SLY & ROBBIE
The Phenomenal Instrumental Music Career of the RIDDIM TWINS
By Lady English
Listening to this dynamic, energetic musician on the phone, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a young twenty something year old, hungry for knowledge and eager to praise his teachers. However, the enthusiastic voice standing outside a rehearsal studio in Kingston, Jamaica, is none other than one half of the musical powerhouse, Sly & Robbie - the tall, slim twin and master drummer - Sly Dunbar. Earlier in the evening, Dunbar, born Lowell Fillmore Dunbar on May 10, 1952, moved from one recording session across town to arrive at this studio to fulfil his commitment as a musician. In his own words, ‘music is his life’. The smile and ease in his voice does not betray him nor does the enthusiasm and passion of his chosen trade. It was there in the beginning, and no doubt, it will be there until the end. His ‘twin’ Robbie, is missing in action tonight. Probably at a nearby studio working on another project as, although one is rarely named without the other, they also participate in several solo projects of their own.
“I always enjoyed watching the Skatalites play live and on the television when I was a youngster going to school, especially the drummer Lloyd Knibb. I also liked the drummer from Booker T and the MGs”, reflects Dunbar whose nickname ‘Sly’ was given to him due to his admiration for Sly & The Family Stone. “I noticed how busy these drummers and others were and always asked, ‘how can they play all those things with just two hands’? I decided I wanted to play the drums and began fooling around with them whenever I got the chance. I mainly studied Lloyd Knibb who, I think, is the best drummer ever and my idol; I adopted some of his principles and style. In many ways, I'm self-taught but I got a lot of help from other drummers by watching them play. I was 15 years old and in a group called the Yard Brooms when Ansell Collins took me the studio to do my first professional recording. My second one was on the hit song ‘Double Barrel’ by Dave and Ansell Collins which, went to number 22 on the US charts in 1970 and to number one in the UK”.
His other Jamaican drumming inspirations came from Carlton Barrett who used to play with The Wailers; Santa Davis with the Soul Syndicate band; Paul Douglas of Toots band; Mikey Boo, 'Horsemouth' who was in the movie Rockers; Bunny Williams, Hugh Malcolm and Joe Isaacs who drummed for Studio One. Back in those early days, Dunbar was not privileged enough to own his own drum kit but it was not a necessity as the bands he worked with always had a set they used, readily available at rehearsals. Mom did not mind either and gave her blessing to the teenager to pursue his musical dreams. His method of learning involved listening to records and focusing on the drumming patterns as well as watching other drummers at work. He would then try to duplicate what he heard until he got it right. “You can learn the coordination needed to play the drums then you gather the skill and the know how to do it”.
It was during the late ‘60s when Dunbar began to put into practice what he was learning by playing in studio bands. He did a short stint with the group RHT Invincibles which included the equally talented Lloyd Parks, Bertram McLean and Ansell Collins. Dunbar then tried his hand at studio work and made his recording debut with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band, The Upsetters, on the single ‘Night Doctor’. Perry, impressed with the young drummer, used him consistently in the studio from that point forward and Dunbar continued with his own work in addition to that for Perry. He joined the group Skin, Flesh & Bones and in 1974, along with fellow band member Ranchie McLean, launched the Taxi label to focus mainly on the group and its members’ own material. The label, however, did not last beyond a year. After those early recordings, Dunbar recorded the Virgin Records’ Frontline subsidiary solo projects, ‘Simply Slyman’ (1976) and ‘Sly, Wicked & Slick’ (1977). In 1982, he recorded ‘Sly Go Ville’ for Island Records, later re-released on its Mango subsidiary in 1990. His style was a long mix of two cord jams and a Funk Reggae fusion. The DNA label released ‘Reggae Drumsplash’ in 1997 and with its 843 sampled loops; it was described by critics as ‘an encyclopaedic exploration of Jamaican rhythms’.
His legendary partnership with bassist Robert ‘Robbie’ Shakespeare took precedence in the mid ‘70s and Dunbar ended his solo album recordings. “It’s a more powerful union to record Sly & Robbie together rather than just me by myself or just Robbie”, confirms Dunbar. “People can now pay one amount of money and get two people”! Nicknamed the ‘Riddim Twins’, Dunbar joined with Shakespeare in 1975 to play the rhythm section for hundreds of recording artists. Shakespeare had also made a name for himself launching his career as a bass guitar session player in his teens and working with producer Bunny 'Striker' Lee’s house band, The Aggrovators, by the early ‘70s. Like Dunbar, he too had worked with virtually all the major and minor artists on the island including a bass contribution to The Wailers’ ‘Concrete Jungle’ from their ‘Catch A Fire’ album. Although they had met many times in the past and both had become established figures on the Jamaican music scene in their own individual rights, they discovered that they shared a musical chemistry, one that would lead them to etch the very landscape of not just their island’s music but music the world over.
The Players Of Instruments
The Ruff Cutt Group was created in 1980 to meet the musical needs of the large population of singers, musicians and producers in the North West London area. The founding fathers were Carlton ‘Bubblers’ Ogilvie, Kenton ‘Fish’ Brown, Tony ‘Crucial’ Phillips, Dianne White, Anthony Thomas and Desmond Coke. The decision to start up their operation - The Ruff Cutt Rehearsal Room & Studio - stemmed from a total lack of any music facility for the youths in the district. Its humble beginnings were in an unused store-room on the Stonebridge council estate. Despite this, Ruff Cutt soon became the place for young artistes and musicians in the Harlesden and Willesden areas to rehearse and record. Bands like Creation Rebel, Freedom Fighters, Family Band and vocal group The Administrators were based there. It was from the musicians who used the facility that a nucleus was formed and from that core, The Undivided Roots Band emerged in 1984.
The Undivided Roots morphed into the Ruff Cutt Band and the equilibrium was finally balanced with everything coming under one banner. The Ruff Cutt Band now concentrated on backing other artists, whether it was touring celebrities like Shabba Ranks, Freddie McGregor, Marcia Griffiths, The Mighty Diamonds or newcomers like the artists they were cultivating at their studio. The scene was set - the band now consisted of a quintet of musicians whose only aim was to play top quality Reggae music. Carlton ‘Bubblers’ Ogilvie, Kenton ‘Fish’ Brown, Trevor Fagan, Anthony ‘Bongo Dashie’ Thomas and Tony ‘Ruff Cutt’ Phillips proved time and time again that they could rise to the occasion. The name Ruff Cutt fast became synonymous with first class Reggae music and they are, undoubtedly, the UK’s top Backing Band.
MAFIA & FLUXY
The UK's Rhythm Twins
London’s Heywood Brothers, Leroy ‘Mafia’ & Dave ‘Fluxy’ continue to form the bastion of Reggae music production in the UK as well as on a global scale. They have not stopped giving it to us for nearly three decades! How did it all begin? Mafia explains: “It all started when I was 15, I loved Reggae music. It was the time of the big Sound Systems and I just had to be around the music. I must have shown promise then as my mother bought me a guitar for five pounds which I got off a school friend”. Straight away, he formed a band with school mates Christopher Matthias and Errol Rowe. Inspired by prolific producer Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, Mafia was confident telling friends that he was going to be a big producer one day! Needless to say, they all laughed. But Dingle (his older brother) encouraged the band to practice and they did whenever they could.
Fluxy (his younger brother) loved playing on the turntables of his uncle Ivan’s Wizard HiFi Sound System. And, when Chris (their drummer) got called away to play for a commercial Band, Mafia told Fluxy that he’d have to learn the drumming ting! And for a while, Fluxy’s home made kit of a stereo speaker box for a snare drum, a bicycle lamp for a hi-hat and an odd shape microphone for a kick drum held the beat for them - DIY enthusiasts eat your heart out..!! The Mafia & Fluxy Music Academy is now a very credible one. So, within this limited space, it would be a tad difficult to list all the artists they have worked with but here’s just a few names that you might be familiar with: Luciano, Anthony B, Maxi Priest, Kofi, Sylvia Tella, Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, Winston Reedy, Jimmy Riley, George Nooks, Don Campbell, Richie Davis, Brinsley Forde, Carroll Thompson, Paulette Tajah, Nerious Joseph and so many more…