Theirs is the ultimate musical marriage, a partnership that, once formed, re-etched the very landscape of not just Jamaican music, but the entire world’s. Such hyperbole is oftentimes rolled out by publicity machines whenever two musical talents come together, but in the case of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, it really was an earth-shattering union. Their rhythms have been the driving force behind innumerable songs — one statistician estimated that together they’ve played on approximately 200,000 tracks, and that doesn’t count remixes, versions, and dubs. As a production team, the pair has been the equivalent of a creative storm, the cutting edge of modern dub, ragga, and dancehall.
Sly and Robbie are one of Reggae’s most prolific and long lasting production teams. The rhythm section of drummer Lowell Dunbar (nicknamed Sly after Sly Stone, one of his favorite musicians) and bass guitaristt Robert Shakespeare started working together in the mid 1970s, after having established themselves separately on the Jamaicann music scene. They are humorously also sometimes referred to as Sly Drumbar and Robbie Basspeare. For example, the sleeve notes of Black Uhuru’s Red album credit drums and syndrums to Sly Drumbar and bass guitar to Robert “Robbie” Basspeare.
Sly and Robbie may well be the most prolific recording artists ever. One estimate is that they have played on or produced some 200,000 songs, considering that some of their riddims such as “Revolution” have been used on over 100 songs.
Before joining forces, Sly was drumming for the Skin Flesh and Bones band and Robbie was the bass player for the Aggrovators. They also used to play in clubs (Sly at Tit for Tat and Robbie at Evil People), and used to check each other out. They found out that they had the same ideas about music in general (both are huge fans of Motown, Philly Sound and Country & Western, in addition to Jamaican legendary labels Studio One and Treasure Isle), and Reggae production in particular. They first worked together with The Revolutionaries for the newly created Channel One studio and label, operated by the Hoo Kim brothers.
They changed the face of reggae several times: in 1976, they introduced a harder beat called “Rockers”, which quickly replaced the then prevalent “One drop” style, then introduced the “rub a dub” sound in the early 1980s. Sly and Robbie were important in developing the trend towards computer assisted music and programming in the mid 1980s. They had a number 12 hit on the UK Singles Chart in 1987 with “Boops (Here to Go)”.
Robbie Shakespeare (right) playing with Peter Tosh on the Bush Doctor tour, 1978
In the early 1990s they introduced a novel sound with the hits “Bam Bam” and “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus & Pliers. Chaka Demus’ rough DJ vocals were matched with Pliers’ sweet, melodic, soul-influenced singing; this unusual vocal pairing was championed by Sly and Robbie. This formula has since been used with great success by the likes of Shaggy (who teamed up with singers Rayvon or Rik Rok), Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest and others. This predates and may have influenced the recent trend in some rap music where a song’s “hook” or chorus is sung by a guest, while the verses are rapped.
In the “Bam Bam” style, Sly introduced Indian tabla sounds in his drum beats, while Robbie altogether stopped playing bass on this particular project.
Sly & Robbie continued to innovate during the 1990s and early 2000s, fusing Dancehall and Latin music sounds (La Trenggae) or Dancehall and hip hop/R&B (their 2004 Big Up riddim). They had a second UK top 40 hit in 1997, with the collaboration with Simply Red on a cover of Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse”, reaching number 13. In 1999, their “Strip to the Bone” album paired them with electro producer Howie B, and together they explored new dub territories. Their 1999 single “Superthruster” from this album became a mainstream hit by being played on MTV frequently. Reason for this was undoubtly not only the pulsing beat but the high quality animated video in sinister Anime style. It showed Sly and Robbie in battlesuits chasing a Harlequin through a technological complex. As the video progresses, the harlequin turns out to be a marionette directed by the real villain. The early scene involving the Harlequin marionette bears at least a passing resemblance to Sven Väth’s 1994 animated cult-video “Harlequin”. “Superthruster” was released on vinyl and as a DVD single, its February 9, 1999 release date making it one of or even the first DVD single ever to go on sale.
In 2003 they compiled and mixed a DJ mix album, Late Night Tales: Sly & Robbie, as part of the Late Night Tales series for Azuli Records.
Far from restricting themselves to the Jamaican scene, (in which they have played for virtually every prominent Jamaican musical artist from Beenie Man to Sean Paul to Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, and others), they have been one of pop music’s most sought after rhythm sections, playing for and producing superstars such as Ben Harper, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones, Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Gilberto Gil, Joe Cocker, Serge Gainsbourg, Simply Red, Michael Franti, Sting, Khaled, Mey Vidal, Tricky, Doug E. Fresh, Carlos Santana, Sinéad O’Connor, and many more.
They have produced No Doubt’s hits “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All”. They also produced some tracks off Suggs first album The Lone Ranger including the hit version of Cecilia featuring Louchie Lou and Michie One which sold over 500,000 copies in the UK alone.
After 30 years together, they still tour and record relentlessly. In early 2005, they toured with Tony Rebel and Half Pint. During the Summer of 2005, they toured Europe and the UK with Bunny Rugs, lead singer for Third World. During the Fall of 2005 they were on the road with Sinéad O’Connor in August 2006, they appeared with Don Carlos at the Reggae on the River Festival, and in August 2007 they performed on a tour of the Western United States and Canada along with TAXI label artist Cherine Anderson, including headlining Reggae Rising in Humboldt County and The Hollywood Bowl.
They have produced several new Jamaican artists for their TAXI label, including Kibaki, Mynimoo and Zennlocc, as well as confirmed superstars such as Elephant Man and Buju Banton, for whom they re-used their 1982 instrumental mega-hit “Unmetered Taxi”. In 2006, they recorded with their original group, the Revolutionaries, to produce Horace Andy’s new album “Livin’ it up” and produced several hits for Cherine Anderson. In the 2007, they cooperated with the Italian rapper Jovanotti in the album Safari, they also produced tracks for Beatles founder Paul McCartney, Britney Spears and Madonna!