Music: The rhythm kings

Drum and bass are at the heart of popular music and for 20 years Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have been acknowledged the best. But who are their own favourites?
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The Independent Culture
Drum'n'bass: it's the foundation of popular music; the engine which drives rock, pop, soul, funk, jazz, reggae, and anything else you care to name. And for more than two decades, Jamaica's hardest have been drummer Lowell "Sly" Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, acclaimed as masters of groove and propulsion. The breakthrough was in 1977 with The Mighty Diamonds' "Right Time", a revolutionary record, with Sly's radical drumming matching the singers' insurrectionary lyrics blow-for- blow.

Since then, they've manifested in a variety of guises: as members of Black Uhuru; as producers (they were behind Chaka Demus & Pliers' string of pop-reggae hits a few years back); as hired guns for artists from Grace Jones to Ian Dury; and as artists in their own right with a series of dubbed-out rhythm orgies culminating in their current Strip to the Bone, a dense, hallucinatory team-up with remix terrorist Howie B. As Black Uhuru lead singer Michael Rose used to chant, "Robbie Shakespeare hit you when you're near, Sly Dunbar hit you from afar".

Sly Dunbar defines "groove" as "a wicked, wicked drumbeat. If they can dance off of that, you add a bass to concrete it, to shape it into a song. If that a gwan, everything all right. A little guitar, a little keyboard ting pon it, like making a cake: different tastes to make it perfect".

So it seemed a reasonable notion to ask the Rhythm Killers who they regard as the champs in their field. Their nominations go something like this.

Motown rhythm section

James Jamerson (bass), Benny Benjamin (drums)

Robbie: Everything wha' dem do, the groove was right. Not really ever a bad song come out, everything was wicked, wicked, wicked.

Sly: If you check all the Motown songs, they always have a memorable bass-line. If you play 10 Motown songs, you remember the bass-lines. Any musical person could sing you the line: you remember the bass-line more than the lyric of the song.

Picks: Jr Walker: "Shotgun"; Temptations: "My Girl"; Miracles: "Get Ready"

Stax rhythm section

Donald `Duck' Dunn, replacing Lewis Steinberg, (bass), Al Jackson Jr (drums)

Sly: Al Jackson was the greatest recording drummer. When they were going to record (Bill Withers') "Ain't No Sunshine", which Booker T (below) produced, they'd just got a drum kit that day at the studio, and he took it out of the box and played it as is. All he did was tighten the snare. Another time he was playing live and the snare drum burst, so he just pulled over a tom-tom and started beating on that. Nobody even knew the snare drum had burst. For a drummer, if the snare goes, it's like everything has gone.

Robbie: Donald "Duck" Dunn was wicked, but I never know 'til lately that he was the one who played for Stax. I don't get to do my reading!

Picks: Booker T & the MGs: "Green Onions", "Time Is Tight'; Wilson Pickett: `In The Midnight Hour.'

Various Atlantic rhythm sections

Primarily Chuck Rainey (bass), Bernard `Pretty' Purdie (drums)

Sly: Bernard Purdie was wicked; he used to do all the (New York) Atlantic sessions with (producers) Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin.

Robbie: Then there was the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. I don't know their names. I haven't done my research and I feel like a dummy.

Picks: Aretha Franklin: "Rock Steady"; Herbie Mann: Memphis Underground album

Various Channel One and Studio One rhythm sections

Including Boris Gardner (bass), Leroy `Horsemouth' Wallace (bass)

Sly: Credits don't really exist in Jamaica. You come to England and everybody know from word of mouth who played what in Jamaica! Credits started when (producer/bandleader) Bunny Lee put the name of the musicians on the record and it start from there. Somebody come from England and know everyt'ing 'bout every music, who play what on what. We say, "Wha'? Me na know!" Before that it was "backed by the Bunny Lee All-Stars" or "the Joe Gibbs All-Stars". Who is "All-Stars"?

Pick: Heptones: "Why Did You Leave Me To Cry"

Bob Marley & the Wailers

Aston `Family Man' Barrett (bass), Carlton `Carlie' Barrett (drums)

Sly: Carlie had a style like nobody else. He did some things when he played a roll, it was just inside. When they play a wicked song, you know it's a wicked song. So much groove when they played!

Picks: "Duppy Conqueror", "Crazy Baldhead"

The Beatles

Paul McCartney (bass), Ringo Starr (drums)

Sly: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, they proved themselves from time. They really have a track record.

Pick: "A Hard Day's Night"

The Rolling Stones

Bill Wyman (bass), Charlie Watts (drums)

Sly: Charlie Watts? Wickedest drummer!

Pick: "Satisfaction"

The Who

John Entwistle (bass), Keith Moon (drums)

Sly: Keith Moon was great, especially when performing live, yunno. When he died, they never was The Who again.

Robbie: I never know the bass player's name, but I love his style.

Pick: "See Me, Feel Me" (from Tommy, as performed live at Woodstock)

Sly & The Family Stone

Larry Graham (bass), Greg Errico (drums)

Sly: Wicked, man, wicked, man. Awesome. Cosmic.

Pick: "Sing A Simple Song"

The Meters

George Porter (bass), Joseph `Zigaboo' Modeliste (drums)

Sly: The wickedest rhythm section.

Robbie: When I was young I used to listen to them.

Sly: And I'd think, "How can we copy them?" And nobody could. That rhythm section was so unorthodox - in a class by itself.

Pick: "Look-A-Py-Py"


James Brown rhythm sections, including Bootsy Collins (bass), Clyde Stubblefield (drums)

Sly: We asked Bootsy to play some funk for us, to play "Sex Machine", and he was playing the guitar part too!

Robbie: Bootsy played guitar for us on "Boops" and the albums Rhythm Killers and Language Barrier.

Pick: "Sex Machine"

Weather Report

Jaco Pastorius (bass), Peter Erskine (drums)

Sly: That's my jazz rhythm section!

Robbie: He did things nobody had ever done on the bass. We were on a tour of Japan and he was on it. You think Jaco would have a fancy bass? One old Fender bass. He was the one who took out the frets, said he couldn't afford a fretless bass.

Sly: Them harmonics things he played, I never heard nobody play. A full song, harmonic style.

Pick: "Birdland"

And, of course...

Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Sly Dunbar (drums)

Sly: The wickedest Sly & Robbie groove for all time is (Grace Jones's) "Pull Up To The Bumper" and "Boops".

Robbie: A Black Uhuru song, "Fit You Haffe Fit".

Sly: What drummer could play that? Totally different between the snare and the foot drum.

Robbie: Wicked.

Sly and Robbie's `Strip to the Bone' is out on Palm Pictures