Popularly known as the Riddim Twins, drummer Sly Dunbar and bass player Robbie Shakespeare have been playing together since the early ’70s when they were both in producer Bunny Lee’s house band The Aggrovators. By the mid-’70s the Jamaican duo was garnering major acclaim for the aggressive ‘rocker’ style of reggae they pioneered with The Revolutionaries, going on to play with the likes of Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh. Sly and Robbie continue to be a highly sought after combination and, as is the case with any good rhythm section, they’re most effective when they’re not seeking glory.
“Keep the groove,” says Dunbar. “Once you find a groove you just lock it. It’s not about showboating who’s a better musician or who’s a better player. It isn’t competitive – it has to sound good together.”
Sly and Robbie will soon return to Australia for Bluesfest, where they’ll be performing with British singer Bitty McLean and backing group The Taxi Gang. They started working with McLean in 2006 and have since released two full-length albums, 2009’s Movin’ On and last year’s Taxi Sessions.Sly and Robbie expect a high standard from their collaborators and Dunbar speaks fondly of their relationship with McLean.
“With an artist like Bitty, it’s so easy because he’s an engineer and he plays keyboards and everything like that. So we sit down and we discuss exactly where we think it should go and we just take it there.”
The two Bitty McLean records feature a mature and soulful reggae sound, while also embracing slick production values that introduce a contemporary flavour. This progressive quality represents Sly and Robbie’s determination to continuously update their stylistic distinctions.
“We try to tweak it sometimes and add different sounds just to make it sound fresh to the listener all the time,” Dunbar says. “Every so often we try to change the sound. Not directly change it, but we add things to it [or] take away things so one could feel it moving or growing into another direction.”
No musician can stay relevant for the better part of four decades without keeping an eye on what’s happening elsewhere in pop culture. In addition to recording, producing and playing with artists as varied as Grace Jones, Bob Dylan and No Doubt, Sly and Robbie’s eclectic output includes remixes of songs by Britney Spears and Madonna. Dunbar explains the importance of staying across what’s dominating the charts.
“Globally, I try to keep up-to-date and listen. I listen to American Top 40 radio, I listen to Lorde – everything that is coming out – to see what the new direction of sounds are going to be like or what people are liking today.”
Not that Dunbar is looking for new sounds to rip off. Sly and Robbie are preeminent innovators, keeping their artistic foundations firmly in place while re-arranging the decorations. Dunbar’s daily routine, he says, is simple. “Listen to old stuff and new stuff and try to write. I listen a lot to music. I listen every day, trying to find what is out there, try to pick up on what I could merge with reggae, what I could do another way.”
“The main drive is the people, to see people happy and dancing to music,” Dunbar adds. “I don’t like to see people sad, and I know music has made a lot of people happy. So for me, I go in every time and try to accomplish something I can play to someone and they say, ‘I love it! I love it! It sounds great.’ Then after that I move onto the next thing, to see if I can do it again. I keep on trying to do it over and over again.”
Kingston remains home for the Riddim Twins, and it’s where you’ll usually find them immersed in studio work. However, the pair has never ignored the opportunity to travel the world and play live. Even though he’s now in his 60s and would be forgiven for exhaustion, Dunbar enjoys the touring lifestyle. “I like going into the airport and going to different places and seeing different people, and looking at the culture and looking at where people live and the whole music thing, because I learn so much.”
Unlike so many all-conquering duos before them, it’s hard to see Sly and Robbie ever stepping apart. Their unique understanding of each other’s strengths is what generates their esteemed playing style. And the spark remains.
Sly and Robbie play at Byron Bay Bluesfest 2014 with Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Buddy Guy, Erykah Badu, John Butler Trio and many more at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm from Thursday April 17 to Monday April 21. Also supporting The Wailers at the Enmore Theatre, Saturday April 19.
The Taxi Sessions out now through Taxi Records