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Sly and Robbie Leave Studio Work and Go on the Road to Keep ‘Fresh’

If ever a pair of musicians didn’t need to be slogging it out on the road, covering the distance between Minneapolis and San Francisco in a 2-day drive, it is drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare.

Since the early ‘70s, the Jamaican session stars have gone from being the top rhythm section in reggae music to an equally lofty position in popular music at large. The Riddim Twins, as they are dubbed, have laid rock-solid foundations for the music of Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Herbie Hancock, Ian Dury, Grace Jones, Mark Knopfler, Cyndi Lauper and literally hundreds of other artists.

They could, comfortably, fill their calendar into the next decade with lucrative studio bookings. “But ‘comfortable’ depends on what your heart desires,” Shakespeare explained by phone earlier this week, speaking in a thick island patois. “Too much studio work can get to you. It’s the road work that keeps you fresh at all times.”

The groove-masters will be at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Monday with their Taxi Gang band, laying down reggae rhythms behind singers Freddie McGregor and Maxi Priest (who recently had a No. 1 hit in Britain produced by Sly and Robbie) and hybrid dance-reggae-funk from their own “Rhythm Killers” album of last year.

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Perhaps because they still sport dreadlocks, people still tend to label them as primarily reggae musicians. “Fine for them,” Shakespeare said, “but to say we’re reggae musicians. . . . Reggae is our roots, yes, but we like playing other music, American R&B; and pop, jazz, country and Western . . . any music that’s good.”

Wait a minute--one of the funkiest, rootsiest, most inventive bassists on the globe enjoys the staid time-keeping role of country bass?

“Oh yeaah,” he said, “it’s my favorite music.”

Shakespeare’s love of country music must run deep, because he is hesitant to list many other favorites. Asked which musicians he has most enjoyed working with, he diplomatically stated, “Each of them was a favorite in (his or her) own way. We treat each one like an individual, not like a package where we pick out one and say, ‘This is the favorite.’ ”

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He was equally circumspect in naming his own best work. “I can never say that. That’s for the public to say. Each album I play, I play full-on.”

Though he likes the Luther Vandross rhythm section and the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Shakespeare said it is not easy to name other studio artists he admires.

“It’s kind of hard to say now because there’s so much computer-electronics business going on now in the music that you don’t know who’s playing what,” he said with a laugh. “There’s people using the technology who can’t play, and there’s people who can play who can’t use it. You may just be hearing a (digitally recorded) sample of somebody.”

Though not enamored of the new technology, Shakespeare said he and Dunbar employ it. “At one time, airplanes were popular, and it’s jets now and nuclear-powered submarines. Everything gets different with time, you know. I just try to live alongside it.”

After pairing up in the early ‘70s, Shakespeare and Dunbar played in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reggae sessions, often coming up with rhythm parts for as many as 20 songs a day. And like many reggae performers of the time, the two rarely were equitably paid for their work. Shakespeare harbors no bitterness, though. “Based on the kind of deals I was agreeing to then, I can’t say I was cheated.”

He claims it was artistic, rather than financial, dissatisfaction that led the two to form their own label, Taxi Records, in 1974. “With all our time in the studio, sometimes we’d come up with ideas, and the producer would say it wasn’t what he wanted and would tell us to do it this way or that. At that time, we were playing on a lot of hits for other people, so we thought we’d start something on our own, to do what we want to do, play whatever we feel. On our label, there’s no one to tell us how to sound.”

Along with issuing their own Sly and Robbie albums (released on Island in the States), the Taxi label has produced such Jamaican stars as Yellowman, Ini Kamoze and Half-Pint. While the pair still maintain an active session schedule for other artists and labels, Shakespeare said: “I’m starting to feel that I don’t want to do a lot of that anymore. I want to keep my ideas to myself, and use it all on Taxi.”

He can’t see ever getting tired, though, of locking into rhythms with Dunbar; he says it is an ideal relationship that just keeps getting better. “It’s always fun, and when we’re working it gets easier as we go along because there’s not much to explain, where some things could take 10 hours to explain to another musician.”

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When pulsing out their trademark rhythms in front of an audience, the goal, Shakespeare said, “is to try to make them feel how we feel.” And how do the two feel?

“We feel good all the time, mon. We feel happy doing what we are doing, and that’s what comes out of the instruments. If we were miserable, we’d make miserable-sounding music.”

The Taxi Gang featuring Sly Duncan and Robbie Shakespeare plays Monday at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $22.50. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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