Sly and Robbie: The Riddim Twins

My Jamaican 55

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
Observer senior writer

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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This is the 37th in our daily entertainment series highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage. Each day one personality will be featured, culminating Independence Day, August 6.

AS the 1980s beckoned, roots-reggae was running out of steam; music was becoming more commercial and record companies demanded a fresh approach to production.

The drum-and-bass team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare had the talent, and ideas, to be part of that transformation.

After relaunching the Taxi label in the late 1970s, (Dunbar started it in the early 1970s), the “Riddim Twins” had a string of hits with Gregory Isaacs ( Soon Forward), Jimmy Riley ( Love And Devotion) and The Tamlins ( Baltimore).

Throughout the 1980s, Sly and Robbie worked with some of the biggest and brightest names in pop. Among them, Grace Jones, Joe Cocker, Gwen Guthrie and rapper KRS 1.

Their patented sound ensured mainstream interest in Jamaican music following the death of Bob Marley in 1981. Indeed, they were the driving force behind Black Uhuru, a Waterhouse group marketed by Island Records, the company that helped break Marley's music internationally.

Sly and Robbie's work with Black Uhuru (1987-85) was pivotal to them working with non-reggae artistes. They fashioned the trio's raw, edgy beat which yielded a number of powerful songs including Shine Eye Gal, General Penitentiary, Plastic Smile and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

The production on those tracks so impressed Island founder Chris Blackwell that he assigned them to produce Jones, who had a cult following in Europe and the United States.

Working out of Blackwell's Compass Point studios in The Bahamas, they made her sound more catchy as can be heard on songs like My Jamaican Guy and Pull Up To The Bumper which became club hits.

Drummer Lowell “Sly” Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare made their names as session players in the 1970s. Dunbar played on Double Barrell, a hit in the United Kingdom for Dave Barker and Ansell Collins in 1971; Shakespeare worked the bass on The Wailers' Concrete Jungle, from their Catch A Fire album in 1973.

For most of the 1970s, Dunbar held the drum seat for The Revolutionaries, house band at Channel One studio and in The Professionals, producer Joe Gibbs' band.

Shakespeare was a member of The Aggrovators, producer Bunny Lee's recording band. He also played guitar on several hit songs at Channel One.

Dunbar and Shakespeare were key members of Peter Tosh's Word, Sound and Power band. They added a more commercial flavour to his rebel tones on songs like Buckingham Palace and Nothing But Love, a duet with Guthrie.

In the 1990s, Sly and Robbie worked with dancehall's finest, collaborated with Sting and emerging acts like No Doubt. In recent years, they have recorded with Dionne Warwick.

Recipients of the Order of Distinction, they were awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal in 2015 by the Institute of Jamaica.


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