Music is My Life: Episode 061

Sly and Robbie drummer Sly Dunbar on revolutionizing reggae drums

If you’ve heard any reggae music in your entire life then you’ve heard Sly Dunbar’s drumming, or at the very least, his influence. As one half of Sly and Robbie—a duo dubbed the Riddim Twins—Sly says he’s probably played on a million songs. Sly and Robbie got their start as the rhythm section for Peter Tosh in 1976, and after touring with him for a number of years started Taxi, where they would produce other artists and/or act as their rhythm section. Collaborators included Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Grace Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Serge Gainsbourg, No Doubt, Britney Spears, and probably a million more.

Featured Photo by Wonder Knack for Mideya © 2007.

Sly Dunbar: The first thing I heard, where I realized that I wanted to be a musician, is a band in Jamaica called the Skatalites. Lloyd Knibb is the drummer.

Pat Healy: And what was it that grabbed you about it?
Just the way he plays and the sound of his drums, and the attitude that he played with and the groove. It made me want to play drums, yeah.

I think I heard a story about you starting out with a set of food cans. Is that right?
Yeah, I started out … I was going to school, and I was playing on the desk in school, and then I started playing on cans. Then I told my mom I didn’t want to go back to school at the age of 13.

And was she cool with that?
Yeah, she was cool with that, and then I start playing; I had a big, big tape recorder and then I took off the cover and my friend and I—Lloyd Parks, who was a singer—and then he used to sing for Studio One, and he would come around, and I would play “tick, tick, ka.” It was a sound just like rock steady on the tape, when it was recorded it sounds just like a drum. Nobody knows it’s not a real drum. I start playing that stuff until I got to a real drum. I started working out on it, asking questions, and start playing because I was listening, and I know what was the hi-hat and I know the tom-toms, and I know everything, but didn’t really start playing on a drum kit, yet.

So in your house growing up, was there music? I know you had two sisters, right?
I had two sisters, yeah. I had music around me because my younger sister used to go and buy all these records like Otis Redding or Booker T. & the MGs, Sly and the Family Stone, some Motown albums and all these things, so I grew up listening to a lot of Motown stuff, a lot of Stax stuff, and all of this music around.

And did you start by playing that sort of thing or did you start pretty much playing in the Studio One sound?
I started playing … I listened to both of them because on the radio, you had a lot of Studio One. We used to go to a lot of parties when we were young, so the Studio One songs all were played. I know a friend of mine used to make amplifiers, right, and he would go up to Coxsone at Studio One to buy the pre-released recordings, which would come out every Thursday, and he’d bring it back. While he was building them, we were playing records and listening, so we’re listening to all these Studio One records like “Real Rock” and everything, and on the flip side, we listen to all these songs that lot of people don’t know, these songs that are like 50 years old.

Yeah, what are some of those songs? I’m sure they’re findable now on the internet, right?
One of the songs I used to listen to was a song called “Real Rock,” which was Sound Dimension, and there was a song by the Heptones, I think one of the first recordings they did. I don’t remember the name of it, and there was a couple other songs. I don’t remember the name of them, really, but we used to play them, but then “Real Rock,” definitely was one of the major songs.

Did you ever have any lessons or did you just figure it out by watching other people?
I didn’t get any lessons. I watched people playing, and I listened to the radio, but when I was playing in line with the second band, which was RHT Invincible, I had to call in the keyboard player. We would play these shows and have a group of people dance, and do the limbos and all these things. I would go back and play for the dance group because I was so young. I was like 14 years old, and I would play for the flow shows, and then I would come back and play for the dance people.

And then when did the Yardbrooms come about?
The Yardbrooms were before, just before I went into RHT Invincible. The Yardbrooms is the band that I did my first gig. My friend and I called Barry York, he lives in Canada now, and I did my first gig at a club called Teens and Twenty. A lot of people don’t even know that exists. It doesn’t exist today.

Teens and Twenty?
Yeah.

Does that mean teens and 20-year-olds were welcome there?
I don’t know. I don’t know what it means, but we played it, and the first time I ever played and got a round of applause was “Red Red Wine,” a version of “Red Red Wine,” and that was a very popular song in Jamaica.

Not the Neil Diamond version, but the first cover of it, right? The Tony Tribe version?
Neil Diamond one was the popular one in Jamaica, and then someone covered it, and I think it was big in England, I think, the reggae version, but in Jamaica, it was the Neil Diamond one that was popular because people in Jamaica love soul records, and that kind of music, so it was very popular.

You mention the name of the club, and what was the name of the club where you and Robbie first met?
At a club… Myself and Robbie first met downtown by Randy’s Record Store. It operated somewhere where all musicians meet and independent producer would go there with the records, where the country people would come into town to buy records for the jukebox and whatever, and we would have a record under our arm because we are producing some records, and then we go inside Randy’s store. Someone put it on the turntable for us, and they listen to it, and if they like, they might say, “give me six of that copy.” Everybody used to meet outside. We were standing out there and talking for a while, and Robbie was talking, and then I told him, “I’m going by Channel One.” He says, “Okay, I’ll give you a look at Channel One.” I went to Channel One, and then while I was playing at a different club, and then he was playing at a club with We The People. We stand outside, and I ask him about a couple of songs that I heard when he was playing with the Aggrovators, and that was with Bunny Lee. I asked if he was playing bass, and he said yes, and then Touter [Bernard Harvey] told him to come up and check out this drummer named Sly. Because I know Touter, the keyboard player who plays in Inner Circle now, very good. He told Bunny Lee and we went down to Channel One. Then the first song we played was a song called “Too Good to Be Forgotten” by John Holt, so we did that. 

Then, I think the first song that Robbie played at Channel One, he played piano on a tune called “MPLA,” and he was playing guitar on a couple tracks and then Ranchie [Bertram McLean], the guitar player, would start playing bass, and then Ranchie played a couple of the songs well on bass, and then he went back to guitar. Robbie took up the bass, and then I went to tour. I was playing with Dennis Brown in London. Then Robbie and Peter [Tosh] went to New York to discuss some deal with Rolling Stone Records, so Robbie told Peter about me, and then Robbie asked if I want to join with the Peter Tosh Band. I say, “no problem” because I wasn’t even playing in a steady band. People just call me to play and things like that. Then I say yes, and then that’s when the whole “rockers” thing started because we had to work out how are we going to form with Peter and everything like that. The first album I did with Peter was Equal Rights, but Peter wanted this “one drop” only. I said, no problem because my drum style had started to take over Jamaica. Everybody wanted it, and Peter wanted the one drop, but when I went onstage, we had to kind of change the pattern because sometimes the one drop, if you don’t have a good engineer, you don’t get the power of it. That’s a change from playing my style, if you get some energy onstage, so he didn’t say anything, and then we were free to just record what we want to play any sound for Peter.

The one drop was prevalent around that time, and then basically you and Robbie came up with the rockers beat, right?
Yeah, we kind of… Basically, it was kind of there and all, but we make it. It wasn’t playing like how we were playing it, right? Because I think it’s straightforward. It was introduced to reggae band by a drummer called Phil Colander from Studio One, but nobody knew he was playing because at that time, the drums on the record weren’t loud enough so you could hear. I heard it, and I started playing it. I start playing the rockers thing, and listening, “ka, ka, ka, ka, ka, ka,” and quicken that pattern because there was a fly similar thing going on, which was introduced to reggae by Lloyd Knibb, and then I played it in a song called “Double Barrel,” which was a million-selling record. I played that song with them before I was 15 years old. I don’t know if you know that record. Do you know that record?

No, I don’t know that one, but I was making a note to look it up.
Yeah, it was Trojan’s first No. 1. I think they were celebrating 50 years of it right now. I played [the rockers beat] in that song, and then I played in another song called “Here I Am, Baby” by Al Brown, and then Bunny Lee took it over and made it really really popular in Jamaica with a drummer called Fanta, and then that’s what was going on. I figure well, we have to change it, because when a sound gets too popular, then you know it’s going to die soon. Every song sounds the same and then I started playing that rockers thing. I played patterns from it, so this is where I recreate the whole thing, because the drummers at that time, when I was playing pattern, they were playing random things inside of reggae.

So I realized it could work. I was listening to R&B, and playing a standard pattern, and when it comes to the bridge, sometimes they would change or something like that. I start introducing that to reggae. And the chorus, we would start playing other things in the chorus, and then go back to the verse, playing a regular pattern, so I started doing that in reggae.

When you started playing with Robbie, when did you realize that you had a connection unlike anybody else you’d had a connection with before?
Yeah, because we were doing a lot of sessions Jamaica, and other musicians played in and out, like when I was doing all the sessions with Joe Gibbs, it was myself and Lloyd Parks, who I started out with as a youth, but I just leave school, and he was playing guitar. I was doing a lot of sessions with Joe Gibbs and Lloyd Parks.

Okay, but I guess what was it that made you and Robbie really “click” as far as playing together so well?
I think what made me and Robbie click, when we start playing with Peter Tosh, we were sharing rooms together, so we were talking about just making reggae. We were listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, and all these groups, Stevie Wonder. I would think I was taking reggae to where we think it could go, and we talk about trying things and listen to Brother John and all these groups and other people that’s playing it. And we think, “how can we get reggae on that platform, with that energy?” I was thinking how are we going to do it, and then when we went on the tour with the Rolling Stones in ’78, this is when we discovered our fears, and we had to change and try to get some energy in reggae because the one drop was a bit light, playing indoors in a big arena, a big stadium. When we saw the other rock groups playing like Santana and some other groups that were playing at the show, we realized that we were very light. We need to get some superstars. When we come back to Jamaica, now, we started experimenting with the open snare thing with the Black Uhuru, and the snare came alive.

That’s an interesting point about realizing that it’s not affecting the audience the same way that you want to, but then I think about a song like “Stepping Razor.” That seems like it’s got enough energy to pulse through the arena.
Well, alright, “Stepping Razor” was good, but in those days, if that was recorded at Channel One, you probably had to drum a bit harder in it. When I was playing, most people they never take the drum really seriously, the engineer never take the drummer very serious.

The drummer was always in the background, but “Stepping Razor,” it was a very good song because I was playing one drop, and I was playing it on the tom-tom. When it came to “Stepping Razor,” I was playing it, I kind of changed it a little bit, like “tak, tsch, tsch, tsch, tsch,” if you listen. And then the roll that I made in “Stepping Razor”: “ka tsch ka tsh ka tsch ka tsh.” Robbie came to me and said, “Play a roll like that for me.” I said, “Okay, no problem.” When we went to play, I tell him, “tell me where you want to play it,” and I played it and half the time I listened to that, I said, “wow, it’s kind of cute.” People would ask me whether they came back on the same beat but I was saying it’s a thing where you ease or pause a little bit and then go back to the beat. “Stepping Razor” is really cool because how I started is I listened to a Motown record that they were playing the intro, and then the drummer would come in when the singer start. They’ll play “ta ka ta ta,” kind of a Temptations kind of thing.

I like how you mention throwing in a pause there, and that just feels like such a perfect description of what you and Robbie have brought to music, just throwing in a pause at the right place can change everything.
Robbie is someone who plays in perfect time on the bass, so I could do anything and go out and come back in and catch it back. He’s not going to move it. He’s going to hold it for me to come back in, and I did the same for him. I would also hold steady, and he could go and do anything and come back, and he’s coming back because I’m holding the beat for him. If he listens to me, then he knows he’s gonna be alright. He could ease, put in an extra note and come right back on it. Same thing for me: I could make the roll and pause a little and catch it back on the next downbeat because I know he’s there. He’s not gonna come with me. Sometimes, it’s hard because a lot of bass players, they start doing things, and then they start following you, and then they start moving. I love to do this: “hold it steady for me because I’m coming back.”

That’s a good way of putting it. I was listening to the Peter Tosh version of [the Temptations song] “Don’t Look Back” that you did, and you listen to the full recording, everything seems so together, but then if you isolate the bass, there are all these little pauses and little rests that you don’t even notice if you’re listening to everything altogether. When you were making these decisions, was Peter Tosh weighing in on these things?
He don’t say a lot to use you, Peter Tosh, no. After we did the Equal Rights album … When we were recording, he didn’t say a word or tell us what to play. He didn’t say anything: He just come play his guitar in the song. If we were playing a groove, and he would hear Robbie playing something, and I was following, he would probably start singing ideas down. He didn’t tell us what to do or what to play. Maybe if you listen to all these Peter Tosh records, you can hear a different kind of groove and different kind of sound and different kind of element that he put into his record. … I was listening to some Peter Tosh recordings during the whole virus issue going on, and I said, “wow, I didn’t know I did things like that,” and I listen to them. The Bush Doctor album and all these albums, Mystic Man album, Wanted Dread & Alive, and I said, “wow, he didn’t really tell us what to play, and I said listen, it’s groove. Peter Tosh groove and reggae is kind of different from what artists, like different from Bob [Marley], that we play for him. We didn’t want him to sound like Bob either, because we wanted him to have a different sound.

I remember there was an interview with Joe Higgs where he’s talking about how he wanted Peter, Bob, and Bunny to be stars in their own right, and just to have such an individual thing that they brought that when they …
Well, they did. They were stars in their own right.

Yeah, when you think about what you were talking about and developing a sound and playing with somebody who does or doesn’t weigh in on your contributions to the music, what type of situation do you enjoy working in better?
It’s all the same situation on the record, and then who the artist is, and it will come cool. The artist needs to work. Most of the time because everybody wanted to sound like I was playing on the drum by the pattern. They would leave it up to me and Robbie to set the groove for them. They wouldn’t say anything much. I would ask them sometimes what they want me to do, and they say, “do anything.” Even when we were doing the Bob Dylan recording, I think in ’84 …

Oh, Infidels?
Yeah, I mean, nobody tell us what to play. Bob was so cool. He just start playing the guitar, the songs, and we feel or find the tempo and everything, what they was playing and lock into the groove like I was playing. In this record, so that session was so cool. It was one of the coolest sessions that we ever worked on.

What was the first thing you and Robbie produced?
The first thing we produced… I don’t remember exactly. We produced a couple songs, which was like trial songs: They didn’t really work out that good. I think the first album that came out, I think a double album called … I don’t remember. I don’t remember what we called the album. Something we record sometime. I can’t recall the album, but it came out, and it was okay, and then I think everything start happening when we came up on the Peter Tosh tour. I think we did something, a Michael Rose record or something like that, yeah. We start getting some free time at Channel One Studio. We did a couple of things. It didn’t really work out, but when we came off of tour, that tour from the Rolling Stones, I think in ’78, then we started … Channel One had a 16-track recording. They knew exactly what they wanted and the sound that they wanted.

Then we started to get into it more when we did an album for Black Uhuru, and then it would have a kick drum in the face and the snares, the open snares, and we were really going for the energy of the music, and so everything changed, and we started playing with a different attitude. Something like “Heart Made of Stone” by the Viceroys and others. And all of these things start happening because we had found the sound that we were looking for all the time.

I think the story goes that you and Robbie basically took the money that you earned from playing with Peter and started Taxi. Is that right?
Yeah, Taxi was there, but we came back with the tour money. When we were first playing with Peter, we were so small, so we saved our money, so when we came back to Jamaica we were looking at the future, because as musicians, you did a recording, and sooner or later, it’s going to change and a new musician, a young musician will come into the picture, and people want to use other players, so we say “we want to own ourself and own our music, but we won’t stop doing sessions.” We play more sessions, or we’re going to record more sessions. We record for ourselves and started to create the sound that we control ourselves, which records we’re going to put out with our sound on it, because sometimes you might record a song for a producer, and he gets someone else to come and re-record because he didn’t like how we play. We wanted to have full control of ourselves as musicians, what we going to put out. This is when we started, probably when we came back to Jamaica and then we take the money and start. We record a lot to put our sound in the marketplace, to create a sound for ourselves, instead of waiting on a producer to put out what you play. I think that’s what we went after, and I think we probably kind of get it right.

That must have been quite a culture shock to go from playing the gigs you were playing to opening for the Rolling Stones.
Yeah, it was really a shock because the first gig we played, I think we played at John F. Kennedy Stadium, I think in Philadelphia. It was 110,000 people. Me, I mean, Mick had also come out and introduced Peter to the people because a lot of people didn’t know who Peter was, so we had a little problem there sometimes. When we’re going on first, and these places are packed, jam packed, and that’s when I realized the energy we are playing was not going out there because you’d have to have a good engineer. In that way, those things in a big stadium, they can’t just go and touch the board, because these things are preset for the top groups. So we start learning a lot from there and learn how we’re going to play and talking music, like when we go onstage. Although you might record the music live, but when you go onstage, you have to probably switch it a bit to make it really exciting for the audience. Something you could play, like, how it was recorded, but you have to add to something to give it the live feel.

I was very young in the 1970s, and so I wasn’t really aware of reggae until I got older, probably like in middle school or something. But were you aware at that time, in the ’70s, of how much of a global phenomenon reggae was becoming and how wildly popular it was and how all these other groups like the Stones and Paul McCartney’s Wings were just integrating reggae into their sound? What was your thought about that from the inside?
Well, the Stones were into reggae before we even started playing with them. They came to Jamaica, and they recorded an album. I don’t remember what was the name of the album [Black and Blue], and they did a version of [Eric Donaldson’s song that won the 1971 Jamaican Festival Song Competition] “Cherry Oh Baby,” so they were into it from a good while. This is why they were glad to work with Peter and to sign Peter to their label. Paul McCartney and all these people, to me it was good for them to really get involved, to help the music to get to where it is today.

Yeah. It’s such an interesting time in music, though, where it just… What felt like to everybody else, a brand new music, had been in existence on the island for so long and was the general feel just like, “this is great; these people are spreading the word,” or was it more, “hey, they’re taking our music!”?
A lot of people said “they’re taking our music,” but I never think of that because even Johnny Nash came, and they did a record called “Hold Me Tight,” and that was a big record. I felt good because that’s what made Paul Simon came and did “Mother Child Reunion,” and Blondie did “The Tide is High.” To us we know it’s reggae, and so we felt good to know somebody is liking what we’re doing and coming in and doing covers, using our beat, and everything.

So you get back from the tour, and you start Taxi, and after learning so much on that tour, what were some of the first lessons you applied when starting Taxi?
First thing we did when we came back from tour, I think we started recording. We recorded “Baltimore,” we recorded Jimmy Riley’s “Love and Devotion,” and we did Junior Delgado’s “Merry Go Round” and “Fort Augustus,” We did a Tamlins song; we did a version of this song, “toom, toom, toom, toom, toom, toom, toom”: I think it was a Motown song. I don’t remember the name of it. [Editor’s Note: “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” originally by the Temptations]. We were just cutting songs. We were at Channel One for one week, stuck inside there. We were cutting. 

When did people start calling you the Riddim Twins?
I think the Riddim Twins name come from a guy at Island Records called Trevor. There was a poster of me and Robbie and on the top of it, it said “Riddim Twins.” I think that’s where the name come from.

Was it a name you embraced right from the start?
Yeah, we never had a problem with it, when they say Riddim Twins, and it come back to me, and from there, it just build up.

It’s interesting listening to music now in 2021, and you can see how many streams something has on Spotify, and do you even know what track that you contributed to has the most streams?
No. No, no.

It’s OMI’s “Cheerleader,” and that has one billion streams!
Yeah, I did “Cheerleader.” That’s the remix version [that has so many streams though]. I did the original version. I played drums on it, and I had a had a writing credit, but yeah, “Cheerleader” must be the one.

Yeah, so you got a writing credit on that. There are a lot of songs you got a writing credit on, which is hard for a drummer to get, I’d imagine. Did you negotiate that from the get go?
[Laughing] No, no. I don’t negotiate anything because they sometimes… Sometimes, in a song, and sometimes the drum patterns is really a part of a song because whenever you think that what they’re playing couldn’t work, and I change everything, so I kinda recreate the whole groove for the song. On the original version, there’s no bass in it. There’s just drum, but there’s no synth drum. There’s just an 808, so they said, “no, we’re not going to put any bass in it because it sounded good the way it is.” And I said, “okay, no problem at all.” I finally work on it and they say, “there’s no bass in it!” And sometimes, they would give me credit because they figure I’m playing on the record. My name is on the record. It kind of helped the record to get a boost. Sometimes people listen and say, “Oh, Sly’s playing on it, so let’s play it, and kind of get the jump start, there, so sometimes, they want to give you some percent. Sometimes, we add to the whole groove on the record because it also depends on the drum pattern I’m playing. That will probably help the record to get the boost because a lot of drums that’s played ordinary, but I would go there and try to add a different sound or something.