Interview Date: October 23, 2011 @9am EDT
Sly Dunbar as of right now
They say that Reggae is all about the beat. If that’s the case then Lowell “Sly” Dunbar (and his partner in crime Robbie Shakespeare) are quite possibly, two of the most important people in all the history of Jamaican music. Sly Dunbar has been innovating and altering drum patterns, taking his inspiration and ideas from the world around him, refining and redefining what Jamaican music is and what it is “supposed to” sound like. With over 200 000 recordings (100 Number one hits in Jamaica alone), Dunbar has been and continues to be a person setting down the music foundation for the next generation to follow. He is a man constantly exploring; contributing to some of the Islands most important Reggae albums (and other forms of Jamaican music) as well as artists from around the globe.
Starting professionally at age 15, Sly Dunbar first entered the studio with Ansell Collins; starting off creating “Night Doctor” (for Lee Perry and the Upsetters) and then followed it up with the surprise hit “Double Barrel” (for Collins himself; becoming a “million seller”).
“The first song I did was at 15 years old; a song called ‘Night doctor’. It came out as ‘The Upsetters,' but it was really produced by Anthony Collins; I think he sold it to ‘The Upsetters’. The second song when I was 16 was [when I did] 'Double Barrel.' We worked on the groove for ‘Double Barrel’ and we came up with the intros and the kind of open kind of symbol thing that was created by Lightnin’ [Lloyd Knibb of the Skatilites] so I said, ‘I like it’ so he incorporated that into 'Double Barrel' . . . I told them it was a million seller, and they laughed at me. I won! because it really sold a million.” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
An interesting thing I noticed about Sly Dunbar (and Robbie Shakespeare) was that right from the beginning they seemed to mostly work as contract session men rather than taking the safe and secure route by aligning themselves solely with one artist (i.e. I am in the Peter Tosh’s band). When I asked him if he ever considered himself as a member of “The Upsetters” he was quick to inform me he was never a member of the Upsetters, but told me that he had the deepest respect for them as well as Lee Perry.
“ I actually played a lot of stuff for Lee Perry in the later years. You know like songs like ‘Punky Reggae Party’ for Bob Marley, I played ‘Police and Thieves’ and some other songs.” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
It’s kind of crazy to think of how quickly Sly Dunbar rose to fame at such an early age and with such force. It would be easy, when looking at it from just one angle to dismiss his accomplishments as a matter of luck or the ‘right place, right time’ argument. Thinking that would be dismissive and shallow in depth and in its understanding, and simply incorrect. The real truth of the matter is when looking back at Sly Dunbar’s career, his success came from the fact that he worked hard; I mean day and night (session after session), never satisfied. He would leave one recording session in one studio in the morning (possibly recording one of the finest albums of all time; didn’t matter) and then head over to another studio to record with another artist contributing something completely different for the afternoon. He would do this without skipping a beat or quitting because he had already recorded a hit earlier that day. Singers would come to depend on him to “bring the magic”; relying on him and Robbie to make their record as good as the last one. In my humble opinion, that is one of the major “X factor’s” or that “I can put my finger on why they are so good” qualities that separates Sly Dunbar from the rest of the pack. The ability to keep cranking out beat after beat without repeating, over thinking, or slowing down. One of the coolest things I learned from talking to Sly Dunbar was his deep understanding and his non-conceited candor with regard to his past accomplishments.
“When I played my first (my second major song) which was a million seller I didn’t think of anything; I really just started; I have to put in [my time] and start learning . . . there is a lot of different changes that I brought into the music; I could have stuck with a 'Double Barrel Pattern' and say Ok this was a big hit [let’s stick with this] . . . but I realize that I would be just repeating myself.” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
Another thing that separated him and his fellow session men, from other musicians at the time, was their sense of adventure and wonder at what hadn't been done. Although I can’t say for certain, I am sure it was ideas that Dunbar had in his head and his pursuit for creating great music that drew the attention of Robbie Shakespeare (an up and coming bass player superstar in his own right at the time). Playing at separate clubs along Red Hill Road in Kingston, Jamaica, the two would often mingle between sets and talk about musical concepts and the ideas that they were pursuing musically.
“We use to stand up and talk about this music and then Robbie asked me to join him at Peter Tosh’s band; I said no problem, you know. And this is where the experimentation start really.” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
This union was to turn out to be one of the most powerful and successful rhythm sections in the history of music! They are one of the most sought after duos, both for their unique playing, as well as their creativity in the studio (and as producers). In fact, he went on to play drums on some of the most seminal recordings of his generation; albums like: “Show Case,” “Sinsemilla,” “Red” by Black Uhuru, “Visions” by Dennis Brown, “Bush Doctor,” “Equal Rights,” “Mystic Man,” and “Wanted Dread or Alive” by Peter Tosh, just to name a few!. According to him much of his musical sound (learning) first gelled on the Roots Reggae classic “Right Time” by the Mighty Diamonds.
“I was listening to all these great drummers then I was asking myself how am I going to fit into this and all these great drummers. So I would go home and pray every day and practice. I started listening to a lot of African stuff because my mother and I use to sit down and watch like creative bandstands where they would play like the congas and people would move their bodies to a certain beat and I use to watch it, you know? And then I started to listen to African music and realized that it would be like drums and like vocals and that was why everyone was dancing. So I start figuring out [and asking myself] how can I make reggae with the drum, dance alone by itself in reggae? I use to listen to Lightnin’s [Lloyd Knibb] a lot and I see he has done a lot of stuff like that; I tried experimenting and one of the first tunes I think I really really started experimenting on was a song by the Diamonds called ‘the right time’ and it worked and then there Channel One Studio produce Joseph and Ernest gave me the go ahead. So I started to get creative and so I started listening more to a lot of drummers and music and tried taking a lot of stuff and transforming it back to reggae . . . my goal was to see other drummers trying to play reggae; give them something that they have to learn. A lot of people were saying that reggae was too easy, but it’s not really easy but its just the way you play it.” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
The album was a big hit not only for the Mighty Diamonds but for Sly Dunbar himself. More importantly the album was a breakthrough professionally for Sly in the Channel One Studio. He, Robbie and the people at Channel One Studios had been working on ‘a drum sound’ in the studio for close to a year; experimenting with recording techniques, drum patterns, rhythms through trial and error. It all came together for the first time on “The Right Time” album, crystallizing “The Studio One Sound” that they would later be famous for.
“I would look at the people moving and try to fit things and I would listen a lot and take ideas and flip it on a drum pattern, so nobody would know where I was getting this inspiration from “– Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
This phenomenal recording (The Right Time) took velvety old-school harmonies and combined them with teachings of the bible, their own moral ideals and the writings of the Jamaican hero Marcus Garvey. This album just bounces and jumps off the turntable; it is a must for all reggae fans. The band itself are confident and perfectly balanced with Sly Dunbar's amazing drumming.
“I went to do a tour with the Mighty Diamonds in '76 in England. I just went there as a player (as a drummer) and [I went to England knowing that] they were the stars. It turned out that the concert when I read the reviews, the review say Sly Dunbar is the lead and everybody is singing behind the drum beat like the drummer was the lead vocal...” – Sly Dunbar (GoingThruVinyl 2011)
Article continues next week...