The cool and deadly “Rhythm Killers” declared war on the weakhearts in 2013 with a likkle help from Bitty McLean and a few friends, even grabbing a Grammy nod as the clock tick-tocked down to zero. There is panic on the streets of Babylon. Can anyone stop them in 2014?
Lowell Fillmore Dunbar AKA Sly Dunbar is a dangerous, even deadly drummer. Dunbar and longtime associate and bassist Robert Shakespeare AKA Robbie Shakespeare, also known as the “Riddim Twins” or “Rhythm Killers,” are the most notorius and dangerous riddim section the world has ever known. Both musicians emerged in the mid 1970s as part of the revolution in Jamaica – a musical takeover the likes of which we have never seen. Dunbar got his start in the early 1970’s as a notoriously deadly drummer with Ansel Collins’ crew known as ‘Skin, Flesh, and Bones.’ During the revolution, he aided several dangerous revolutionary groups including The Revolutionaries. While he served with many revolutionary units in the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, Dunbar was most closely associated with The Aggrovators, a collective of poorly funded yet supremely talented musicians run by Edward O’Sullivan Lee AKA Bunny Lee AKA Striker Lee, an enemy of the state. It is with The Aggrovators that Dunbar meets bassist Robbie Shakespeare. The two form a bond that has remained unbroken through today. From the mid-1970s through 1990, the deadly rhythm section records, produces, and tours under several aliases including The Revolutionaries, Black Uhuru, the Taxi Gang, the Riddim twins, and Rhythm Killers. From 1976-1979, the duo were close associates of, and advisors to, legendary revolutionary Peter McIntosh AKA Peter Tosh AKA The Bush Doctor. With Tosh, Dunbar and Shakespeare recorded and released five legendary and historically significant albums: Legalize It, Equal Rights, Bush Doctor, Mystic Man and Wanted Dread and Alive. All were labeled “propaganda” by the state as these albums were responsible for spreading revolutionary ideas, many of which were progressive, effective and even influential. The duo have played on several song that have been banned in Jamaica. It is not known how many revolutionaries they inspired or created during this three year period, however, it is clearly evident that their influence was global.
The “Riddim Twins” ended their association with Tosh’s crew in 1981. Their next move was bold as they chose to officially join a fearsome crew they had been supporting since 1976/1977: The Black Uhuru syndicate hailing from the Waterhouse section of Jamaica. Black Uhuru AKA Black Sounds Uhuru AKA Black Sounds Uhro AKA Uhuru, founded by Waterhouse wailers and soldiers of the revolution Don Carlos, Garth Dennis, and Duckie Simpson, was a fledgling crew that was on the verge of break-up when Michael Rose AKA Mykal Rose, a son of the revolution, took the helm, turning this local crew into an international syndicate with wide, even global influence. Aligned with Black Uhuru, Sly & Robbie create a bold new sound unlike anything that was heard before, with an incomparable heaviness and gravity. Rhythmically heavy tunes like “General Penitentiary,” “Abortion,” “Sinsemillia,” “Utterance,” “Carbine,” and “Bull In The Pen” dropped opposing crews with one listen. There is a rumor, though unconfirmed, that “Bull In The Pen” once dropped an enemy soldier in less than 15 seconds. This was a sadistic and brutal style of music that was responsible for killing untold numbers of opposition soldiers and enemy crews. It was having global impact. Music of mass destruction. At the same time, they established a new presence in the Caribbean with the Compass Point All-Stars. Headquartered in Nassau, Bahamas, the Compass Point All-Stars also included legendary rebels Mikey Chung (guitar) and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson (percussion). This crew has been associated with the likes of Grace Jones and Joe Cocker.
Their influence only grew over the next two decades as the “Taxi Gang” teamed up with the most legendary vocal assassins in history, men with names like Beenie Man, Chaka Demus, Pliers, Ini Kamoze, Yellowman, Half Pint, Junior Delgado, Sugar Minott, and countless others. They launched attacks on a global scale with the notorious musical revolutionaries from the four corners of the world. They collaborated with the most dangerous musicians in the world. Bob Dylan, Dennis Brown, The Fugees, Grace Jones, Herbie Hancock, Wyclef Jean, Ian Dury, Joe Cocker, Kazumi Watanabe, Madonna, Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Michael Franti and the Spearhead Crew, Maxi Priest, Matisyahu, Tiken Jah Fakoly and others too many to name. In 2005, they shocked the world when they turned up in their native Jamaica with legendary Irish freedom fighter Sinead O’Connor, the most feared woman in the industry.
So it is within this context that we find ourselves. The Rhythm Killers are back, emerging in 2013 under their “Taxi Gang” banner and launching multiple, well-organized and targeted attacks on those who slept on this notorious crew, some even saying that the gig was up, the Riddim Twins had slipped, lost some of their fight, no bark, no bite. But this time the stakes are as high as ever. You see, this time the Taxi Gang has collaborated with the notoriously dangerous French Connection to drop two musically atomic bombs.
They chose the MIDNIGHT RAVER to tell the story. And they are breaking their silence with us here and now to tell you the why and how…
MR: Is this Robbie?
RS: “Ya mon.”
MR: This is Mike, from Midnight Raver.
RS: “Ya mon, what’s up?”
MR: First, congratulations is in order. Your album with the Jam Masters is nominated for the Grammy award. You guys laid down five Grammy-worthy albums this year alone. How did you make that happen all in 2013?
RS: “Ahhh, I don’t know (laughs). I can’t answer that question. We just keep working you know? Cuz we did a lot of ting this year. We have to give God thanks.”
MR: I saw you guys back in September here in DC with Michael Rose. What was it like to play with him again and go on tour?
RS: “It felt kinda good you know? That Black Uhuru riddim was kinda tuff and I don’t think nobody else can do those kind of riddims justice like Sly and Robbie. So it was nice to play dem back.”
MR: The folks who read this blog probably want to know more about Peter Tosh. Was he a very serious musician, like rehearse, rehearse, and very serious all the time? Or was he more laid back and kind of like let the music flow?
RS: “I go way back with Peter. Actually I was with Peter a little bit longer than Sly. I was the one who put Peter Tosh band together. He trust me with that. It was me and Lee Jaffe, we put the band together. We tour with Peter from his first tour in 1976, somewhere about there, and we tour right up until ummm, ugh, I don’t remember what year. The album with (sings) ‘If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stone.’ We did not play that tour, that was when we left.”
MR: So that was Mama Africa?
RS: “Yes, yes, I believe so. We did not do that tour with him. Some of the tracks on that album were ours, ones that we did, but we did not tour that one. That’s the year we leave and start to tour with Black Uhuru. Also we did the Compass Point All-Stars dat ting? But Peter Tosh was a very, very serious musician. Him was serious about the music. In fact, me and Sly were the ones in charge of the rehearsals. So we would do the rehearsals and he would come. All the [live show] arrangements for the band, leading up to his death… were done by me. All the breaks and the starts and the ta-da, da-da, and the breaks and the stops …. He didn’t have to be in the rehearsal. Him would just come and sing and everything would be strong for him. I want to get this across clear. Peter Tosh him the man who gave us the big break we need to go play as Sly and Robbie and tour just off the name. With Peter we start doing the live dub thing. Because we would play at night time and people would want three, four, five encores but we a run out of songs! So we just do the dub live on-stage. The show was only an hour or two hours and we no have enough songs so we just dub, dub, dub, dub. It start make people more aware. Start seeing Sly and Robbie more aware.”
Robbie intros “Funeral,” Beacon Theater, NYC, 1976
RS: “Peter would say ‘No more songs.’ But the people they want more so we just go back on-stage and do the live dub ting. We don’t care. We love to play you know.”
Here is a clip from the 1976 tour feat. Sly & Robbie, Al Anderson, and Don Kinsey. Robbie talks about how Tosh allowed them to freestyle when they ran out of songs. Great clip!
MR: So give me your thoughts on some of the albums that were released in 2013. Are there any that you really enjoy?
RS: “Yes, the Shaggy album. The Shaggy album is great. The one with Sly and Robbie.”
MR: Yes, I have that one and it is great.
RS: “We work on that one for a while. It was a great, great experience. We really enjoyed working on that album. We have a good vibe with Shaggy and we have a super good time working on it.”
MR: I need to clear something up that I learned while researching a Milton Henry thing I wrote several months ago. He says that you were in a vocal trio together called The Emotions?
RS: “Well, that was my brother. The Emotions was my brother, Audley Rollins, and Leroy Brown. I really had nothing to do with that group.”
MR: Guillaume “Stepper” Briard. You did an album this year called Stepper Takes the Taxi which is just outstanding. Talk a bit about Stepper, his talent, and his place in the Taxi Gang.
RS: “First off, Stepper is one of my good, good friends. He is really good friend to me. The album we did…the Stepper album…is one of the sweetest albums come out in a long time. Stepper took Sly and Robbie tracks, tracks we did before, and he took the tracks and make his album and we give him the support and let him use the music. It is beautiful, sweet, and nice.”
MR: And the Bitty McLean album?
RS: “We working on another Bitty McLean album that has not hit yet. When that one hits the streets, trust me, that will be a whole different story (laughs).”
MR: When will that one be released?
RS: “When I finish it. No reason to rush it, take my time. This one will be excellent, superb, a masterpiece.”
MR: The Bitty McLean Taxi Sessions album is so strong because you’ve got, maybe the best singer to emerge over the past 20 years backed by the best musicians, you know, there is no weak link there.
RS: “That is what I was just telling you (laughs). The next one will be something else.”
MR: Well, it’s crazy for me as a fan for 25 years to be speaking with you. I got so much Sly and Robbie, I just don’t know. I was just looking at the Lord Upminster LP you guys did with Ian Dury!
RS: (laughing) “Yes! And how about the one with Carly Simon (laughs)?”
MR: You guys are so diverse. From the start you were not afraid to test your musical boundaries.
RS: “Well everyone try to classify music as soul, funk, reggae, rock. But for us it’s all the same. It’s all just music and we love to play music. It was always about Sly and Robbie’s interpretation of the music no matter the label.”
MR: One album that really sticks out in my head is the one you guys did with Sinead O’Connor, with the reggae covers.
RS: “Yeah mon, that is a very beautiful album to me. Very sweet. She come from the right place.”
MR: Are there any emerging artists that you see and want to work with?
RS: “Chronixx. He is a nice person. We will probably do something with him next year. Good vibes. Write good songs. Young and energetic. Also Cherine Anderson. We are working on an album for her right now.”
MR: There is never a bad word said about Sly and Robbie. It is an ugly business. How you stay out of trouble?
RS: (laughing) “Well, what they say, ‘good and bad hang around every day.’ I don’t know. Sly is the good and I am the bad. We don’t have to find trouble (laughs). We just create music, you know.”
MR: Well, I won’t hold you up any longer. Many thanks for taking the time to check in and talk for a minute.
RS: “Yeah mon. Anytime.”
MIDNIGHT RAVERS TOP 5 SLY & ROBBIE RIDDIMS
5. “GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER” (BLACK UHURU)
4. “FORT AUGUSTUS” (JR. DELGADO)
3. “GENERAL” (INI KAMOZE) / “WORLD AFFAIRS” (INI KAMOZE)
2. “WORLD-A-MUSIC” (INI KAMOZE)
1. “BALTIMORE” (TAMLINS)
STAY TUNED FOR PART II TOMORROW, WHERE WE HEAD TO EUROPE TO INVESTIGATE THE FRENCH CONNECTION!