At more than five decades into his musical career with an untold number of recordings to show for it, Lowell “Sly” Dunbar sails into 70 today, May 10. The drummer and his creative partner, late bassist Robbie Shakespeare, first asserted themselves as a joint force when they shook up the de facto Reggae sound in 1975 with Right Time. Since then, the pair proved that the further they stretched their rhythmic palette, the closer these shifts in the Reggae landscape came to reaching seismic levels.
Sly & Robbie’s shared viewpoint has always been music-oriented. Coupling a sterling work ethic with a healthy aversion to the status quo, the duo led rhythm where it needed to go, one song at a time. Though the quality of their catalogue is self-evident, the volume of music that the so-called “Riddim Twins” produced prior to Robbie’s passing in December of 2021 cannot be overlooked; the duo is often cited as among if not the most recorded musicians in history.
The partnership yielded a lifetime’s worth of music and with that, here’s a list of ten essential songs bearing Sly & Robbie’s mark and the stories behind them.
The Mighty Diamonds – Right Time
The drums were the cornerstone of any Channel One production in the mid-to-late 1970s. Studio owner and producer Joseph “Jo Jo” Hoo Kim was prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that he got the sound perfect, even if that meant cutting extra dubs to achieve that end. So when Sly impressed the other members of the studio band, the Revolutionaries, with a fresh drum pattern, Hoo Kim was thrilled.
The pattern is crystallized in the Mighty Diamond’s 1975 song, Right Time. With the drums up front and pounding, the tone is set for the Diamonds’ harmonies to swell with the trio’s Garveyite convictions. As Sly tells it, “When [the song Right Time] first come out, because of that double tap played on the rim, nobody believe it was me playing the drums, they thought it was some sort of sound effect we was using. Then when it go to number 1 and stay there, everybody started trying for that style and it soon become established.” The age of Rockers–a Reggae variant well-suited to Rastafari’s more militant leanings–had dawned.https://www.youtube.com/embed/6UgcYqwIJhE?enablejsapi=1&=1&t=89s&playsinline=1
Culture – Two Sevens Clash
On 7 July 1977, Jamaica’s capital was gripped with fear. Though gun violence and political clashes flared in the city, it was something far more cryptic that kept Kingston’s citizens shuttered indoors: Culture’s 1976 hit, Two Sevens Clash. Recorded at Joe Gibbs’ studio in Kingston, the song features Sly on drums, Robbie on guitar, and Lloyd Parks on bass with lead singer Joseph Hill belting out vivid and ominous prophesies perfect for zapping imaginations into a collective fright.
In the song’s lyrics, Hill refitted Marcus Garvey’s Judgment Day predictions with a new date, courtesy of his own visions: “When the two sevens clash, I-man a go feel it.” The result was legendary. Curiosity and foreboding bubbled for months until that sweltering day in July arrived when not two; not three; but four sevens clashed. The tension eased the following morning as a relief-filled populace welcomed the rising sun of another day.https://www.youtube.com/embed/A3PjURr7lb4?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Peter Tosh – Steppin’ Razor
Originally written and recorded by Joe Higgs as an entry in 1967’s Festival Song Contest, Steppin’ Razor was first commandeered by Peter Tosh in 1973 and later souped up by the Riddim Twins in 1977. Though Robbie had supplied Tosh with his talents a year prior for the Legalize It album sessions, this was the first time Sly had collaborated with the former Wailer.
On the sound that they achieved working together, Sly once reflected, “[Robbie & I] were just about experimenting with everything we could take to reggae music.” The creative partnership proved so fruitful that Sly & Robbie became mainstays in Tosh’s studio work and live performances; for much of the late 70s and early 80s, they were welcomed as the “Sound & Power” to Tosh’s “Word”.https://www.youtube.com/embed/aLJFRgE4Ywk?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Gregory Isaacs – Soon Forward
In 1977, Sly and Robbie’s newly founded Taxi Productions record label faced an existential crisis. The duo had managed to raise start-up capital by saving their lunch money from a recent tour with Peter Tosh but they were having trouble clearing the next hurdle: getting artists to record for them. In conversation with David Katz, Robbie recalled that things became so grim that he couldn’t help but break down in tears. “Cool, Robbie man, everything will work out,” his partner reassured him and soon enough, it did.
As luck would have it, the Cool Ruler was only a phone call away. At Robbie’s invitation, Gregory Isaacs showed up and voiced six songs during a session led and backed by the Riddim Twins. Of that set, Oh What a Feeling, a shimmering tribute to the joys of sound system dances, was released and received into open arms by listeners islandwide. The following year, the producers dropped Soon Forward, the sultry masterpiece from the original six, and the momentum proved just right: the song hit No. 1 on the local charts and helped keep Sly & Robbie’s entrepreneurial effort afloat.https://www.youtube.com/embed/CO1YS4Ff0aU?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Black Uhuru – Sinsemilla
The main reason that Sly & Robbie launched the Taxi label was for ownership. The company allowed them to get paid more by the radio stations for the work that they produced; it meant the ability to sustain themselves through music. Secondary to ownership, however, was greater creative control. Their early work with Black Uhuru survives as a living testament to how far they would push Reggae if given the means and the chance.
“[Robbie & I] were producing all these artists while we were playing with Peter. And Black Uhuru music is like a different kind of groove than what we played for Peter. It was a hardcore cutting-edge thing [and] we felt we couldn’t play that style for Peter, because he wasn’t singing that kind of music,” Sly revealed in an interview. Dunbar cut back on the popular one-drop drumming patterns for these collaborations, instead vying for more R&B or heavy metal styles in an effort to give the drums more power. When tunes like Sinsemilla dropped, Sly & Robbies’ distinct-yet-familiar rhythms meshed well with Island Records’ global reach to package and deliver Black Uhuru’s music to reggae-seeking audiences worldwide.https://www.youtube.com/embed/8vCumnMX1HU?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Grace Jones – Pull Up to the Bumper
After Grace Jones’ Pull Up to the Bumper was released as a single in 1981, the Riddim Twins rode the torpedo of a hit across global music charts. A year prior, Island Records boss Chris Blackwell had assembled an all-star team of musicians to drive Jones’ established disco sound in a new direction for her fourth album, Warm Leatherette. Sly & Robbie made the cut. With Black Uhuru’s Sinsemilla sound serving as a primary sonic template, Pull Up to the Bumper was one of thirty or so tracks recorded during their two-week stint at Compass Studios in Nassau, Bahamas.
The music for the song was written by Sly under the working title Peanut Butter, and on hearing the tune, Jones’ friend suggested Pull Up to the Bumper, a name change that immediately stuck. The lyrics were penned, the song was recorded and the track was shelved. Though the wildly funky Pull Up to the Bumper was cut from the release of Warm Leatherette, it cropped up the following year on Grace Jones’ fifth full-length, Nightclubbing and became an instant sensation. “She helped launch us in the international marketplace when we did Pull Up to the Bumper. The timing was right for her and for Robbie and myself. It was a launch for bringing Jamaican music and a Jamaican artist into the front line,” Sly later remarked.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Tc1IphRx1pk?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Ini Kamoze – World a Music
After reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff delivered a demo tape showcasing Ini Kamoze’s vibrant melodies and evocative lyrics to Sly and Robbie, the young singer captured the duo’s attention. In 1983, a double-sided single featuring General and Trouble You a Trouble Me provided a sample of what the creative team had in store. Ini Kamoze’s self-titled LP emerged as a high point in Sly & Robbie’s illustrious and expansive production catalogue and though it only features six tracks, the album doesn’t waste a moment.
World a Music is a perfect distillation of the dubwise heft and density that swells across the album. The song pairs Ini’s self-reflexive lyrics with Sly & Robbie’s psychedelic grooves and layering; a mixture with the potential to plunge even the most sober-minded listener into the barrel of a kaleidoscope. This interplay of sounds comes to its climax towards the track’s close with the diminishing loop on the line “when riddim spacing out your head,” but it’s the legendary “out in the street.. they call it merther!” that really left its mark on the world.https://www.youtube.com/embed/oBVAGXPstHk?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Sugar Minott – Herbman Hustling
The early 80s marked a new era for the rhythmic pair as computerised music technology became more abundant and accessible. While the innovations were met with scepticism by some Reggae purists, Sly and Robbie embraced them and looked for ways to blend the digital wave with their roots sensibilities. One of their earliest cuts to experiment with pre-programmable instruments is Sugar Minott’s Herbman Hustling, a 1984 track that details the realities and risks that abound when selling herb in the ghetto.
When Sugar heard Sly & Robbie’s digital grooves, he decided to re-work his previous performance from the song International Herb with the support of these more novel and zany sounds. On this experience, Sly remarked, “I had a drum machine but I couldn’t use it, no one wanted me to. They said, ‘You’re crazy, we want you to play live.’ Then we did a song called Herbman Hustling for Sugar Minott for ourselves, nobody would believe it. I said to Willie Lindo, ‘The drum machine can play reggae.’” The song’s success ushered in a greater demand for digital-based riddims which would arrive to colour Dancehall’s burgeoning identity.https://www.youtube.com/embed/h0_SsOu830k?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
Chaka Demus & Pliers – Murder She Wrote
The production on 1992’s Murder She Wrote is a fine example of the power of simplicity. The instrumental is reduced to the essentials: Robbie’s magnetic bass, Sly’s pulsing drums and a minimal guitar riff supplied by Lloyd ‘Gitsy’ Willis. With that, the producers provided a stripped-down stage perfectly suited for the main attraction: the many contrasts between Plier’s sweet singing and Chaka Demus’ gruff deejaying.
Though Pliers’ cautionary lyrics have left an indelible mark on the history of Dancehall, they were voiced no less than seven times over five years before finding a permanent home on Sly & Robbie’s production. At Chaka Demus’ suggestion, Pliers joined the musicians in the studio and combined his latent hit with Chaka’s re-worked Bad Character in the tag-team collaboration. The song’s legacy is cemented not only in its chart placements, but also in the slew of samples, interpolations, and knock-offs that have sprung up in the past three decades following its release.https://www.youtube.com/embed/-av7F1JBmj4?enablejsapi=1&=1&playsinline=1
No Doubt – Hey Baby/Underneath It All
By 2001, Sly and Robbie were seasoned veterans of rhythm. They had spent the past quarter-century working with artists of varying talents, styles and demands; from the Rolling Stones to Barrington Levy to Bob Dylan, they knew how to adapt. So when No Doubt paid them a visit at the Geejam Recording Studio in Port Antonio, Jamaica, all the duo needed to hear was the rough idea to figure out what the tracks were missing.
In addition to producing the songs Underneath it All and Hey Baby, Sly & Robbie contributed by suggesting some added flavour in the form of two of Dancehall’s biggest acts: Lady Saw and Bounty Killer. The company headed off to Kingston to secure the features and the rest is history. The two songs became No Doubt’s biggest hits up to that point and carried Sly & Robbie’s production, Bounty’s thundering vocals and Lady Saw’s confident toasting all the way to two Grammy wins.