Sly and Robbie: 40 Year Taxi Ride Image

by Dominic Bell

Sly and Robbie are easily Jamaica's most prolific production team in history, as the duo has to their credit a hand in hundreds of thousands of songs stemming from the 1970's to present. The duo has worked with so much acts locally that it was easier for them to list the ones they haven't worked with, in addition to a plethora of international acts including Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Matisyahu, and No Doubt.

We had the honour of having a sit-down with the two as they worked on new material for frequent collaborator Cherine Anderson at Gussi Clarke's legendary Anchor Studios.

Robbie, born as Robert Shakespeare on May 10, 1952 was the first to arrive to the studio and proceeded to enlighten us about the origins of his illustrious career before Sly's arrival, whom he admits is more of a conversationalist, and has the better memory of the two.

Robbie hails from Eastern Kingston by birth but grew up in Waterhouse and claims that from birth "music born inna me". The legendary bass player started his craft at an early age in an informal manner as he states "every music of the era started in jam sessions". It was Bob Marley and the Wailers' bass player, Aston "Family Man" Barrett, that provided inspiration for the then young Shakespeare who "learned by watching him at the studio", and eventually replaced Barrett when he left his then group the Hippy Boys.

Robbie's big break came with the Hippy Boys when he played bass for Errol Dunkley in his 1974 rendition of the Beatle's song I'll Be Back entitled You'll Never Know. From this, Robbie would play for a myriad of bands before he met Sly, last being Bunny Lee's The Aggravators. While a member of the Aggravators, Robbie played bass on tracks by the likes of Johnny Clarke, Gregory Isaacs and many more. It was during this time that Shakespeare had also founded his record label Barbell Records.

On a faithful night in 1973, The Aggravators were filling in for Fab 5 at a show, when Inner Circle member Bernard Harvey told Robbie of a bass player named Sly Dunbar he needed to check out at the nightclub Tit for Tat, where he played for the Skin, Flesh & Bones. Marveled by Sly's skills, Robbie then prompted Bunny Lee that Sly should join the Aggravators in their recording sessions. Bunny Lee agreed, and Sly's first recording session in the group was with John Holt, and from thereon history was made.

Coincidentally, after Robbie reached this moment in the duo's history, Sly arrived and wasted no time in enlightening us of his musical origins.

Sly, born Lowell Dunbar, was born on Windward Road in East Kingston and went to Trench Town Comprehensive High School before declining an acceptance to attend the prominent Kingston College, and dropping out of school altogether. Sly praised his mother for allowing him to do so as he said "to think of it, dropping out of school at 15 was crazy, but I'm glad my mother allowed me to do so, because she too believed in my passion for music".

This passion for music, Sly notes, began at an early age as he was influenced by Motown and Studio One influences heavily as a youngster. At 15, Sly transitioned from beating on desktops, to playing drums on songs for Lloyd Parkes & The People's Band's song Termites. Soon after, Sly played on Ansel Collin's massive hits Night Doctor and Double Barrel with Dave Barker. The latter Sly claims to be one of the first Jamaican records to sell over a million copies. It is no surprise that Sly would become a renowned drummer within local circles and began to play at regular gigs at Tit for Tat with the band The Volcanoes, whose name would change to Skin, Flesh, and Bones.

After working with a slew of artistes including John Holt, Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Dynamics, and Chinna Smith just to name a few, the duo decided to begin working on a jointly owned production outfit that would become the legendary Taxi Records. Robbie then jovially interjected that "Taxi Records" was first the name of Sly's solo record label, and got its name because "Sly love tek taxi, especially unreliable ones".

Under the banner Taxi Records, throughout the rest of the 1970s leading into the 1980s, Sly and Robbie worked on projects for the likes of Mighty Diamond, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, and most notably Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh. For Peter Tosh, Sly and Robbie would form part of his recording and touring band, where Robbie proudly stated they served as the "Creative Director of his band World, Sound and the Power". With Black Uhuru, the two worked feverously on recordings and tours with the band that eventually signed to Island Records and won the first Grammy Award in the reggae category for their album Anthem in 1984.

The 1980s marked the brand-building period of Sly and Robbie's production career, as they would produce and perform more extensively as a duo as opposed to a part of recording or touring band. It was during this time that the two began to work on productions for other acts on Chris Blackwell's Island Records such as Jamaican international superstar Grace Jones, Joe Cocker, Ini Kamoze, Jimmy Riley, and more. In the 1980s the two would also work with international acts including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger on She's The Boss, Yoko Ono's Star Peace, and Maxi Priest's self-titled debut album.

During the 1980s the duo state that they had their most memorable performances. Sly said that during a show at the Rock Palace in Germany that "I used the drumstick to play Robbie's guitar", a now famous trademark of their performances, and that their most memorable performance was "the show Taxi Connection, we played over 90 songs nonstop from everyone from Black Uhuru to Dennis Brown from evening to morning". Performing on a whole Sly furthered, while Robbie nodded in agreement, provides the duo with "a great feeling once the crowd is good and receptive. Our favourite song to perform is the dub version of Black Uhuru's Shine Eye Girl".

Sly and Robbie continued their relentless "Taxi" services throughout the 1990s by producing cult classics such as Murder She Wrote, Tease Me and others by Chaka Demus and Pliers, and a lot more work with dancehall artistes. With regards to the controversial dancehall genre, Sly champions the art form by saying "I have nuff respect for the deejays, and I love everything about it (dancehall). They were topping the charts worldwide, when reggae artistes weren't and that has to be respected".

The 2000's have cemented the timeless ear for the quality sound Sly and Robbie exhibits and a testament to this are the monstrously produced singles Hey Baby, and Underneath It All by No Doubt, remixes for the likes of Madonna, Matisyahu, and local hit singles for Cherine Anderson and many more. In 2008, Sly and Robbie produced the majority of American band Michael Franti and The Spearhead's Rebel Rockers, which spawned the internationally commercial and critically acclaimed hit single Say Hey (I Love You) featuring Cherine Anderson. Earlier this year, Sly and Robbie were allotted not one, but two nominations within the Best Reggae Album category of The Grammy's for their albums One Pop Reggae, and their collaboration with French producer Frank Sinclair entitled Made in Jamaica.

When asked on their views on the contemporary music scene, Sly believes that "It's easier to enter now, but that has made it more competitive. In our days it was competitive also so we had to learn and practice our craft. With then, as with now, you cannot waste opportunities". Sly furthered that "Jamaican music needs more songs with hit melodies at the moment", but held that the genre would continue to do well, while Robbie states, "more variety is needed".

Unlike several industry players in the current debate with regards to the mixing of dancehall or reggae with other genres of music Sly and Robbie have never supported this view. Whether it's infusing electronic sounds with dub, or using Indian influences in Dancehall, the duo feels that the hybrid of genres "feels good when mixed" and that "it makes a different flavor that widens the market for Jamaican music".

When asked what's next for the living legends, they told us "to keep making music, that's our job", and highlighted that they currently have a free to download "drum and bass" instrumental online for the 2012 slated release Jamaican documentary One People, which is directed by the Academy Award winning Director Kevin McDonald, and is produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding.

Sly and Robbie have managed to keep their almost 40 year musical relation intact by simply as Sly says "it works", and that "one man can't do everything". The duo's continued relevancy lies in their hard work, passion, and innovativeness as they are heralded as the pioneers of several sounds such as the "Rockers" and "Rub a Dub" Style used in reggae music, and numerous additions of outside genres to Jamaican music. The "Taxi's drive" seems to be never ending as Sly holds the view that "we still haven't peaked", and it seems that there is no evidence present for anyone to disagree.

In closing Sly encourages upcoming musical acts to "focus, know where you coming from, and where you want to go and use the formula of good melodies, good riddim, and right producer". Robbie's words of advice were for such acts "when making music, consider other people" and that artistes should try and refrain from violent lyrics as "music has a great influence". It is this music Sly states is "is the comfort for the Jamaican poor, and when hungry, makes your belly full".
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