Sunday, February 25, 2007

Taxi Accelerates

A new Unmetered Taxi speeds Sly & Robbie back into the charts.

What goes around comes around. In the world of recycled reggae rhythms (riddims) this is particularly true. Just when you think you’re shocking out to a wicked new piece of riddim, some dancehall scholar informs you that the beat was originally recorded in 1968 at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, or in the '80s at Junjo Lawes’s Channel One studio. So much for musical innovation. But one production team doing it back in the day continues to find contemporary success. In recent months, drummer Lowell “Sly” Dunbar and bass player Robbie Shakespeare, affectionately known as the Riddim Twins, have chalked up number one singles and Grammy winks.

Sly & Robbie’s pedigree goes back to their 1970s musician gigs forming Jamaica’s Aggrovators and Revolutionaries session bands, through disco crossover success with Grace Jones, and even a shout out on Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” They backed Black Uhuru on their Grammy winning Anthem (Mango) album, and recorded Ini Kamoze’s prophetic song “World A Reggae,” which features the vocal hook “out in the streets they call it muuuurrrderrr” that propelled Damien Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” single to fame.

Throughout the duo’s 30-year partnership they’ve also made a significant impact on reggae via their Taxi Records imprint. The label has seen hits over the years by Dennis Brown (“Hear I Come”), Jimmy Riley (including an excellent and cheesy cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”) and The Mighty Diamonds (“Pass The Kutchie”). But the pair has hardly rested on their mixing boards.

A decade ago, Sly and Robbie reached dancehall heights with their smash 1992 riddim “Bam Bam” heard on Chakademus & Pliers’s gargantuan hit “Murder She Wrote.” The riddim never really died out in global dancehalls, and the always street-savvy guys easily revived “Bam Bam” in 2005, producing new hits by Bounty Killer, and the duo Sugar Roy and Conrad Crystal. But they weren’t through reaching into their classic riddim vault.

2006 saw new versions of their Dennis Brown riddim “Hold On To What You Got” for singles by Luciano and Jr. Kelly; they rewound Jimmy Riley’s 1981 lovers rock tune “Love & Devotion” for a set of 45’s, and finished the year atop the charts again, appropriately enough via their iconic 1982 groove “Unmetered Taxi.” The languid, sax-sprinkled instrumental proved a potent backing for Buju Banton’s biggest Jamaican hit in a decade, “Driver A,” lifted from his equally successful and Grammy-nominated Too Bad (Gargamel Music) LP. To date, “Unmetered Taxi” has not only spawned several knock-offs from producers like King Jammy, but the riddim undoubtedly re-launched Banton’s career at the highly competitive Sting concert in December.

More recently Sly & Robbie have worked with young vocalists like UK crooner Bitty McLean and Jamaica’s Abijah. Oh, and looks like something else has come around for the pair, another Grammy nomination for their 2006 album Rhythm Doubles (Taxi). Unfortunately this past February 11 the Twins didn't double their gold statues, but their accomplishments will also last a lot longer than some meaningless Hollywood statue. The Taxi Gang speeds onward!