Renowned Jamaican record producer Robert “Bobby Digital” Dixon died in a Kingston hospital on 21 May, aged 59. The cause of death was kidney disease.
One of the most respected producers of the dancehall era, Dixon transformed contemporary reggae several times over, enjoying tremendous international success with Shabba Ranks, Garnett Silk, Sizzla Kalonji and Morgan Heritage. He is also considered as an architect of the reggaeton genre that swept Latin America in the early 1990s, since some of its earliest hits sampled his work with Ranks.
Born in Kingston in 1961, Dixon was raised in the underprivileged community of Olympic Gardens, commonly known as Waterhouse, where his father was a carpenter and his mother a dressmaker. After taking an overseas correspondence course, Dixon became a repair technician, fixing radios and televisions at the shop his brother established at the family home. But music was a passion from an early age and Waterhouse a hotbed of talent, leading Dixon and his friend Michael Jemison to launch a sound system called Heatwave in the early 1980s.
When Jemison began producing local artists such as Half Pint and Black Crucial, Dixon accompanied him to the Channel One recording studio where he observed engineer Anthony “Soljie” Hamilton at work. There he also met fellow sound system owner and upcoming producer Lloyd “Prince Jammy” James, who was establishing his own four-track studio at St Lucia Road in Waterhouse. Dixon began engineering there with Al Campbell and Pat Kelly for hit-making producer Bunny “Striker” Lee, who later gave Dixon the nickname Digital due to his swift mastery of digital recording technology.
Dixon was the in-house engineer at Jammy’s from 1984-88, helping to record Wayne Smith’s ground-breaking Under Mi Sleng Teng, which changed Jamaican popular music overnight, shifting its focus to synthesisers and drum machine rhythms. Dixon’s perceptive engineering skills on hits by Tenor Saw, Cocoa Tea, Frankie Paul, Admiral Bailey, Super Cat and Chaka Demus helped Jammy maintain his status as Jamaica’s top producer, until Dixon struck out his own, opening the 16-track Digital B recording studio at his home in the neighbourhood of Maverley, soon upgrading the studio to 24 tracks.
Working with rhythm builders Steely and Clevie, Dixon achieved immediate and lasting success with Shabba Ranks, whose explicit, aggressive raps perfectly suited Dixon’s rugged productions. Hits such as Peenie Peenie, Just Reality and Wicked in Bed turned Ranks into an international superstar who signed a recording contract with Epic Records. His albums As Raw as Ever (1992) and X-tra Naked (1993) both won Grammys.
Dixon’s next discovery was Garnett Silk, whose powerful singing voice and Rastafari orientation helped shift the focus of dancehall back to its roots during a time when sexually suggestive “slackness” and violent “gun talk” dominated, typically delivered by hardcore rappers; Silk’s debut album, It’s Growing (1992), heralded the arrival of a significant new talent. Dixon began to broaden the backing tracks featured on his productions, grafting live horns, guitar, percussion and other acoustic instrumentation on to electronic drums and keyboard bass. The result was a broader musical palette that referenced the classic reggae of the past while striving for the new styles of the future, the wooden interior of Dixon’s studio allowing for maximum sonic texture. Sizzla’s stunning Black Woman & Child (1997) epitomised this more complex format: although the vocalist often made hastily recorded albums with an array of collaborators, his second record with Dixon, Da Real Thing (2002), was considered of a high standard.
In 1997, a connection with the Brooklyn, New York-based band Morgan Heritage yielded Help Us Jah, the first of many successful albums and a long musical partnership that elevated the group to become one of the most successful reggae acts of the new millennium.
Along the way, Dixon mentored his two sons, who made tentative forays into production. Although Dixon’s own output significantly slowed during the last decade, he continued to be in demand as a producer. He is survived by his wife, Merva, three children, two grandchildren, a sister and two brothers.