The Master Drummer Turns 64 Today

Perhaps the most celebrated drum and bass duo in history—regardless of genre—Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were both accomplished studio musicians before they met in the mid 1970s. “You know that record that goes ‘I am the magnificent!’?” says Dunbar, speaking of Dave & Ansel Collins’ 1971 smash “Double Barrel,” the second Jamaican single ever to top the UK pop charts. “I played drums on that when I was 15 years old.”  Robbie, meanwhile, was rocking with the Aggrovators, producer Bunny Lee’s ace session band.  But once the “Rhythm Twins” linked up at Channel One studio on Maxfield Avenue in Kingston, Jamaican music would never sound the same again. Interview After The Jump…

Credited as The Revolutionaries, Sly and Robbie began laying down heavy rhythm tracks for producer Joseph Hoo Kim, developing the distinctive “Rockers” style as heard on singles by the likes of Gregory Isaacs, Leroy Smart, John Holt, and Barrington Levy. Restlessly innovating their sonic approach, they continued to push the music forward on landmark releases like The Mighty Diamonds’ 1976 album Right Time, Peter Tosh’s 1978 Bush Doctor, and Black Uhuru’s 1981 Red.

When Tom Tom Club sang “reggae’s expanding with Sly & Robbie” on their breakbeat classic “Genius of Love,” they weren’t lying. The pair’s work with Grace Jones at Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas resulted in smash hits like “Nightclubbing” and “My Jamaican Guy,” which remain a treasure trove for future producers looking to flip samples into new hits. Since then Sly & Robbie have collaborated with artists as disparate as Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, and Simply Red.

“I’ve seen all the changes,” says the man who introduced Simmons electronic drums to reggae on Uhuru’s 1984 Anthem, the first reggae album to win a Grammy. Ten years later he programmed the drum machine on Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote,” one of the biggest dancehall hits of all time.

“Music today is OK,” admits Dunbar, whose Taxi Productions continues to work with younger artists like Cherine Anderson, Bitty McLean, and No-Maddz. “It could be much better. Everybody has a laptop to make their music, but most of them are singing about ‘Whine girl.’ What we need are some songwriters to write good songs.” We went searching for Sly at Mixing Lab in Kingston, Jamaica and found him right there behind his drum machine—where the reasoning commenced.

RESHMA B: Is it true what they say do you always just sit behind the drum?

SLY DUNBAR: [Nods]

All day every day?

Every day I’m right here, playing, mixing, making music.

Are you serious?

Yeah.

How long have you been doing this?

From when I was like 14 years old. You know the this record that goes “I am the magnificent, I am backed with the shack of a soul boss, most turnin’, stormin’ sound o’ soul” [humsDubba Dubba dubba pom… “Double Barrel”? I played drums on that when I was 15 years old [laughs].

And you still love it the same way?

[Smiles, nods] Yeah, still loving it. There’s nothing better than this. I’ve been doing this for maybe over 40 years now and still enjoy doing it now. You know, it’s my life.

You must have seen the music change so much on this island.

Yeah.

From Ska into Rock Steady and then into Reggae. What was that transition like?

I remember when I was a kid I always love Ska because I always love the Skatalites. Skatalites use to play the music for every production house. Used to play for Randy’s, used to play for Coxsone, Duke Reid and everything—and that was fast. The tempo went down slow and they called it Rock Steady. Rock Steady had some great songs, trust me. Wicked songs! Love songs, every kinda song. Then it went down slow to Reggae and they have people like The Tennors and then all these new Rasta artists start coming in. And then it came up a bit in the ’80s and it became like a ragga kinda thing. And from that it went to what they call Dancehall, which is a bit quicker. So I’ve seen all the changes.

And you play on all those types of music.

Yeah, yeah. I haven’t played much Ska but I’ve played on a couple and went into Rock Steady straight through.

What was the island going through at that time? Ska sounded like it was super fun. Then as it went to rock steady you had the “rude boys” trying to be all too cool for school. Then it seems reggae carried more of that political message, right?

Yeah. I wasn’t into the political side, I was into the music. Some of the artists they sing that kind of message music in the Reggae and like you said the Rock Steady was more like the love, laid-back smooth chilling and ting—you know. They use to call it Rock Steady, so you just easy. Then Reggae came with a more political kinda aggressive element, you know. And you have a group like Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Culture—all these groups coming up in Reggae.

What was the reason for that? What was the island going through at the time?

I think the artists were like seeing things and they were writing about it and singing songs about it.

This was a few years after Jamaica was granted its independence from England?

Yeah and there was a lot of things happening and they were seeing all these rude boys running around with guns and things. There were some called “Johnny Too Bad” so they were just writing songs about what they see. And Jimmy Cliff had this film called Harder They Come, so it was like a true story in a sense because everything like that was happening.

Ivan was based on a real life character.

Yeah

So was there a struggle after independence?

Well I would say in a little ways. Some people were struggling and some people were not struggling. You have the rich and you have the poor, but the music kept everybody going still. Because like in the ghetto there was music for everybody: 24-hour music.  People would string up sound systems and they would play. You would sit there and enjoy the music, go to school, come back and listen to the music. That’s it.

Somebody called sound systems “poor peoples entertainment.” Did you have to pay to go to a sound system?

We didn’t have to because sometimes the sound systems would be just stringing up on the roadside and they play. And sometimes you just sit on the next side of the road or when you passing you just listen to the music.

Were sound systems responsible for supporting local music?

I think Studio 1 and Treasure Isle were like first to start making local music for the sound because they were competing against each other so they were forced to start making their own stuff. So they would have their own material to play at the dance. If you take a tune, like for instance Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster had this kind of “war” going on. And if you check a tune like “Trying to Conquer Me” Delroy [Wilson] was saying, like, “this sound wanna conquer me but it can never conquer me.” They were good melodies, but a lot of people didn’t know this song was singing against another sound system.

So the sound systems gave producers a job in a way—they were the reason to produce local music.

It made the music more popular because all of this music was not played on the radio. You had to go to the dance to hear them.

What was played on the radio?

They had two radio stations. and they use to play a lot of English music and these stuff.

We talked about a lot of history but you seem to always be doing current stuff. I just seen Cherine [Anderson], and you have your artist Danielle D.I. How important is it to keep up with music now? Cause a lot of people say reggae has changed into this, that, and the other. What are your thoughts on music today?

Music today is OK. It could be much better. Now we have the age of technology, which when I was growing up there was no technology like this. Kids and everybody have a laptop and make their music on it. We working with Cherine, doing some work with NoMaddz, working with Red Rose, Danielle from day one. We working with a lot of different people—Bitty McLean. We still work with Ali Campbell. When you look at the industry now Ithink there are not great songs like there was in the days. But everybody’s trying. And when you come on to Dancehall, which I love very much, all we need is some great songs. Musically there’s a lot of energy going down about the music, especially in Jamaica, but we just need to find the right stuff like back then. A song like “Murder She Wrote” come in like a classic now, but when we first released it people were like “where’s the bassline?”

So what’s the real problem?

The songs! We need to get some better songs. I think that’s the problem. You know when you listen to a song like “No Jestering,” “Fatty Bum Bum,” or “No Woman No Cry,” we could take those songs and turn it into dancehall. So we need to get back songs like those, so people can relate to them and understand what’s happening. But most of the songs now don’t carry those kinds of message with it no more. If it’s like a two-day-old song you forget it now. So we need to get some good songwriters to write some songs.

So what are kind of things are the local artists singing about then?

Most of them are singing about “Whine Girl” and all these things. If they see a girl whining up on them they probably gonna sing about it, but I guess as time goes by everybody will fall into line and start doing different things cause the movement keeps happening. It just take a time.