Paul Sexton tracks down Jamaica’s biggest exports Sly and Robbie to learn more of the pair’s trail-blazing history and life-long collaboration.
From Mick and Keith to Elton and Bernie, we’re pretty well versed at celebrating the durability of the great rock and pop partnerships. We can probably come up with a few in soul and blues too. But a duo forged in the reggae scene that have written and produced thousands of songs together in an alliance of more than 35 years? It’s high time the spotlight was trained on Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.
Just like their more widely celebrated peers, Sly and Robbie fit that rare mould of the long-time collaborators; it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. As writers, producers and musicians, they’ve been Jamaica’s go-to tastemakers for so long that it’s a bit too easy to take them for granted.
But when you consider that their list of credits includes major names in almost every genre, from Grace Jones to Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker to Joan Armatrading, Peter Tosh to Sean Paul, you remember the extraordinary influence cast by these two unassuming friends.
‘I suppose a lot of people look up to us because I think we’re [among] the few musicians who break every barrier of music, y’know?’ says Sly.
‘Rock n’ roll, R&B, reggae, all of these, and make an ‘it record from them. It’s unbelievable when you’re just having fun and enjoying what you do.’
We’re chatting during a rare afternoon off for the in-demand pair, soon after they arrive in the little village of Saint Laurent des Arbres, near Provence. They’ve been hard at work on a European tour with fellow reggae figureheads Tyrone Downie, veteran of many Bob Marley sessions and countless others, and Studio One giant Ernest Ranglin, recently turned 80 and still going strong.
‘It’s great,’ says Sly, ‘because I’ve played with Ernest in the studio a lot of times, but the first time we did a concert was in Japan last November, and it was very good. He’s such a warm person. You can’t believe that, legend that he is, he’s so humble. He’s 80 and seems like 30.’
The tour went on to play at London’s O2 Arena in late July as part of the Jamaica 50 Festival, and such is Sly and Robbie’s contribution to their homeland’s heritage, they fully deserve their place among the nation’s great musical ambassadors. The island is so important to their make-up that, unlike so many artists who relocate at their first whiff of success, they both continue to call Jamaica their home.
Be true to yourself and where you’re coming from, and people will respect you even more
‘It doesn’t matter where you go,’ says Sly. ‘You have to be true to yourself and where you’re coming from, and people will respect you even more. A lot of people will give up the culture and try and hop onto something else.
‘If they do that and it works for them then fine, but I always want to look back to home because that’s where you started, everybody knew you when you were coming up as a kid and they put their trust in you and believe in you. If kids see you around they can come up and ask you a couple of questions but if you’re not around, there’s no one for them to turn to.’
Drummer Sly and bassist Robbie’s shared history goes all the way back to their teens. Says Robbie in his thick patois: ‘Sly has worked by himself, and me by myself, but most of it is all together, because people like a combination.
‘You have two sets of ears, you can hear more. Sometimes you hear things you question yourself, I wonder if... you might just say, “Go with it.” But when you work together, you can say, “What do you think about this?” You have someone you can rely on. We just make good music each time, then we make the instruments do the talking.’
Sly was part of an international success story almost from his earliest days. ‘The first song I was involved with,’ he says, ‘I was 15, I didn’t really write it, was The Night Doctor by the Upsetters, it was produced by Ansell Collins. The second song I was involved in totally, in creating the whole thing, was Double Barrel, when I was 16 years old. That was a big number one inEngland, I played drums on those sessions. Ansell and myself created the whole rhythm track and whole groove.’
Featuring the voice of Dave Barker and credited to Dave and Ansell Collins, the brilliantly infectious single on Techniques, part of the Trojan Records empire, sensationally removed T.Rex’s Hot Love from the top of the UK charts in April 1971. Sly didn’t get to come to Europe to perform the song on Top of the Pops, losing out to a drummer who performed in a fetching bandana, bare chest and rope-skirt combination. But he was on his way, and the fateful meeting with Robbie was soon to follow. They were never on anything but the same wavelength.
‘First time I seen him play,’ says Robbie, ‘I said “Damn, that’s a good drummer”. By the next day I had him in a session, with the Aggrovators, because I went to Bunny Lee and said, “That drummer should do some recording!”’
They soon discovered that they were not just fellow Studio One disciples, but shared a love of Stax, Motown, Philadelphia International and other soul staples. ‘This is when we started coming together, sharing ideas, making music,’ says Sly.
‘We used to listen to people like Earth, Wind & Fire and all these grooves, admiring their work and saying, “Boy, if reggae could be something like this, we’d like to take it like that”.
We were looking at what the future could bring for the music and what we could bring, and started playing some things and hoped that people liked it.’
They did. After playing on the Mighty Diamonds’ 1976 album Right Time, Island supremo Chris Blackwell made the pair an integral part of the Compass Point house band in Nassau. The studio aggregation would become a massive ingredient in the success of albums by Grace Jones and Joe Cocker, and Sly & Robbie’s name was made.
1987 brought their own UK top 20 hit with the typically genre-crossing Boops (Here to Go), and by the early 90s they were spearheading new Jamaican pop-reggae sensations Chaka Demus & Pliers’ assault on the British charts. As Sly proudly points out, they scored six UK top 30 hits in 14 months, three of them top three singles, the number one Twist and Shout and the enduring Tease Me and She Don’t Let Nobody.
All this came from Sly and Robbie’s multiple roles as studio players, producers and songwriters, although sometimes the last attribute goes underrated. ‘I don’t mind that, because I’m never going upfront saying, “I’m a writer,”’ shrugs Sly.
‘Writing is a funny thing, you have to be in the mood sometimes [to write lyrics], but I could write a good hook in seconds. I was involved in the Grace Jones project with Pull Up to the Bumper, and [the single b-side] Nipple to the Bottle, which I co-wrote with her, Robbie and myself. People call, and sometimes we just write the music and let the person do the lyrical part of it.’
Years later, Robbie Williams would sample Boops for his hit single Rudebox. ‘Sampling is just a way of modern recording, I would say,’ observes Sly. ‘It works for a lot of people and there’s something good when someone takes a part of something, it becomes a hit and you say, “Oh, I know where that came from.” I’m for it. When Robbie Williams used Boops I thought, “Wow, that’s good!” I think we even got a certificate!’
But Robbie is not so sure. ‘I don’t mind people sampling but I hate sampling music myself,’ he says. ‘I prefer fresh ideas all the time. I like when the brain is in motion. Sampling is not creation.’
He feels that a certain momentum has gone out of Jamaican music. ‘With Chaka Demus & Pliers, we made the music first and gave it to them, we put it together and sent it toIsland. It was the rhythm and the vocal performance that goes together. It can’t be one that’s better than the other, there has to be a togetherness, and this is what we’re missing today in Jamaican music.’
Combining their live commitments with completing a new album for English reggae artist and 90s hitmaker Bitty McLean, the friends have also been working on new material in their own name, with guests, for their Taxi Gang label.
Sly wastes no time in emailing me two examples, one a smooth and soulful track called If You Love Me, introducing vocalist Peter G, the other an upbeat piece again reflecting their Jamaican roots called Coronation Market, which simply oozes irresistible trumpets, accordion and sunshine.
I always believed two heads are better than one
‘One of the reasons reggae has probably suffered a bit is that we need to get together,’ says Sly. ‘I always believed two heads are better than one. Artists used to look at the global industry and get ideas from what was happening and write the songs, people like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley himself, Peter Tosh, Bob Andy. Young artists have to get together and ask themselves why these people were writing all these great songs, and take a page from them.’