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Issue 1101

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Sly & Robbie: Sly Speaks............

Sly & Robbie
Sly & Robbie Sly & Robbie Sly & Robbie

Lowell Fillmore Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are better known globally as Sly & Robbie, the sensational reggae superstar rhythm section and producers, who have played together as a team for nearly 40 years.

They have not spent more than three weeks apart in all that time, and unlike most married couples who have been together for half that time, have not once had a cross word or ever fallen out!

Like Madonna, Aretha and Elvis, they are famous enough to be known only by their first names. Their skills and talents as players and producers have spilled out into many other music genres, and seen them join forces with a host of major stars on stage and on record.
As indelibly branded as Coca Cola and McDonalds, Sly & Robbie is an instantly recognisable marque, and fits together as easily as Laurel and Hardy, Torville and Dean…. champagne and caviar.

Based in Jamaica at their own Mixing Lab recording studios, running Taxi records, Sly & Robbie are still in huge demand for sessions and touring. But last year they accepted an unusual invite from their own in-house recording engineer, Alberto ‘Burur’ Blackwood. He came up with the idea to turn the tables on his bosses and “hire” them for a dub project, as a huge dub fan himself.

So he asked them if they fancied the gig, if he were to book a studio and players. They jumped at the chance, and he brought in their old pals from The celebrated Compass Point All Stars.

That project spawned “Blackwood Dub,” a magnificent 10 track album, out here at the end of March. The first dub album from the duo for quite some time. Recorded at Harry J’s studio, this fully instrumental CD has the unmistakable Sly and Robbie vibe, encrypted into every track. It has a unique hypnotic, calming quality. Those drum patterns stay in your head for hours after listening to the album. Most certainly not just another dub album. You’ll hear new dimensions every time you listen to it. A very tasty set.

Sly, nicknamed after one of his heroes Sly Stone, exploits his trademark double tap on the snare rim in super-fast succession. As a former would-be drummer when I was much younger, I sat trying to copy his amazing playing on the Grace Jones track “Private Life,” and failed!

So as a fan of his playing, and of Sly & Robbie’s life work, it was a real thrill for me to be interviewing the man at breakfast time (8am his time) at his Jamaican home. When Sly first did his robotic double rim tap, for the Mighty Diamonds way back in 1976 on the seminal “Right Time,” many drummers thought it was studio trickery and perhaps an effect, like a reverb trigger. It wasn’t. It was 100% Sly Dunbar.

After that, every reggae drummer on the planet copied it, well, as best they could anyway. He’s an unashamedly “busy” drummer. If you just want a time keeper, then buy a metronome or learn drum programming. Adventurous, extremely innovative, but never obtrusive or guilty of “groovus interruptus.” His drum patterns go way outside the reggae box. He moved away from the “one drop” style of reggae drumming, and invented “rockers” and “rub a dub.” He can add fills that are virtually impossible for most mere mortals restricted to the use of only two arms…….

Sly, who will be 60 years old in May this year, left school at 15 with the sole aim of becoming a professional drummer. He practiced on empty food cans and his school desk. After a brief stint as an apprentice refrigerator mechanic, his career began with RHT Invincibles, led by Father Good’un and featuring Lloyd Parks, Bertram McLean and Ansell Collins. He made his debut record on The Upsetters single “Night Doctor.” Lee Perry produced it. In the ‘70s he was a member of Bunny Lee’s house band, “The Aggrovators,” as was Robbie at one stage.

Robbie, born September 27th 1953, also lived in Kingston. He was a bass player in his teens. They separately played sessions with various groups in the early 70s, and admired each other’s work on records before they met. In 1974, they were with bands in neighbouring clubs in Kingston, and checked each other out in their break. They got on well and ended up talking for hours after that.
Not long after that first meeting, they played their first session together; a record with John Holt and then with Jimmy Cliff. They clicked musically, as Sly says: “It was like magic.” They have played together and stayed together as a unit – The A Team – ever since. They put their longevity down to “the respect and love for each other.” They both say there is “no ego.” They both say they are stronger together, and will never forget their roots and where they came from.
After almost four decades at the top, Sly is unable to keep count of exactly how many records they have played on, but he thinks it is probably around one million tracks. It is far from just a job though. He is still obsessed with music. In fact; he often sleeps with the radio AND the TV on, so he wakes up hearing music.

The pair, who also became known as The Riddim Twins, hooked up with The Glimmer Twins when they toured with The Rolling Stones in 1982, as part of Black Uhuru’s band. Promoting the massively successful album “Chill Out,” which rocketed Sly & Robbie to international repute. Jagger and Richards loved the guys’ playing, and had them work with the Stones. Jagger also working with them on his solo project.

They have played for and produced almost every reggae artist you could shake a stick at. They are the most recorded reggae musicians on the planet. They worked with Brit’ Ali Campbell on his solo material after he left UB40. They have worked with artists as diverse as McCartney, Britney Spears, Sting, Santana, Joe Cocker, Ian Dury, Robert Palmer, Herbie Hancock, Joan Armatrading and Bob Dylan. Sly and Robbie have also had a string of their own successful albums, since the early 1980s.

They landed a top 20 hit in the UK singles charts, with “Boops (Here We Go)” which has since been sampled by many hip hop and rap acts, and nabbed by Robbie Williams on his “Rudebox” hit. In 1993 they produced “Tease Me,” for Chaka Demus and Pliers, a number one smash which bore their hallmark production and playing sound.
But it is their production work and playing for Grace Jones that really boosted their mainstream profile and shot them into a global galaxy. They produced “Warm Leatherette” and “Nightclubbing,” for the woman most famous here for slapping chat show host Russell Harty round the face on live TV. Bonkers, but bloody marvellous records she put out, and perhaps mainly due to Sly & Robbie’s treatment of the songs. Chrissie Hynde’s (The Pretenders) track “Private Life” being a perfect example of their genius.

Sly tells me how the project came about and how, to this day, the Grace Jones demos they were given by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, have never been listened to by either of them!

“We were in New York and Chris Blackwell sent for us. We went to his apartment. He said he had this Jamaican model, and she sings too. That she was into disco. He said he wanted to try some different things with her, and would we work with her? He gave us some of her recordings to listen to, and get the idea of her voice and style. To this day I have not listened to those recordings, “Sly laughs.

“We went to Nassau in the summer, and we didn’t know what we were going to play. We said, let’s just make some music. It was suggested we go somewhere and rehearse, before going in to record. We said no, we will record as we go along. On the first day and first session, we did ‘Warm Leatherette.’ The second track we did was ‘Private Life.’ When we sat there for play back, we couldn’t believe how great this thing was sounding.”

“We had not heard the songs before the day, and we just fell into the groove. There was something very special about the record. I don’t know, ummmm….a warmness. Every musician was driven by this feeling. Grace was standing in front of us singing, and there was a big picture of her on the wall.”

“Another reason for making it turn out like that; she is Jamaican. So she felt very comfortable with us and us with her. She could relate to us, and we could relate to her. There was a connection and she felt at home. She could relax and do what she does.“

Out of all the tracks Sly has played on, he chooses “Private Life” by Grace Jones as his favourite. I tell him of the days when I lived in a flat in Leicester, and below me was Steve the young chef who used to come in from work in the early hours, and put on “Private Life” by Grace Jones, over and over again at full blast. It drove me nuts, and I ended up hating that song! But I later realised just how incredible the playing and the production is on that track.

Sly adds: “When anyone speaks about that record today, it makes me feel good because we just played from what was inside of us, not what was on a piece of paper or on a demo. It was a feeling.“

Yes, there is a spirit that comes out of that record, and maybe on everything Sly and Robbie play on. It is a unique chemistry, for sure. So, what sets them apart, I ask Sly? How did they arrive at their signature sound?

“We always go for groove. We play to support one another. Robbie’s bass and my drums… a team. We like to be creative and come up with out of the box ideas, together. I try to play for the people and get them dancing, so they understand what is happening. We don’t make it too difficult for them; we make it so simple that they can get into it, feeling the beat.”

“It is about the groove. A combination of making you listen to what we play and also to feel it. There must be THAT bass line to get you dancing, “Sly sings a bass line to me over the ‘phone. “ You need to feel the whole vibration.”

Their new CD “Blackwood Dub” certainly gets the feet and booty moving, unless you are deaf or dead! It features long time companions and Compass Point All Stars house band members, Mikey ‘Mao’ Chung (guitar), Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson (percussion – both who played with Sly & Robbie on important albums such as by Grace Jones, Gwen Guthrie’s “Peanut Butter,” Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love,” from the ‘80s heyday of Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point studios, in Nassau, Bahamas.

Other players on “Blackwood Dub,” are: Dalton Browne, Dougie Bryan, Daryl Thompson, Robbie Lyn, Hansel Collins, and Skully. Recorded in 2011at the legendary Harry J studios, where Bob Marley’s Island albums “Catch A Fire,” “Burnin” and “Natty Dread” were recorded.

So why a Dub album, and why now? “Dub has never gone away, it is always there. A lot of people like it because it puts a lot of emphasis on the bass and the drums. You are not distracted by the vocal. But we like to make it fresh and add a little spice.”

“We listen to what is happening in the music globally today, and take elements and drop it inside the dub, to make it sound modern. Trying to update the sound of dub.”

Sly tells me he has been listening to African music, hip hop and R n B, so he can drop in parts of their sounds. “A lot of people would just go in and use bass and drums for a dub album, but we were trying to give different colours to each riddim (sic)… like using triangle, a splash of tambourine….different sounds to make it sound different.”
Sly reveals his motivation when making records, is to think of the people listening to them, dancing to them and specially UK and European audiences. “I remember when I started touring with Peter Tosh in 1979, you people in Europe treated us with so much respect, and had the feel for the music. It is always a pleasure to play in your part of the world, because you show so much respect to us for the music.”

“You are the reason we keep on playing, and keep on making this thing. We wanna make you feel happy. When making these albums, we are making them with you in mind.” The duo’s touring with Tosh, first established them as a unit into the collective consciousness of music fans.

He says he listens to everything that they have played on, new music and old records. “I have just gone back to some Motown songs, and hearing tambourine, castanets, conga drums, and decided to use them on the dub album. I try to use drums and sounds that are not used a lot in reggae, so people hear it and wonder what it is.”

Amusingly, Sly is unable to name his favourite track on “Blackwood Dub,” because he doesn’t know what any of the tracks are called. To explain; he tells me that when they cut the tracks, they recorded them without names to each song, and then threw some titles around. They were written down as a list and Sly doesn’t know which names stayed, and which tracks got which names added to them! He laughs loudly: “I love them all, but I have to sit down with the record and figure out the names.”

Their first foray into dub was in 1981 on the flip side to various singles. The following year saw the release of the acclaimed “Crucial Reggae: Driven By Sly & Robbie,” dub compilation. Three years later; "A Dub Experience."

The pair have played on and produced all forms of reggae, including Ragga, Dancehall, dub….Sly telling me he thinks it is perhaps 90% reggae and 10% other genres of music that they have recorded together. Sly has had his own solo albums too: “Simple Sly Man” and “Sly, Wicked and Slick.” The guys were nominated for a Grammy in 2006, for “Rhythm Doubles”- for best reggae album. They were the first act ever to release a DVD single, which MTV played to death.

Sly was perhaps the first reggae drummer to introduce the extensive use of electronic syndrums to his recordings, prevalent on their Grace Jones’ productions and an integral part of that sound at the time.
He tells me he has many influences as a drummer, from the reggae masters of yesteryear, but from listening to a lot of jazz and other genres of music, and the drummers on those recordings.

“I have listened to a lot of Harvey Mason’s stuff, he is a great drummer. Bernard Purdie is another. I am not a jazz drummer, but I have listened to a lot of it, taken ideas and transformed it to reggae. My forte was to develop reggae drumming at a level that could be appreciated by not just reggae people, but music fans outside of reggae. I like Steve Gadd, Ernie Young from Philadelphia International…. the list goes on and on…the drummer for Rufus, John Robinson, Motown drummers…I would sit down and listen to them all, take ideas and flip it to what I did.”

So does he realise just how important (and famous) he and his partner are around the world in music and within the history of music? Or does he consider himself “just a drummer?”

“To tell you the truth, when I started out - and I still feel that way today - all I wanted to do was to play music. But I wanted to be one of the best, and have many people listen to me and know what I am doing is different. I never think I am important or how important I am, because there are other players out there playing good too. What I do know is; when I sit down behind the kit, I know what I am searching for and I am focused on the people, so they can feel what I am doing and enjoy it.”

“I want to change little things and add little things in each session. People are listening and they pick out different sounds and think, ‘ohh, that’s nice.’ They do not want it to sound all the same. A lot of people have made contributions to the music. I just came in and do my bit.”

“But the way I think, I think so different. I am thinking all the time I am playing. Trying to fit in my ideas. I listen to the bass line very carefully. I try to learn the song the singer is singing, so when I go to play I can perform the song instead of just sitting and playing. That is why I could do what I did on the Grace Jones songs, because I was not just playing the song, I was performing the song. There is a big difference.”

Not content with just producing and playing for most of the major record labels around the world, the pair set up their own highly successful label, Taxi Records. Their motivation for owning a label is simple? With their own label, no one can tell them how to sound! Gregory Isaacs' "Soon Forward," was one of their earliest releases, and it topped Jamaican charts and told the music industry that the duo were deadly serious about their business. They were awesome players, awesome producers and quite frankly; guaranteed hit makers. Ini Kamoze was discovered by Taxi, and has become a major figure in Jamaican music.

2012 marks 50 years of Independence for Jamaica - 1962 to 2012 – and even though Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are unquestionably both amazing individual musicians in their own right, it is doubtful they will ever declare their independence from each other.
Cooking up the “riddims” until the day they draw their last breath. Yeah man…………

“BLACKWOOD DUB” by Sly & Robbie, is released by Groove Attack on 26th March 2012.


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