SLY and ROBBIE: Reggae Disciples Standing up for Reggae
Words & Photos by M. Peggy Quattro
August 30, 2008 – Miami, Florida – With careers spanning more than 30 years and hundreds of thousands of recorded tracks, SLY and ROBBIE – aka the Riddim Twins – are still standing up for Reggae. Equal partners in the studio or on the stage, these world-renown artists, performers, and producers represent Reggae to the fullest. Fueled by, what Robbie calls “God power,” this ageless duo is having a seriously fun time doing it.
I caught up with Sly and Robbie, long-time friends and colleagues, after their rousing performance with Reggae Rock Dubsters Simply Stoopid, Internet sensations hailing from southern California, and Hawaii’s popular threesome, Pepper.
These groups are young, energetic, and tour 250+ days a year. For 10 years, these reggae rockers have bucked the system and achieved phenomenal success by using the Internet as their medium. Starting out by performing for 50, 100, then 500+ faithful fans, both groups now sell their original music online and draw thousands to their wildly entertaining live performances.
Last year Inner Circle opened for Simply Stoopid. This year Sly and Robbie, along with Cherine Anderson and the Taxi Gang, took to the road. After their opening set, Sly, Robbie, Cherine, Bubbler Waul (keyboards), Nambo Robinson (trombone), and Darryl Thompson (guitar) take turns on stage with Pepper and Simply Stoopid, giving the enthusiastic young, white audience a taste of real roots rock reggae, the music that influenced and inspired these rebel rockers.
I had the to opportunity to chat with Sly and Robbie about the tour, their future plans, and their take on the current state of reggae. Here’s my dialogue with the dynamic duo.
MPQ: So, is this your first experience at opening for two wildly popular white groups whose success comes strictly from the Internet?
ROBBIE: Yea, I like how you put it that way…becah’ we’ve opened for the Rolling Stones, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, we opened for the Police, a lotta big names. But talking about how you say a popular white group who got their success strictly by the Internet – no.
MPQ: So how has it been for you two veterans?
SLY: It’s been great and we’re enjoying it. It’s like the cycle starting all over again—cah’ we opened for the Rolling Stones, Police, the Talking Heads, and all.
MPQ: You don’t feel no way opening for these young crazy bucks?
ROBBIE: We’re not doing this as Sly and Robbie as an artist. We’re doing this as Sly and Robbie backing somebody. A lotta kids out there never heard of Sly and Robbie before. For one month now we’ve been touring with dem [Simply Stoopid and Pepper] – and that’s one month worth of kids every night – somebody different who now know about Sly and Robbie. A lot of dem come up and show their appreciation and say, ‘Yes,’ it’s the first time they ever heard of Sly and Robbie and they love it. So we’re gaining lots of fans.
MPQ: When they really learn about you and your history, they’re going to know they’ve heard you before, and just didn’t know they were hearing you!
SLY: The good thing about it is when Simply Stoopid bass player come on stage to play [with Pepper], and then we give the Pepper drummer the drums to play with Robbie. You can see the entertainers’ dem, when they come on stage to play, and they call us to come play with dem, and they’re excited we’re gonna play. It’s great and the crowd dem really enjoy it.
MPQ: Today, there are many reggae acts struggling to make money, sell tickets, but you two are always working. To what do you attribute that consistency?
ROBBIE: You see, we have nuttin’ else to do more den dat. We are like disciples of the music, powered by God-power. It’s something God want you to do. And when you love it and enjoy what you do, you enjoy seeing other people enjoy it demselves. You know dat’s your purpose in life, and you just work with it.
MPQ: How about you, Sly?
SLY: Boy, I’m just having fun and enjoying playing the music and seeing people happy and dancing.
MPQ: What advice do you have for acts – old, veteran, new – to reach the same broad audience you’ve seen on this tour?
SLY: They have to get young again. Yea, definitely.
ROBBIE: Sometimes some of dem get despondent over deh years, downhearted, and say they can’t carry on. We never look at it like dat, even if we feel it. We can’t look at it like dat. Like I said, we’re powered by a different type of engine. You haffi just keep moving. If you look at Pepper and Simply Stoopid, we learn on this tour a lot of things from them. We used to go every town and get a hotel. From the time we tour with dem, dey don’t go to no hotel. Straight from one venue to de next and de next—deal with de venue. We started doing it and we just start working with it. So we’ve learned things from them, yuh know, and they said they learned from us.
MPQ: What do you think they learned from you?
SLY: I think is probably seeing Robbie and myself playing reggae. They really see us create so many different patterns. They say we inspire dem a lot. So when they see us play, they just say, “wow.” And when Robbie plays bass with dem on a song, they can’t believe it, they just go nuts.
MPQ: Do you see a change in the Reggae movement?
ROBBIE: If it changes, we just go along. ‘Cah you have a type of dancehall, and yuh see the type dat Stoopid dem play – totally different. And Pepper dem, dey kinda different. Remember Police used to do a pure type of Reggae that was different – we always have a different type dat makes success.
MPQ: Robbie, I read that you said the music, right now, is not good.
ROBBIE: Disappointed now. That’s why you see so much other people take it over and run with it. ‘Cah the dancehall beat all right, but some of the lyrics, the t’ings dey say, it’s not uplifting, it not teaching nobody nuttin’.
MPQ: But you said that it all sounds the same?
ROBBIE: A lot of it sounds the same. People say Sly love the drum machine, but a lot of it, when the music start, you don’t know who’s song it is. It’s pure beat and you haffi wait till probably the artist that run it come in. So a lot sound the same. It start changing still, but I’m not taking back that talk until it do better.
MPQ: What advice do you have for artists to do better? To get with the program?
SLY: Like Robbie seh, they have to get with de program. They definitely haffi know where they want to go, dat’s the first t’ing. And they can’t forget where they’re coming from. You have to keep listening to the music – global, yuh know, and you don’t haffi change your style to somebody else’s. You just haffi keep on doin’ what you’re doin’ and do it to the best of your ability. Like Pepper, they been doin’ it for 10 years now. It’s catching on and they have a huge following – without a record deal. they just playing every night. So just keep on doing what you’re doing, and [if] it’s good, people will rock with it.
MPQ: Sly, I know you’re involved with RIAJam and the Reggae Academy. Do you find they are useful to the Jamaican music scene?
SLY: Well, it’s the first year so we haffi see how it grow and what happens for it. But it looks good.
MPQ: Do you feel positive about it?
SLY: It should be positive if they’re thinking that way. It’s funny, like, dat’s what happens in Jamaica sometime – they give up too easily. When something starts, they start [with the] ‘buts’ immediately. And the second year comes, and it might go down, and they just give up on it, when they should just try and keep it going. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forwards.
MPQ: So what’s next for Sly and Robbie?
ROBBIE: Sky’s the limit, yuh know. So we just keep movin’ on, movin’ on, and see where it takes us.
SLY: We’re goin’ on a tour to Europe [Oct-Nov] and we might come on the road next year with Simply Stoopid. they play like 250 dates, and it’s fun.
ROBBIE: Yea, Stoopid and Pepper tour like 200 and more days a year. And with a Jamaican artist, it follows, like, after the first week, “Bwoy, mi wanta go home…mi miss de food, mi miss my house, mi miss my woman,” yuh know? True. I mean if you gonna represent the music, den really represent it – with every flavor and every ounce and strength in your body. You need fi do what dem a do cah’ dey are doin’ it – representing reggae music – and the way dey do it, it automatically come over to dem. You have nobody out there representing it the way dey are. Burning Spear probably used to, but we need somebody to take up the baton. Me and Sly represent it, but we’re still backing other people. And it weird, yuh know, becah’ when a group or a one say, “Yow, mi cyaan do it no more,” it leaves us to represent it. So we just represent by wiselves. So when we go a tour 300 dates a year, or 365, or 395 days a year, we represent, yuh know. From dat we understand it’s a different work, to make people happy.
MPQ: Well, your music has always made people happy.
ROBBIE: It not really our music, yuh know, you cyaan say where ‘it’s your music,’ it’s our music – all a wi own it, yuh know.
MPQ: It’s the music you two make – and made, like for Gwen Stefano and all those others. I mean they absolutely adore you guys. You’ve really put Reggae in a professional light that it needs to continue being seen in. It’s having a very hard time right now.
ROBBIE: I know, and it’s kinda hard on us, too, still. But somebody haffi do it, and really do it serious, and represent it. And dat’s what we stand up a’do.