Cocoa Tea is sat on a small wicker chair in Bobby Digital's front garden. It's mid-afternoon and the studio hasn't come to life yet. Just one or two cars are parked outside and the street's quiet, much to the cameraman's relief. VP Records are filming a documentary about Bobby Digital and Cocoa Tea has travelled the thirty miles from Clarendon to be here, back at the place where so many of their hit singles and albums were made.
This album is his third for Bobby's Digital B label and it rounds up tracks that either hadn't
been compiled or even released before, plus others that deserve another hearing. Lonesome Side and Waiting In Vain - a candidate for best-ever Bob Marley cover - head the hits list and it's hard to believe they were recorded eight years apart. The best music has a timeless quality and it was the search for this that brought artist and producer together in the studio, except they were intent on doing it with dancehall. Both had early involvement with sound-systems. Bobby owned one called Heatwave, whilst Cocoa learnt to sing with a mic in his hand, entertaining local dancehall crowds. When their turn came around they set out to make music of the people and for the people - music that would ease the pressure of everyday life and play in reggae dancehalls forever. They succeeded too, which is why there are reggae sound-systems, radio DJs and fans from around the world still playing Cocoa Tea's hits for Bobby Digital.
The two first met at King Jammy's studio in the mid-eighties "when Bobby was slim," says Cocoa, laughing. It was the dawn of Jamaica's love affair with computer rhythms and Bobby's keen interest in electronics didn't go unnoticed by Bunny Lee, who named him "Digital." Cocoa Tea remembers him as, "this humble youth who never got arrogant or wanted to do things in haste. Working with Bobby Digital, you could learn a lot of things, y 'know? And he was very versatile because I remember him voicing artists and taking auditions, as well as mixing..."
Jammy ran his studio from the family home on St. Lucia Avenue in Waterhouse - a depressed area of West Kingston that had spawned lots of reggae talent, including Junior Reid and Black Uhuru. He and Bobby were from that neighbourhood whereas Cocoa came from Rocky Point - a small coastal community in the parish of Clarendon. In 1974, aged fourteen he recorded his debut Searching In The Hills for producer Willie Francis under his real name, Calvin Scott. Ten years later, after training as a jockey, restyling himself Cocoa Tea (because of his fondness for the popular Jamaican drink) and singing on local sounds Prince Unitone and King Addies Hi-Power, he finally got another chance to shine. Competition between rival Jamaican sound-systems wasn't just determined by who had the best dub-plates or equipment, but the talent gathered around their control tower. Volcano was the top sound back then and after they'd visited Clarendon during late 1983, owner Henry "Junjo" Lawes was so impressed with Cocoa he invited him to come and record. Rocking Dolly and Lost My Sonia were the first of his hits for Junjo, followed by a debut album Them Can't Stop Cocoa Tea. He then voiced a brace of albums for Cornerstone and one for King Tubby before joining the growing roster of artists hanging out in Jammy's courtyard, waiting for an opportunity to voice on the latest computer rhythms.1986 was his breakthrough year thanks to the hits Come Again and Tune In, which began life as a special. Singers like him, who'd started out on sound-system took that same dancehall spirit into the studio with them. They wouldn't sit down and write lyrics to a rhythm but voice them on the spot as the tape was rolling. Spontaneity was everything and this ensured that whilst the rhythm itself wasn't "live," the vocals certainly were.
Lonesome Side was released twice in rapid succession - first on a Jammy's 7", and then among Bobby's first-ever releases on his new Digital B label. It was Shabba Ranks who encouraged Bobby to start up a label for himself, and supported him when he set up two tape machines at the house on Rons Road and began producing his own tracks. Johnny Osbourne, Gregory Isaacs, Lt. Stitchie, Ninjaman and Admiral Tibbet were among the many artists to follow suit and so too Cocoa, then riding high with the recent Jammy's singles Love In The Morning and Come Home, featuring Bobby Digital. It's the only time Bobby's ever voiced a song, and the pair still laugh about it to this day. The tracks they'd worked on together at Jammy's before leaving - 1989 single Must Get A Bly for instance - were later compiled on the albumI Am TheToughest but it was Cocoa Tea's recordings with Home T4 and Shabba Ranks that brought him most acclaim. Their run of hits began with Who She Love. Home T4 were struggling to finish the song, Bobby went and got Cocoa Tea and Shabba and the magic happened straightaway. After Gussie Clarke heard the track, he invited them to Music Works and produced the trio's biggest ever hit, Pirate's Anthem. Cutty Ranks later replaced Shabba in that line-up whilst Cocoa regularly voiced for Gussie, singing songs that others had written for him (although he always put his own stamp on them.) He also voiced for Mikey Bennett's Two Friends label, most notably with the Gulf War protest song No Blood For Oil. Bobby meanwhile, was a major contributor to Grammy winning albums by Shabba, and making dancehall hits galore from his living room. He would soon be in the vanguard of a Jamaican roots reggae revival, and making songs with cultural lyrics that were popular at the same time. That had hadn't happened since the seventies and Cocoa Tea, along with singers like Garnet Silk and Luciano, was a key figure in that movement. Bobby released a slew of singles by him in 1994, including Party People, We Do The Killing, Magnet To Steel and Too Much Gun Lyrics. All did well, but Cocoa's biggest hit that year was Love Me Truly, shared with Shabba. The latter had overdubbed his part and the same was true of the duo's follow-up hit for Bobby Digital, Flag Flown High.
"Anytime Shabba Ranks touches Cocoa Tea he’s the best in the world!" exclaims Cocoa. "You couldn’t put Shabba with anybody else an’ get such a hit sound, but put him with Cocoa Tea an' you’ll ‘ave a hit tune everyday! Yeah! Because it's the perfect blend and when Shabba reach fi mi tune, it must hit!”
Flag Flown High came from Cocoa's Holy Mount Zion - a song he claims, "mek a rebirth in reggae music of the kettle drum riddim style" on account of its Rasta inspired nyahbinghi drumming. He calls Digital "a pirate" for having tampered with his songs but the grin on his face gives the game away, and nor did he complain after Bobby - who's adept at making hits out of hits - spliced his vocals with those of Garnet Silk and Charlie Chaplin for Every Knee Shall Bow. A year later and Bobby released Cocoa Tea's first album for Digital B, which included many of his recent singles. A well-balanced mix of love, reality and soundbwoy tunes, liberally sprinkled with dancehall stardust, Love Me was arguably Cocoa's finest album to date. He sounded at home, and there was even better to come. As a youth, he'd often sung soul, pop and reggae hits on sound-system, although he rarely recorded them. In 1996 he had hits with two cover versions - Delroy Wilson's I'm Not A King and the Bob Marley song Waiting In Vain, featuring Cutty Ranks.
"Rita and Ziggy Marley went on the radio one time and were asked who had done their favourite Bob Marley cover and they said Cocoa Tea with Waiting In Vain," says Cocoa, proudly. "It make me feel irie because my intention every time I do a cover version is to try and make it sound better than the original, except you can't really compare with Bob Marley..."
Perhaps not, but he certainly got close. Waiting In Vain proved irresistible and there wasn't a dancehall selector or radio DJ anywhere in Jamaica who didn't play it that summer. He and Cutty had often performed together on Stereo Mars, even before Cutty replaced Shabba in Cocoa's group with Home T4. There's a real bond between them, and which often translates into hits once they're in the studio. Bobby had recently launched a new label (Brick Wall) and a fresh look for Digital B, exchanging the bright yellow artwork for white. After Waiting In Vain came Heathen, another classic Bob Marley song and then Get Up And Fight, which is a cover of the Abyssinians' Declaration Of Rights and had remained undiscovered for twenty years before appearing here. Cocoa's delivery is reverential and he's singing over the same group's Satta Massaging rhythm on Wicked Man, which tells of regrets, reminding us that, "every road has an end, and every street has a bend you might want to walk again."
Bobby Digital uncovered several other previously unreleased songs for this album and Not Every Day is another long lost gem, with Cocoa proving he's a worthy successor to greats from the past like Delroy Wilson and Slim Smith. He's a Drifters' fan judging by Medley, whilst the lyrics of Come On Home find him lovesick and offering marriage to the girl who's left him. Melody rules, even when the subject matter's a little sad as on Hurry Over, voiced on the Joe Frasier rhythm and harking back to happier days when she'd breathlessly call for him, eager for some loving. That's as sexy as it gets from an artist who's always put tender hearted romance before slackness. Cocoa is a Rastaman and he approaches his singing career no differently to his everyday life. The same principles apply wherever he goes and the message in Push Over - a declaration of faith, and a cut of the Wailing Souls' Mr. Fire Coal Man - couldn't be clearer. Bobby didn't have dreadlocks but as a spiritual person, he's always emphasised with the Rasta cause. Cocoa would gravitate between him and rival producer Philip "Fatis" Burrell throughout the nineties, as did other big names from that period such as Morgan Heritage, Capleton and Sizzla. Like Bobby, Fatis treated the music with respect. They may have been very different characters, but both made righteous music that played in the dancehalls and that's why a lot of the same artists flocked to them. Both also went back to recording "live" rhythms around the same time, as they sought to wrest back Jamaican roots reggae's status as the most profoundly relevant and rebellious music on earth.
Motown licensed tracks from each of them for Cocoa Tea's Holy Mount Zion album, released in 1997. The opening track was Ready Again, or Ready Fi Dem as it's sometimes known, voiced on a remake of Steely & Clevie's Cat Paw rhythm from the Jammy's era. Bobby Digital's other tracks includedthe delightful She Is My Baby, which is lovers' rock, Jamaica style, even if the lyrics do mention New York! A year later, Cocoa launched his own Roaring Lion label and opened a studio in Hayes, Clarendon, just a few miles from Rocky Point. It was the first Jamaican studio to be built anywhere west of Spanish Town and if people had doubts about him as a producer these were quickly dispelled as a string of hits followed, featuring Cocoa himself and artists like Marcia Griffiths, Buju Banton and Anthony B. He's barely strayed from Roaring Lion ever since, although he continued to voice the occasional track for Bobby. This crop of mainly post-Millennium singles includes Stand Up Straight,Greedy Boy, Time Is Dread (with Shabba Ranks), Easy Now - a cut of the My Conversation rhythm - and War And Crime, which is a cry for peace, delivered on behalf of the sufferers. This unfailing identification with the poor man’s struggle is another reason why Cocoa Tea is so well loved by reggae fans worldwide but then he sings about what he's felt and witnessed. His music's genuine, just like the relationship between him and Bobby Digital. Both have invested precious time and effort in making songs with a positive message, knowing the financial rewards may disappoint.
"Even though I sing love songs, I still have to keep the plight of the people in mind," says Cocoa, pausing to salute Bobby's son Giark, who's assumed a lot of the duties involved in running the studio. "That's because the poor are more marginalised than ever, and the opportunity for them to achieve and earn a living for themselves is just not there. The only thing is, when you make songs that can open people’s eyes they are always pushed aside and never get too far, y 'know? Except the world isn’t getting any better. In fact it’s getting worse and so how can I stop what I’m doing? I have to keep on putting out the message in the hope that it will break down a few barriers because someday, somehow I know there's going to be changes, and I’m still hoping to be a part of that.”