LargeUp Interview: Cocoa Tea on ‘In A Di Red,’ Payola + Being a ‘Slow Leak’ Artist

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October 12, 2012

Words by Sherman Escoffery, Photos by Niketa Thomasโ€”

Calvin Scott, known simply as Cocoa Tea, is a humble singer who once worked as a fisherman. In order to understand his latest album, In A Di Red (out in November), you have to understand where he has come from on his musical journey to date. A low-key individual and artist, Cocoa Tea has been trodding his musical path for nearly 40 years. With memorable hits such as “Iโ€™ve Lost My Sonia,” “Rocking Dolly,” and “Rikers Island” to his credit, he is a dancehall veteran who has stood the test of time. As he puts it,ย  he didn’t really bussโ€”his career is better described as a steady, slow leak.

LargeUp recently spoke with the singer about his humble beginnings, his time with producers Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Bobby Digital, Gussie Clarke, Mikie Bennett, and the new album. He also speaks out on some of the ills currently plaguing the Jamaican recording industry, namely payola, sharing some truths that, just as Cocoa’s granny says, are sure to float to the surface, like oil in water.

Large Up: What is the essence of Cocoa Tea?

Cocoa Tea: Well, you know cocoa tea is really hot chocolate. One night my mother never really wanted to cook, so I just asked for some hot cocoa tea and bread. The name just stuck to I & I from that; but it is also the fact that cocoa tea burns many people, because it is something that always looks cool even when it is hot. So I am an artist that is always hot, even under my cool exterior; but I am sweet like cocoa tea.

LU: You have never really been on top but you have always been around from the mid 80โ€™s, always relevant, always putting out good music. Some artists became bigger than you but their career never lasted, to what do you attribute your longevity?

CT: A friend of mine, the late Nicodemus, once said that a lot of other artist buss but him never buss, him just slow leak. So I never really buss, I just slow leaked, because things that buss eventually get thrown away, and like a bicycle tire with a slow leak, you just put a little cornmeal in there, and a grain will seal the leak and you can just keep on riding to your destination. So I am a slow leak artist.

Cocoa Tea. Photo: Niketa Thomas

LU: How did you end up recording your first song?

CT: At the age of 14 in 1974, this artist called Willie Francis, who had a song called โ€œOh What A Mini” What A Short Short Dress,โ€ came to my district in Rocky Point, Clarendon, to record a group called the Rockydonians; now one of the guys in the group was my brother-in-law. I was hanging out with the Rockydonians and Willie heard me singing, so [he] took me along with the Rockydonians to Kingston, but he ended up only recording me; a song called โ€œSearching In The Hills.โ€ The song ended up getting a lot of radio play, but it never really put me out there.

At that time, I wasnโ€™t fully equipped to be a star, because I couldnโ€™t even write a song for myself, it was one of the guys from the Rockydonians who wrote that song for me. It took me another 10 years to really master my craft. In that time, I started to sing on all the sound systems that came to my district, practicing and getting better, learning how to write my own songs; anything that involved singing in my district, I was there, because I was a star in my little district of Rocky Point.

In December of 1983, producer Henry โ€œJunjoโ€ Lawes had a sound system call Volcano High Power, that came to play in my district. Burro Banton was there but never really wanted to give me the mic because I was basically in rags, and he and the other DJs were well dressed celebrity. When I touch the mic, they could not get it back from me because I had the whole place going crazy. Burro Banton told me he had to take me to town to meet โ€œJunjo.โ€ I went to Kingston in February of 1984 to link up with “Junjo” on Myrie Lane off Spanish Town Road, when I get there, a lot of people were hanging out on the corner including Yellow Man, Billy Boyo, Little John, Toyan, Louie Lepke, The Colonel Josey Wales, and Lee Van Cleef. After I sang the first song right there on the lane, The Colonel look at me and said โ€˜Likkle yute, nuh bother sing nuh more, cause any man who mek me dance without riddim must get big in a the world.โ€ That is where it all began.

LU: Your first song as Cocoa Tea for โ€œJunjoโ€ Lawes was โ€œRocking Dollyโ€ and it sounded very much like a love song but it was really a song about a dancing style? ย 

CT: Back then, Rano Dread and Toyan were two of the great bike riders, so when they dolly [sway] on they their bikes while riding, it was smooth like a dance and all the other guys try to ride like him. Toyan would do it on the white line that divided the road, so people just started dancing like they were riding like Rano Dread or Toyan, so I just wrote a song to celebrate their riding style. The dancehall already had dance moves like Shoulder Move, Butterfly and Horseman Scaddy.

LU: What was the experience like working with โ€œJunjoโ€ Lawes?โ€

CT: Well yes, I started with the late โ€œJunjoโ€ Lawesโ€”Jah bless his soulโ€”but I really remember some of the things he taught me. He said, as an artist, I should not go to Europe until I have a decent catalog of hit songs to headline a showโ€”it doesnโ€™t make sense to have one song and nothing else to give the people because they are coming with high expectation, and first impressions last. Some of my biggest fans to this day are the people who saw my first appearance in England. He also told me to stick with one producer at a time, so I can focus on the business, and I wonโ€™t have songs killing songs; so that is why you saw a bunch of songs on Volcano, then Jammys, then Gussie Clarke; but you never saw songs coming out on several different labels at the same time, they were all from time different periods.