Drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare are one of the most prolific and widely recorded rhythm sections in music history. For over 40 years, they’ve been heard on records by virtually every major reggae act, and have worked with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Sting, and on and on. They were part of the early ’80s studio assemblage known as the Compass Point All Stars, backing Grace Jones (on Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life and Hurricane), Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Tom Tom Club, and more. In the mid ’80s, they made a pair of albums with producer Bill Laswell, Language Barrier and Rhythm Killers, that combined dub, electronic music, funk and jazz into a high-tech swirling hybrid. Always searching for new sounds (and hits), they were early dancehall pioneers and have continued to mix reggae, dub and dancehall with electronic music, rock and jazz. In 2018, they collaborated with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronic musician Vladislav Delay on Nordub, a collision of deep dub grooves and atmospheric Nordic electronic jazz, and in 2020 Sly, Robbie and Delay made 500-PUSH-UP, an even starker, noisier, more propulsive album reminiscent of Basic Channel dub techno at times.
In recent years, they’ve made some interesting, somewhat sci-fi-themed albums under their own banner, like 2014’s Dubrising, 2015’s Free Dub, and 2017’s Dubocalypse. While Free Dub delves into monster imagery with tracks like “Voodoo Dance,” “King Kong,” “Zombapocalypse Averted” and “Dracula Cyan Win,” the other two have cover art depicting floating fortresses and giant gundam robots, and generally put out an almost WordSound-ish vibe, though the music is more lighthearted than the ominous, after-midnight Brooklyn dub of that legendary label.
Their latest album, Red Hills Road, is a tribute to their long history on the Jamaican music scene. The titular road was where many nightclubs were located; Dunbar told the Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner, “Every club on the strip had a resident band. I played at Tit For Tat and Robbie was across the road at the Evil People, and that was how we met.” It’s not a collection of reworkings of classic reggae songs or a guest-star-studded exercise in nostalgia, or anything as uninspired as that, though. As ever, Sly and Robbie have all four feet firmly planted in the present.
The album kicks off with “Yaw Yaw Yippee,” a dancehall stomp with enough kick drum force to make Kevin “The Bug” Martin tip the cap in respect. The synth melody and some of the synth drum rolls harken back to the mid ’80s, but other sounds are more modern. The next track, “Mad Piano,” barely features piano at all; the main hook is rave synth, with congas and other hand drums in the background and another stomping beat keeping it all moving.
As the album progresses, new elements are added to the mix on virtually every track. “Linstead Market” features violin, banjo(!) and saxophone and the nyabinghi hand drum rhythm, but beneath that is another concussive earthquake drumbeat. “Belly Dancer” brings in Arabic/Middle Eastern string stabs and a sampled muezzin-like wail, and a klaxon buried deep in the mix, and at the midpoint, a tango piano solo appears out of nowhere. “So Far Away,” one of the few pure(ish) reggae tracks, is a showcase for legendary saxophonist Dean Fraser. Another reggae icon and a Sly and Robbie collaborator since the 1970s, keyboardist Ansel Collins, can be heard on “El Bang Bang.” Red Hills Road ends with “Coronation Market,” which features cumbia accordion, field recordings from a street market (or a cunning simulation thereof), and cinematic string stabs, atop massive digital drums.
If you’re looking for an album of roots dub instrumentals, this is not the record for you. But Sly and Robbie have never been willing to limit themselves to one sound. As far back as the Compass Point All Stars era, when they combined dub and then-new digital production techniques with postpunk, disco and New Wave rock, they’ve been willing to throw elements together in seemingly unworkable combinations and make it work through pure, unstoppable rhythm power. Red Hills Road is merely the latest step on a lifelong musical journey.
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