By Stephen A. Cooper
Sly Dunbar is one of the most innovative and influential drummers of all time. Individually and together with his “riddim twin” bassist Robbie Shakespeare, Dunbar has played with the biggest names in reggae (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru . . . the list is endless), giant stars in other genres (Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, to name but three), and produced a treasure trove of hit songs, songs everybody knows and loves that will stand the test of time.
On February 19, thanks to legendary sound engineer Scientist (also known as Hopeton Brown), I was introduced to Mr. Dunbar at Studio City Sound (in Studio City, California). Dunbar and Shakespeare were working on a project with Scientist, Odel Johnson (a versatile Jamaican-born, Canadian-based artist), guitarist Tony Chin, and keyboardists Franklyn “Bubbler” Waul and Michael Hyde.
Although Mr. Dunbar was extremely busy and under considerable time pressure, he graciously agreed to speak with me for a few minutes as the musicians finished their preparations for recording. We spoke about his memories of Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, how Bob Marley would feel about the “state of reggae music,” why Dunbar and Shakespeare left Peter Tosh to play for Black Uhuru, the Grammy Awards, the best recording studios, and finally, the Jamaican government’s failure to properly honor some of the country’s most talented and accomplished reggae musicians. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Recently we celebrated the 74th earthstrong celebration for Bob Marley. Are there any memories you immediately think of when you think of Bob Marley?
Sly Dunbar: I think of Bob Marley as a great icon who was part of the movement of [making] reggae what it is today. And I remember Robbie and myself used to go and check him when he used to come out to New York. And we’d talk, and sometimes we’d buck up in the music store and he’d always say to me, “Sly, you should open up a music school in Jamaica. A music store.” And I’d laugh. And he’d always say to me he wanted me to come play a whole album for him. And because I used to play with Peter Tosh, he’d always run a joke and say, “you don’t want to come play with us?” And I’d say, “No, man.” And then one night when he come back out of exile – he’d been away from Jamaica for a while, when he got shot – and Lee Perry kept [a] session, [and I] went over to Lee Perry’s studio, and we did like three tracks with him and I did –
Q: Punky Reggae Party [was one]?
Sly Dunbar: Yeah, the recording of Punky Reggae Party. Yeah.
Q: Do you think if Bob were alive today he’d be happy with the “state of reggae music” in the world?
Sly Dunbar: He would change it. He would go and write some wicked songs. Because he was a part of the movement. He never really shun it, you know? And when he hear a movement’s coming, he always join it. Because he’d know it was an evolution, and you can’t hide [from] it. So he would be a part of it, yeah man.
Q: Would [Bob Marley] be happy with the direction the music has moved in?
Sly Dunbar: Yeah he would be happy because he would set the trend, and everyone would follow.
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