Sly & Robbie

Good Dubs: The Prime of Sly & Robbie

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Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) are one of Jamaica's leading rhythm sections and an important production team. Dunbar's first drum kit consisted of scavenged empty food cans, but he and Shakespeare were hiring out as a duo by the mid-'70s. Their own albums are among the most revered in the entire reggae canon, but they have also worked with Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, Black Uhuru, and Desmond Dekker. Among their prominent outside collaborators are Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Queen Latifah, and Carly Simon. They also cut a landmark recording with the late French chanson singer Serge Gainsbourg, which included a hilarious and highly controversial reggae version of "La Marseillaise." The tunes on the present collection all date from around 1975-1982, when Sly & Robbie (aka the Riddim Twins) were living through an especially inventive period. They were beginning to experiment with the kind of clipped, vertical beats which later led to their widely disparaged use of programmed percussion. There are vocal and instrumental tracks here, and some are pared down to dub zero while others are more ornate. But a consistent strength of Sly & Robbie's approach is in how they calibrate the actual weight of the rhythm while dealing with melody, ornamentation, velocity, and the precise placement of the downbeat. At first, it all seems effortless and as though the only people breaking a sweat are on the dancefloor. But upon repeated hearings, the degree of expertise involved begins to emerge, and if this awareness isn't crucial to the listener's enjoyment, it doesn't get in the way, either.

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