Robbie Shakespeare, the renowned reggae bassist who helped move the genre into new sonic territory and whose playing was heard on classics by Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh as well as albums by rock icons such as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, has died at age 68. His death, from unconfirmed causes, was announced on Twitter by Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport.
As half of the long-standing and prolific rhythm section Sly and Robbie, with his longtime friend and collaborator Sly Dunbar on drums, Shakespeare was rooted in the reggae rhythms of his native Jamaica. But he and Dunbar were also sonic mad scientists, moving their sound — and the music — into even more syncopated, electronic-driven territory on classic singles like Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper.”
“Big, big loss,” Black Uhuru’s Michael Rose tells Rolling Stone. “Nobody sounds like Robbie. He had the wickedest bass. You’ll never find nothing like that again.”
“Words cannot describe the sadness we feel at the loss of our dear friend Robbie,” Zak Starkey posted on Instagram. “A giant of a man who brought deep outta space bass to the world and so much great times to us in Jamaica. We will miss you so. Truly thankful to u for yr massive part in our music — we could not have done it without you.”
Born Sept. 27, 1953, Shakespeare was raised in East Kingston, Jamaica. After learning to playing guitar, he became an early protégé of bass legend Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “One evening I was there going about my business when I saw him there rehearsing with a band named the Hippy Boys,” Shakepeare recalled to United Reggae in 2012. “When I saw him playing his thing I said, ‘Wait.’ Because I was always attracted to bass, you know. … The sound from the bass that time there hit me and I said, ‘Shiiiiiit.’ I said to him, ‘I want to learn how to play this thing. You haffi teach me.’ Then the next morning he woke me up and started giving me some bass line lessons.”
When Barrett joined the Wailers, Shakespeare took his place in the Hippy Boys and also played with the Aggravators, another local band. In 1973, Shakespeare’s life changed when he was invited to hear Dunbar play at a reggae club, Tit for Tat. “I said, ‘Who’s Sly?’ ” Shakespeare said at Red Bull Music Academy in 2008. “’Sly’s a drummer.’ ‘Alright, come on.’ We went over there and Sly is sitting down on the drums, and I said, ‘Whoa, he can beat a drum. That’s a good sound, I want a session with that youth.’ … We started playing and everyone was jumping, ‘Whoa yeah!’ The studio was packed, and they said, ‘Yeah, that combination is wicked.’ It started from there.”
“The first time we played together I think it was magic,” Dunbar said in 2009. “We locked into that groove immediately. I listen to him and he listens to me. We try to keep it simple.”
Shakespeare and Dunbar soon became members of the Revolutionaries, the house band for Jamaica’s Channel One studio. That outfit pioneered the heavily syncopated reggae offshoot that came to be known as rockers. The duo also started their own production company and record label, Taxi. During the mid-Seventies, the two, known as the Riddim Twins, appeared on classic albums by Tosh and also recorded with nearly every major reggae act, including Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, and Barrington Levy.
Shakespeare and Dunbar reached a new level of success and renown in the late Seventies when they joined one of reggae’s biggest bands, Black Uhuru. That association led them to Island Records head Chris Blackwell, who soon recruited them for Grace Jones’ genre-smashing Nightclubbing LP in 1981. Starting around this time, Sly and Robbie began incorporating more computer-generated rhythms and sounds into their tracks. In 1985, the first year the Grammys included a category for Best Reggae Anthem, the award went to Black Uhuru’s Anthem, produced by Sly and Robbie.
Demand for the duo grew, and soon they appeared on albums by Dylan, Jagger, Yoko Ono, Jackson Browne, and Carly Simon. “Bob was one of my all time writers and singers from a long time,” Shakespeare said in 2012 of working on three Dylan albums, starting with 1981’s Infidels. “When we worked with Bob, he worked the way we work. He’d just go in the studio and start playing and we’d just jump in. There wasn’t any pressure from him — you’d more pressure yourself to make sure you get the right thing. Which I do, mostly every session, to get the right thing, the right flavor, the right mix.”
Into the 2000s, the duo worked with Sinead O’Connor and also remixed Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me.” In 2020, Shakespeare was ranked 17th on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest bassists of all time. Asked where he would have placed himself on that list, he joked, “Number two.”