Born Lowell Fillmore Dunbar, Sly Dunbar is one of the most influential drummers of the 20th century. As Sly & Robbie, Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have provided the rhythm section and/or production for numerous artists both in the world of reggae (Lee “Scratch” Perry, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru) and outside of it (Grace Jones, The Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock). Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Sly Dunbar via WhatsApp on May 11th and 12th, 2020 to discuss his collaborations, how his drumming has evolved, and his recent album with Robbie Shakespeare and Sasu Ripatti, 500-Push-Up.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello! Is this Sly?
Sly Dunbar: Yeah this is Sly.
Hi my name is Joshua, I was supposed to interview you right now.
Yeah, yeah, alright then, yeah!
Is that okay, or do you want to do a different time?
No, I can do it now!
Okay, perfect! How are you doing today?
I’m good, I’m good! And you?
I’m good, I was just working so I’m a bit tired. But I’m still good, I’m happy I still have work.
I actually wanted to start off by asking you about your childhood. What’s the most memorable memory that you have from being a child?
(laughs). A memorable memory as a child. Growing up I was very poor, I always loved music. At Christmas time they used to have stage shows at the theaters—my mother would send me to them. Growing up listening to The Skatalites and to all the Jamaican music, like from [Jackie] Mittoo.
Going to school, I went to Trench Town Comprehensive High School. This is where all the stars used to live, in Trench Town. Walking down the street you would probably see Alton Ellis, Bob Marley, Delroy Wilson. That was fun. Going to that school, I told myself that I wanted to be a musician, this is where I wanted to be, you know? I was supposed to leave and go to another school, but I didn’t go because I wanted to be in Trench Town. So I stayed there until I left, maybe at 13 years old. I started pursuing music very serious and I told my mom I didn’t want to go back to school and that I wanted to pursue music, and she said okay.
I did my first record around 14. By 15 I did the second record, which has a song called “Double Barrel” by Dave & Ansell Collins, it was a million seller. From there I kept going, going, going non-stop.