THIS is a slightly longer version of a piece written for The Big Issue In The North, just before Sly and Robbie released their marvellous collaboration with Howie B in 1999.
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CLAD in baggy, faded denim dungarees and baseball cap, locks carefully tied-up at the back, Lowell ‘Sly’ Dunbar is stretched out on a wicker sofa in his record company’s offices in Notting Hill, west London.
Only a wide variety of conspicuously chunky gold jewellery betrays the veteran drummer’s status as one of the most successful – and influential – musicians ever to emerge from the Caribbean.
Robbie Shakespeare, who accompanies Dunbar’s thundering drum patterns with an equally-apocalyptic bass sound, is absent, having just flown in from Jamaica, and he‘s sleeping off his jet-lag. The pair are in town to promote their new album, Strip To The Bone, which they recorded with U2 and Bjork producer, Howie B.
The project was first suggested by Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican entrepreneur who set up Island Records in the late 50s and the duo’s de facto patron for more than 20 years.
“He say, ‘we think we should put you and Howie B in the studio together‘, and we say, ‘alright,’” explains Shakespeare later. “’So, first, who’s Howie B?’ They played some stuff and it seemed like we could do something. But when him first come over to Jamaica, no-one really know what fe expect from him. I suppose him know that Sly and Robbie play drum and bass and we suppose to be alright.”
This is something of an understatement. In the 1970s, as session musicians in studios across Kingston, they accompanied some of the reggae’s foremost singers and vocalists, such as Gregory Isaacs and the Mighty Diamonds. ln the rough, tough Jamaican music scene of the time, which was equal parts Tin Pan Ally and the old Wild West, they quickly became the island’s rhythm section of choice. Sly and Robbie didn’t play on all of the good records that came out of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s, but they played on a lot of them.
Along the way they toured the globe with Peter Tosh before joining up with Duckie Simpson, an old school friend of Dunbar’s, to provide the musical backing for his vocal trio, Black Uhuru. The worldwide success they enjoyed with Black Uhuru ushered in the duo’s most fruitful period, when they became part of the house band for Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau.
State-of-the-art technology – combined with the lush surroundings of the Bahamas – brought everyone from Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger to Carly Simon and Ian Dury to their door. The heavyweight funk which underpins Grace Jones’ Pull Up To The Bumper is a good example of the way in which their rhythmic innovation can revitalise the work of even fairly ordinary artists.
Dunbar tells me that they will work with anyone – just as long as the duo can continue furthering their sound and the artist or producer can get what they need out of the deal. It is this dogged pursuit of their own unique agenda, their willingness to take chances, to move out of their comfort zone, and their sheer skill and artistry which separates them from more workmanlike session musicians.
Both of them declare themselves pleased with the results of their latest collaboration. “It sound different,” says Shakespeare, “but not just different – different and wicked.”
It’s recognisably a product of Sly and Robbie – and also Howie B – but Strip To The Bone is something more besides, with the Scottish producer displaying a seemingly-instinctive understanding of the two musicians’ spacious, uncluttered style. Strip To The Bone sounds organic and low-tech, with a warm, earthy feel which draws the listener further and further in until you find you’ve completely lost the plot. It doesn’t sound like anything else around at the moment.
“That was the whole idea, you know,” says Dunbar with quiet satisfaction. “We never seen a boundary in reggae, Robbie and meself. We always want to take it to the next step. If this was jus a regular dub album, it wouldn’t make sense – there’s so many dub albums out there. This is 1999 going into the year 2000, and we’ve got to do something different now. We’ve got to take it gradual, but we always take it forward.”
He leans forward, conspiratorially.
“Basically, what we come up with on this album is reggae, but it’s how we get to that stage that is important. We flip the whole thing over. People will know it’s reggae, but it’s had some eerie kind of substance added. It’s something more than regular dub.”
This continual striving for innovation is a constant in a joint career which has already spanned the best part of three decades.
Growing up in the Waterhouse district of Kingston, Dunbar first played drums at the age of 15 and ended up as part of JoJo Hokim’s influential Channel One Studio house band, the Revolutionaries. He and Shakespeare first met up in the mid-70s, when they were in two of the many dance bands who criss-crossed Jamaica playing a mixture of reggae and R&B covers.
There was no great artistry involved – the trick was to keep people on the dancefloor all night long, no matter what, and both musicians say that the period was instrumental in their musical development.
The youthful protege of the Wailers’ Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Shakespeare made quite an impression on Dunbar, who was by this time a well-respected figure on the JA music scene. He arranged for the young bassist to join him in the Revolutionaries and a variety of other studio house bands.
In the wake of the success of Bob Marley and the Wailers, reggae became big business in the late 70s and early 80s, with artists like Gregory Isaacs and Black Uhuru touring the world and selling a lot of records.
Since then however, with a few honourable exceptions, there have been remarkably few breakthroughs into the wider world. The ragga/dancehall scene, where DJs spit out risque lyrics over a staccato beat, is as vibrant and volatile as ever, but as Shakespeare says, “I think the outside world relate better to singers.”
“With music in Jamaica at the moment, you jus got the rhythm. With jus the rhythm alone nothin is going to happen because only one half of it is good. You can’t build a house when only half of it is solid. We need writers, people to come up with proper melody. We need good singers like inna Bob, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru-era. That’s not happening.”
Dunbar isn’t sure about my opinion that reggae reached the height of its success in the 70s and early 80s, politely but pointedly reminding me that Black Uhuru were awarded a Grammy for their Anthem album in 1984, whilst the Sly and Robbie-produced Chaka Demus & Pliers enjoyed worldwide chart success with Murder She Wrote some 10 years later.
Either way, many types of dance music have borrowed, and continue to borrow from reggae music. But doesn’t it sometimes seem like reggae has been left behind?
“The music coming out of Jamaica now is solid, but we see what’s going on outside of Jamaica,” concedes Dunbar. “That’s why we can go in a studio with Howie B and something new and fresh will happen. Ideas are taken from reggae and it’s been left behind, it’s true, and we have to play catch-up now. We have to add a little something to match what’s happening on an international level.”
Dunbar believes because Jamaica is such a small place – with just over two and a half million inhabitants and an area not much greater than 4000 square miles – it needs to borrow new ideas from places like London and New York in order to compete on a level playing field. Rather than seeing this as a dilution of some Great Jamaican Musical Heritage, he sees it as business as usual. Jamaicans, he tells me, have always looked outside the island for inspiration, and more often than not, they’ve looked to the US.
“Look at I Shot the Sheriff,” he says. “Bob used to travel to America a lot, to Delaware, and when he came back he wrote I Shot The Sheriff. But there are no sheriffs in Jamaica, so where did he come up with that idea? I Shot the Policeman?” He shrugs, throws his arms wide and smiles. “It wouldn’t flow. People have always looked outside Jamaica to take the music forward.”
But at the same time, the rest of the world has looked to Jamaica for a little excitement and passion. Imagine a world without dub, ska, Red Stripe or Rastafarianism, without Marcus Garvey, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Kool DJ Herc, the Reggae Boys, Grace Jones, Shabba Ranks and the mind-bogglingly diverse talents of reggae music – not least Bob Marley and the Wailers. It would be a duller place. What is it about Jamaica that makes such a small island so influential?
“Jamaica is one of a kind,” answers Shakespeare, with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “You know fe real it’s a movie. You can see it when you see people walking down the street, the whole place is jus a movie set with actors. If you want a rhythm, jus walk down the street. You’ll see someone walking to a different beat.
“When you hear a sound play and you see people dance, they’re always tryin to come up with a different dance. You carn explain it, you’d have to be there. And when you there you carn explain it either,” he adds with a chuckle, “but you know something is in the air.”
“People always want to go for the best, always want to go for the gold,” agrees Dunbar. “They never give up. Sometimes you might have to push us a little bit, but we always know we can do it. There’s something about the Caribbean. Everything has a rhythm, maybe it’s the rhythm of the people, or the sunshine or something. I don’t know what. There’s an energy which just comes out in the people.
“We don’t get the best anything, we jus there doing our thing. We do it the way we think it should be done and sometimes it’s the wrong way, but it come good in the end.”
“Jamaicans, everything they do, them try to be the best,” adds Shakespeare. “If they gonna be a goat man, they try to be the best goat man all over. Them gonna be a thief, them try to be the best thief at it. Them who make music try to be the best at it, and all of them people think they’re a star. Everybody in Jamaica think they’re a star. They all goin ‘I’m the Don, I’m the Star’. With all that goin on, you get some different characters comin through.”
At 45 and 46 respectively, Sly and Robbie are far from content to rest on their laurels as not-so-elder statesmen of reggae and still want to take on the young guns, to push back the boundaries. The partnership has lasted longer than many marriages, and on the strength of their work with Howie B on Strip To The Bone, they show no signs of stopping just yet. And nor should they. Dunbar is clear that their longevity is inextricably linked to their open-minded attitude towards making music.
“We never put no boundary on what we do,” he says, scratching a stubbly chin. “There’s a respect and love for each other. We know where the other one is coming from and we’ve got a good idea of where we want to go. We’re always thinking about the next step on the ladder.”
Shakespeare says of the pair’s relationship: “If I say, ‘Sly, play this, dat-dat-da-dat-da-da’, he’s not gonna say no, he’s gonna try it. He’ll say, ‘ere, Robbie, it work, ya know’, or, ‘it no work’, and we can switch back. He’s ready to try anything and his brain is always clicking. Anything experimental, anything creative, ya nah see, he’s there.
“That’s what make the world turn. If someone not experiment with the wheel, we wouldn’t have cars, we wouldn’t have telephones, we wouldn’t have lights, we wouldn’t have nothing.
“Therefore, ya know, you have to jus try.”
[This interview was first published in The Big Issue In The North in July, 1999]