Bobby Digital is a key figure in dancehall music's international breakthrough. When I first visited him in the early nineties he'd recently contributed to Shabba Ranks' Grammy winning exploits, and was working with an incredible roll call of artists including Garnett Silk, Cocoa Tea, Tony Rebel, Bounty Killer and Lt. Stitchie. The main studio wasn't even finished back then. Digital B was a cottage industry, Jamaica style, but the music he created during that era has proven hugely influential. Writing the liner notes for this next volume of VP Records' Reggae Anthology series was therefore an honour, and an opportunity to revisit some great musical memories.
It’s a hot and humid evening in Kingston and cars are double-parked outside of Bobby Digital’s studio – a single storey house located in a quiet residential area just off the Molynes Road. Bobby’s son Giark opens the white iron-wrought gate. He’s in his twenties and a producer, just like his father. The family atmosphere at Digital B is no accident, and it’s been shared with countless artists and musicians over the years. Several of them gather by the open doorway, whilst others sit in chairs on the veranda. Kirk Bennett, the drummer for Beres Hammond is there and also various Firehouse Crew members. Tonight they’re going to be laying some rhythms in the studio round the back where Bobby Digital sits at the mixing-board, hunched in concentration whilst listening to a Garnett Silk track he recorded at the very same spot more than twenty years ago.
Music floods the room from two big speakers hanging suspended from the ceiling. There’s barely enough space for a keyboard, bass and guitar player – the drum kit’s set up in an adjoining room – but the history impregnated in the walls is palpable. The sound that Bobby gets from this room goes beyond any technical considerations. It has real soul, and is something that even the man himself can’t explain.
The story of his early life and his time at King Jammy’s during the mid-to-late eighties, when he helped kick-start Jamaican music’s digital revolution, is told on a companion volume called Xtra Wicked. Bobby had started to produce tracks for himself whilst still working for Jammy but he became increasingly prolific after setting up a mixing-board and tape machine in his front room, just yards away from where he’s now sat. That was in late 1988, when Shabba Ranks, Admiral Tibet and Johnny Osbourne were among his regular visitors and dancehall music was awash with exciting young talent. Over the next six years he’ll cater for grassroots’ tastes whilst inspiring selectors to play roots and culture in the dances once more – something that hadn’t really happened since Bob Marley was alive.
The first half-dozen songs on this album date from 1993/94, which is where Xtra Wickedended. Bounty Killer was Jammy’s latest discovery when he made the short journey from St. Lucia Road to Bobby’s place whilst Terror Fabulous, Sanchez and Garnett Silk all recorded albums for Digital B during that same period. Silk had first voiced for Bobby back in late 1991, and the songs they made together were often deeply spiritual.
“When Garnett Silk come into the studio I always get cold bumps,” Bobby recalls. “The conviction in his voice... It wasn’t just a normal thing or false pretence business because the man delivered with his heart.
“I have a piece of music called Silk Chant right? Garnett come and visit me one day and I just tell him to go in the studio and read a verse from the Bible for me and it was like one of the greatest things I could ever do. That become part of his legacy because you can hear him putting his heart and soul into what he was reading. He was God sent, and it’s very sad he had to depart at that time and in that manner. Only the Almighty know why, y ‘know?” Garnett Silk died in December 1994, after attempting to rescue his mother from a burning house. His Biblical recital appeared twice – once on a cut of Marley’s Natural Mystic, which is the version heard here – and the other on a new rhythm called Kette Drum, which invoked the sound of a Rasta nyahbinghi. Now Bobby may not wear dreadlocks, but his empathy with Rasta artists has resulted in some of the most profound roots music of the modern era, beginning with much of his output from the mid-to-late nineties.
“I’d tell people that I’m doing this type of music and enough of them think I’m a Rastaman with some long natty,” he says with a broad grin, rubbing his bald head. “That’s why we end up doing Don’t Haffi Dread To Be Rasta ‘cause it’s not about the hair that you have on yuh head – it’s what you have in your heart, and what kind of message you want to get across. Artists like Burning Spear and Israel Vibration, they’ve been singing roots music for years. I grew up on that music as a youth but Kette Drum was a next thing again because that rhythm come and change the whole vibe of the music, y ‘know? After that a man could know say the Rasta t’ing is a worldwide vibration, and the music come in all different forms.”
The first song on it was ‘Til I’m Laid To Rest by Buju Banton, which was included on the album ‘Til Shiloh. Cocoa Tea’s Holy Mount Zion was next, then Kette Drum itself and Shabba Ranks’ Think You Having It All. Bobby overdubbed Shabba onto Cocoa Tea’s piece and renamed it Flag Flown High but his biggest hit that year was Beenie Man and Determine’s title track, which would soon lend its name to a one-rhythm album. Beenie had been raised in a Rasta family although other deejays like Buju Banton and Capleton had recently embraced the faith, as had a new generation of singers led by Luciano. Even Bounty Killer came over all righteous for Seek God, which Bobby included on the various artists’ set Operation D Vol. 1 along with Sanchez’ stirring Leave Out A Babylon and tracks by Pinchers, Tony Rebel and others.
Cocoa Tea’s debut album for Digital B, Love Me also appeared in 1995. The sound-buoy tunes We Do The Killing and No Threat came from those sessions, whereas I’m Not A King is a beautiful rendition of Delroy Wilson’s Studio One hit. A few years earlier, he and Shabba had formed a group with Home T4. Pirates Anthem was their biggest hit although the two never actually shared a mic for Bobby, who made the magic happen by skilful editing. Shabba’s deal with Epic had come to an end by then. A two times Grammy winner, his grassroots reputation was restored after voicing some of Digital B’s new roots rhythms and also reuniting with Cocoa Tea, whose cover of Marley’s Heathen rumbled out of a thousand speaker boxes throughout 1996.
The continuous mix of that rhythm heard on Disc Three is by Irie FM’s Mighty Mike, who’d been a keen supporter of Bobby’s music from the beginning. Shabbats Heart Of A Lion and Ninjaman’s tragic-comic Old Picture Framewere among the strongest cuts but it was Morgan Heritage’s Protect Us Jah that pointed the way forwards, and heralded the arrival of a major new reggae act – one comprised of five siblings from Brooklyn, and who wrote and played their own material.
“When those kids came to me, no one know them in Jamaica,” Bobby explains. “They were brought here by a friend of mine named Dennis Howard who used to play on the radio. He came with this busload of people one day and when Peter Morgan start to sing I thought, ‘ta rahtid, this youth sounds like Garnett Silk!’ I kept thinking to myself that this group were really refreshing and we did some nice works with them after that.”
VP Records released Protect Us Jah in 1997. Bobby’s other landmark album that year was Sizzla’s Black Woman And Child, which overflowed with hits – Give Them The Ride and the title track included – and signalled the emergence of an outstanding new talent.
“When Sizzla first came to the studio, I wasn’t there,” says Bobby. “I’d made two rhythms for Shabba Ranks and then when I got back my son was inside playing the tape for Sizzla, who was singing Black Woman And Child. I’m sat outside, scratching my head and thinking, ‘What is this?’ Because when I hear him voice the song, I’m thinking this youth here is different. I try him on a Studio One rhythm after that and he do a song named Give Them A Ride about the system, and how money make people go funny. Me think, ‘wait, where this youth get these arguments from? This youth here is deep man. ‘Im deep!’ Because the lyrical content and how him deliver it was really something, y ‘know? For him to pitch those lyrics he had to be well read and I knew from there that this kid was the next big thing.”
Poetry, truth and righteous anger combined in Sizzla’s songs. His was the voice of ghetto youth, and Black Woman And Child was an immediate hit. Even his sing-jay style was different, but it was the swaggering profundity etched into those early sides at Digital B that first got him noticed. Give Them The Ride shared the same rhythm as Tanya Stephens’ feisty Handle The Ride whilst Capleton’s Raggy Road re-imagined the Abyssinians’ Satta Massaging for the new age. Like Sizzla, Capleton belongs to the Bobo Ashanti order. Dressed in Old Testament robes; their dreadlocks wrapped in turbans, they were like avenging angels as the Millennium approached.
Jamaica was in the grips of a cultural revolution. More and more youths were turning to Rasta, but getting exposure for message music was still difficult. Bobby set up his own Brick Wall distribution company;started an ancillary label called Digital Eclipse and assembled a new team at Digital B that included his nephew Sheldon Stewart (also known as “Cali Bud”) and Arthur Simms, who came from Jammy’s. Real musicianship and live rhythms will define the Digital B sound from now on, thanks in part to Bobby’s continuing association with Morgan Heritage.
“That first album Protect Us Jah was the launch pad for them but the second one we did, I decide that we shouldn’t be doing no computer music so I call up my friend Barry O ‘Hare at Grove studio and tell him that I want some studio time,” he says. “I book it for a day and go down there with the Firehouse Crew – George, Danny and whosoever; we make some songs, fill up a twenty-four track tape and from there I decide to go and get a drum kit and put it in my little room. From that time there it’s like the whole thing change because everybody start playing live music after that, and wanting to hear authentic reggae again.”
Don’t Haffi Dread was hailed as a major triumph on its release in 1999 and is one of Bobby’s best-ever albums. Key tracks Send Us Your Love and Reggae Bring Back Loveware played endlessly in dances that summer, whilst the title track sent out a welcome that was heard around the world. It was roots and culture time again and five years after the singer’s death, Digital B finally issued a follow-up album by Garnett Silk, containing unreleased and remixed material recorded between 1992-94. Every Knee Shall Bow was the lead single and whilst it now co-starred Cocoa Tea and Charlie Chaplin it’s Garnett’s soaring vocals that dominate. Bobby called the album Give I Strength after his own favourite track, and also issued sets by Sizzla (Good Ways) and UK singer Nisha K that year. He’d started recording Jah Mali by then, who was another young singer inspired by Garnett Silk. Every Man’s Burden dates from 1998, but it was the Treasure Box collection that underlined Bobby’s reputation for discovering and nurturing new talent.
Two years later, in 2002, he did the impossible and produced a Sizzla album that was even better than Black Woman And Child. Called Da Real Thing, it’s still the ultimate Sizzla album since every track’s essential – especially Solid As A Rock, Got It Right Here, Just One Of Those Days and the heartfelt Thank U Mama. The latter was a hit single and spawned the one-rhythm album One To One featuring artists like Luciano, Morgan Heritage and Ras Shiloh, who again sounded like Garnett. He’d travelled to Digital B from Brooklyn, and would record an album’s worth of material for Bobby. Coming Homefinally arrived in 2007, a year before the producer’s other significant discovery from this period – Trinidadian singer Jamelody – arrived in Jamaica.
The label’s output has slowed in more recent times, at least compared with the past. Bobby still releases the occasional batch of songs by artists like Kabaka Pyramid, Iba Mahr, Lymie Murray, Chezidek, Richie Spice and Richie Stephens, just to remind reggae and dancehall fans of what they’ve been missing. In the meantime his back catalogue continues to inspire audiences anew, confirming his place at the forefront of Jamaican music in the digital age.