Rest in melody Robbie ‘Basspeare’
Wednesday, December 8, 2021, closed the chapter on an era in reggae music brought to life by the wickedest drum-and-bass duo in history – Sly and Robbie. On that day, Robbie Shakespeare, one half of the dynamic duo, took his final breath, and as a testament to the bass player’s legendary status, this event captured headlined across the globe in all major news outlets.
The names ‘Sly and Robbie’ have appeared together for so long that it was inevitable that they would become known as the Riddim Twins, and even though they certainly don’t look alike, tales abound of people not knowing who is Sly and who is Robbie, but one person they do know is ‘Sly and Robbie’. In folk tales, they were known as Sly Drumbar (Dunbar) and Robbie Basspeare, and they have even been credited as such on Black Uhuru’s album, Red.
Sly and Robbie played on a mind-blowing 200,000 recordings although some sources quote up to half a million.
Robert Warren Dale Shakespeare was born on September 27, 1953, and grew up in East Kingston within a musical family. His brother Lloyd had a band called the Emotions, which rehearsed in the house, and according to his bio on Wikipedia, Shakespeare’s first instrument was an acoustic guitar.
However, after hearing the sounds of the bass from the musician who would later become his mentor, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Shakespeare was tuned into the bass for life. “I wan fi learn how to play this thing [bass]. You haffi teach me,” he is quoted as recalling in an interview.
Whenever Family Man recorded, Shakespeare would try to both listen to the session and watch the bass player’s hands. Afterwards, the bassist would show Shakespeare the basslines recorded in person at Shakespeare’s family house.
The youth from the inner city practised relentlessly and would rise to become one of the most formidable and internationally acclaimed bass players the world has ever known. After Family Man left his group, the Hippy Boys, to join the Wailers, it was his student, Robbie Shakespeare, who took over playing bass in his former group. He was also was a member of producer Bunny Lee’s recording band The Aggrovators and played the guitar on several hit songs at Channel One.
Shakespeare’s first collab with Sly Dunbar was when they played in the Channel One Studio house band, The Revolutionaries. By 1974, the two started an independent music production company and record label called Taxi Records. They worked with reggae artistes, including U-Roy, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, Augustus Pablo, Yellowman, and Black Uhuru.
As a production team, theirs was a marriage made in musical heaven. In an interview with British newspaper The Independent in 1997, Shakespeare stated, “The longest we’ve been apart in the last 25 years is about three weeks. I’ll go on holiday with my family, and as soon as I reach the place I’m going to, I want to be back with Sly, playing music.”
And playing didn’t mean only reggae and dancehall. The Riddim Twins also worked with acts such as Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Joe Cocker, Yoko Ono, No Doubt, Serge Gainsbourg, Sting, Dionne Warwick, Grace Jones, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones.
Shakespeare’s bassline on the Tamlins’ Baltimore is legendary, and he helped create the unique sounds heard in two of reggae and dancehall’s most enduring songs, Murder She Wrote and Bam Bam. They also produced music for movie soundtracks, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Poetic Justice.
Factmag.com notes that “Sly and Robbie also made a series of abstract concept albums with underground figurehead Bill Laswell in New York before returning to the dancehall fray in Jamaica for hits with Chaka Demus and Pliers, Beenie Man, Capleton and the Innocent Kru, among others. Further work with Jamaican actress-singer Cherine Anderson and collaborations with No Doubt and Sinead O’Connor kept them in demand internationally – even Paris Hilton requested their production assistance.”
With reggae and dancehall artistes, and in fact, the world paying tribute to Robbie Shakespeare, reggae historian, David Rodigan wrote, “The bass is everything in reggae music, and Robbie Shakespeare played his bass guitar like nobody else. He made the beat drop, speaker boxes shook, and we rocked. His passing is a tragic loss. His contribution to the genre is immeasurable. RIP Robbie Shakespeare.”
On Thursday, Shakespeare’s son, Shawn, wrote on Instagram: “Yesterday the world lost a legend … but yesterday I lost my dad.”
Recipient of the Order of Distinction, Robbie Shakespeare was awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal in 2015 by the Institute of Jamaica.