the dreadlocked drummer. “I’m his biggest fan and he doesn’t even know it.”
While Dunbar’s modesty concedes that accolade to the Rocksteady great, he and Shakespeare have no equal in the endurance department. Their eclectic style has encompassed Reggae’s metamorphosis from the post-colonial Rocksteady sound and the Rasta culture of the Marley era to the present Dancehall phenomenon.
There’s no disputing Coxsone’s contribution as a pioneer and visionary, but the magnitude of the “Rhythm Twins'” success, both as internationally respected musicians and producers, is incomparable.
Sly and Robbie celebrate 20 years together this year, and if the successes of the past two years can be used as a yardstick, they are in tune to celebrate another 20 in the year 2015.
Unprecedented triumphs in the United Kingdom in the past two years with the singer/DJ combination of Pliers/Chaka Demus and Brian and Tony Gold and Red Dragon, have sent the duo’s stocks soaring to an all-time high and confirmed Sly and Robbie’s status among the world’s leading producers.
Dunbar, a stocky, well-preserved 42-year-old, takes all the success in stride during a break from his hectic schedule at the Mixing Lab, the duo’s Palladian-style studio hideout in Kingston.
“The idea is to remain focused,” he says. “Once you are playing the right stuff and respect changes you’ll always remain fresh.” Respect for change has been the main ingredient in Sly and Robbie’s winning formula, something that has put them miles ahead of Jamaica’s too-many-to-count producers.
Appreciation for the early Reggae sound has been a consistent feature of their work, the international appeal of Pliers and Chaka Demus’ hits testify to that. Similar regard for other musical forms has made them in demand by a diverse batch of the world’s best musicians, from Bob Dylan to Herbie Hancock to James Brown. “We love everything,” is how Sly explains the two’s adaptability. “From Duke Ellington’s Big Band sound to Rock ‘n’ Roll (best guitars) to R&B (an entirely different groove); it helps us to keep creating all the time.”
Those creative juices first flowed back in 1972 when Sly and Robbie were resident musicians at the Tit-For-Tat club in Kingston, before being “put together” by Bunny Lee, a Coxsone contemporary who was one of the leading producers at the time. Dunbar was the more acclaimed of the two, having played on the big-selling “Double Barrel” single in 1969 at age 16.
One of their first moves was to resurrect the now famous Taxi label (established in 1972 by Dunbar and guitarist Ranchie McLean). Soon after, they began turning knobs for top acts like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and John Holt.
Though their first success with internationally recognized artistes came with Reggae greats Peter Tosh (Equal Rights and Mystic Man) and Bob Marley (“Punky Reggae Party”), the overseas breakthrough came in 1979 when they produced and fashioned the sound of a struggling group from Waterhouse, Black Uhuru. “I knew Mykal Roze [ former lead singer] through his brother whom we had worked with,” Dunbar reflects. “He came to me one day and told me his brother had died in an auto accident. They said he had a group out of Waterhouse he was a part of and that he wanted me to hear.” After a few jam sessions during which both parties struck the right chord, it was time to hit the studios where Sly and Robbie began churning out the first of the trio’s most memorable songs, including the foundation hits “Abortion,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Shine Eye Gal.” They also produced Anthem, the group’s best selling album, which won Reggae’s first Grammy award in 1985.
Grammy success and constant touring with Uhuru opened new doors for them with top record executives like Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records. “We first met Chris back in 1979 during a recording session with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. We signed with Island the following year and they acted as our distributors.” Collaborations with several Island acts followed, the most successful coming with Grace Jones and Soul singer Gwen Guthrie. They produced Jones’ Warm Leatherette and Night Clubbing LPs, as well as co-writing her biggest seller, “Pull Up to the Bumper.” They were also responsible for producing Guthrie’s biggest hit, the bitch anthem, “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent.”
Though working with Jones, Hancock and British R&B singer Joe Cocker are seen as accomplishments, it was working with Dylan on the Folk legend’s Infidel album that holds pride of place. “I couldn’t believe it when we got the call,” Dunbar reflects. A brief lull–which Dunbar describes as a “sitting and watching period”–followed, though Dunbar co-produced Maxi Priest’s early work as well as the British singer’s gold-selling Close to You album. But the most fruitful period has come in the last two years with the Dancehall explosion, the two playing an integral role in the genre’s worldwide acceptance.
“It has really caught on internationally,” says Sly of the Dancehall movement. “There’s a distinct African beat. Because there’s a lot of emphasis on the drums, people can relate to it.” And how the fans have related to Sly and Robbie’s work!
First, they produced All She Wrote, Pliers and Chaka Demus’ debut album for the Island affiliate Mango. The record, a throwback to the Dancehall sounds of the ’60s, was an instant hit, particularly in Europe where appreciation of the Ska period has never waned. All She Wrote spawned five British Top 10 singles on its way to more than 700,000 in sales. A follow-up single, a cover of the Isley Brothers/Beatles classic, “Twist and Shout,” followed suit from the duo and singer Jack Radics. It was the third time the song cracked the British charts and the first time it reached No. 1.
If that weren’t enough, they scored again recently with the unlikely Gold/Dragon team on the Ska-tinged “Compliments on Your Kiss.” It was the 16th occasion that a Sly and Robbie produced record had entered the UK Charts.
Despite the growing appeal of the Dancehall craze, Dunbar takes a few jabs at Reggae’s biggest spinoff. “Most of the time there’s nothing fresh, artistes doing 10 songs on one rhythm.”
In recognition of their landmark year, a compilation of the Taxi gang’s greatest moments is in the cards, with a tentative release set for mid-1995.
Twenty years playing music with the same person is a long time. Do they ever get tired of each other? “No,” says Dunbar, flashing an assuring smile. “We remember where we are coming from, that’s what keeps us from getting bored.”