Bumbershoot: The Dons of Dub

Long the backbone of reggae, Sly and Robbie step to the fore.

Longtime bassist/drummer combo Lowell "Sly" Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have a long list of nicknames: the rhythm twins, the dub kings, and Sly Drumbar and Robbie Basspeare, among others. Regardless of what you call the Jamaican duo, it's undeniable that they've anchored the rhythm section on many of the best reggae and eccentric soul recordings, either as key session men in their early days or as producers now. Taking into account their recorded bass lines, drum licks, and studio riddims, it's been estimated they've been heard on 200,000 tracks.The main reason Sly and Robbie's music is so widely sampled is clear: During reggae's glory years, they were the genre's backbone. Elements of their playing style are integral even now. They've been playing together since 1975, and their ability to lock in with each other is surpassed by few drum/bass combos. They've toured with or done studio production for most of the major personalities in Jamaican music—Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, and a long list of others. But they've also collaborated with acts as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, and Grace Jones. Yet typically they're backing up or supporting these artists, so to see Sly and Robbie headline a show is something of a rare opportunity.On such occasions, their sets tend to recycle many of their greatest hits. You may hear some Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs, plus plenty of other songs that will make you say, "Wait, they played on that, too?" Envisioning their potential set list got me thinking: With so many hit records under their belt, what are the best Sly and Robbie cuts of all time? In no particular order, here are my Top 10."Murder She Wrote," Chaka Demus and Pliers (1994). This song ruled dancehall when it was first released. Demus' lightning-fast lyrical style, paired with Pliers' high-pitched vocals, immediately helped make this song a hit on the reggae charts. It eventually crossed over into the U.S. Underneath, Sly and Robbie's production helped usher a new vitality into dancehall music when it was desperately needed."Shine Eye Gal," Black Uhuru (1981). A big part of what made the Jamaican group Black Uhuru so popular was the rhythm section playing behind it. On "Shine Eye Gal," perhaps the finest song in its catalog, Dunbar especially captures the essence of one-drop reggae at its finest."World a Music," Ini Kamoze (1984). Here's an example of a classic Sly and Robbie riddim that gained even more popularity after being sampled. True reggae fans will recall the original version on Ini Kamoze's self-titled debut album. But plenty of others will recognize it as the instrumental track that Damian Marley flipped on his smash hit "Welcome to Jamrock." The latter reached global dance floors in 2005, but its signature drum wallop and bass-driven pulse are a big reason why Kamoze's song was worth re-exploring in the first place."Pull Up to the Bumper," Grace Jones (1981). While Jones may be known more for her image than her music, the Jamaican-born vixen made some classic disco records in the late '70s and early '80s. While "Pull Up to the Bumper" is heavier on disco than on other styles, it was recorded at the Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, and was one of the first songs to show Sly and Robbie's versatility outside of reggae."Fu-Gee-La (Sly and Robbie Remix)," The Fugees (1996). Of the three versions of "Fu-Gee-La" on the Fugees' classic album, The Score, the one reworked by Sly and Robbie is by far the best. With its bubbling bass line and bouncy dancehall effects, it was instantly understandable why the Fugees felt compelled to include it on the album rather than as a separate remix."Greetings," Half Pint (1984). It's rare that this song can spin longer than 10 seconds without the crowd going crazy and the DJ yelling "reeeewinnnnd" and starting it over again. Its infectious groove sticks in your head long after it's over, and Half Pint should be forever grateful that Sly and Robbie created it."Boops," Super Cat (1986). On this tune, Super Cat flipped the original Sly and Robbie track—which was terrible, frankly—of the same name and turned it into a listenable dancehall hit. One year later, KRS-One would flip a portion of Super Cat's version into his breakout single, "The Bridge Is Over.""Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Black Uhuru (1981). The main reason the instrumental dub is at least as popular as the original is because of the song's infectious, rhythm-heavy backdrop. Michael Rose's crooning on the track is surely memorable, but the riddim itself is timeless."Revolution," Dennis Brown (1985). While Brown's greatest-hits list runs long, "Revolution" is arguably his most noted recording. The riddim running underneath is one of reggae's most bootlegged instrumentals."Driver," Buju Banton (2006). This track practically set fire to dancehall venues when it came out. While Banton's signature vocals breathed new life into the tune, few recognized the riddim as a slightly sped-up version of Sly and Robbie's "Unmetered Taxi" from 1982.jcunningham@seattleweekly.com

 
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