Behind every great reggae tune is a great rhythm, behind every great rhythm is a great bassline and more often than not that bassline would have been laid down by Robbie Shakespeare. After learning his craft from another bass legend - Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett of The Wailers - he went on to play with The Hippy Boys and Bunny Lee’s Aggrovators before joining Channel One’s in-house studio band The Revolutionaries playing alongside drummer Sly Dunbar. This sparked the creation of one of the greatest and most legendary musical partnerships in reggae (and pop) history with the Sly & Robbie rhythm section going on to create their own record label and production company (Taxi) as well as playing with some of the greatest musicians from both the world of reggae and beyond.
I’ve grabbed a few personal favourites from this amazing catalogue of music to share with you below which I hope not only shows what an immensely and uniquely talented bass player Robbie was but also how his progressive attitude and willingness to collaborate meant he continued to make groundbreakingly innovative music throughout his entire career.
Rest In Power Robbie Shakespeare. Hopefully you’re up there in the great studio in the sky laying down some killer basslines with Lee Scratch Perry at the controls.
Black Uhuru – ‘Shine Eye Gal’
It’s probably no surprise that this was the tune that first introduced me to the musical genius of Sly & Robbie. Not only one of their most successful and well known productions it was also sampled a fair bit in hardcore and jungle during the early 90’s (check ‘Shine Eye’ by The Ragga Twins for a nice example of that in action) and it immediately left a lasting impression on my teenage ears. The extended 12” disco mix is also a particular treat with the vocal running right into a lovely stripped back deep dub that lets Shakespeare’s thunderous driving bassline do the talking.
Pecker - 'Kylyn'
An amazing tune from Japanese reggae maverick Pecker taken from his 1980 record ‘Instant Rasta.’ It kind of sits in a league of its own this one, pretty much inventing its own sub-genre along the way. Elements of reggae and dub are in there but also ambient and jazz. Looking at the liner notes again Shakespeare not only plays bass on this but also gets a mixing credit as one of the engineers. An all time favourite.
Sly & Robbie – ‘Assault On Station 5’
Whilst not particularly known for their expertise or specialisation in the field of dub Sly & Robbie produced two outstanding dub albums in the mid 80’s that regularly and justifiably appear on any ‘Greatest Dub Albums Ever’ lists - Black Uhuru's 'The Dub Factor' from 1983 and their own ‘A Dub Experience’ from 1985. Both records are mixed by Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle who really delivers the goods. Sly & Robbie’s rhythms are obviously great source material to work with and he takes a pleasingly experimental approach to create dubs that sound both clean and futuristic as well as pretty damn funky. The results are some timeless dubs that have aged extremely well. ‘Assault On Station 5’ (a dub of Dennis Brown’s 'Revolution') taken from the ‘A Dub Experience’ LP is a nice example of this in action and certainly wouldn’t sound out of place alongside the more dubwise dancefloor sounds being produced today.
Delroy Wilson – ‘Inner City Blues’
It’s a brave man who takes on Marvin Gaye’s immortal ‘Inner City Blues’ but if anyone can Sly & Robbie can. With some help from Delroy Wilson on vocals they come up trumps here to deliver an infectiously funky soulful reggae take on a masterpiece. As is often the case, it’s best enjoyed in discomix format where the lovely deep and spacious dub runs straight on from the vocal and you get to languish in pure Shakespeare bass heaven.
Compass Point All Stars – ‘Peanut Butter’
Sly & Robbie were the rhythm section that lay at the beating heart of Chris Blackwell’s in-house band for his Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. They brought their musical magic to an array of recordings for Island Record artists who used the studios in the 80’s, most notably Grace Jones who they helped propel into the international megastar she is today. This instrumental appeared on the B-side of Junior Tucker’s 1981 single ‘The Kick (Rock On)’ with the rhythm also famously getting reused to devastating effect on Jones’ worldwide hit ‘Pull Up To The Bumper.’
Sly & Robbie – 'Syncopation'
This is the title track from a 1982 album Sly & Robbie recorded for Joe Gibbs produced by Errol Thompson. Another great example of their progressive experimental approach paying dividends, it takes its cue from electro and disco as much as reggae and as result still sounds totally fresh today. I’m always a sucker for those laser zap sounds…
The Taxi Gang – 'Pastor Dub'
This one is taken from the ‘Electro Reggae’ LP Sly & Robbie made for Island Records offshoot Mango in 1986. It’s a pretty mad tune - their own unique brand of dark slo-mo proto-techno. The LP is pretty cheap and easy to find on the second hand market, regularly cropping up in record shop bargain bins so definitely one to look out for and easy to spot thanks to some great (and very 80’s) album cover art courtesy of Island Record’s in-house graphic design team.
Sinead O’Connor – 'Curly Locks'
This has been a fairly recent discovery for me (thank you North Of The River Swan for the tip!). It turns out that in 2005 Sinead O’Connor teamed up with Sly & Robbie to make a record of reggae covers and the results, as you might expect, are pretty special. Tantalizingly it also comes with a bonus second disc of dub versions. Unfortunately it seems like I’m a bit late to the party on this one and it’s a record that already goes for stupid money on Discogs so it’s one that will be added to the ‘records I’ll buy when I win the lottery list’ or (more likely) just hope, wait and pray for a reissue. Here’s her version of Junior Byles' ‘Curly Locks.’
Sly & Robbie and Lenky – ‘Broken Gangster’
This is the instrumental dub/rhythm found on the flip of the 7” for Red Rose and Vito's 'Gangsters Paradise'. No idea of the date on this one but I’m guessing early/mid 2000’s. A really nice example of how Sly & Robbie’s innovative approach continued to give their dancehall productions the edge. I think it’s the mad icy synths on this that really lifts it to standout status.
Vladislav Delay, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare - '512'
The ‘500-Push-Up’ LP that came out last year from a collaboration between Sly & Robbie and Finnish techno don Vladislav Delay was a real surprise gem. If you’re still making music this weird and wonderful when you’re in your 60’s I think you can feel pretty happy with yourself! Interestingly given the fields of operation of the musicians involved it’s neither techno nor reggae (or anything in between really) but more dubwise experimental post-punk in an On-U Sound style. Shakespeare’s bass is as powerful and masterful as ever - check it out in all it’s low slung glory on ‘512’.