Sunday, April 12, 2015

Album Review of Sly & Robbie's Rhythm Killers

Celebrated Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie thrilled funk and reggae music lovers with their inventive 1987 album Rhythm Killers. In the 1980s, the talented musical duo began transitioning to a more electronic-based sound, which was a significant departure from the more rootsy reggae sound of their earlier work in the ‘70s. And this album captures them at the peak of their new sonic direction. The musicians utilized contemporary technology and electronic equipment for this record, including a Fairlight CMI synthesizer and electronic drums.

Rhythm Killers, which was released on Island Records, offers a terrific cross-genre stew of funk, reggae, hip hop, rock, world beat and dance; and it showcases drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare’s tremendous musical chops, which earned them the distinction of being one of the world’s greatest rhythm sections. The duo brought in Bill Laswell to produce the album. The bassist/producer is known for his experimental, avant-garde production work and was the ideal choice for this ambitious effort.

Probably the strongest track on Rhythm Killers is the irresistible “Boops (Here To Go).” The song is about a dude with no game who tries to buy the affections of the ladies but instead gets played by them.  It’s a really unique-sounding track, which effectively melds hip hop, reggae and funk. Everything just clicks on this cut, and it immediately grabs your attention with its singular groove. And it features Jamaican reggae singer/rapper/toaster Shinehead, who serves up an inspired rap performance. Moreover, this track contains one of my favorite Star Trek puns: “Bass, the final frontier.” You just know you’re in for some heavy-duty, unalloyed funk with that line.

“Let’s Rock” is another really strong track. The high-octane funk/rock cut features funk legend Bootsy Collins, who provides some nasty guitar work and a cool vocal performance. This track just smokes and has an urgency about it; and Sly & Robbie’s potent rhythms ably power this monster groove. Also, singers Bernard Fowler and P-Funk alumnus Gary “Mudbone” Cooper contribute some funkified vocals. And guitarist Pat Thrall delivers some wicked rock-tinged licks, while the dynamic strings further increase the track’s groove quotient.

"Rhythm Killer" is an infectious reggae/hip-hop track that boasts a dope bass line, a bomb-ass beat and a great descending string arrangement from Karl Berger. And Shinehead returns with some more tight bars.

The album also contains covers of two ‘70s R&B classics: the Ohio Players’ funk/dance smash “Fire” and the Pointer Sisters’ 1973 hit “Yes We Can Can.” Sly& Robbie’s cover of “Fire” is pretty solid but not as good as it could have been. They didn’t really bring anything new, unique or interesting to their rendition, which is disappointing considering all the great talent involved on this project. It just makes you want to go listen to the original version. Their cover of “Yes We Can Can” is better but still not great. I would have preferred listening to some original Sly & Robbie tracks in place of these two rather uninspired covers. 

The album’s final track, “Bank Job,” is one badass groove—boasting tight vocals, a sterling string arrangement and some killer bass work from Robbie. The track features the late Rammellzee, who was a highly influential graffiti, hip-hop and performance artist. This was an excellent song choice to close out the album.

With the exception of “Fire” and “Yes We Can Can,” Laswell, Sly and Robbie contributed to the writing of all the tracks on the album. And Bootsy helped pen “Boops (Here To Go),” “Let’s Rock” and “Bank Job.” Also, Bootsy and Mudbone weren’t the only P-Funk alums who appeared on the album. P-Funk keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell brought his considerable skills to the mix. Some of the other notable musicians who played on the album included acclaimed saxophonist/flautist and composer Henry Threadgill; Senegalese percussionist and drummer Aïyb Dieng; jazz-fusion guitarist Nicky Skopelitis; and the late, great Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce.

Upon its release, Rhythm Killers received mostly positive reviews from music critics and charted in the UK (#35), Sweden (#44), New Zealand (#12) and the Netherlands (#75). "Boops (Here To Go)" spent 11 weeks on the UK Singles chart, peaking at #12; and it charted at #22 on the U.S. Billboard Dance Club Play Singles chart. NME Magazine ranked Rhythm Killers at 25 on its 1987 year-end best albums list. And "Boops (Here To Go)" ranked at number 18 on the magazine's best singles list.

On the whole, Rhythm Killers is a very strong effort and a must-have for Sly & Robbie fans, as well as funk and reggae aficionados. Although it’s a highly creative and experimental album, Sly & Robbie never lost sight of the FUNK, which is why it’s such a rewarding listening experience. It’s at once inventive, super-funky and accessible.


Full Rhythm Killers album


Rhythm Killers at Amazon

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