Emma Brooker
Saturday 27 September 1997 23:02

Internationally renowned musicians and record producers Sly Dunbar, 45, and Robbie Shakespeare, 44 (right, top), were both born in Kingston, Jamaica. They started their individual careers as session musicians for local reggae acts (Sly as a drummer and Robbie as a bass guitarist), teamed up in the early Seventies, and by 1976 were Jamaica's most celebrated and prolific rhythm section. Since then they have either played for or produced some of rock and soul music's best-known acts, including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Robert Palmer, Grace Jones, and Chaka Demus & Pliers. Both Sly and Robbie live near their Kingston recording studio with their wives Natasha and Marian

SLY DUNBAR: I left school when I was 15 and started playing drums professionally. That's all I ever wanted to do. In the early Seventies, when I was about 21, Robbie and I were both playing at different clubs in the same street in downtown Kingston. He was playing at Evil People and I was playing three doors down at Tit for Tat. Our breaks were at different times, and each of us would go to the other club during our break to listen to the other band playing.

The first time I saw Robbie playing bass I asked, "Who's that?" He just seemed so relaxed. We got talking, and we would just stand and talk about music for hours. We were both obsessed with music. Then I was offered some free time in the studio and I suggested to Robbie that we should start playing together. He said that was a great idea.

From the first time we played together we clicked musically. It was like magic. He knew what I was going to do and I knew what he was going to do. We used to rehearse deep into the night, and Robbie asked me to join the Peter Tosh Band, who he was with then. That was in 1975. Since then we've probably only spent - at the most - three weeks apart from each other.

We have worked together for over 20 years, but as well as being my colleague, Robbie is my closest friend. We have a very harmonious friendship. It feels like a bond. You adore it and thank God that it happened. It's even more than a marriage. We've never quarrelled. We just relax together. There's no ego.

Robbie is the aggressive one; I'm the quiet one. Sometimes when people meet Robbie they're shy of him, even a little afraid, and they don't want to talk to him. But he's a sane, down-to-earth person really. When he gets aggressive, I can calm him down. I talk to him and say it doesn't make sense to be angry. He nearly always listens to me.

There was one time even I couldn't persuade him. Robbie is very afraid of flying, and a couple of years ago we had to fly from New York to Washington in a small plane. There were only a few of us on it and the pilot told us we couldn't sit together: instead we had to spread out all over the plane, to balance it. Robbie didn't like the sound of that - balanc-ing - and he refused to move. The airport security men even came on board and tried to convince him. In the end we had to get off the plane and fly on another one. Once Robbie decides on something, he can be very stubborn.

But that's not the case when we play music together. The chemistry between us that makes our playing work is the respect and love we have for each other. We try out each other's ideas. Our friendship is unusual in the music business, where a lot of people fall out or split up, usually over money. Between us, it's not the thing of money that's important. I don't mind sharing everything I have with Robbie. When we had nothing we were together, so why should we split up now?

We took a long-term view of our careers. We didn't expect to get there straight away. We decided to pay our dues. For example, sometimes you've got to lose to move forward, maybe play for not very much money. We took it slowly because we knew it would be a long haul. Today we listen to all these people's records, Mick Hucknall, UB40, all these guys in England - and then they call us and say they want us to work with them. We feel so grateful. When Bob Dylan called us, Robbie and I just looked at each other in amazement and said, "Bob Dylan!"

When we're in Jamaica we see each other every day, and when we're apart, we talk on the phone nearly every day. To be honest, if I could just wake up, go to the studio with Robbie and come home and go to bed, I would be happy. That's all I really want to do. Our girlfriends and our wives have had to understand that we are a team and if they get involved with Sly or Robbie, they have to live with it, and if they can't live with it they have to leave.

This is where we get our relaxed attitude from, just playing the music and being calm. Sometimes you'll get a rhythm in your head and you'll start grooving and wanting to play. Robbie and I have so many ideas that we have to play, otherwise the music gets bottled up inside us and we get angry.

If we hadn't got together, I don't think either of us would have been as successful as we are now, because I don't think the music business is something one person can really do so easily. You put drum and bass together, you have more strength. The whole should be better than the half. Sly and Robbie together, it's like, "Oh my God, it's so powerful."

I've learnt from Robbie how to treat people. How sometimes you have to get angry to get people to do things. Not angry to fight, but to get things done. Because if you're cool all the time, sometimes people take advantage of you. I've learnt to be strong about certain things, about going for it and standing up for your rights.

I don't even want to think about what it would be like if Robbie wasn't here. I'd miss the really simple things, like sitting down and talking and laughing about the old days. We've got so much history between us, you can't replace that.

Robbie and I look at everything we do as meaningful. We don't go into it half-hearted: we play for life. We'll never retire. We'll play until we're old men.

ROBBIE SHAKESPEARE: In the early Seventies I was playing at a club named Evil People and Sly was playing at Tit for Tat. When we took a break I would go across to listen to Sly's band and when he had a break, he came across and listened to my band. When I heard him play I said, "Whoah! That drummer's wicked." I still think he's the best drummer in the world. After a while we got talking. I told my producer Boney Lee about Sly, and suggested we use him. That's how we first came to play together.

From day one, when we first went into the studio together, we had that special chemistry. Definitely. Musically we'd have to set up a special channel to God to ask him why what we play always comes out right. But if we hadn't got together, we'd probably still be warriors in our own right. You can never tell, but with the determination we both have, I think we would both have been successful.

We don't disagree about things. We never fight or quarrel. If we have different ideas, we try both of them out and use whichever sounds best. The energy it would take to disagree with one another, we use it instead to get things right. To me, when you're playing music, your heart has to be clean. If you feel no malice for no one, it comes out right.

From Sly I've learnt to be patient. When I start being aggressive and saying I want things, he'll say, "Cool down, it'll be okay", and he always turns out to be right. So I've learnt over the years to be cool.

But sometimes being too cool can be a problem. People who want to work with us go to Sly for a price first, and then come to me for a price and it's different. They get a better price from Sly, and that's not so good for busi- ness. People prefer to deal with Sly, because he likes a quiet life - so he won't argue over the price. His weak point is that he gives in a little too easy. His strong point is music, music, music. He's obsessed.

Sly's more than like a brother to me. He's the one who has given me a lot of strength, talked to me if I'm upset. We've been through a lot of ups and downs, and he never shows any emotion. He's real quiet, always thinking up some construction with his drums. Most of the time I know what he's thinking and feeling, but sometimes even I can't tell if he's unhappy, because he's always one way: always looking happy. He bottles things up and doesn't express his feelings.

I've rarely seen him angry. I'm the one who's always talking and speaking my mind, but one time when we were about to leave the Pete Tosh Band in 1979, Sly said to me, "I'll do the talking." It all came out: he talked for about two hours to the rest of the band, told them what was wrong with it and how angry he was. Everyone just sat there in complete silence because nobody had ever heard Sly talk like that. I think they were really frightened.

The worst time Sly and I ever had was about 15 years ago, after we made this album with Serge Gainsbourg and he wanted us to go on tour with him. It was coming up to Christmas and we'd invested all the money we'd earnt in equipment and tapes for our own record label. We didn't have anything left to buy Christmas presents, so we agreed to do the tour and we went out to Paris. But the other musicians who were supposed to come and play with us refused to leave Jamaica. They didn't want to be away from their families over Christmas. The tour fell through and we had to go home with no money to buy presents. That was terrible.

The thing I would really miss about Sly is his love and his friendship. He's a colleague, but I'd miss him personally - like now for instance, he's in New York and I miss him a lot, so I call him a lot.

A lot of people admire our friendship. They look at it and say, "Boy, it's so good to see you two together." They get inspiration from it: the fact that we have been able to stay friends all this time, in the business we work in.

There are about 26 hours in the day and most of that time we are together. The longest we've been apart in the last 25 years is about three weeks. It's very difficult to be apart for that amount of time. I'll go on holiday with my family and as soon as I reach the place I'm going to, I want to be back with Sly, playing music.

! The single 'Night Nurse' (East West) by Sly and Robbie with Simply Red, is out now.

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