Artist Spotlight: Sly & Robbie

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Tobias Witt
May 29, 2024

The Rhythmic Foundation of Music

Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, collectively known as Sly & Robbie, have been pivotal in shaping the sounds of numerous songs, dubs, and remixes since the mid-1970s. Their work spans collaborations with major Jamaican artists and international stars like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

Early Days: Separate Paths Converge

Lowell "Sly" Dunbar, named after his idol Sly Stone, began his career at just 15, playing in studio bands in the late '60s. His recorded debut was on the single "Night Doctor" with the Upsetters, catching the eye of producer Lee Perry. Robbie Shakespeare also started young, joining Bunny Lee's house band, The Aggrovators, by the early 1970s.

Sly and Robbie first met in 1972 but didn't start collaborating until 1975, when JoJo Hookim brought them together for his studio band, The Revolutionaries. Their initial partnership work included Jimmy Cliff’s "Follow My Mind" and Culture’s iconic album "Two Sevens Clash." Their international recognition grew after joining DJ U-Roy’s UK tour and accompanying Peter Tosh on international tours for four years.

Building a Legacy: Taxi Records and Beyond

Back in Jamaica, Sly & Robbie continued to produce hits, including Leroy Smart’s "Super Star." They eventually established their own label, Taxi Records, and formed the house band Taxi All Stars (also known as The Roots Radics). The label's first success came with Black Uhuru’s "Observe Life" and Gregory Isaacs’ "Soon Forward," followed by collaborations with artists like Junior Delgado, The Wailing Souls, and Dennis Brown.

The Riddim Twins: Expanding Horizons

Known as "the Riddim Twins," Sly & Robbie provided rhythms for artists such as Bunny Wailer, the Mighty Diamonds, Jacob Miller, and Barrington Levy. Their most significant impact was with Black Uhuru, producing powerful albums and live performances. They also supported Black Uhuru as the opening act for the Rolling Stones.

In the early '80s, they teamed up with avant-garde singer Grace Jones, creating influential funky and dubby sounds. Their fascination with dub led to albums like "Crucial Reggae: Driven by Sly & Robbie" and "A Dub Experience." Their experimental electronic sounds laid the groundwork for the rise of ragga and the digital revolution.

Championing New Talent and Global Collaborations

Throughout the 1980s, Sly & Robbie nurtured upcoming talent like Ini Kamoze and produced hits for Jamaican stars such as Sugar Minott and Frankie Paul. They also collaborated with international artists, including Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. The 1989 compilation "Hitbound! The Revolutionary Sound of Channel One" by Heartbeat Records showcased some of their legendary work.

Dominating the 1990s and Beyond

In the 1990s, Sly & Robbie focused on DJ-style reggae and dancehall, producing hit singles and albums for Shabba Ranks, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Beenie Man, and Luciano. They also ventured into jazz with Monty Alexander on "Monty Meets Sly & Robbie."

The 2000s saw continued success, with their album "Rhythm Doubles" receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. They collaborated with reggae icons like Horace Andy and pop stars like Britney Spears, Madonna, The Fugees and Paul McCartney. In 2012, they released "Blackwood Dub," their first traditional dub album in years, followed by "Underwater Dub" in 2014. Their collaborations continued worldwide until Robbie Shakespeare’s death following kidney surgery in Florida, on December 8, 2021, at the age of 68.

Sly & Robbie's enduring legacy as the driving rhythmic force behind countless hits cements their status as music legends, influencing genres from reggae to pop and beyond. Octiive is proud to have been part of their New Legend - Jamaica 50th Edition album. Rest in peace, Robbie Shakespeare.