Reggae: 1984, ’85
Kingston, Jamaica is full of young, aspiring musicians. Ride past any of the city’s recording studios—Tuff Gong, Dynamic, Channel One, Aquarius—and you’ll see barefoot kids hanging out, listening to the riddims that escape through the fence or wall, and occasionally skanking in the hot sun. You can tell the kids who want to be drummers. They’re the ones with the sticks who bang them on cans, car hoods, and each other. And if you ask who the best reggae drummer in the whole wide world is, they’ll screech out in unison, “Sly! Yeah mon, it true. Sly Dunbar!”
These are ghetto kids. They don’t have stereos at home. Some don’t even have radios. But Jamaica’s future reggae drummers can pick out a Dunbar snare crack a mile away. Actually, so can just about every other musician in this most musical of Caribbean capitals. Down in Kingston, Sly Dunbar and his partner, bass player Robbie Shakespeare, are reggae institutions. It’s not unusual for their names to be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Waller, and Gregory Isaacs.
For the past decade, Sly Dunbar has dominated reggae drumming. He’s recorded with every major reggae artist, and has crossed over into rock to do sessions with the Stones, Dylan, and others. Modern Drummer’s Readers Poll began including a reggae category two years ago. Dunbar has won it both times. When a fellow reggae drummer heard that Sly won it again this past year, he sighed and remarked, “Dunbar win it in 1985; Dunbar win it in 1995. ” You know, he just might.
RS: Of all the reggae drummers ever to come out of the music, you’ve been the one who’s had the most influence on drumming styles and trends. Looking back, did you set out to be such an innovator?
SD: Yeah. When I was younger, that was the idea. I had in mind the goal of becoming the very best drummer in Jamaica. I wanted to be the best, so I could influence other drummers and also reggae music in general. I was a great fan of the Skatalites’ drummer, Lloyd Nibbs, when I was a kid. He was a very creative drummer. When I first began doing recording sessions in Kingston, the people I was playing for said I was feeling the music in a way that was different from the way other drummers felt it. They said I was very creative, just like they said Lloyd Nibbs was very creative before me. That meant a lot to me, because it gave me confidence to try even more new things.
What they used to do in recording sessions in Kingston was build the entire session around the drums. Well, I took advantage of that. I’d find a rhythm pattern and a beat for the song we were recording, and everybody would play around me. I’d take chances, y’know. But it gave me a chance to be a leader and an innovator. But in Kingston today, this is not always the way things are done. Things have changed a little bit. So I don’t know if I could be as innovative today as I was in the mid-’70s.
RS: You and Robbie Shakespeare were the first reggae stars to be recognized solely for your musical abilities. No other musicians—as opposed to, say, singers and frontmen like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, or Peter Tosh—have even come close to matching the notoriety of you two. Why is that?
SD: Well, we worked harder than anyone else, maybe. We did so many sessions, and we toured with Peter Tosh when he opened for the Rolling Stones in 1978. That was very important, because although we were good musicians before the tour, during the tour and after it people outside Jamaica—rock ‘n’ roll people—began to notice what we were playing. Island Records helped because Chris Blackwell promoted us and had us play on Grace Jones’ first albums, which were the first non-reggae albums we played on. She did good, and people began to figure out that we contributed to her good dance sound.
RS: What specific innovations in the way of drums do you feel you’ve been responsible for in reggae over the last decade or so?
SD: I guess I was responsible for bringing what some people in Jamaica call the “military beat” into reggae. Jamaican reggae drummers always knew about this beat, which was snappy and bright, but they never knew how to incorporate it into the music in a way that would sound right. There are so many patterns that I developed over the years that I can’t remember all of them. I remember them when I listen back to the records I’ve played on in the past—rock records and reggae records. Sometimes I’ll listen to a record with a drummer other than myself on it and say, “Yeah, I played that same beat seven or eight years ago.”
I was also responsible for the straight-four kick and kicking that one drop. Remember, reggae used to be on that second beat. Jamaican drummers picked up on that. I think it gave reggae some new life. And there are other things, too. But they’re for somebody else to talk about.
RS: Even though reggae is still unable to make the commercial splash in the States that many thought would ultimately hap- pen, the music has influenced pop and rock to a considerable degree, and it will probably continue to do so. How do you feel about that?
SD: I feel great about it. Take, for instance, the Tina song, which I like very much, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” That song is reggae influenced. Sister Sledge has a song called “Frankie,” which is another good song with a reggae influence. When I hear songs like these, I feel great, because it means that these singers and their producers are listening to what we’re doing in Jamaica. These are people who shape the pop music you hear on the radio in America. And if they’re listening to reggae and putting it into their music, then that’s good for reggae. It will help reggae to one day be accepted as music to put on pop and rock radio stations. Billy Joel has some reggae in some of his songs; the Police have a lot in theirs; Julian Lennon has some. That makes me feel good. I appreciate what they’re doing for reggae.
RS: You’ve been the only reggae drummer to transcend reggae boundaries successfully, and play rock and pop studio dates. How did you manage this?
SD: People don’t believe this, but the very first pattern I ever played on the drums was what Charlie Watts played on the song “Satisfaction.” People don’t believe this, but it’s true. That is a great drum pattern and is still one of my favorites. Also, when I was playing clubs and hotels in Jamaica, I used to play in bands that would do reggae songs, but also songs from the Top 40. So even back then, I crossed over, and became familiar with patterns and beats in those kinds of songs. I got some very valuable experience playing music other than reggae in those days. Then, when Chris Blackwell of Island Records decided that he wanted to create a special sound for Grace Jones, kind of like a combination of reggae, rock, and disco, he asked me and Robbie to get involved. So he sent us down to Nassau and his Compass Point Recording Studio there. Well, we didn’t know what we were going to play. He gave me and Robbie some tapes of Grace, and we said to ourselves, “This is like American music.” We were surprised, because Grace is from Jamaica. But anyway, it was easy for us to play, because we knew the rock and pop styles of drumming from our days playing Top 40. Then, when the records started coming out, people liked what they heard. So we got some calls to do other non-reggae dates. We played on Joe Cocker’s Sheffield Steel album. We played with Ian Dury, Carly Simon, Joan Armatrading, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and others.
RS: Do you think making the jump now and then from reggae to rock was, and still is, important for you as well as for reggae?
SD: Yeah, I think so. I think me and Robbie have done everything we can in reggae, and if we don’t branch out, we will become stale as musicians, producers, and innovators. Plus, it’s also good for reggae that we branch out, because if we help set the trends in the music, as you say, then maybe we can bring new ideas into reggae from what we experience recording with rock and pop artists in the States. I want to carry my ideas to a wider market—as wide a market as possible—and by playing with rock artists, I get to do that.
RS: Looking ahead, do you see yourself doing even more rock dates, or will you now concentrate on more reggae-related projects, given the current blending of the two music forms in contemporary music?
SD: I don’t mind doing pop or rock dates, and I hope me and Robbie can continue to do them, because we always get a chance to slip in some reggae licks anyway. Actually, we get to do that more and more, because pop and rock artists in the States are, like you say, interested in a reggae-influenced sound. But reggae is still my first love. I really enjoy playing it more than anything else, so I’ll continue to do as many reggae recording dates as I can in the future. I think Robbie probably feels the same way I do.
RS: What about jazz? Have you any desire to cross over into jazz?
SD: No, not really. I listen to jazz, but I’m really not into it a lot as far as being a musician goes. I’m not the type of musician to play jazz. But some people say I play jazz licks now and then. I don’t know. I’m not really aware of it if I do. I know that, because I don’t have much interest in jazz, I could never be a good jazz drummer. So I think I’ll probably play the kinds of drums and music that I know best.
RS: You’ve fully incorporated the use of electronic drums—most notably Sim- mons—into reggae, despite the long-held belief that there was no place in the music for electronics. We’re both aware of the feeling that reggae is supposed to be a natural, roots music. What made you seek out electronic drums?
SD: When I made up my mind to put electronic drums in reggae, I was very interested in checking the feedback of the people. So I would check what people thought of the sound I was coming up with. Most of them said it was good to bring electronic drums into reggae, because all reggae bottoms sounded the same. Then I looked at the production angle of reggae. I looked at what American records were on the charts and saw what kinds of instrumentation they used to make those records. I realized they were using electronics. I also realized that, in order to keep reggae on the same level with music made in the States, it was necessary to bring in electronic drums. See, reggae isn’t just Jamaican music anymore; it’s an international music. So it must meet international standards. To keep reggae popular, I felt, reggae had to use the same kinds of instrumentation rock and pop were using, but use it in a reggae way with a reggae feel. That’s when I bought my first Simmons kit. I went home and worked on it, so I could use reggae patterns on it. Today, everybody in Kingston wants to record with Simmons drums, and all the drummers down there want to play the kit.
RS: Looking back over the last couple of years, has the use of the Simmons kit affected your style of playing in any noticeable way?
SD: No, I still play the same patterns and the same kinds of beats. They just sound different today; that’s all. What I play comes out sounding cleaner; the beats are firmer, and they stand out more than they used to. But I still play with the same pressure. I don’t hit harder or softer, or do anything differently.
RS: What are your thoughts on the current state of reggae?
SD: I think reggae can be much more happening than it is. Reggae producers have to look at what’s going on in other types of music. They have to listen with their ears open and look around with their eyes open. I think non-Jamaican reggae artists are the ones who are keeping the music alive. Some of the music coming out of Kingston is good, but much of it is flat and uninspired. There’s not much creativity involved. Producers are relying on old formulas. Also, part of the problem is Jamaican radio. If you’re an artist living in Jamaica, and you come up with something new, the DJs at the radio station won’t play it immediately. It takes a while for a fresh sound to get airplay from them. And it doesn’t have to be that way, y’see. Jamaica is such a small country; it’s not like the States.
RS: As a drummer, how much strength do you have in shaping reggae’s future?
SD: I think I could have a lot of strength, because I’ve already proven that some of my ideas are good ones, like the use of electronic drums. I’d like to see the use of drum machines expand in reggae. But always remember that many musicians in Jamaica are not financially able to buy the latest equipment. That will always be a problem.
RS: Do you have any pet projects that you would like to see bear fruit in the future?
SD: Yes, I do have one in particular that I think can turn out quite good. Me and Robbie are in the process of putting together a band to take on the road and do an album with, and that will include the best Jamaican horn players. What I want to create is a reggae version of the Kool & The Gang sound. I think it could be good for reggae, and good for me and Robbie. I’m very excited about getting that off the ground.
RS: How about solo albums?
SD: No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any more of them for a while. I was signed to Virgin Records as a solo artist, and I put out two records with them. But I don’t know; I think I work best when me and Robbie are a team. So I think we’ll record together, and continue to work on the same ideas and projects together.
RS: What kinds of trends in reggae do you see as perhaps taking hold in the future?
SD: I think you’re going to see more and more of a link with rock and funk. It’s what the people like to hear, and it’s what is selling. It would be foolish to change something that is successful. As for what’s happening in reggae beyond that, well DJ music has caught on in the States in the form of rap music, but it’s beginning to wear out in Jamaica. The ideas have dried up. Over in England where reggae, as you know, is strong, lover’s rock is doing good, and will probably continue to do good because that type of reggae attracts some of the best singers. It also attracts writers who are into writing good melodies. Everybody likes a song with a hook that you can remember. What they’re doing in lover’s rock in England today is what Jamaican reggae was like ten or 15 years ago.
RS: You’ve been the only winner in the reggae category of Modern Drummer’s Readers Polls. That must make you feel pretty good.
SD: Oh yeah, it really does. I’m so glad, first of all, that people—drummers in the States—think enough of reggae to include it in the poll. That’s a good indication that people are listening to the music. I thank everyone who voted me number one reggae drummer for two years straight. And what I’ll do for them is try to play the drums the way they enjoy it. I enjoy helping people understand what reggae is all about—especially other drummers.
RS: Is there any one thing you especially want to accomplish in the future as a drummer?
SD: I would like to see the best drummers in rock, funk, and pop who haven’t experimented with reggae start to do so. I’d like to be the one who introduces them to the music, or better yet, the drummer who inspires them to check the music out. That, I think, would make my career all the more satisfying.