Bobby Digital is a classic example of someone who hides his light under a bushel, unless he's in the studio making music that is. With the release of not one but two volumes in VP Records' Reggae Anthology series, it felt like his time had finally come. Having spent many happy hours at his Kingston studio I was delighted to write these liner notes but then was deeply saddened to learn of his passing in 2020.
From the outside, the Digital B studio at 6 Rons Road looks like any other modest family home in the Kingston suburbs. There are no imposing gates or security guards, nor paintings of iconic figures on the walls. Yet owner Bobby “Digital” Dixon is one of Jamaica’s top record producers, and a founding father of the global dancehall movement that’s now swept the likes of Rihanna and Justin Beiber into its embrace.
Bobby has gold discs of his own, including back-to-back Grammy awards with Shabba Ranks. He was a key player in the birth of modern dancehall – an achievement that’s changed the face of popular music. The Kingston-born producer then breathed new life into “live” roots reggae with a succession of groundbreaking releases by Garnett Silk, Sizzla and Morgan Heritage that helped restore Rasta music to its former glory during the mid-nineties. He’s had hits with artists from different countries and in different styles and also nurtured his share of young talent, yet Bobby is modest as they come.
“Every day we come in the studio and get a blessing, it’s coming from the Almighty,” he reminds us. “You have to do the works with your heart and soul and then when the music comes out, it’s going to touch people where they can really feel it, y ‘understand? Because this music t’ing – it’s all about heart and love really.”
There’s no blueprint when it comes to being a record producer. Some just put up the money or hire someone else to do the job, but not Bobby. He’s no musician and yet he knows exactly what he wants from a session, down to the very last note. He wants his artists to feel what they’re doing, and share his belief that music can have a transforming effect on our lives. Bobby learnt this from a very early age. He had a tough upbringing, but has a smile on his face when reminiscing about the music he heard as a youth in West Kingston – a sprawl of ghetto neighbourhoods stretching from the Spanish Town Road to Washington Boulevard, and with Waterhouse at their epicentre.
“We have a lot of singers and musicians amongst us as kids because yuh ‘ave Black Uhuru, Wailing Souls and a group by the name of Black Crucial, then you have deejays like U Brown, Trevor Ranking and Nicodemus... There so many, you name them!” he says proudly. “I grow up with all of these people because I was going to dances and parties from an early age, listening to sound systems that play positive music like King Tubby’s, Socialist Roots and Jammy’s. That’s how I learn it and I can still remember the first dance I ever went to, aged thirteen because at that tender age it was fascinating to see this big amplifier full up of red, green and gold lights, and with a shiny front. I see that and think, ‘wha’? Ah so the t’ing go?’ Sometimes I might get a little cassette recorder and hang it in a tree, just to capture the sound of the dance for that night and then take it home so my friends can hear it the next morning. I’d hook up the tape to the little system I have at home and make it play back loud, just like it was at the dance, y ‘know? It was a nice experience and then later on, when I get the chance to really express myself in music – oh what a day that was!”
Bobby had an older brother who was studying electronics. That’s how he learnt about the subject – by reading his brother’s textbooks. He started out repairing electrical goods but then a friend introduced him to Prince Jammy, who invited Bobby to help out at his studio on St. Lucia Road. Jammy has described Bobby as “one of the quickest learning guys” he’d ever met – someone who could run the studio in his absence and “do everything, just like myself.
“Bobby cut dub, mixed music and laid rhythm tracks, as well as auditioning and voicing artists,” he says. “When he first arrived, I said we were going to start by cutting some dubs. We went to the dub machine, I showed him how it operated and after he cut the first one I said, ‘okay, it’s you who’s going to control this from now on.’ Bobby caught on to everything so fast, and I just knew he was going to be one of the best engineers in the business.”
It was Bunny Lee who named him “Digital” after witnessing his ready grasp of the latest technology.
“Yes, because Striker Lee brand everybody,” says Bobby, laughing. “I was at Jammy’s and whenever they got a new piece of equipment, I had to get to know it inside out and so I’d sit down and study how it worked. I was doing that and then one day I hear Striker say, ‘Jammy. That one there named “Digital”’ and that was it, from that day to this day!”
Wayne Smith’s Under MiSleng-Teng was already out and maddening dancehall crowds with the new computer style by the time Bobby turned up at Jammy’s. His engineering skills helped transform what some regarded as a short-lived fad into a fully-fledged uprising – one that would capture the imagination of audiences worldwide and make stars out of newcomers like Shabba Ranks, Admiral Bailey and Chakademus. Bobby had discovered some of these artists on local sound systems before taking them to Jammy’s and voicing them on Steely and Clevie’s digital rhythms. In 1986 Jammy dominated the annual Rockers Awards, where he was crowned King for having the top reggae label and also Jamaica’s No. 1 sound system.
A year or so later, and his talented sidemen started to think about doing something for themselves. The first tracks that Bobby produced were by Admiral Tibet and Cocoa Tea, who joined him on Come Home whilst Digital tried his hand at deejaying. Both appeared on Jammy’s label, as did Shabba Ranks’ Live Blanket. That bright yellow Digital B label with the red and green lettering wouldn’t appear until 1987, on 7” singles by Daddy Lizard & Flourgon, Cocoa Tea (Lonesome Side) and Shabba. The latter’s Peenie Peenie was another smash hit for the MC with the rockstone voice. There was real chemistry between he and Bobby after the hits they’d made at Jammy’s, and Shabba would become the first artist to voice at Bobby’s own studio once the twenty-seven-year-old producer had moved to Rons Road. This was in 1988, soon after Hurricane Gilbert had struck Jamaica, causing widespread devastation. Bobby rented the house from Michael Jemison, who was credited as co-producer on those early Digital B releases. He was the same friend who’d introduced Bobby to Jammy’s, and he would also help him start up his own sound system, called Heatwave.
Bobby already had a mixing-board and tape machine that he’d bought whilst working at Jammy’s. He placed them on blocks in the front room of No. 6 and invited Shabba to come and work on songs with him, again using rhythms made by Steely and Clevie. Those initial sessions resulted in songs like Just Reality, Gal Yuh Good, Roots And Culture and Wicked In A Bed, which Bobby compiled on the Just Reality album in 1990. Some of these tracks – most notably Dem Bow – later inspired reggaeton, after the Panamanian deejay El General voiced on some of the same rhythms in his native Spanish. Wicked In A Bed became a huge hit in the dancehall, and paved the way for Shabba’s two Grammy winning albums for Epic, As Raw As Ever and Xtra Naked, released in 1991/92. Bobby produced tracks on each of them, whilst also recording artists such as Thriller U, Admiral Tibet, Pad Anthony, Sanchez and Johnny Osbourne, whose Play Play Girl was a re-cut of his former Studio One hit.