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Interview: Robbie Shakespeare

Interview: Robbie Shakespeare

Interview: Robbie Shakespeare

By on - Photos by Wonder Knack - 2 comments

"Sly was playing the drums just like how I would always tell other drummers to play"


Robbie Shakespeare is one of reggae's bass masters and one half of its most prolific and successful rhythm section - Sly & Robbie. Raised in East Kingston, his family home was a rehearsal and hangout spot for a variety of upcoming musicians and singers. Picking up the guitar first, he gravitated to the bass having been inspired by the music of Jackie Jackson of Treasure Isle and the guidance of Aston "Familyman" Barrett. When Barrett became the anchor of the Wailers, Robbie joined his old band the Hippy Boys, even stepping in to lay some crucial bass-parts for the songs Concrete Jungle and Stir It Up on the album 'Catch A Fire'.

A busy session man by the mid 70s Robbie found his ideal match in Sly: who he brought into Bunny Lee's house players the Aggrovators and into Peter Tosh's Word Sound Power band. Having ascended from a residence at the mighty Channel One studio via their own Taxi label to reggae's first major rhythm section production house - setting the tone for Steely and Clevie and Mafia and Fluxy - the duo became Chris Blackwell's musical handymen of choice, backing Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and Gwen Guthrie. Their forward thinking has seen continued success in dancehall, movie soundtracks and even video games.

United Reggae reached out to the Riddim Twins Drumbar and Basspeare as they were about to team up with fellow legends Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander for a summer tour of Europe. As deep as his basslines, Robbie seldom grants interviews, letting his erudite and verbose partner Sly do most of the talking. So it was an honour for Angus Taylor to speak to the great man about his music as well as his love of food, film, and the things that make him laugh, discovering the half of Sly & Robbie that has only rarely been told...

Robbie Shakespeare


What was your first music experience? Is it true that your brother Lloyd gave you your first acoustic guitar?

That acoustic guitar was always about. Anybody could come and pick it up and play it. My brother Lloyd, him and Maxie Romeo, Leroy Brown and Audley Rollins they sang as the Emotions. They would be rehearsing every day and there would be one or two acoustic guitars there so you could just join in. You know, you come every day, you loiter, take a spliff, you pick up a guitar and play - might be some poom poom or pom pom, might be right or it might be wrong but you just touch it and fuck around because you're not really playing anything because you can't really play nothing! (laughs) But then with Familyman, that's where it really started.

How did Familyman come into the picture?

Familyman used to come round to my yard because my gate was a gate where they used to sell herbs. So God bless herb smokers and herb smoking and God bless herb - because that's why I am here doing what I am doing now. And when Faimlyman came round there it was bam bam bam. One evening I was there going about my business when I saw him there rehearsing with a band named the Hippie Boys who I would soon be following closely and going in that same direction. When I saw him playing his thing I said "Wait". Because I was always attracted to bass you know. I was attracted to guitar and drums. I was attracted to every instrument but the sound from the bass that time there hit me and I said "Shiiiiiit". I said to him "I wan fi learn how to play this thing. You haffi teach me". And he said "Bwoy, I'm just learning myself yunno", so I said "We're going to haffi learn together then". Then the next morning he woke me up and started giving me some bassline lessons.

God bless herb smokers and God bless herb - because that's why I am here doing what I am doing now

When did you first go to the studio?

I used to carry his brother Carlie's drums into the studio. And then any time I got a chance I would try to sneak in! Because the studio in those days was not like now when anyone can come in. The producer would say "Who this?" and Carlie would say "My lickle friend yunno" and the producer would say "Well mek him wait outside, I and I in our musical element now". It used to be the thing so when I'd helped Carlie set up his drums I would have to go outside and wait. If I would see Familyman I would look and try to see as much as I could what he was doing with his hands before I had to go. But the thing with Familyman was whatever I would do in the day he would then come back over to my yard in the evening and then show me it.

Robbie ShakespeareJust as Familyman helped you, you helped other musicians and artists. Once you met Sly you recommended him to Bunny Lee and Peter Tosh, giving him two of his big platforms?

What happened was - before I met Sly we used to play for everybody. Recording was the thing for me. Aggrovators, Upsetters, Joe Gibbs All Stars, everybody, but it was mainly with different musicians. I used to have Tin Leg or Horsemouth or Benbow or Santa as the drummer - a whole lot of variant drummers. Now Aggrovators was one of my main things where we would go in the studio with me Chinna and Santa  - the main Aggrovators at that time. But I also used to play in a band in the evenings with Santa and Soul Syndicate and some weekends where we used to play in a club and then I used to have a little band in Spanish Town which would rehearse called Big Relation. They were contracted to play at a club where another band used to play. I can't remember the name of the band but they left...

The Fab Five?

The Fab Five, right! And the club was called... not Tit For Tat...

I said to Fams "You haffi teach me". And he said "Bwoy, I'm just learning myself yunno", so I said "We're going to haffi learn together then"

Evil People?

Yeah, you know more than me! (laughs) And while there, Bernard Touter Harvey who now plays with Inner Circle said "We should go next door and check out my friend Sly" and I said "Who name Sly?" and he said "Sly lickle drummer from over there". So we went over to the Tit For Tat club and there was Sly on the drum. And I said "Yeah, him bad" because he was playing the drums just like how I would always tell the drummers I would play with to play - he was just doing it and doing it easy and good. So seeing as we used to take studio work like an everyday thing, the next day and I went and checked Bunny Lee and said "Striker. I see a drummer. Bad. We could try him?" So Striker said "Yeah man", booked the time and called him and the first thing we played everyone went "Yeah yeah!" and started jumping up and down in the studio and everything so Sly & Robbie started right there and were well tight! Then now I was in Peter Tosh's band was in charge of getting the musicians so I said "We go for Sly".

Have you listened to the recent Peter Tosh reissues with the outtakes from those sessions?

I think I tried to listen to them the other day but I never finished! (laughs)


Tell me about the album you've been working on with Shaggy. You've known Shaggy for quite a while. So what made you decide to come together for a full album?

Me and Shaggy were in Australia together and we were talking about it. And the more the idea got shipped out the more people got interested and said "Yeah yeah yeah!" Then it was just a matter of time until when Shaggy had some time and we had some time for it to lock it in. So the time came and we started working on it. I can tell you, so far it sounds wicked wicked wicked!

Has the experience brought you closer together?

Me and Shaggy are family for life man. Trust me, me and Shaggy are Libran and me and Shaggy cool cool. So I don't think the relationship between me and Shaggy can ever mash up or anything. He's too good of a person, you know? You need more people like him in the business. Like him and Beres Hammond.

Me and Shaggy are family for life man

Tell me about the albums you are doing with Bitty Mclean and Brinsley Forde which have been an even longer time coming. They're finished now?

Well I got the hard drive from Bitty a couple of weeks ago but I haven't got around to listening to it yet. He just sent a hard drive with the tracks and I have to listen to it and do a rough mix and check everything is all right or if I need him voicing over something or adding a little thing to it I will. The Brinsley Forde tracks them sound wicked but I think when Brinsley sent us the hard drive and we listened to it in the studio and contemplated the next move I didn't like some of the voice. It had Autotune on and I didn't like that. People like Brinsley Forde don't need Autotune. To me Brinsley is too good of a singer to use that. I don't know how that came about. It's just a matter again for him and ourselves to lock in and come and voice them the right way.


You did the sound track to Third World Cop and Alexander Mello's Brazilian Film Hildete. Your music has also been used in films like Speed 2 Cruise Control and in TV series The Wire and Miami Vice - have you got any more work like that planned?

We don't really plan. What happens is sometimes people just ask us to do it. Like the other day someone asked us to do a Peter Tosh soundtrack. We just finished a Bob Marley documentary movie and the same people are going to do a Peter Tosh and they want us to work on that. I don't know what the title of the Peter Tosh one will be but the Bob Marley one is called Legend I think.

Your voice was used on the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Have you any plans to work in video game soundtracks?

If they ask us, then yes we would gladly go and do it!

Do you have much time in your busy schedule for watching films and TV for pleasure?

Sometimes late at night I do try to look at some  movies when I come in from the studio. That is my recreation really.

I try to look at some movies when I come in from the studio. That is my recreation

What's your favourite genre of movies? Do you like Westerns?

(laughs) Actually I was just looking at one now. One with Audie Murphy called The Texan (1966). I also love sci-fi and I love action but I also love the Food channel!

Sometimes I like to try it out myself. I use cooking as a pastime you know? I'm getting good at it! (laughs)

How did you get into making music for comedy in 2008 when you made the backing track for the Saturday Night Live Andy Samberg sketch Ras Trent? Have you met anyone like Ras Trent in real life or is he a larger than life cartoon character?

You have a lot of characters like him in real life! (laughs) That came through Erik Eger who is a kind of semi manager for us who lives in California. We did some tracks in Jamaica and then he voiced it and chopped it out to use it. Yeah he sent it to me. (laughs) But that one did make me laugh!


Recently, on stage with Ernest at the Blue Note for example, you've been using the Fender Jazz bass - which Familyman has been known to use. Do you favour any particular bass or is it just the right bass for the right job at the time?

Let me tell you the basses I really favour. First it was a Hofner - which I still play every so often because it has a unique sound that no other bass has. Likewise Fender has a sound that no other bass has. I was a Fender fanatic. With a Fender, wherever I am going I can tell them to rent a Fender and I can play it and get my sound from it. But the real bass for me is a bass named Schecter and also the Paul Reed Smith. PRS usually only make guitars but somehow I wound up with a PRS bass - the baddest bass that I can pick up right now. That and the Schecter eight string bass of doom! (laughs)

I was a Fender fanatic. But the real bass for me is the Paul Reed Smith and the Schecter eight string bass of doom!

At what stage in a track do you generally like to add the bass to a song?

 If all the musicians are in the studio there and then I am good to go. But if we are using a drum machine it takes time to programme and find the right sound with Sly. So I make them do the drum track and if we are doing more than one I try to get them to do as much as possible so if they want to put the chords on it they can. But once the drum track is there I can go next. It depends on what sort of song though. If it is a singing song I need a little vocal on there to guide me through. So drums, maybe vocals and then I go next.

Robbie Shakespeare


What's the greatest Treasure Isle tune of all time?

(big laugh) Well, a lot of Treasure Isle songs were wicked. You have [John Holt] Stealing, you have [Upsetters] Lock Jaw, all the Pat Kelly and the Techniques, all of the John Holt, all of the Alton. There isn't really any one favourite Treasure Isle for me. Treasure Isle songs they're just bad! Just like Studio 1 had a unique sound and it was bad - it was just like that. Every Treasure Isle you hear you say "Wow"! (laughs)

Who's your favourite American soul singer of all time?

Well, you have so many of them too! It depends. You can't have one because each one has a different flavour. You have Gladys Knight and the Pips, you have Temptations, you have Curtis Mayfield - he's one of my favourites in the Impressions. Elvis Presley is bad too. Sam Cooke. The Drifters whether with Ben E King or one of the others...

Treasure Isle songs they're just bad!

The Drifters had so many different line ups they are like a genre in themselves.

Yeah!  Exactly. There are so many that there's not one you can point your finger at. There's a combination of many different ones. You have Marvin Gaye. He'd just come down the line and you'd just be murdered! (laughs) Even Joe Cocker. Joe Cocker used to kill me in the studio! I would look on him and say "The way you sing you're not going to make that note" and he would make it with ease and kill me! Joe is one of my favourites too. And Gwen Guthrie. Oh man she was second to none! I couldn't stay in the studio when that woman was singing! When she opened her mouth it was like an angel. Not just one but like a choir of angels together. I can't even place her as a singer - I tell you man, she is just bad!

What's your greatest rock'n'roll band of all time?

One of my greatest rock'n'roll bands is the Rolling Stones because they are just bare raw rock'n'roll! You also have a group out of Canada named Rush - tough!

You're a fan of Geddy Lee's bass playing?

Yeah!  Geddy Lee is bad! And you have a couple more. Metallica I love. Metallica are bad. Again, with rock I listen to them for different reasons. One of my main kinds of music right now is just the blues. I like Roger Trout. Joe Bonamassa. And from the old time there's Guitar Slim, BB King is bad, and a lot of the time Ruth Brown. A lot of the time I am listening to Satellite Radio and I can't see the name but then the music will just grab me.

Final question, what is it about all the time people you work with - whether it's a Sinead O'Connor, a Bob Dylan, a Chezidek, a Chantelle Ernandez - that makes you say "Yes, I can work with this person?"

You just called one of my favourites again - Bob Dylan! (laughs) Now Bob was one of my all time writers and singers from a long time. The way Bob Dylan put words together was very unique and masterful. When we worked with Bob, he worked the way we work. He'd just go in the studio and start playing and we'd just jump in. There wasn't any pressure from him - you'd more pressure yourself to make sure you get the right thing. Which I do, mostly every session, to get the right thing, the right flavour, the right mix. And because we were born in a reggae town and played in a reggae town you have to get the thing out and sounding in a way where no man will say "Cho! It's reggae man" you know? So we add a little uniqueness to it because we want to get it the right way.

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Read comments (2)

Posted by MrQuick on 07.06.2012
Great interview, amazing to read his music tastes are so diverse.

Posted by passmore mapfumo on 06.01.2013
rest in peace our legents bob marley,, josephy hill, gregory isaacs,peter tos and others

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