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Reggae Legends

Sly and Robbie

Sly and Robbie

By Tom Orr
Published September 9, 2005

Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have been called the greatest such team in reggae, while their skills have carried them well beyond the reggae realm.

No matter how advanced drum machine technology gets, reggae at its most genuine will always be characterized by at least one core element: a real live flesh-and-blood drums and bass team. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have been called the greatest such team in reggae, while their skills have carried them well beyond the reggae realm. It seems forever that they’ve been identified as a duo, but they’d both honed their respective chops prior to their first mid-’70s teaming. Dunbar had expanded the parameters of reggae drumming in sessions at Channel One studio, Shakespeare’s resume included work with Jack Ruby’s Black Disciples. After hearing and quickly coming to appreciate each other’s playing, they cemented a partnership that’s been 30 years long and still strong.

          Sly and Robbie’s near-perfect steadiness is embellished by their own characteristic touches, including Shakespeare’s subtly penetrating tones at key rhythmic moments and Dunbar’s on-and-off-the-beat accents. Whatever the secret, their playing has graced the music of more reggae stars than you can shake a spliff at. Besides extended stints as the studio and touring rhythm section for Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru, Sly and Robbie have laid it down for Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, Dennis Brown, John Holt, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Horace Andy, Judy Mowatt, Yellowman and countless others.

          Additionally, the volume of work they took on and the rewards reaped from it enabled them to start their own label, Taxi Productions, which came to be seen as a kind of Jamaican equivalent of Motown. With Taxi, Sly and Robbie were able to boost the profiles of such promising hitmakers as the Tamlins, Jimmy Riley and Ini Kamoze.

          As much as they did for reggae, it didn’t take long for the rest of the music world to take notice of the “Riddim Twins” expertise. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Herbie Hancock, Joe Cocker, Grace Jones, Carly Simon and others have enlisted the pair’s services. And they’ve put out releases under their own name where the reggae beat was nowhere to be found, including the funk/hip-hop-leaning albums Language Barrier and Rhythm Killers. When dancehall replaced roots reggae as Jamaica’s dominant sound, Sly and Robbie were on the cutting edge of that genre’s programmed grooves, producing monster hits like Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote.”

          Keeping one foot in reggae and the other ever-willing to explore, Sly and Robbie continue to rule the drums and bass roost.



Taxi Fare (Heartbeat)

Dub Revolutionaries: Sly And Robbie Meet The Mad Professor (Ras)

Ultimate Collection: In Good Company (Hip-O)