Sly Dunbar (of Sly & Robbie) on longevity in the music industry, tropical house, and the next step for reggae

Sly Dunbar is one half of prolific duo Sly & Robbie and even if you haven’t heard the name before, you’ve surely heard him and Robbie Shakespeare’s work in one way or another. The duo have crafted some of the greatest rhythms (or riddims) in reggae and dub, a DNA which has flowed into other genres and affected a massive range of artists and genres, not to mention the 200,000+ recording artists that have worked with the duo.

As a member of the indelible production team, Sly has enjoyed a successful career both behind the scenes, and as just some constant musical force, always involved in either his own music or someone else’s, from Bob Dylan and Bob Marley to No Doubt and Sinead O’Conner. Super producer Brian Eno was once quoted saying this about Sly:

“Once you’re on tape, there are so many variations you can make that you don’t really.need to spend all that money hiring musicians; you can do a great deal with one piece of work. So when you buy a reggae record, there’s a 90 percent chance the drummer is Sly Dunbar. You get the impression that Sly Dunbar is chained to a studio seat somewhere in Jamaica, but in fact what happens is that his drum tracks are so interesting, they get used again and again.”

It’s then understandable that Sly & Robbie have remained in such high demand both in the studio and in a live environment, with everyone who witnesses their show completely won over by the display of deeply ingrained rhythms which form one giant groove from start to finish. Australians will be getting a chance to once again witness this incredible strength of musicianship as the duo head down this month for a tour with fellow reggae legends UB40 and Inner Circle.

I recently had the opportunity to briefly converse with Dunbar himself, connecting with him via phone while he was driving down a quiet street in Kingston, Jamaica and talking to me on speaker phone, letting me know what keeps him going in the music industry, the way modern technology effects production, the current state of reggae, dancehall-influenced tropical house, and more.

“The people made me hungry so I appreciate them so much for that”, Sly tells me when I ask about what keeps him going in the music industry. “I can’t stop, I have to give them more, and more, and more, and they keep asking for more, so I will keep on giving it to them for the appreciation they show.” Dunbar is in high spirits when he’s talking about the listening public who have supported him throughout the decades, citing them as the main motivation that makes him “want to go on and on and on”.

The evidence of Sly being so dedicated to his craft is certainly there, every couple of years the duo put out multiple albums and are constantly working with young artists to help them progress in the industry. There’s not much left that the team hasn’t accomplished, Sly tells me, with his only goal “just making music so these people be happy”.

“As long as they are playing it on the radio, playing it somewhere in the world, I’ll keep on just making music, because that’s our job”, he says. “So it’s not so much about accomplishment, it’s about doing what you have to do…bringing joy to the world”.

On the album side of things, we haven’t really heard from Sly & Robbie since two exceptional 2014 dub LP’s, Rub Rising and Underwater Dub, the latter being a concept album with production tweaked to sound slightly submerged. Since then they’ve just been working with young artists, and when I ask him if these young artists are more influenced by modern production trends Sly tells me that legacy is still more important in the world of reggae.

“A lot of artists in Jamaica, sometimes they want to go after the older riddims, because they grew up listening to them on the radio. They want to be a part of [the history], ya know? It’s out of respect.”

These “older riddims” that this new generation of reggae singers want to work with are embodied in their producers, seeing as Sly & Robbie have played on or produced with more than 200,000 recording artists. “It’s probably more than that even”, Sly tells me when I bring that up, prompting me to ask him what if any collaborations in particular have stuck out to him.

“One of the greatest things is when we did a track with Marcus Miller…we used two bass, and two drummers with Kazumi Watanabe.” He pauses for a second as if too picture the session in his mind. “That was a really, really good time”. And these session have in turn influenced the way Sly & Robbie approach their music, an example being No Doubt, whom the band worked with on Rock Steady. “I see the way they do the recording and everything, it definitely influences you a bit”, he says about sharing a studio with so many artists.

Though reggae has such a rich history with massive success throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the style has become more obscure on the radio nowadays despite holding heavy influence on other types of music. I ask Sly about the lack of reggae on the radio and he’s fairly blunt on the reason.

“I think the reason for that is that the songs aren’t that great, ya know? We need to go back to the 80’s…not for it to be the 80’s again, but with recording…apparently all the new technology was supposed to make it better, but it’s not better, ya know? So we need to find something else”.

It seems reggae is one of those styles that is better suited to traditional styles of recording, at least that’s what I gathered from Dunbar.

“It’s like in our young days, we would have to go and learn certain things, but some of these guys [today] don’t learn everything. They have pro tools and all that, some of them live on loops and all those things. I’m not saying that it’s a completely bad idea, it’s good because I like loops sometimes, but I think the next step for reggae is for all of us to come together…sit down and work together to come up with some good melodies and record rhythms like in the old days, and for great singers to come up to perform them…there are some new [singers] but I don’t think they put a lot in like say Dennis [Brown] and Gregory [Issacs]…these people loved it!”

Apart from Reggae, Sly has also had a heavy hand in influencing the direction of dancehall, a style which has popped back up in current discussion because of what people are now calling “tropical house” (Kygo, Rihanna, new Justin Bieber), which borrows much of it’s sound from this tradition. “It’s a good thing”, Sly says, “some people talk about it like it’s bad in a way, but Dancehall is just where they get the ideas from. They just call it [tropical house] for the tech and electronic kind of stuff, we couldn’t make beats like that because in Jamaica not everybody could get their hands on those kind of keyboards and electronics….I like it! especially with that Justin Bieber song, “Sorry”, I like that, it’s a very, very good song….the dancehall stuff is the new pop music!”

“Music today…this is the largest music has ever been”, Sly tells me when I ask him about how new technologies like streaming have impacted music from his perspective. “In some way, this new technology hasn’t effected it in a bad way, but it effects [or requires] a different kind of playing, a different instrumentation, a different kind of style”.

Sly & Robbie perform with Bitty McLean along with UB40 and Inner Circle this month in Sydney and Melbourne. See full dates below and grab tickets to watch how one of the most prolific rhythms sections of all time do it.

Wednesday 17th February – Enmore Theatre, SYDNEY Tickets from www.ticketek.com.au
Thursday 18th February – Palais Theatre, MELBOURNE Tickets from www.ticketmaster.com.au