How long have Sly & Robbie been in the music business? Since the moment ska became ska and reggae became reggae. Soon after the complete break of the two forms, around the mid-1970s, Sly Dunbar (drums, sometimes "Sly Drumbar") and Robert Shakespeare (bass, sometimes "Robert Basspeare") began to record as a team. Known for their tightness, their machinelike precision, the duo's impact on Jamaican pop can never be overstated. They not only further consolidated the very sound of roots reggae ("Pass the Koutchie," a tune that has the most perfect reggae riddim), they also went on to continually change the form they helped consolidate ("Two Sevens Clash," "Bam Bam," "Rub a Dub Sound Style"). Stranger still, they also played a role in establishing reggae's digital moment, in the mid-1980s, and its final computerization, in the 1990s. The riddim duo have never been scared of technology.
Praising Sly & Robbie is the easiest thing to do in the world, because there is no end to their achievements. For one, very few musicians in the reggae world have Sly & Robbie's range. It extends from something like Jimmy Cliff's soulful "Dear Mother" to Chaka Demus & Pliers' hardcore digital "Murder She Wrote." (I must digress for a moment: I have heard a certain roots-reggae musician—not naming names, but he was in the Gladiators and currently lives in Seattle— bitch about how "Murder She Wrote" turned reggae into soulless robot music. But this particular person—name still withheld—failed to mention that the computer- programmed jam was produced by a duo who were vital to the roots tradition. End of digression.)
The difference between "Dear Mother" and "Murder She Wrote" simply boggles the mind; it's almost impossible to believe that the same minds are behind these disparate tunes. But not only are Sly & Robbie famous for instigating or finalizing breaks, ruptures in Jamaican pop, they also made great bridges. For example, on "Murder She Wrote," Sly & Robbie bridged the long and rich tradition of melodic male singing (Cornell Campbell, Jacob Miller, Gregory Issacs) to the then-new (1993) rough, hypermale (often hyperviolent) vocals of dancehall DJs (Shabba Ranks, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer).
Then there's the globalization of Sly & Robbie. It first began when the world came to them. From an article I wrote a few years back: "In 1979, French pop genius Serge Gainsbourg flew to Jamaica and became the first white man to record a full-length record, Aux Armes Et Cætera, with a duo called Sly & Robbie." The album was not that great (French and Jamaican pop were not the easiest things to blend), but the fact that Gainsbourg recognized their brilliance and sought them out for the purpose of making history shows the kind of respect the duo had outside of the small island.
Then there was the great Grace Jones. (A small digression: Grace Jones is my favorite pop star in the whole realm of pop stardom. She dominated my youth with her blackness, her hardness, her longness, her madness—she will always be for me the queen of all things human and superhuman. End of digression.) Grace Jones's best work was done with Sly & Robbie: the mysterious Parisian noir of "I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango)," the pornographic "Pull Up to the Bumper" (a celebration of the pleasures of doggy style), the hyperdub of "Walking in the Rain," the ultrafunky "Nipple to the Bottle," and the always popular "My Jamaican Guy."
There is no end to the globalization of Sly & Robbie. The process was initially facilitated by Chris Blackwell—the man who made Bob Marley a rock god—at the Compass Point Studios in Nassau. While there, Sly & Robbie did production work with Talking Heads ("Born Under Punches [The Heat Goes On]"), Tom Tom Club ("Genius of Love"), and... and this is getting ridiculous. Let's just say it simply and directly: Sly & Robbie are amazing. But wait—they even had a big hiphop hit back in 1987 with "Boops (Here to Go)," which was produced by Bill Laswell and starred the rapper/toaster Shinehead (remember Shinehead? "I'm an alien, I'm an illegal alien, I'm a Jamaican in New York"). Enough. Enough. Enough. We get the picture. Sly & Robbie are fucking amazing.