The cornerstone of contemporary roots, the nonpareil rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare has probably played on more reggae records than anyone else. Musical partners for many years beginning in various Jamaican studio bands, the pair founded Taxi — a production company and label that worked with many top Jamaican vocalists, including Gregory Isaacs and Black Uhuru — in the late ’70s. The Taxi sound was characterized by Robbie’s clean, monolithic bass lines and Sly’s tasteful use of syndrums, decorating the reggae backbeat with state-of-the-art zing. The team went on to produce and play with such artists as Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan and Ian Dury. Their trademark high-tech style has become familiar (some say tired), but their modern treatments have been a significant factor in reggae’s development and popularity.
Many of their own albums are surprisingly unexciting. Sly’s solo records sound like dry runs, uneventful groove collections (Sly-go-ville does have one Delroy Wilson vocal). Sixties, Seventies + Eighties is not much better. Their reworkings of past and present hits (including “El Pussy Cat Ska”) demonstrate why they don’t sing more often. Worse still is The Sting, a collection of uninspired dance tracks and reggaefied versions of “Peter Gunn,” “The Entertainer” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” each more dreadful than the last. Their most consistently listenable instrumental LP is probably The Summit, where the duo (joined by a piano player) pump out a variety of straightforward yet highly textured rhythms.
Two other releases that bear their names are actually departures, experiments in crossover. Language Barrier, a superstar fusion jam produced by Bill Laswell, features everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to Bob Dylan; danceable enough, but hardly related to reggae. Rhythm Killers is the same idea, but more successful. Featuring covers of the Ohio Players’ “Fire” and the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” the LP is an unbroken song cycle, a seamless series of rap, funk, rock and reggae grooves. Again produced by Laswell, the session features Bootsy Collins, Henry Threadgill and many others; Shinehead vocalizes on “Boops! (Here to Go).” It’s heavy-bottomed from start to finish, and interesting to boot.
In general, Sly and Robbie are most enjoyable on the various Taxi compilations, which also feature vocals. Crucial Reggae, which has the Mighty Diamonds’ original “Pass the Kouchie,” is not quite as good as Sly and Robbie Present Taxi, but both are fine introductions to the duo’s playing and the Taxi roster of singers. (The British and American editions of the latter differ slightly.) Similarly, A Dub Experience (released in the Reggae Greats series) and Raiders of the Lost Dub are remix collections of backing tracks originally done for Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and others. Both are supersonic headcharges with an eerily haunting edge and should not be missed.
Less crucial are Taxi Fare, a largely instrumental collection of B-sides, and Taxi Connection Live in London. The concert LP, featuring songs by Ini Kamoze, Yellowman and Half Pint, conveys the drama and full sound of the all-star revue, but the performances are uneven.
Giving heavy bipartite endorsement to the rap-reggae fusion, KRS-One (of Boogie Down Productions) produced Silent Assassin, an ambitious undertaking with vocals by KRS, Queen Latifah, Young MC and others. “Dance Hall” is a lively and bouncy single; “Party Together” makes ingenious use of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”; Latifah rules the mic on “Woman for the Job”; the CD-only “It’s Me” samples Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” with lyrics over a beatbox rhythm. While there are many old-time reggae rhythms sprinkled and weaved into the songs, one of the album’s strongest tracks — “Under Arrest,” a heavy story about an innocent man — includes no reggae.
No matter what mega stars and adventurous styles they may dally with, the Riddim Twins always return to their roots. Originally issued on their own Taxi label, Two Rhythms Clash is an authentic dancehall collection of singers and rhythms. In addition to some killer instrumentals by the producers themselves, there’s music from Half Pint (“Cost of Living”), Little John (“Champion Bubbler”) and, most impressively, Third World’s Cat Coore (“Mello Cello”).