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Interview: Sly Dunbar (Part 2 - New projects)

Interview: Sly Dunbar (Part 2 - New projects)

Interview: Sly Dunbar (Part 2 - New projects)

By on - Photos by Laurent Gudin - Comment

"When I see the red light I go for it. I take chances"


Read part 1 of this interview

In Part Two of our feature length interview with drummer extraordinaire - and one half of dynamic duo Sly & Robbie - Sly Dunbar, Angus Taylor finds out about their current projects. Right now the "Riddim Twins" are gearing up to release new albums with Shaggy, Bitty McLean and Brinsley Forde to name just three. Sly's drumming in the late 70s and early 80s was so futuristic that (to pluck an example from the air) it is possible to mix ragga jungle straight into roots reggae via his game-changing Black Uhuru tunes. And today, as Sly explains below, the younger drummers in Jamaica could learn a thing or two from being as forward minded as he...

Sly Dunbar

Your last dub album Blackwood Dub has got a lot of critical acclaim as a "back to basics" dub record. Tell us about Alberto Blackwood and his role in inspiring the album.

Burur is like an engineer who came in as an apprentice. He's a good friend of Robbie. Robbie brought him in and he's been around us. I make a lot of rhythms for him so I was talking about dubs because they always love what we have done and when they see us playing this thing live they always give praises. So we said it would be a good idea to dub it out. We went in with Mikey Chung, Robbie Lyn to Harry J's studio and laid down the tracks and that was it (laughs). Then Robbie rolled up with an additional bassline and I did some percussion stuff. I wanted to make it sound - not like a new dub but have some of the old elements with new little things to make it sound fresh.

There are no vocals - did you decide not to add them before, during or after you laid the tracks?

We were making these dubs for a little while and when you make dub you don't really think of vocals. Most dub albums are like vocal tracks from when they took the vocal and so we just run the rhythm tracks and put some vocal in. But this time there was no song - we were just making all this stuff up! (laughs)

In some of your concerts you start with drum and bass them bring in vocals half way through set. When people go to a roots sound they hear the vocal then they hear it stripped but on those shows you go in reverse and build from the ground up.

We play the instrumentals and some dubs because this is when we get to really play! Because sometimes you can't do a lot of it while the singer's singing and you're enjoying it so much that you don't want to stop! (laughs) So sometimes the vocal might come in a bit late! So when they come they take the rest of the show for themselves! (laughs)

How long does it generally take from the time you arrive in the studio to tune and mic drums before recording anything?

It depends. If we have a good engineer it should take a couple of hours before you start recording because you have to mic the drums. Sometimes you have a good engineer who knows the sound that I want, so it doesn't take a long time to get it. The drum is probably the hardest thing to get the right sound on so somebody like Stephen Stanley or Steven Stewart or Fatta Marshall will know exactly what to go for. Or Garfield or Bulby. They'll come around and listen to the drum sound and say "Ok, that's fine. I know what we can do" and we just take it from there.

Let's talk about your forthcoming album with Shaggy. You've worked with him on the title track of his 2004 album Clothes Drop and on your Grammy nominated album Made In Jamaica with Bob Sinclar - but what was the catalyst for working on a full album together?

I think what happened was Robbie was talking to him about how he hasn't really done a full reggae album yet. I'd always said to myself that Shaggy should really go on some really tough hardcore reggae rhythms so Robbie suggested we cut some tracks and he'd said yeah. It was a good experience because it was the first time I'd been to his studio and then me and Robbie ran away to Japan and stopped there for a week. It was good because we laid around 30 tracks in only three days. We cut a lot of tracks and we might cut some more - it depends because we will try and wait until after the holiday period passes and then he might come back into Jamaica and try to put on some vocals and some backing vocals with Cherine Anderson. We're trying to get finished as soon as possible.

Shaggy said in an interview he has 200 songs he's sitting on at any one time - what was the process like for this album? Did you tailor everything from ground up?

Yes, what he have done is tailor-made from the ground up. He's a person who loves to cut a lot of songs but for Robbie and myself if we can't get the hit song within 15 songs then something is wrong. Because we know the direction someone is going for and we listen to a lot of references to what is happening in the industry at the time and we also go back and listen to all his hits for what they contain.  We break down the molecules of all his songs and listen out for why these songs were big hits and what caused it. Then we take ideas or we probably just take the tempo and then go to work. I might build a drum pattern or Robbie might come in with a wicked bassline or something that sounds good. Because we always go for the groove and a lot of people forget that the groove is the most important thing - the swing of the song. I want to find that line and say "Ok this is it" and then we're fine! (laughs)

We always go for the groove. A lot of people forget that the groove is the most important thing

In March Shaggy joined Robbie and Bitty McLean on stage as part of Blue Note festival in New York to celebrate 50 years of Monty Alexander. You've been working with Bitty on his second album with yourselves - is that done now?

Yes, I wasn't there because my work permit didn't come through until after the gig so I didn't go. The album is already cut because the music was done last year. We're just doing vocals and in the process of mixing now.

Bitty likes to mix his own albums - is he mixing it?

Yes, it's cool what he does. I respect him very much. Great engineer, great musician, great songwriter - he's just a good all round person.

On the last one he sang some roots direction - will he be going further in this direction? There's a video from 2010 at Anchor of Robbie playing and Bitty singing Freddie McKay My Cup (It's Running Over). Was this from sessions for this album or just a jam?

I remember him singing that track and us playing but I can't remember if we cut that track! There are so many tunes! It's going to be right across the board but you're right. We could take a roots rhythm and make it sound like a pop rhythm but deep down it's roots. But what we did is just play some solid rhythms for him and he could take it from there and do anything to it - he could make a dub album from them. I think it can connect with everything. He can connect to all the rhythms. It could be a roots rhythm and he could be singing some wicked melodies on it. I think it's going to be a great album for him. He came down to Jamaica and cut everything and everything was live. 

Also you've been working on Brinsley Forde's album - which has been in the making since 2008 and planned since long before.

We laid tracks for the Brinsley Forde stuff and I think he is working on it at the moment. I don't think he has finished voicing it but as soon as he has he will probably send a cd to us to listen to what he has done. Because everybody is busy so they have to do it in their own time. I like working and music is my life and this is how it has been for years! So it makes me comfortable when I'm around people like Bitty or Brinsley or any musician like Robbie Lyn, Nambo, Lenky, and Cherine Anderson. Once they come in and start playing and I'm just standing by the drum machine making a beat we start vibing. It makes your day feel really good because this is what you love and enjoy. You're having fun and working at the same time.

I'm always researching and searching for things and fresh ideas - anywhere, anytime!

You worked with Jimmy Riley as producer in the early 80s with on Rydim Driven (1981) and Put The People First (1982). Would you like to do another album with Jimmy or his son Tarrus maybe?

(laughs) It's like you're looking in a crystal ball because we are currently doing some new tracks with Jimmy Riley. Last week we were sitting there when he had done a new track and we were supposed to put on the backing vocal. He was talking about doing some showcase stuff and putting like seven or eight songs on the EP and we were trying to pick the songs that we wanted. He has this kind of David Ruffin or Levi Stubbs voice, so we're going to try to cover this Four Tops song Still Waters Run Deep. We started talking about it and he started singing about it and it sounded great right there because he has this big voice.

(Jimmy Riley phones)

Sorry that was Jimmy Riley! I told him we were doing an interview and the journalist just called your name - he couldn't believe it!

I noticed when we were setting up the interview that you have an iPad - have you made much music on it?

Sly DunbarI fool around on the iPad because I have Garageband on it. It's just for a rough sketch because sometimes I listen to ideas and hear a couple of things and say "Hmmm, I might make something like that". I'm always researching and searching for things and fresh ideas - anywhere, anytime! Even sometimes while doing interviews the journalist might say something about a particular track that he likes and I think "Oh if he likes it I'm going to make something again like that!" (laughs)

OK, I'll bite! I believe you are in the process of reissuing some of the Taxi singles on cd. One of my favourite tracks is Al Campbell's Back Off With Your Cocaine which is highly prized on original Taxi 12 - any plans to put that out for the wider public?

Oh! That's a wicked track! I have that on tape so when this interview's done I must run it off! See? That's what I mean. I have so many songs that sometimes people have to remind me of all these tracks!

Which drummers do you admire who are making a name for themselves now? What do you think of say Kirk Bennett for example?

He's good. There are a lot of good drummers now but I don't get a chance to talk to them that much because everybody is doing their thing. There's Squidly, and the guy that plays for Tarrus Riley and Dean, there's Stewie, there's a bunch of them. But it all comes down to what you're thinking of. When I see the red light I go for it. I take chances and have like a different thing. Because I'm listening to so many things and my thing is to develop the drumming section in reggae I take everything and try to make a pattern from that. Whereas today in music everybody's playing safe and just playing the regular one-drop. Nothing is wrong with that but when I play the one-drop I'll try to do things on the tom-tom when it comes to the chorus because with one-drop sometimes I think nothing is happening in the track. The singer is singing beautifully and the musicians are playing great so I don't think the drummer should just sit there and just play the same all the way through it. If you can do something and it fits what's happening you go for it! But I don't know if a lot of them are scared to take the chance and are worried it won't sound good?

What in your background makes you less worried?

When I was growing up I learned to live with a microphone and the drums. So I could go into a studio and know what I can play because the mic would sound a certain way and if it doesn't sound a certain way I won't because it won't sound good. So I play the one-drop with a little swing and you have to listen to the chord progression and the tempo. Then there are certain things you can't do in a certain tempo so I will choose the rolls I do and don't play. I saw an article on Facebook where the guy said "All reggae drummers travel with their drum sound but all their snare drums sound the same. Sly's snare drum doesn't sound like a reggae drum. This is why his sound is so different because his snare drum is different." I try to be different but I'm not putting down other drummers because I respect all drummers and look up to them a lot. But I think for me to come to the market place and make a statement I have to find something that people will like and people will enjoy so I'm always on the searching side of things. I'm still searching, I'm looking, I listen every day for ideas, even from television.

How do you have time to watch TV?

I sleep with the television on and radio playing at the same time so that if I wake up and hear something I'll say "Oh that sound good!" and try to remember it so I can try it later. Sometimes you just know what is and isn't going to work. Even today, for reggae, a lot of people say it doesn't have that feeling, that soul because I am in one little room playing and everybody else in a control room. It's not like you're hearing a band playing in the studio like in the days of old. So the soul and the expression is not there. Maybe this is why a lot people don't try different things because you cannot pressurize yourself when you are just sitting in that room. When with a band in a big room and everybody is playing all at one time you can feel it much better.

I'm trying to compete with myself and climb a ladder where I can't reach the top!

You won a Reggae Grammy in 1985 for your work with Black Uhuru on Anthem, you won a Grammy in 1999 for your album Friends, you were twice nominated in 2011. But both Stephen and Damian Marley have won Grammys for albums that sampled your rhythms. Even when something you have made is taken out of your hands it still seems to attract acclaim. Are awards important to you?

Yes, we won the first reggae Grammy with Black Uhuru and we were also nominated for an R&B album in 85. We have been nominated 9 times. Yes, it's important to me but if I get it, I get it  and if I don't get it, I don't get it. As long as people recognize the works out there and feel satisfied and they like them. The greatest thing for me is when somebody comes and says "I like your work". I feel so blessed. I makes me want to move on all the time. So people coming to me keeps me going all the time. I say "Wha? They really like it?" and it makes me want to move to the next level. I'm trying to compete with myself and climb a ladder where I can't reach the top! I keep trying and can't reach! (laughs)

Thanks again.

Thanks for taking the time out. It's been a very enjoyable interview. I could go on for hours just talking. Sometimes you have an interview where the person knows the right questions to ask. Even if they don't ask you something you can tell them what they forgot to ask. Like we haven't even talked about Gwen Guthrie! Next time we do it we can just pick up from where we left off and do the rest!

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