“Keep the groove,” says Dunbar. “Once you find a groove you just lock it. It’s not about showboating who’s a better musician or who’s a better player. It isn’t competitive – it has to sound good together. There’s not anyone in charge, we just work together and once it’s right – that’s it.”
Sly & Robbie will perform at this year’s Bluesfest alongside British singer Bitty Mclean (and backing group the Taxi Gang). They teamed up with Mclean in 2006 and have since released two full-length albums, 2009’s Movin’ On and last year’s The Taxi Sessions. Sly & Robbie expect a high standard from their collaborators and Dunbar speaks fondly of the relationship with Mclean. “With an artist like Bitty it’s so easy because he’s an engineer and he plays keyboards and everything like that. So we sit down and we discuss exactly where we think it should go and we just take it there.”
The two Bitty Mclean records feature a soulful, mature reggae sound while also embracing slick contemporary production values. This progressive quality represents Sly & Robbie’s determination to continuously update their stylistic distinctions. “We try to tweak it sometimes and add different sounds just to make it sound fresh to the listener all the time,” Dunbar says. “Every so often we try to change the sound. Not directly change it, but we add things to it [or] take away things so one could feel it moving or growing into another direction.”
Sly & Robbie first achieved major recognition for the aggressive ‘rocker’ style of reggae they pioneered with The Revolutionaries in the mid-‘70s. They soon went on to play with fellow Jamaicans Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh, before producing and recording with the likes of Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg and No Doubt. Sly & Robbie’s eclectic career output also includes remixes of songs by Britney Spears and Madonna and Dunbar explains the importance of keeping an eye on what’s dominating the charts.
“Globally I try to keep up-to-date and listen. I listen to American top 40 radio, I listen to Lorde – everything that is coming out – to see what the new direction of sounds are going to be like or what people are liking today.”
Of course, Dunbar isn’t monitoring pop trends with hopes of finding something to emulate and thus cash-in on. Sly & Robbie are preeminent innovators, keeping their artistic foundations firmly in place while re-arranging the decorations. “Listen to old stuff and new stuff and try to write,” says Sly of his daily routine. “I listen a lot to music. I listen everyday trying to find what is out there, try to pick up on what I could merge with reggae, what I could do another way.”
Making records that people still want to hear four decades into a career is no mean feat and Dunbar clearly still possesses an honest hunger for discovering new sounds. But that’s not his leading motivation. “The main drive is the people,” he says, “to see people happy and dancing to music. I don’t like to see people sad and I know music has made a lot of people happy. So for me I go in every time and try to accomplish something I can play to someone and they say, ‘I love it! I love it! It sounds great.’ Then after that I move onto the next thing, to see if I can do it again. I keep on trying to do it over and over again.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY