Island time 

Sly and Robbie keep their groove on

If you like reggae, you know “Riddim Twins” Lowell Dunbar (nicknamed “Sly” for his early fondness for Sly and the Family Stone) and Robert Shakespeare, aka Sly and Robbie. For 30 years, the drummer and bassist, respectively, have been Jamaica’s premier rhythm section, but their importance is not limited to reggae. Heck, even if you’ve never bought a reggae album in your life, you can probably hum along to something with their fingerprints all over it: As producers, they’ve twiddled knobs for the likes of Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and Cyndi Lauper.

Dunbar and Shakespeare were both fixtures on the Jamaican reggae scene when they met in the early ’70s; Dunbar was a drummer in demand, Shakespeare had played on Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” The two played in different bands at different bars but dropped in to listen to each other’s music during set breaks. After pooling their talents and releasing a few albums under the name Revolutionaires, they were drafted into Peter Tosh’s backup band for five LPs, including Legalize It, one of the most popular (and most quoted) reggae albums of all time. Toward the end of their hitch with Tosh, legend has it that Sly and Robbie subsisted on bread and water—even on a world tour—to save money for their own record label, TAXI Productions, which released the first “official” Sly and Robbie solo release in 1982. Leaving Tosh’s band, the pair joined Black Uhuru.

At about the same time, their production career was starting to take off, aided to a large degree by Mick Jagger’s flirtation with island music. With Grace Jones’ Living My Life album, Dunbar and Shakespeare delivered the model-turned-musical superstar from ’70s disco to her artiest period. The same record also marked Dunbar’s shift to electronic drums and programmed beats. Dunbar and Shakespeare backed Mick Jagger for several tracks on his 1985 solo record She’s the Boss, recorded at Island Records nabob Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Among the other musicians recruited for the Jagger sessions were Herbie Hancock and bassist/producer Bill Laswell, who had already been swapping production work and remixes with Dunbar and Shakespeare on various projects, including a 12” remix of Hancock’s groundbreaking 1983 “Rockit,” one of the first mainstream singles to feature turntable scratching.

They’re still producing and composing for a variety of artists, mostly but not exclusively reggae artists. Critics of their recent Sly and Robbie recordings suggest that Dunbar should quit fiddling around with electronics and get back to the drums. People who have seen recent shows, though, assure that they still put it down live.

Sly and Robbie will perform at the Wilma Theatre on Monday, Nov. 1. Doors open at 7 PM; show starts at 8. Tickets cost $18 in advance (available from Rockin Rudy’s, Rainbow’s End, Ear Candy and the Wilma box office), $20 at the door.

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