Sly & Robbie - Unmetered Taxi
Revolution - Dennis Brown
Revolution (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Revolution (Dub Plate Mix) - Dennis Brown
Heart Made of Stone - The Viceroys
Heart Made Of Stone (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Shine Eye Girl - Black Uhuru
Shine Eye Girl (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Real Love - The Tamlins
Real Love (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Rocky Music - Struggle
Music Dub - Sly and Robbie
Baltimore - The Tamlins
Baltimore (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Old Broom - Wailing Souls
Old Broom (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Love and Devotion - Jimmy Riley
Drunken Master - Sly and Robbie
Tickle Me - Thriller
Tickle Me (Version) - Sly and Robbie
Taxi - Brian Gold
Unmetered Taxi - Sly Dunbar
|It has usually been the
sound of reggae that is important, not who's actually making it, but
Lowell 'Sly' Dunbar born on 10th May 1952 in Kingston, Jamaica and his
partner in music, Robbie Shakespeare, also born in Kingston the
following year on 27th September known simply as Sly & Robbie, The
Dynamic Duo, The Rhythm Twins or even Drumbar And Basspeare have been
the notable exceptions to this particular rule. When Chris Blackwell
signed the duo to Island in 1980 he told them "This is the first
time I've ever signed a drummie and a bassie" and they are, without
doubt, the most well known reggae musicians ever. Sly Dunbar alone has
had the honour, unique among reggae musicians, of having numerous
internationally released albums of instrumentals and dubs actually
credited to him. Sly & Robbie's relentlessly inventive work has been at
the cutting edge of reggae for over thirty years and together they have
changed the direction of the music time after time after time. Their
rise to prominence and their reputation and popularity has been
unprecedented for Jamaican musicians and while they have travelled far
from their humble beginnings, they have always known exactly where they
are going and, even more importantly, they have never lost sight of
where they were coming from.
Robbie Shakespeare started his musical journey as a student and protégé of Aston 'Family Man' Barrett the legendary bass player for both Lee Perry's Upsetters and Bob Marley's Wailers. They met when Robbie's brother, Lloyd Shakespeare, had played in The Hippy Boys alongside Max Romeo, Leroy Brown, Carlton and Aston Barrett. The guitarist Ronnie 'Bop' Williams gave Robbie his first acoustic guitar and advised Robbie to take off two strings and use it as a bass but Robbie kept them on, used the two extra strings for rhythm, and the beginning of his style was born. Imitation proved to be the most sincere form of flattery and it has often been said that Family Man himself could not tell if it was Robbie or him playing on certain tracks and he would recommend Robbie to producers if he was unable to make a session because of his touring commitments. To this day Robbie has never received proper credit for his role on Bob Marley & The Wailers' 'Concrete Jungle', the opening track from the breakthrough 'Catch A Fire' album. His first recording session was for Sonia Pottinger's Gay Feet label when he played on Errol Dunkeley's 'You'll Never Know' in 1969 and he learnt and developed his craft over the following years in The Hippy Boys and Bunny Lee's Aggrovators alongside such luminaries as Carlton 'Santa' Davis and Earl 'Chinna' Smith.
Lowell Dunbar grew up in the Waterhouse area fascinated and captivated with music from a very early age: "As a kid I used to listen to songs on the radio and when we had a free period at Trench Town School I'd play Skatalites songs in the classroom, I was a Studio One fanatic! Ken Boothe and The Gaylads did a concert at our school and we used to spend our lunch money in the jukebox instead of buying something to eat. I left school at fifteen. I was supposed to go on to Kingston College to continue my studies but I told my Mum I wanted to play music. She never tried to stop me and just allowed me to get on with it."
His mother died tragically the following year and was never able to see just how successful her son would become but Sly has never forgotten her early encouragement and he still feels that: "To this day I feel that everything I do is for my Mum."
The nickname 'Sly' has nothing whatsoever to do with his character, which has always been warm, open and friendly, but was given to him simply because of his early admiration for the music of Sly & The Family Stone. His first recording session was for Ansel Collins: "I checked Ranchie and Tin Leg and the first session I played on, aged sixteen was for Ansel Collins on 'Night Doctor'. He gave it to Lee Perry to put out and it was credited to The Upsetters. A little while after that I played with Ansel Collins again on 'Double Barrel' for Winston Riley. Ansel Collins was instrumental in taking me to the studio. We worked in The Invincibles together. He gave me the go-ahead to do it."
'Night Doctor' was a big hit in 1969 and I remember the deejay upstairs at The Lord Palmerston, a public house in South East London that ran regular Friday night reggae sessions at the time, not being allowed to take it off the deck on the night it was first released in the UK. The rhythm was so radically different to anything we had ever heard before as Sly's drumming propelled the record along at a previously unimagined pace. The record stood head and shoulder above the staple organ instrumentals of the period. Sly's next recording 'Double Barrel' by Dave Barker and Ansel Collins on Winston Riley's Techniques label reached number one in the UK National Charts in the spring of 1971 and Sly soon established his place amongst Kingston's select band of superlative drummers.
"For me Lloyd Knibbs (of The Skatalites) is the greatest drummer to ever come out of Jamaica. A lot of my attitude comes directly from him. Bunny Williams, Fil Callender, Joe Isaacs...I took the baton up from them.
The first band Sly played in was called The Yardbrooms, then The Invincibles, The Volcanoes and on occasion Tommy McCook and The Supersonics. "My next band was Skin Flesh & Bones and we were the resident band at Dickie Wong's Tit For Tat Club on Red Hills Road. We'd be playing in the studio all day and in the club every night. Twenty four hours just playing, playing, playing..." There smash hit with Al Brown's version to Al Green's 'Here I Am Baby' for Dickie Wong's Tit For Tat label with its instrumental counterparts 'Butter Fe Fish' and 'Bammie And Fish' proved to be the sound of 1974. Skin Flesh & Bones consisted of Lloyd Parks on bass, Sly Dunbar on drums, Ranchie McLean on guitar, Errol Nelson on organ and 'Pat' on percussion and their very personal variations on the reggae sound mixed with disco beats would form the working template for much of Sly & Robbie's subsequent work. While Sly was working at the Tit For Tat Club Robbie was often to be found playing with The Hippy Boys in the Evil People Club across the street and during their breaks each would go to listen to the other one working and a mutual respect and admiration began to grow. In 1974 they found themselves playing together for the first time on a session for the omnipresent Bunny 'Striker' Lee at Channel One and it was not long before the pair began to play regularly at the Maxfield Avenue studio for Jo Jo & Ernest Hookim. Sly had been the driving force behind Skin Flesh & Bones and while his role is usually more celebrated than that of his partner Robbie has always been the foundation on which their unique sound has been built.
"Robbie does a lot of interviews but I'm on the street more. He'll usually say 'Talk to Sly about that' ." Never what could be termed a 'silent partner' Robbie's rock solid contribution is every bit as integral to their sound as Sly's pyrotechnics. The complimentary combination of his obstinate bass lines, which are as basic yet as inventive as reggae can provide, with Sly's drumming dynamics proved to be as enduring as it was exciting. From this time onwards their lives have been immersed together in music. "The disco thing started to come in 1975 and there was not a lot of work for live bands so I started to concentrate more on the studio work. The first session I played for Channel One was Delroy Wilson's version to The Spinners' 'It's A Shame'. It was a big hit for Jo Jo. I couldn't afford to do too many sessions for myself at this time and I remember one time there were four musicians on a session with Ernest (Hookim) engineering. He gave us time to do four tunes, one each, but we did five and gave him one."
And history was made. Ernest employed the services of The Mighty Diamonds on the rhythm track that Sly had generously given to him to sing their song 'Right Time' over it. The Mighty Diamonds had already made their mark with 'Country Living' but the 'Rockers' era began with this record. Relaxed yet urgent, the apocalyptic message delivered in perfect three part harmonies with a rhythm that was as up to date as the Nine O'Clock News yet that came knowingly imbued with years of Jamaican musical history established the rules and set the game plan that the reggae business would adhere to and follow for the rest of the decade. The history of reggae music has been accounted, assimilated and annotated over the past twenty years but little real credit has yet to be given to the various loose and fluid bands of session players such as The Skatalites, Lynn Taitt & The Jets, The Hippy Boys, The Dynamites, The Now Generation or The Soul Syndicate whose sound and direction would come to define a particular musical era. Jo Jo started to regularly use the same musicians for his sessions and the Channel One house band, known as The Revolutionaries, were once again the exception to this rule.
"I really started looking at music. Started to experiment on the drums. To see if we could make the drum dance by itself. I worked African rhythms in and because I was recording so much I could work on developing a sound for reggae. This is reggae. This is the sound. The double drum sound. Jo Jo gave me the freedom to create. I'd sit for hours with Ernest getting the drum sound right. They were really into it and they left me free to play whatever I wanted. We were like one family trying to move the music forward."
The history and the beauty of the music that the Hookim brothers financed and masterminded and The Revolutionaries created at Channel One has been covered on three previous Pressure Sounds releases PSCD14 'Well Charged: Channel One', PSCD31 'Maxfield Avenue Breakdown' and PSCD42 ' Wailing Souls At Channel One' and this release takes the story yet another step forward. The partnership lasted for a number of years but, inevitably, the time came when Sly and Robbie needed to move on. There was no rancour or acrimony at their parting from Channel One and they would continue to help each other out as the need arose. "After a while with us at Channel One Sly & Robbie started to produce records for themselves and we figure they were holding back. We can't hold them any further..." - Jo Jo Hookim.
It had always been a mutually beneficial relationship with everyone involved always ready, willing and able to help out everyone else and both knowledge and music were freely reciprocated: "Jo Jo gave me rhythm tracks for my first Virgin album that he'd already paid me for! 'Cocaine In My Brain' was my rhythm track but I gave it to Jo Jo. The Hookims taught us that the opening bars of a record are the most important. The first moment! Then you're good to go!"
When Sly & Robbie were working to get their own label re-established Jo Jo gave them free time to record Black Uhuru. "We gave 'Plastic Smile' to U-Roy on dub and he played it for a year on his Sturgav Sound System before Sonic Sounds put it out for us." Ranchie and Sly had originally started the Taxi label in 1972 while Robbie's rare forays onto production were released on his Bar Bell label and, while they continued to give their best for other producers, the time was right for them to branch out on their own: "I looked at people like Quincy Jones. We started trying to do the same thing." The Taxi label has consistently turned out top quality records since its inception but the first big hit on the label was 'Soon Forward' by Gregory Isaacs in 1978 which reached Number One in the Jamaican Hit Parade. Sly says it should go on this album! The deejay version followed hard on its heels and Ranking Joe had been practising the lyrics in fine style live on Sturgav prior to the release of 'Stop Your Coming And Come' on vinyl. The selection on this collection comes from the late seventies and early eighties with the exception of veteran vocalist Amblique's snug thematic and musical fit of J. Blackfoot's 'Taxi' over the 'Unmetered Taxi' rhythm which was actually recorded at a much later date. Sly & Robbie were the first to introduce the shape of things to come into reggae with their use of syndrums and the Simmons electronic drum kit and this time, rife with experimentation, proved to be a really exciting period for the music... but aren't they all... yet the beginning of Sly's obsession with electronic drums came from a highly unlikely source.
"We were trying to put things in the system that weren't there before and incorporate other stuff from outside of reggae. I was on tour with Peter Tosh listening to the radio and I heard this record 'Pop Muzik'. I thought that little thing is wicked. So I bought the syndrums and came back to Jamaica with them. Brought them down and tuned them up. The first tune with that pattern was 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner' with Black Uhuru. I couldn't programme it so I had to play it. Then 'Love & Devotion' with Jimmy Riley. There's three tracks for syndrums on Junior Delgado's 'Fort Augustus' with a syndrum playing the riff."
Sly & Robbie were keen to explore the possibilities that the new technology and a wider world view offered and, in many ways, they alone have been responsible for building the bridge between the old and the new, between Jamaica and 'foreign' and in incorporating elements from the past in a totally modern context: "Reggae is the most important but working with other people has helped our career... although they want us to come and do what we do they need Sly & Robbie to do it in their own way. But you have to please so we interpret the song the way we feel it. If you stay in Jamaica you get saturated with Jamaica but we need to hear the global sounds so when I'm on a session my brain is open and I use ideas from the people I'm working with. We ask the engineer questions because we want to learn. We go back to our hotel and discuss what we've done and then return to Jamaica and use what we've learnt."
The question most frequently asked at the time was that if reggae was no longer made within the traditional framework to what extent did it still remain reggae or was it now something altogether different. The pair pushed these barriers as far as was humanly (and electronically) possible: "This is technology. It's not going to go away and it's going to get better and better. I buy all the machines. The machines are good! I'd use the machine to rehearse as it keeps perfect tempo but any way it can make the people dance I'll play it... the machines might have taken away a little bit but for them to work you have to be solid and creative."
The introduction of drum machines to reggae was the harbinger of the music's digital revolution of the mid-eighties and much criticism has been subsequently levelled at them but, as has been proved over and over again, if you don't know how to play live drums then you're never going to get anything original out of a machine. They are simply different tools to be put to use and not the end of music, or even civilisation, as we know it. Take it from a man who knows: "We were playing for everybody as the utmost thing was to make music. We were trying to make music for the people so that they could hear something new all the time. I try to keep it like a normal drummer would play, a simple drum pattern, but then use percussion to sweeten up the groove. Machines can really work!"
The sound of Taxi has always been a tight blend of the smooth and the sophisticated with the rough and the ready but included on this set are the raw dub mixes of Dennis Brown's seminal 'Revolution' and Thriller's 'Tickle Me'. 'Revolution' was on dub plate only and not available commercially for over a year before it ever came out on record. This coincided with the first rush of availability and popularity of live Sound System tapes and everyone was familiar with the dubs before they were released and wanted the mixes that they had come to know and love from listening to the cassette tapes. "We'd run the multitrack straight to the dub cutter so you'd get the first impression of the tune as it came. It was like playing live onto the dub plate with that hard and dry sound... Not mixed at all. We thought it was too raw but they took it up and that's what the people grew to love. 'Revolution' is the guide vocal. Dennis couldn't sing it back."
Dennis had even sung 'If This World Were Mine' and 'Rub A Dub All The Time' over the same rhythm for Tad's in the interim before the seven inch version was finally pressed. 'Revolution' was a huge hit but people still enquire about the dub plate mix and so here it is to compare and contrast the two radically different versions. Thriller's 'Tickle Me' was an update of the Studio One rude boy tune by Keith McCarthy 'Everybody Rude Now' which was actually released on a seven inch single in its raw dub plate format. It was another dub that was around for so long that others stepped into the breach and versioned the rhythm before Sly & Robbie released their original cut. Sly credits this Taxi innovation as the beginning of USA hip hop's insistence on seriously unpolished releases "It came alive with hip hop and that was how the raw street sound was born" as the inventions and influences of Jamaican music started to gradually filter back to all levels of international music. Sly & Robbie and their Taxi label have proved to be the transport to success for countless stars of the reggae world while many international stars such as Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Mick Jagger and Grace Jones from outside the reggae firmament have also hitched a ride from the Rhythm Twins. Their international work has ensured that outside influences from their frequent trips abroad have always been brought into play on their work within reggae music. "Touring is good because the younger kids have never seen Sly & Robbie so we keep bringing the real reggae music to the people. It's nice to play with Black Uhuru like it sounds on the records. You don't hear that type of music any more. Another time we just stay in the studio to create but you get a fresh look if you go outside Jamaica."
The usual lot of the reggae musician has been to remain in the background virtually unknown and unrecognised outside of tight reggae circles, as they get on with providing the vehicle for this week's flavour of the month. Sly & Robbie have inevitably stayed well in front of this particular competitive race because, instead of following they have set the pace, and the rest have been obliged to follow. Never frightened to experiment with new approaches they remain to this day the only reggae musicians whose names are equally well known both inside and outside of reggae. Sampling the past, both metaphorically and literally but equally committed to using the latest technology and international ideas Taxi has remained one of Jamaica's leading labels throughout the eighties, nineties and into the new millennium. 'Tease Me', built around a sample of The Skatalites' sixties hit 'Ball Of Fire', showed exactly what could be achieved with a brand new sound that was firmly rooted in Jamaica's rich musical history when it proved to be a massive international hit in 1993 and Chaka Demus & Pliers' 'Murder She Wrote' repeated its success the following year.
Somehow simultaneously managing always to look to the future whilst perusing the past Sly & Robbie's complete mastery of reggae music is nothing less than awesome. The Rhythm Twins have stayed at the top of the musical profession due to their complete love and understanding of the genre and their continued real respect for and empathy with their audience. Long may it continue.
"We make the music for the music not for ourselves. We're not going to buy our own records and if the people don't like them then we have a problem! It has to be musical enough for the buying public to understand but if it's too musical they'll shy away from it. So we make it just in the border line."
Harry Hawke - March 2004
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