Reissues and compilations fortified with pearls from Jamaica’s musical history may be as common as dodgy views on immigration at a cross-party cabinet meeting, but quality control is rarely an occupational hazard for the curators of such treasures. And so it is with Sly & Robbie’s Taxi Sound, a smash-and-grab raid on the vaults of Taxi Records – the own-brand imprint of arguably Jamaica’s finest rhythm section.
If you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the last 30 years with only a CD library of Brit-Indie greats to keep you company, you may be unaware of Sly & Robbie, the drum and bass duo whose innovative muso chops and production skills have graced – and, it must be said, occasionally added undeserved kudos to – the work of artists as diverse as Black Uhuru, Beenie Man, Mick Jagger and Mick Hucknall.
Though jointly and independently in heavy demand by Jamaica’s all-consuming record industry, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare nursed a desire to own their own master tapes and take Reggae forward. Moving on from Roots stylings, it was Sly’s pioneering double-drumming, a polyrythmic style that drew some inspiration from the Disco patterns of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia label and allowed space for Shakespeare to move around inside the beat. It was this that gave Taxi the distinctive sound that drew credibility hunters from around the world.
Though Sly & Robbie embraced digital technology with far-sighted gusto, the tracks on Taxi Sound have been reproduced using analogue tape with any ‘sonic imperfections’ left for posterity. If you can hear these alleged imperfections on this disc, then your ears are finer-tuned than this reviewer’s hefty lug-holes.
To the wider world, the clean, international sound that first transmitted itself to a wider audience (i.e. the non-reggae loving white public) via their fine recordings with Grace Jones is here in all its post-Roots glory. Indeed so ‘fe real’ is the Taxi Sound that it’s remarkable how well it fused into a global aesthetic without compromising its vernacular. A case of the mountain coming to Mohammed if ever there was one.
Separating the wheat from the wheat for the digest purposes of a review is a tricky but pleasurable task. The extended mix of The Tamlins‘ Baltimore (Randy Newman via Nina Simone) incorporates the classic Impressions-led three-part harmonies favoured by Jamaican vocal groups of yore, together with fade-out piano licks straight out of an Isaac Hayes symphonic-soul session. Though Newman’s polemic must have particular favour amongst the sufferahs, it is Robbie’s vocal bass-lines that provide a subtext of philosophical ruefulness.
Even more impressive is a reading of The Undisputed Truth‘s Smiling Faces Sometimes recast as dub foreboding. Sly’s percussion is as insistent as a locomotive, creating a groove so mesmerising that it could render snake-charmers redundant.
It’s not all covers of course. The Viceroys‘ original Heart Made Of Stone showcases Sly & Robbie’s habit of artfully inserting random sounds into the mix that somehow conspire to add wider reference – Sugar Minott‘s Rub A Dub introduces some spacey Moog atmospherics to giddy effect, for instance.
Each one of these cherry-picked cuts from the Rhythm Twins’ vaults are deserving of individual consideration, but together they make Taxi Sound more than just another reggae compilation. Go on, treat yourself, and look forward to 60 years of Taxi Records in 2035.