It’s like this: no drummer in the history of reggae has had more impact on the music, its inward structure, its “riddims,” and its overall progress. He’s a true celebrity in reggae circles around the world—a superstar, to be sure. Include his name in the credits on an LP jacket, and automatically the album attains a degree of respectability.
He’s recorded with, and often produced, the greatest names in reggae: Big Youth, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Bunny Wailer, Jim Riley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Peter Tosh, the Tamlins, the Wailing Souls, and others. His drumming talent is such that he’s in demand to do almost as many rock sessions as he does reggae. In the past couple of years, he’s recorded with Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Joe Cocker, Herbie Hancock, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Last year, he won the Modern Drummer pollfor Reggae Drummer. It wasn’t even close.
The drummer I’m referring to, of course, is Sly Dunbar. There are those who call him Sly “Drumbar,” out of utmost respect, and some of them even insist he should legally change his surname. Dunbar or Drumbar, call him what you will. Put him behind a drumkit, though, and only one word comes to mind: perfection.
One can’t really write about Sly Dunbar, however, without also writing about longtime friend and musical cohort, bass player Robbie Shakespeare (aka Robbie “Basspeare”). Jointly, they’ve been crowned The Riddim Twins, and with good reason. (What’s all this business about nicknames, you might ask. Well, Jamaican musicians have this thing about them. Consider a few: Sticky Thompson, Flabba Holt, Mikey Boo, Skully, Sky Juice, Stylie Scott, U Roy, I Roy, Eek-A-Mouse, Yellowman, Dillinger, Nigger Kojak, Ranking Trevor, Chinna Smith, and hundreds more. My favorite? Crucial Bunny Tom Tom.)
Anyway, Dunbar and Shakespeare are virtually inseparable. You’II see them together in the recording studio and out of the recording studio, up on stage, backstage, in hotel lobbies, in hotel rooms, on airplanes, and in airports.
“Sly and Robbie are really one unit, you see—one super-human musical unit. They can’t stray too far from one another because their musical lifeblood is the same. If you think you see two people, you’re wrong. It’s only an apparition,” says one reggae producer. “They’re a riddim machine. Sly is complexly connected to Robbie, and vice versa,” says another.
Simply put, what Sly and Robbie do is depend on each other. And throughout the following interview, you’ll read numerous “Me and Robbie’s.” The relationship the two have epitomizes the best possible drummer-bass relationship. Anyone interested in such a topic should find Sly’s words on it particularly enlightening.
Precisely what is it that makes the name Sly Dunbar mean so much to reggae and reggae drummers? As reggae historian Stephen Davis put it in his excellent book, Reggae International, “Post-1972 reggae drumming is synonymous with Sly Dunbar.”
Prior to Dunbar’s arrival on the scene, the basic reggae drum beat was the “One Drop.” Very simply, that meant the bass drum was on the 2 and 4. Enter Sly Dunbar. Again Stephen Davis: “In 1975-76, Sly started playing eight to the bar on the bass drum compared to 16 or 32 on the hi-hat cymbal. That’s the beginning of the style called ‘Rockers.’ One got a faster feel from the hi-hat action, but the tempo of the music was actually slowing down.”
According to Davis, Sly worked this rhythm until the end of the ’70s. By that time, every reggae drummer in Kingston and beyond had incorporated it. For Sly then, it was time to move on. What resulted was yet another new riddim, this one called “Rub-a-Dub.” Davis: “Here the bass drum didn’t play eight to the bar anymore, and the tempo is sped up almost to that of rock steady [a precursor of reggae] . . . For the first time in reggae, the bass drum comes off 2 and 4.”
“Rub-a-Dub” took Sly and reggae into the ’80s. “And now,” says Sly, “it’s time for a new riddim.” Everyone in Kingston enthusiastically awaits what’s next.
Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve interviewed Sly Dunbar no less than six times. I know for a fact that he’s soft-spoken, reserved, and not usually inclined to chat away an afternoon or evening. However, one morning in Hawaii, of all places (the reggae group Black Uhuru was playing Lahaina on the island of Maul, and I just happened to be visiting friends there), I stopped by his hotel room, said hello, and asked him if he ‘d mind talking into my tape recorder the next day. Knowing his and the group’s tight traveling schedule, I didn’t expect an affirmative reply. Surprisingly, he said yes, he’d love to.
Sly was still in the same upbeat mood when I arrived at 10:00 the following morning. Hawaii, he said, reminded him of the best ofJamaica. He was also pleasantly stunned at the hot reception he, Robbie, and Black Uhuru got at a dance party the previous night. I couldn’t have asked for a more favorable set of circumstances for our talk.
During the course of the interview, Sly spoke about many things, including recording with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, the current condition of reggae, his youth, his relationship with Robbie, and his philosophy of drumming. When we were through, Sly sat back, stretched, and smiled. “Know what? I feel like playing my drums now. What time is soundcheck?”
RS: The last time we spoke, you and Robbie were considering an offer to become permanent members of Black Uhuru. Judging from the last tour and all the work you’ve done with the group, I assume the two of you did just that.
SD: Yeah, it’s true. We became full-time members of the group.
RS: Yet you still found time to work with Dylan on his Infidels album.
SD: Yeah, and that was a great thing—a great experience for me and Robbie.
RS: Did Dylan ask you and Robbie to do the Infidels tour with him last summer?
SD: Not really. See, he asked us, when we were recording Infidels, what our plans were after the album was completed. We told him that we were going on the road with Black Uhuru. So he never asked us to tour with him. But 1 think that, if we told him we were free, he would have asked us to tour. That would have been great, too. Robbie and I would have been very excited to tour with Dylan. But unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way, y’know.
RS: Does being in Black Uhuru curtail the amount of session work you’re able to do with other artists?
SD: No, not really. It’s not like Black Uhuru is always on the road. The deal is that me and Robbie are free to record with anyone. So we’re continuing to do session work with other artists.
RS: How did you come to record with Dylan?
SD: To tell the truth, Robbie and I were in Nassau, at the Compass Point Recording Studios, and a friend of ours from Island Records told us that Dylan wanted to do an album with us. I said, “Really?” She said, “Yeah, it’s true.” I couldn’t believe it. Me and Robbie are very big fans of Dylan. We asked ourselves why Dylan wanted to record with us. We would always buy all of Dylan’s records. So anyway, we told Dylan that we would be very glad to record with him. The date was set and we went to New York to start the record.
RS: Had you met Dylan before this?
SD: No, the first time I met him was when I walked into the studio.
RS: Since you were such a big fan of Dylan, what was that first meeting like?
SD: It was really fantastic, y’know. It was a big thrill to be in the same studio with him. Me and Robbie have recorded with many artists, but we hold Dylan up in a special place, if you know what I’m saying.
RS: Did he pretty much tell you what to play, or were you given the freedom to play what you thought was best for the song?
SD: Dylan just came in the first session and started playing his guitar. Well, Robbie started playing, and I started playing, and that was it. We just got on in a real natural fashion.
RS: Did you have to make any significant adjustments, style-wise, in order to meet the demands of Dylan’s songs?
SD: No, because I used to play his kind of music when I played in club bands in Kingston, before I got a reputation as a drummer. So it was easy to play the way I did on Dylan’s record. I just went straight ahead and did it. Dylan lets you play what you think is the right thing to play. Sometimes we did different takes in different keys to see which one was best for Dylan’s voice. But Dylan knows exactly what he wants. That’s what makes him a great artist. I think he’s the greatest songwriter in the world today.
RS: One of the most interesting tracks on Infidels, and one in which you shine particularly bright, is “Man Of Peace.”
SD: I think that was the first song we did. I also think it was one of the best songs we did, along with “License To Kill.” To tell the truth, I love the whole album. I’ve been waiting a long time for an album like that.
RS: Your fills on “Man Of Peace” are really quite unique, given your drum style. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you play anything like them before. How did you come up with them?
SD: Well, the first time I heard the song and it came to the fill part, in my head I heard a guitar or organ riff. So I played my drums as if I was playing a guitar or organ, and that’s how it came out. I could hear it all perfectly in my head, so it wasn’t such a big thing.
RS: The thrill of recording with Dylan aside, it seems to me that you and Robbie helped Dylan reclaim some of the ground he lost in the last few years, especially with the critics. And at the same time, a lot of Dylan fans who might not have been familiar with the accomplishments of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare now know who you are.
SD: Yeah. I was thinking about that the other day. It’s true, y’know. All the Dylan fans who bought the album got the chance to get closer to Jamaican musicianship. Dylan was always into reggae and reggae players, but not all of his fans know this.
RS: In addition to recording with Dylan, you’ve also recorded with the Rolling Stones—not bad for a reggae drummer.
SD: The Stones are a great band. Playing with them is always a great experience, too.
RS: You’re listed in the credits on the LP Undercover. How many tracks did you play on?
SD: Well, the tracks were already laid. What I did was overdub tom-tom fills on “Undercover Of The Night” and the snare on “Too Much Blood” along with some fills. I also played on “She Was Hot” and the reggae tune, “Feel On Baby.” For those, I did some percussion work and more fills.
RS: Did you have much interaction in the studio with Charlie Watts?
SD: No, he wasn’t there. Mick Jagger brought the tapes down to Jamaica and said that I was the only person he would let add some things to the tracks, because he knew Charlie wouldn’t mind.
RS: And you also helped Jagger with his solo album.
SD: Yeah, that’s true. Me and Robbie played on a few tracks.
RS: What was it like recording with him?
SD: It was cool, y’know, because he works so easily; he was never in a hurry. We took our time and got it right. That’s why I think it’s a great record.
RS: How far back do you and Robbie go with Jagger and the rest of the Stones?
SD: Well, we backed up Peter Tosh when Peter opened for the Stones in 1978. That tour was an important step in my career, and it was also a big boost for reggae. It was the first time a lot of rock people heard not only Peter Tosh, but reggae, period. It was very inspiring to see so many Stones fans get up and dance when we played. That’s what reggae needs—more crossover. Groups like Culture Club, UB 40, the Police, the Clash, whenever they use reggae, personally, I’m very happy because it helps to widen reggae’s audience.
RS: Speaking of crossing over, you’re the only reggae drummer who has been successful in making the crossover from reggae to rock. Why haven’t other reggae drummer been able to follow in your footsteps?
SD: It’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer. See, there are a lot of good drummers in Jamaica that can play, really play. Maybe, though, they don’t like taking chances like I do. When I made the crossover with Grace Jones—that was the first time I recorded with a non-reggae artist—I thought it could work. Chris Blackwell [president of Island Records] thought so too. Actually, before I did the session with Grace, I did a session with a French singer, and his album went platinum in France.
So when Chris and I saw that, we thought it could work with Grace Jones. We went to Nassau [Compass Point] to record, but we had no idea what was going to come from it. Luckily, what did come from the sessions was good, and things just went from there. For a long time I’ve been interested in R&B, funk and rock ‘n’ roll. And even though I was a reggae drummer, I used to play Top 40 in Kingston bar bands and up on Jamaica’s North Coast. And I’ll tell you something: The first beat that I ever played on the drums was the beat that Charlie Watts used in “Satisfaction.” That was the first pattern I played on the drums! Back in those days, all the Kingston drummers would listen to American music, take the licks from what we heard and put them into reggae songs. What we came up with was a whole new sound for the people in Jamaica who listened only to reggae. But actually it wasn’t new at all.
RS: In the late ’60s when reggae evolved out of ska and rock steady, was white rock readily accessible in Jamaica?
SD: No, not really. Sometimes they would play songs like “Satisfaction” on the radio along with some Beatles songs. But the best way to hear rock was to ask the people coming to Jamaica from Miami and New York—Jamaicans living in the States—to bring records home with them.
RS: Without question, you’re the most noted reggae drummer in the music’s short history and certainly its most influential. Does such prestige ever carry too much pressure and/or responsibility? In other words, do you ever get the feeling that people sometimes expect too much from Sly Dunbar?
SD: Yeah mon, sometimes that’s the way it is. I think certain people expect me to shine all the time. But artists can’t be at their best every day. No one is perfect. If a song is a good song, it’s much easier for me to play well. But if it’s a bad song or a bad album, then I might not sound so good, no matter what. That’s the way of music. And this is true not only in the studio, but in concert, too. Feeling and inspiration have a lot to do with how good a musician plays.
RS: Do you ever catch yourself trying to outdo your last performance behind the drumkit?
SD: No, because me and Robbie always try to keep something in reserve. If we perform today and play well, in the back of our minds we know we could do even better. But we try to hold a little back, so that the next time we play, there is something extra special. Not too many drummers like to think like this—not too many bass players, either. But that’s the way Robbie and I execute the best.
RS: For possessing such a coveted reputation as a first-class drummer, both in the studio and up on the stage, you keep a pretty low profile. Is that intentional?
SD: Well, yes and no. I don’t have time for anything but music. I think about music and the drums 24 hours a day. I’m always thinking up new ideas and trying to move ahead. I don’t do much socializing, but sometimes I like to go to a disco and watch the people dance. I pick up a lot of ideas that way. I watch for which beats attract the most dancers on the dance floor.
RS: When you’re listening to a song and searching out new musical ideas, what exactly do you focus on—just the beat?
SD: No, the first thing I listen to is the production of the record. Not too many reggae drummers listen to the production of songs, but I always do. I think it’s very important. But me and Robbie check a song and its sound more carefully than most musicians. A good beat can be a great beat if it has the right sound.
RS: Over the last few years, you’ve done quite a bit of producing.
SD: True. It’s a big challenge to produce a record.
RS: Do you ever think the day will come when you give up touring and session work, and concentrate solely on producing?
SD: No, because me and Robbie—well, we don’t even call ourselves producers in the strict sense of the word, y’know. We produce records because we have certain sounds in our heads that have to come out. We’ll always play. We’ll be full-time players and full-time producers, because we love doing both and need to do both.
RS: You and Robbie own Taxi Productions. How does that fit into the scheme of things?
SD: Well, Island Records distributes most of the records that come out of Taxi Productions. We enjoy working with Chris Blackwell, because Chris lived in Jamaica, and he has a special feel for reggae that no other record company executive in this country has. But as for Taxi, we started the company when we realized that we were playing for everybody but ourselves. Finally, me and Robbie said it was time for us to make records the way we thought they should be made and to record artists who we thought were worth recording—people like Jimmy Riley, the Tamlins, and other Jamaican singers and groups.
RS: You mentioned Chris Blackwell and his affinity for reggae. Yet, there was a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Island Records sort of cooled its enthusiasm for recording new reggae artists.
SD: That’s right. Then when Chris heard Black Uhuru, he got excited about reggae again. We took Black Uhuru to him and he signed them. A lot of people at that time lost interest in reggae. Too many things sounded the same. Bob Marley was sick. Black Uhuru opened the scene up. Nobody sounded like Black Uhuru, and Black Uhuru sounded like no one else when the group first come up out of Kingston.
RS: Let’s go back in time for a moment to when you first began playing the drums. Did you ever study the drums formally?
SD: No, I never really studied music like in school or something like that. I just picked up the drums naturally. And it was the best way, because I am able to hear things and sounds without having to deal with limitations. Everything that I play on the drums comes creatively from within. I don’t have any boundaries because of music teachers or music lessons.
RS: Did you have a major influence or mentor whose drum style you greatly admired or perhaps sought to recreate?
SD: Lloyd Nibbs. He was the drummer for the Skatalites, the great Jamaican ska band of the “60s. My school friends used to call me “Skatalites.” That was my nickname. I left school at 15. Every day after that, I would play my drums. All I would do is practice, practice, and rehearse with local musicians.
RS: When did you begin playing the drums?
SD: When I was six or seven years old, I would always keep time on my desk in school—just tapping out time with a pencil or something. I’d hear beats from songs on the radio and try to copy them. Then I heard Lloyd Nibbs, and I knew I wanted to be a drummer for real, y’know. The best thing about Nibbs was that he had a great memory. He could play something, and then ten years later, play it back perfectly. Not too many drummers today have that special awareness or talent.
RS: When did you get your first drumkit?
SD: Well, my first kit wasn’t really owned by me personally; it was owned by the group I played with.
RS: What was the first band you played in?
SD: Well, let’s see. The name of the group was the Yardbrooms. This was in 1968. After that I joined the Invincibles. I knew at this time that I was going to build my life around music and drums. I never thought about college or trade school or anything like that. It was just music that was in my mind all the time.
RS: One of the most intriguing aspects of watching you play drums is the aura of effortlessness that seems to surround you and your kit. Sometimes it almost seems as if you’re downright bored.
SD: That’s me; that’s me! [laughs] Seriously, I think that when drummers play they should be as relaxed as possible. I might look bored, but I’m really relaxing myself. A long time ago I found out that, if I relaxed, everything would just flow out; my playing is smooth because I’m relaxed. It may look effortless, as you say, but I’m concentrating on what I’m playing and hearing. I’m always relaxed when I play.
RS: And undoubtedly very confident.
SD: Oh yeah, confident too. See, Nibbs used to play that way, too. When I sat down and analyzed his style, that’s the first thing I noticed. A lot of drummers tense up when they play. Then they wind up hitting the drums harder than they should, and they lose their sense of time. That’s a delicate thing, y’know. The harder I play, the less relaxed I am. So I don’t play as hard as people think. Take Steve Gadd; he’s a very relaxed drummer, and he’s on top of the rhythm all the time.
RS: Another great drummer who epitomized the art of relaxed playing and was as sharp as a tack when it came to time was the soul drummer, Al Jackson, Jr. Did you listen to him and pick up things from his style of drumming during your maturing years as a drummer?
SD: Oh yeah. Al Jackson was a great drummer. I always try to get the same snare drum crack that he used to get.
RS: And how do you go about getting it?
SD: Well, for instance, some drummers hit the stick in the middle of the drum. I drop it practically right on the rim. It comes out like a crack, yet I really don’t have to put so much energy into it.
RS: Does the height of your drumkit have anything to do with how you play and how hard you hit? You sit quite low behind your set.
SD: That’s because I chopped my seat way down low. And you know why? Because it’s more relaxing for me to sit down there. It’s like I’m in a car and I’m driving down the road. I don’t want to sit on top of the steering wheel. That’s too uncomfortable. Willy Stewart, the drummer from Third World, told me that he didn’t feel as relaxed playing as he thought he should feel. So I told him about sitting lower.
RS: You and Robbie are practically inseparable. You’ve been playing with him a long time. How far exactly do you two go back?
SD: I think we started playing with each other in early ’73.
RS: Did you ever play with another bass player for any length of time during the past 12 years?
SD: I’ve played a lot with Ranchie McClean and Lloyd Parks, two excellent Jamaican bass players, but not for long periods of time. I played with Ranchie when I toured with the Mighty Diamonds in the mid-’70s, and I’ve done lots of sessions with Lloyd Parks in Kingston. But see, Robbie has that special creative force that I can just naturally hook into. Together we always try to do things that have never been done before. It doesn’t matter if it’s reggae or rock or funk that we’re playing. Robbie approaches his bass the same way I approach my drums. That’s the secret of our success, I think.
RS: The Mighty Diamonds tour you mentioned was, I believe, a turning point in your career, since it was the first time you began to get recognition outside Jamaica. Would you agree with that?
SD: Yeah, for me, that was an important tour. Before that tour nobody knew who I was, true. This was in 1976. And it’s funny because I didn’t want to go to England with the Diamonds. The money wasn’t right. But a friend said to me, “Don’t mind the money. You can’t worry about money all the time.” So I said, “Yeah, it’s true, y’know.” And I went. Well, after the first show, some writer—I can’t remember which one, and I can’t even remember the magazine—wrote that I was like the leader of the group and one of the stars of the show. I mean, before that I never read anything about a reggae drummer in any magazine outside Jamaica. Well, that made me feel good, y’know. It gave me a big lift and helped my confidence. From then on, I knew I could do a good job, no matter who I played with and where I played.
RS: Judging from the special relationship you have with Robbie, I assume you feel the drummer-bass connection is a critical one.
SD: Oh yeah. The relationship has to be very tight and very cool. Together the two make up the riddim [rhythm] section, which is the most important section of any group. If the drummer plays against the bass player, intentionally or unintentionally, there’s a big problem brewing. The same is true if it’s the other way around. A drummer should be in control of the tempo and keep it firm, and the bass player should concentrate on phrasing. Now, if the drummer gets away from that, then the bass player must keep the tempo firm. A good drummer-bass team can go back and forth with no problem at all. But sometimes that takes years of playing together. Plenty of people thought we would never last this long when we started. We’ve proved them wrong. We work hard, we live clean, we lead straight lives, and we’re not selfish. You can’t play music, set up a connection with another player and be selfish. You have to say to yourself, “How good I sound depends on my partner as much as it depends on me.”
RS: Might this be one of the reasons why we never hear drum solos from Sly Dunbar? It’s true that, as a rule, reggae drummers don’t solo, but surely you hold a position in the music where, if you wanted to, you certainly could.
SD: Well, for one thing, what I play mostly is dance music, and in dance music there’s no room for a solo from the drummer. If there was a need for one in a certain song, for instance, then I would do one.
If you notice, the English reggae drummers come closer to soloing than Jamaican reggae drummers. I think they get that from all the rock they hear there. In Jamaica, the local drummers don’t have that sort of interaction with rock ‘n’ roll.
RS: I can think of only one other drummer-bass team in reggae that rivals the accomplishments of you and Robbie. I’m talking about Carly and Family Man Barren of the Wailers. Do you see much of Carly on a professional and/or personal basis?
SD: I see Carly around in Kingston. I’ll tell you something about him. Carly was playing drums before I started. I used to admire him a lot, because the one thing about Carly Barrett is that he is a very original player. Carly always played drums the Carly Barrett way. He still does, too. Everybody, not just me, admires him for that. He was a big reason why the Wailers’ rhythm section always sounded so cool.
RS: Since Marley’s death and the fading of the Wailers from the active reggae scene, reggae seems to have settled into a much less adventurous direction. What are your feelings concerning the current state of reggae?
SD: When Bob Marley died, there is no doubt that reggae stalled a little. Maybe it stalled a lot. But it came back up a bit, too. The problem is that there isn’t the big artist in reggae today—the kind that Bob Marley was. I don’t know if reggae artists today are taking their music as seriously as he did. I don’t like to say this, but I think it’s true: Me, Robbie and a couple of others have been the only ones to take reggae further on since Bob Marley died. The rest of the progress has come from the white English groups. I’m talking about musicians, songwriters and people in the studio. We’re not singers, y’know. But even singers haven’t taken reggae far lately. I was at Tuff Gong [Recording Studios in Kingston] a while ago, and somebody came up to me and said this. See, if Bob Marley was still alive, things would be very different today. You know Michael Jackson fever? Well, there would have been a Bob Marley fever to match it. Bob was big around the world. People in Africa and other places, like in Europe and New York, loved the man. For them he was more than a singer, y’know.
RS: You’re absolutely right. There are some places in Africa where the only English known comes from the lyrics of Marley’s songs. You have kids in villages saying, “No woman, no cry,” and not knowing any other English words.
SD: Yeah, it’s true. That’s really something. That’s really a tribute to him.
RS: One of the biggest post-Marley reggae trends has been DJ music. How do you feel about DJ?
SD: I like the creativity I hear in DJ. You have to give those DJ singers credit. They are the ones that tried to get things going in reggae when a lot of the more established singers weren’t doing anything. They kept the music and the riddim going. It was lucky they came along.
RS: Let’s switch gears and talk equipment. Describe, if you will, the kit you’re presently using.
SD: I’m using a Simmons kit with a Ludwig snare. I have a Simmons kick drum, Simmons toms, a Ludwig snare, timbales, a Paiste hi-hat, Zildjian 18″ and 16″ crash cymbals, and one set of Syndrums.
RS: How long have you been using a Simmons kit?
SD: I started playing Simmons drums when we did Black Uhuru’s Anthem album. That was, oh, two years ago.
RS: Some traditionalists have said that they see little room in reggae for anything not acoustic, since reggae is, in its truest form, a roots music. Obviously, you don’t agree with them.
SD: No, I don’t agree with them at all. And I’ll tell you something: Since I’ve been using a Simmons kit, every drummer in Kingston wants to use one, too. See, reggae music was created in Jamaica, but in order for it to grow, it has to stay on an international level, and compete with the styles and the things that Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart and the other hit makers have in their music. Jamaica is a small country; reggae can’t stay really healthy by closing its ears to what’s happening in America and England. Drummers in reggae have got to get the same drum sound heard in pop and rock. Rock is going electronic; jazz is electronic; pop is electronic. Reggae has to go electronic too if it is to compete. If reggae stays with only an acoustic sound, people would think the music is out of date. And it would be, y’know.
RS: What do you like most about your Simmons kit?
SD: I like the cleanness of the sound. And in the studio, there’s no leakage, so each individual track is clean.
RS: How much do you use a drum machine in your work?
SD: Well, all I can say is that I tried it on a few songs, and each of them was a hit song in Jamaica. One song, “Waterbed,” was especially good. I also used it on a Black Uhuru song called “Somebody’s Watching.” Drummers have to be able to use drum machines effectively. It’s part of their equipment now. Record companies don’t care if you use a drum machine or not. The song must be a hit, and the company must make money. That’s all they care about. And the people who buy the records don’t care, either. They just want a good beat. They don’t care where it came from or who was responsible for it so much. They just want to dance and have a good time with the music. Now, playing live is a different thing. But before you get a chance to play live in front of more than just a bar crowd, you have to get a hit record.
RS: Which do you prefer most—studio work or playing live?
SD: I love them both to tell the truth. But I think in the studio I get to be more creative. When 1 play live, though, I get a feeling that I’m closer to the music. This is one of the big reasons why reggae took so long to catch on outside Jamaica, y’know. The journalists wouldn’t come to the shows, and they wouldn’t talk to the musicians, because they couldn’t understand the Jamaican pathos. But finally when some writers reached out and felt the music live, well, that’s when they began to understand the feeling that’s in reggae music.
RS: A while back, I watched you do some recording down at the Compass Point Studios in Nassau. I noticed that you sought out ideas and advice from engineer Alex Sadkin in regard to the tuning of your drums. How much of the way you tune your drums comes from the engineer you’re working with?
SD: Well, Alex Sadkin has a good ear, and 1 trust him. When I recorded with Grace Jones, Alex and I shared tuning ideas and we got a great sound, especially from the tom-toms. Generally speaking, I like to listen to what engineers have to say about drum sounds. It’s not good to be closeminded about that sort of thing. I like to stay open to all ideas, but in the end, I make the final decision as to how my drums should sound.
RS: As for cymbals, you seem to be particularly fond of crash cymbals.
SD: Yeah, it’s true. That’s my favorite cymbal. I got that from Lloyd Nibbs, too. He used to make that cymbal sound so good—just right. It sounds real good with a crackin’ snare. Now, as for the ride cymbal, well, I don’t really play it, say, like a jazz drummer plays it. Reggae songs don’t usually call for it to be played in an aggressive way.
RS: A number of rock and jazz drummers have done at least one drum clinic in their careers. Why haven’t you ever done one?
SD: I don’t know, really. What I do instead of clinics is when kids come to me in Kingston and ask me certain things, I’ll sit down, talk to them, and answer their questions.
RS: What kinds of things do they ask you?
SD: Well, questions about technique, style and equipment, and other questions like do I smoke before I play.
RS: What do you tell them?
SD: Well, I don’t smoke, so I tell them not to, either.
RS: One of Kingston’s most popular recording studios is Channel One. From what I understand, you’ve played a considerable part in developing the “Channel One Sound.” Can you explain how this came about?
SD: Me, Ranchie, and some other musicians were the first ones to really work on the drum sound at Channel One. We used to listen to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of R&B, especially the Philadelphia Sound-Gamble and Huff, that sort of thing. We’d always try to get the same snare drum sound that they got on their records for the reggae records we were making. We worked on it for a long time. Once we got it down pat and then gave it a Jamaican feel, all the engineers who worked at Channel One had to be able to get it, too. So the drum sound became sort of a trademark at Channel One. We put the drums in this corner and then in that one; we turned it around and upside down. We spent days and nights working on the drum sound. Then we spent more time on the bass sound, and finally we put the two together.
RS: How many solo albums have you recorded?
SD: I did one with Derrick Harriott called Sly And The Revolutionaries. I did one with Virgin Records called Simple Sly. That’s the first one that I produced by myself. The second one was Sly, Slick, And Wicked. The last one I did was Sly-Go-Ville. I haven’t done any more since, because I’ve been so busy. Me and Robbie have an album in the can, but it’s not really reggae. It’s like a cross between reggae and rock ‘n’ roll. What we really want to do, though, is create a brand new sound that deals with reggae and rock ‘n’ roll, but goes in a place that no one has thought of yet. Lately, we’ve been getting some ideas down on tape, and we might have that sound right now. But I think, before we put it out on record, we have to find a female singer to project it in the right way.
RS: From a drummer’s point of view, are rock recording sessions any different from reggae recording sessions?
SD: Not for me. I approach all sessions one way—seriously. I try to feel out the artist and his or her music beforehand as much as I can. I think you can say I do my homework. But after that, just about all else is spontaneous. I’m a flexible drummer, y’know. I can walk into a reggae recording session one day, and a rock or a disco session the next day. What it all comes down to is picking the right riddim for the right artist, and then matching it to the right song. People think that reggae is a limited music form, but it isn’t. Me and Robbie have created certain riddims. Bob Marley created different riddims from us. Yellowman’s riddims are different, too.
RS: In addition to reggae, you’ve spoken about and have had much experience with rock, disco, funk, and R&B. What about jazz? Have you played much jazz?
SD: I’ve played with Herbie Hancock. But jazz is the only type of music I can’t play real well. I’m talking about real hard jazz. I just can’t get a feel for it. I listen to jazz and like the music, but I can’t get a feel inside of me that’s strong enough to play off of.
RS: You and Robbie have played with so many great artists. Are there any other artists you especially want to work with?
SD: Yes, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jack- son, and producer Quincy Jones. I have to admire their musical creativity. Everybody does. Their music is on a standard that is beyond most others. With Quincy Jones, whenever he produces a new album, me and Robbie rush out to get the tape or the album. He is a big influence on us. And we always look to see what Stevie and Michael are doing next. They are the trend setters. Everybody has to keep up with them in order to be successful.
RS: Stevie Wonder holds reggae particularly close to his heart, and he was close with Bob Marley. Have you ever spoken with him musician to musician?
SD: No, but I would really like to, y’know.
RS: Five years down the road, what do you see yourself doing? Do you have established goals?
SD: Well, me and Robbie would someday like to own our own studio. It doesn’t have to be real complex or fancy—just a basic, good studio where we could get our ideas down on tape and do it whenever we wanted. Lots of times we get ideas, and if we can’t get them down on tape quickly, we lose them. We can go down to Compass Point and record there, but that’s a popular studio these days. It’s so busy that we can’t get in when we feel the need. So a studio would be nice.
RS: Anything else?
SD: Yeah, I also want to move a little more slowly in the future. Things happen so fast sometimes. It’s really against my nature, y’know.