He possesses one of the most expansive, eclectic, and revered résumés in reggae history. And he’s still hitting it hard.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Lowell “Sly” Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, aka the Riddim Twins, did as much to popularize reggae as other giants of the genre, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, the Aggrovators, Black Uhuru, and Third World. Dunbar’s enormous, driving, and insistent groove and Shakespeare’s deep bass support fueled not only the music of Jamaican superstars but also that of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, and Yoko Ono, among many others. The duo has also recorded a good number of popular and well-regarded albums under the name Sly & Robbie, including their latest, Blackwood Dub. MD recently chatted with Dunbar about some of his most noteworthy performances and quizzed the living legend on the qualities of a serious reggae drum approach.
MD: You’ve influenced thousands of drummers, but which ones influenced you?
Sly: Al Jackson Jr. was key, then the Stax and Motown drummers, all the drummers on Philadelphia International Records, and the Skatalites’ Lloyd Knibb.
MD: What is your particular innovation in reggae?
Sly: I copped licks from everybody, but I realized I had to go into the studio and create my own sound. At Channel One studio, we wanted that Philadelphia sound for the drums. We knew that would be something new. And I wanted to see people dance. I like groove. I want them tapping their feet. You need to make every song groove. If I can make the people dance with the drums alone, then I will be armed with something.
MD: Did you change your groove technically in any way from the earlier reggae drummers?
Sly: I don’t know what I was doing, but I tried to fall in love with the microphones on the drums.
MD: You played something special on the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time.”
Sly: I played double 8th-note snare drum accents. In reggae back then you didn’t play a constant pattern through the song. But I played that pattern right through the song. Nobody could believe I was doing that steady for the full three minutes. They thought it was a delay from the console doing it.
MD: Were you replicating a delay?
Sly: No, I was not thinking of the delay. I was thinking of the pattern and other drummers. I’d heard Lloyd Knibb play a similar pattern in a Skatalites song called “Addis Ababa.” And I used to watch a lot of African movies and listen to African recordings, people singing and dancing to drums. On “Addis Ababa” Lloyd’s pattern pushed people more into the rhythm. They’re hearing the drums right up front. And I would go to a lot of parties and dances and analyze stuff for myself. That gave me ideas and inspiration.
MD: You’ve played on so many great sessions. What was your general approach?
Sly: I would go in with an open mind. The night before I might be listening to some jazz or Earth, Wind & Fire and take in some ideas. I’d listen with patterns in my head, everything going. Then I would listen to the song, check the tempo, check the melody, check what the bassist is doing. Then I tried to fit my drum part right in between everything. I am not trying to play the song; I am trying to perform the song with the artist.
MD: Do you play rimclick with the butt or the tip?
Sly: The butt end.
MD: Heel up or heel down on the bass drum pedal?
Sly: I used to play heel down, but now I do a lot of touring, and I need more energy. You can play softer in the studio.
MD: In the ’70s you recorded at the Channel One studio with Lee Perry, Bob Marley, Bunny Lee, and Peter Tosh, then you and Robbie Shakespeare became even more famous working with many American and British artists. Did your approach change with the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, and Bob Dylan?
Sly: It didn’t really change, but it was a different world. Whatever we did, we took a little part of reggae into the sessions. We did a track for Mick Jagger called “Just Another Night,” and at the end we did a dancehall groove, then back into the rock beat. We experimented; nobody knew we were going to do that.
MD: You recorded Infidels and Empire Burlesque with Bob Dylan.
Sly: We couldn’t believe it when we got the call. Bob called me directly. The coolest session ever. He came in with his guitar and harmonica and started playing a groove. We’d join in on what he was doing and try to create the rhythm around him. He recorded everything. He said, “I want to recut ‘Jokerman,’” and we thought, Why? We went in and ran it down. He said, “That’s it.” I don’t know what he wanted.
MD: Can you recall a session that was particularly difficult?
Sly: Not difficult, but sometimes it’s just not working—the simple little things they ask you to do, and you just stumble until you get it.
MD: What’s the secret to playing a great groove?
Sly: I like to keep things moving, and if the music is not grooving, nobody will move. We come from the Caribbean with the calypso rhythms, and when R&B started coming in we fused it with calypso. We did a Grace Jones song called “My Jamaican Guy,” where I’m playing R&B mixed with mento. She’s singing a mento melody and I’m playing an R&B thing—it’s coming from both ends. Sometimes I would listen to what someone was singing to find a groove or [incorporate] other patterns I’ve found over the years; they come to me. People will say, “Play one of your Sly things for me.”
MD: If a young drummer has just discovered Sly Dunbar, which recordings would you recommend?
Sly: One of my favorites is Grace Jones’ “Private Life.” The recording quality is good, and the Jamaicans still go crazy for it. That took me to that next level internationally. Or they could also listen to the Channel One stuff or Black Uhuru—we produced those as well. We made it all go.
MD: What advice do you give to young drummers regarding mastering a groove?
Sly: You have to play not for yourself only. You have to try and be steady as you can. I don’t like to play a lot of fills unless it’s necessary; it has to really feel good within a song. Today’s music is more computerized, but I got to create my own sound because we did so much recording. I knew what I wanted my drums to sound like. But it’s hard today because there isn’t so much live recording being done. But be focused, and practice and listen a lot—that is key.
Sly Dunbar: Heavy Kicks and Double Rimclicks
Transcribed by Eric Novod
The Mighty Diamonds, “Right Time,” Right Time
This swung groove is famous for Dunbar’s use of double rimclicks on beats 1 and 3. Once the groove is established, Sly ornaments it with additional rimclicks and bass drum notes. (0:41)
Sly & Robbie/Black Uhuru, “African Culture,” Dub Masters
This is an example of a simple, clean Sly groove. Notice the rimclick-to-snare development in measure 2 and the wide-open hi-hat on beat 4. (0:38)
Sly & Robbie, “Firehouse Special,” Dub Masters
Dunbar played a lot of these four-on-the-floor grooves. (0:10)
Sly & Robbie, “Motherless Children,”
Sly & Robbie Present Gregory Isaacs
This highly syncopated groove features offbeat hi-hat openings that blur the beginning of each measure. (0:26)
Black Uhuru, “Sponji Reggae,” Island 50 Reggae
Notice how Dunbar develops this straightforward 16th-note groove with hi-hat accents and syncopated snare hits. (0:00)
Sly & Robbie, “Legalize It Dub” (single only)
This signature Dunbar pattern consists of a steady stream of 16th notes moved around the snare, hi-hat, and bass drum. (0:34)