Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, theirs is the ultimate musical marriage, a partnership that, once formed, re-etched the very landscape of not just Jamaican music, but the entire world’s. Such hyperbole is oftentimes rolled out by publicity machines whenever two musical talents come together, but in the case of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, it really was an earth-shattering union. Their rhythms have been the driving force behind innumerable songs — one statistician estimated that together they’ve played on approximately 200,000 tracks, and that doesn’t count remixes, versions, and dubs. As a production team, they were the equivalent of a creative storm, the cutting edge of modern dub, ragga, and dancehall.
Dunbar and Shakespeare linked up in 1975, but by then they’d already become established figures on the Jamaican scene. Lowell Charles Dunbar was nicknamed Sly for his adoration of Sly Stone, and in his teens had begun his career in the late ’60s playing in studio bands. For a while he was a member of the RHT Invincibles, a group led by Father Good’un that included such talents as Lloyd Parks, Bertram McLean, and Ansell Collins. The group cut several singles, but none were particularly successful. Dunbar would have better luck with his studio work and made his recorded debut with the Upsetters on the single “Night Doctor.” Producer Lee Perry was obviously impressed with the young drummer and consistently used him in the studio. Even so, Dunbar continued with his outside interests, joining Skin, Flesh & Bones, a group led by Al Brown that boasted the drummer’s old compatriot Lloyd Parks. In 1974, the drummer and fellow bandmember Ranchie McLean launched a short-lived label, Taxi, which focused mainly on the group’s and its members’ own material. Meanwhile, Shakespeare was also making a name for himself. He too had launched his career as a session man in his teens and by the early ’70s was a member of producer Bunny Lee’s house band the Aggrovators.