Sly and Robbie: Rhythm fatigue

Ian Burrell thought he had been given his dream assignment interviewing the reggae legends Sly and Robbie. That was before the bass man went Awol and the drummer turned out to be more sleepy than sly

Sly Dunbar sits back, closes his eyes and thinks back on his career as one of the greatest drummers in modern music. Only he isn't contemplating at all. Amazingly, he's fallen fast asleep, right in the middle of the interview. Dunbar is sat in a sunlit window overlooking Big Ben and it is truly a House-of-Lords moment as he dozes like a Peer of the Realm after an agreeable lunch.

Having been asked whether he has had his just rewards from 30 years of making some of the most memorable backing tracks in popular music, the reggae great finally resurfaces from his slumber: "Zzzz... er, repeat the question?"

Dunbar, who with bass player Robbie Shakespeare, makes up Sly and Robbie, reggae's "Rhythm Twins", struggles on valiantly but sleep is not to be denied and the interview takes on a rhythm of its own.

What do you think of the current state of reggae?

"Zzzz... repeat the question again?"

What do you think of the current political situation in Jamaica?

"Zzzz... repeat again?"

I feel like Paul McKenna. It is a disconcerting experience to find that you have unwittingly acquired powers of hypnosis, but each question I ask causes Sly Dunbar to slide under.

Apologising, the creator of hits like "Stalk of Sinsemilla" and "Herbman Hustling" later explains that he has been up since early in the morning working on a recording session for the BBC. At least he turned up. Shakespeare has retired to his hotel room, a Jamaican seeking sanctuary from the British sun.

Dunbar cuts an unusual figure in his odd shoes, dungarees and woollen hat as he sits in a bar at the Royal Festival Hall, where we met before the duo's recent appearance at the Meltdown Festival, alongside a group of old ladies, up in town for the day from Surrey. But as a master of his craft, the affable and intelligent drummer has the right to pride of place at such a hallowed musical arena. Later in the interview he comes to life; replicating drum sounds and waving his hands around as he demonstrates how he transformed the classic reggae "one drop" drumming style into something all his own.

It was Sly and Robbie's work with Bob Marley's fellow Wailer Peter Tosh, the most radical voice in Seventies reggae, that first brought the pair to wider prominence. Touring America with Tosh as support to the Rolling Stones, the Rhythm Twins were introduced to rock drummers and Sly absorbed their styles, displaying an openness to other musical genres that has been a hallmark of his career.

"I came on tour with Peter Tosh in 1976, we were opening up for the Rolling Stones and some of these rock bands and we wondered how their music was so aggressive," he says." I realised that - instead of playing the one drop, [I had to] play the kick on the one and the snare on the two and we had more energy to it."

As Sly and Robbie infused their infectious reggae rhythm tracks with an ever-harder style of playing, their reputation spread like a fever. The pair went on to work with Jagger himself and the success of Grace Jones in the Eighties was due in no small part to the musicianship of Sly and Robbie on hits like "Pull Up to The Bumper" and "My Jamaican Guy". From across the musical spectrum, singers ranging from Bob Dylan and Carly Simon to Ian Dury and Mick Hucknall have called on their services.

For a quarter of a century, Sly and Robbie have maintained their position in the vanguard of reggae; not allowing their work with international artists to detract from their ties to the Jamaican dancehall. Through their TAXI Productions record label Sly and Robbie have been responsible for literally hundreds of hits. After working with Tosh and his "Word, Sound and Power" band, they joined Black Uhuru, one of the greatest and most militant reggae groups of the late Seventies and early Eighties. With singers, Mykall Rose, Sandra "Puma" Jones, Ducky Simpson and later Junior Reid, they recorded a series of landmark albums, including Red, Showcase, Chill Out and Sinsemilla.

Sly and Robbie have also provided the backing to almost the entire reggae pantheon, from Delroy Wilson and Gregory Isaacs to Dennis Brown. The introduction of digital technology in the mid-to late-Eighties brought such profound changes to reggae that many leading artists caught a cold. But not Sly and Robbie.

Dunbar, in particular, embraced the transformation and immersed himself in the gadgetry that allowed him to be both drummer and percussionist at once, creating increasingly ambitious "riddim" tracks that helped to put the new "ragga" sound on an international stage.

It was Sly and Robbie's production of the duo Chaka Demus and Pliers that gave them three top five singles in the UK from the album Tease Me. Since then, Sly and Robbie have continued to keep their fingers on reggae's pulse, working with modern stars like Sizzla and setting up a new label to feature the current dancehall sounds.

Dunbar talks appreciatively of British musical developments like Drum 'n' Bass and Garage and of his love of global styles of drumming. "I like tablas, I like the Arabian and Eastern percussions because they make the rhythm swing and you want people to move," he says.

With such a breadth of musical knowledge and an open-minded approach to all musical genres, Dunbar is an ideal candidate to compile the latest in the "Late Night Tales" series of albums, on which established artists put together a selection of their own favourite sounds. The result is a collection dominated by soul classics, sprinkled with some more leftfield additions from Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Swiss electronica wizard Seelenluft and Seventies group Rare Earth.

Dunbar's love of soul goes back to his early career in the mid-Seventies, when he was a jobbing drummer in the Tit for Tat club in Kingston, Jamaica, replicating the big American chart sounds of the period. His choice of artists like Philly soulsters MFSB reflects his respect for the band's drummer Earl Young, who along with Jamaican Lloyd Knibbs (of The Skatalites) was his greatest early influence.

The album also includes contributions from hip hop's Mobb Deep and Lil' Kim and an extraordinary singing performance from Jeymes Samuels, the brother of Seal, which is interspersed with the battle rhymes of rapper Canibus. If clearance rights had permitted, Dunbar would undoubtedly have included even more hip hop. The artists whom he'd most like to work with are the giants of that genre: Dr Dre, The Neptunes, Timbaland. He especially likes The Neptunes for the way "they just kick down the wall, they don't care".

Back in Jamaica, as well as the soul classics on his i-pod, he listens to rappers 50 Cent and Jay-Z. He says: "I have to listen to the music that's really selling. I always give a really thorough listen to it because you have to know what's happening around, you know?" After three decades in the business, Dunbar, 51, clings determinedly to the cutting edge. "I always tell people I feel like 22 years old, not like I'm 50 years old," he says as he prepares to go on stage.

So much energy. It must be all that kip.

Sly and Robbie's Late Night Tales compilation is out now on Azuli

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