Argentinian percussionist Hernan “Don Camel” Sforzini — who has worked in the reggae industry for 25 years — visited reggae’s birthplace for the first time in 2017. Based in Buenos Aires, Hernan returned home from Jamaica with numerous books about the genre; it was from those pages he learned that in the mid to late 1970s, Roots Radics and Sly and Robbie’s Taxi Gang were the most in-demand outfits in Kingston’s recording studios and as live backing bands.
Drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare began their partnership in 1974. They’ve played on and produced countless albums for a diverse roster of artists including Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, Joe Cocker, No Doubt and Sinead O’Connor. As the backing band for the late reggae icon Peter Tosh, they toured the U.S. with the Rolling Stones; by the early 1980s they’d fashioned a powerful rock-tinged reggae sound as the rhythm section/producers of harmony trio Black Uhuru, winners of the inaugural best reggae album Grammy in 1985 for Anthem.
Roots Radics was formed in 1978 by drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott, guitarist Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont and the sole surviving founding member, bassist Errol “Flabba” Holt. Their nuanced, propulsive playing shifted reggae toward the dancehall style that would dominate Jamaican recordings for the next few years. Roots Radics were responsible for numerous hits by upcoming and established acts and such influential albums as Barrington Levy’s debut Bounty Hunter, Bunny Wailer’s classic Rock ‘N’ Groove and Gregory Isaacs’ 1982 masterpiece Night Nurse.
While reading about the good-natured competition between these innovative musicians, Hernan thought about producing an album that would bring them together for a friendly faceoff. “I sent Sly and Robbie an album proposal and their response was ‘that’s an excellent idea,'” Hernan told Billboard on the phone from Los Angeles during a recent visit. “I sent a message to Flabba and he said ‘I supposed this album might have happened because it’s a part of the music’s history, but I never thought you would do it.’ Then he asked, ‘when are you coming to Jamaica to record us?'”
Recorded at Hernan’s Afro Recording Studios in Buenos Aires and at various Kingston studios including the Marley family’s fabled Tuff Gong studios, Sly and Robbie vs. Roots Radics: The Final Battle (DubShot Records/Controlled Substance Sound Labs/Serious Reggae) was a 2020 Grammy nominee for best reggae album. Featuring 12 exquisitely crafted reggae rhythm tracks, six each by Sly and Robbie/Taxi Gang and Roots Radics, each band is assisted in this skirmish by a stellar lineup of vocalists. Supporting Roots Radics are the iconic Toots Hibbert, veteran crooner Freddie McGregor, roots singer Max Romeo, legendary vocal group The Congos, the dynamic Pablo Moses and former lead vocalist of British reggae outfit Aswad, Brinsley Forde.
Representing Sly and Robbie’s squad are the influential Horace Andy, timeless harmony trio The Mighty Diamonds, the inspirational Luciano, a scatting Lee “Scratch” Perry and former Black Uhuru lead Mykal Rose, who provides the impassioned opening track, “This Morning.”
Sly and Robbie made their Argentinian debut backing Mykal Rose in late 2017; the following day, they were recording at Hernan’s Afro Studios, transforming his notion of a rhythmic scuffle between two titanic units into a musical reality. “There’s never been an album like The Final Battle, so it’s good promotion for the music,” Sly Dunbar told Billboard in a late January interview at his Kingston Studio. “Getting a 2020 Grammy nomination means people are still listening to us and that’s a nice feeling.”
The day after Sly and Robbie laid down their tracks, Hernan reached out to Scratch who was touring South America; Scratch readily agreed to “bless” the project. Rock steady veteran Ken Boothe came to Argentina the following month and was similarly enthusiastic. “Ken told me, ‘I’ve waited 50 years to come here so I want to write a song about this country, as if she were a woman I fell in love with.’ That’s his song ‘Argentina,'” Hernan shared.
Filmed in Buenos Aires, the video for “Argentina” juxtaposes vibrant street scenes with snippets of Sly, Robbie, Ken and Hernan (on percussion) alongside the rest of the Taxi Gang (pianist Siahvash Dowlatshawi, guitarist Marcus Uranis, keyboardist Franklyn “Bubbler” Waul and Kim Pommel, harmonies) recording at Afro Studios. Directed by Juan Manuel Sicuso, the video for “Argentina” debuts above.
The Final Battle is the inaugural release by Controlled Substance Sound Labs (CSSL) founded by brothers Jon and Matt Phillips of Silverback Management whose clients include popular American reggae/ska/hip-hop outfit Slightly Stoopid; it’s also the first joint venture between CSSL and DubShot Records, a 10-year-old reggae influenced label/distributorship, founded by industry veteran Christoffer Mannix Schlarb. The Phillips’ are a significant force in the rise of American reggae, as former managers of legendary SoCal band Sublime among other seminal acts within that scene. Schlarb, well versed in Jamaican and American reggae, says The Final Battle represents “the gold standard of what DubShot/CSSL are looking at for future collaborative releases, not just foundation artists, but artists who have that spirit and appeal to both audiences.” The Final Battle Deluxe Edition was released on Jan. 24, and includes two bonus tracks “Argentina Dub” and The Congos’ “Dub Must Get Better,” a preview of The Dub Battle due in August 2020. “There will be videos for every song, and we will release vinyl, CDs and 45s, so there’s a full year of marketing ahead for The Final Battle,” added Schlarb.
Emphasizing the album’s historical significance, Hernan says producing The Final Battle was the fulfillment of a mission. “Here you have two of reggae’s strongest bands and legendary singers from reggae’s golden era, like soldiers returning from war, saying, mama, I told you I would be back. It took over a year to finish, and everyone involved is very happy with the final result.”