I’m looking at the liner notes to Sly & Robbie’s Language Barrier right now. Performances by Afrika Bambaataa, Bernie Worrell, Mikey Chung, Manu Dibango, Wally Badarou, Herbie Hancock (!), Bob Dylan (!?!?), and production by Bill Laswell…I keep asking myself why in the world did this not make a dent in anyone’s memory? By the looks of their action-packed music video, featuring a young Neneh Cherry as a dancer and Sly & Robbie getting pumped with more lead than your average Steven Seagal movie, Island must have tried to put some muscle into generating heat for this release. But poof, like some no name act, it hardly made a dent in the charts, and they had to lick their wounds and regroup for a good while.
Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare always seemed like a sure thing, having come off producing insanely successful/creative dub records by Black Uhuru, Ini Kamoze, Yellowman and Sugar Minott – and that’s just naming a few of the overground things people were hip to. As performers they were the bedrock in the rise of dub as a movement and were able to become elite “guns for hire” injecting their sensibility to outré Jamaican-affecting hits from the likes of Grace Jones, Gwen Guthrie to Joan Armatrading (of all people!). Even Dylan found a way to tap into their mystique with his brilliant Lion of Judah sign-off: Jokerman. But much like Infidels, Language Barrier had this similar aura of quicksand-like unfamiliarity. It wasn’t really reggae. It wasn’t really hip-hop, fusion, or electro, it was Sly & Robbie turning their bass funk inside out.
How else would you describe having the pure gall to stretch out and Miles’ own mutant jazz-funk original “Black Satin”? If there was a language barrier, it wasn’t on them, it was an indictment on others not capable of accepting this heavy bit of fourth world music. As Dylan returns the favor on “No Name on the Bullet”, intoning in dark words “I was forced/they made me do it”, those lyrics take on special meaning when Sly & Robbie affirm their aspirations by stretching out their creativity through this future shock and Dylan harmonica passes the fire to another cauldron. 30-odd years later, it’s still some kind of wicked brew.