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

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October 12, 2012

Cocoa Tea + Bobby Digital by Beth Lesser
Photo Courtesy: Beth Lesser

LU: There is this picture that was taken by Beth Lesser, of you and Robert “Bobby Digital” Dixon at King Jammys Studios in the mid 80’s. That picture tells a whole story, of the love of music, the energy in the studio but also the youthful exuberance at the time. Talk a little about you and Bobby Digital…

CT: To this day, Bobby and I are like brothers. I get along with everyone in the music business because I mind my own business. When I go to [Kingston] all I focus on is singing music, I don’t get involved in anything, and everybody likes me because I am easy and laid back, no mix up or ‘carry news’ or bad vibes.

The first time I went to King Jammys to sing, Bobby was the engineer and I was singing, we just clicked, and now Bobby and I have our own studios. When I record with Bobby, I listen to everything he says, and I do it exactly as he says—I am the artist and he is the producer. I just take telling and it works because I trust anything he tells me to do with music. I just simply play my role and let him play his. Is not like now in the days of Pro Fools.(Tools) When I work with Bobby, if it takes thirty times to get a line right, there is no hard feelings or frustration; with Pro Fools, you just do it one time and fly it over and over again. The producers that I trust, I just listen to them and let them guide me. Any project Mikie Bennett is working on, I am one of the first persons he calls, because I am very easy to work with.

LU: Another one of your big songs from the 80’s was “Come Again” on the Cats Paw rhythm, which was a song in praise of the dancehall; so you were doing all these sweet songs that sounded like love songs but you were a Rasta that was actually celebrating the dancehall, the sound, the energy.

CT: Well, the sound system was really at part of I&I, because if I couldn’t go in the dance and rock the crowd or relate to them, I wouldn’t be requested in the dancehall.

When I was at Jammys, I mostly worked with Bobby Digital, we even did a song together “Come Home.” Jammys saw the chemistry between us so he just left us to work together. “Tune In” I wrote as a special for a sound from Canada called Upsetters. When Jammys heard it, he said we had to do that as a record, and it became a dancehall anthem; that was when I knew the dancehall is a powerful place. The vibes at King Jammys was all about the dancehall, we sat everyday and came up with songs, especially to do dubplates, but also preparing for performance on the sound; we go to the little shop across the road to buy food from a guy name Legs, and then write and record songs and dubplates all day.

Cocoa Tea. Photo: Niketa Thomas

LU: Whom were you hanging out with at that time?

CT: At that time around by King Jammys, it was Sugar Minott, Junior Reid, Little John, Michael “Lickshot” Palmer, Half Pint, King Everald; [laments] nuff people don’t even remember King Everald.

LU: There was that line in “Come Again”: Mix me Digital [Bobby] mix me wisely mix me Digital mi seh settle steady…

CT: Well you have been to the dancehall, so you know the mix is a very important thing, the engineer is an important person— even on a stage show when Capleton says “Mix!” If he gets the wrong mix, it can mess up his performance; so the mix is a very important part of getting the people in the dancehall revved up, dancing, excited.

[audio:|titles=Cocoa Tea—Come Again]
Cocoa Tea—”Come Again”

LU: Who would you say has been your mentor or biggest influence?

CT: Dennis Brown. I would say I want to be like him because he would come on stage at 7 o’clock in the morning and sing “Here I Come,” and the whole place would wake up and just erupt. I have never seen another performer like him, nobody else in Jamaica like that to me, and I have worked with the best of them. I have seen people waiting until 7, 8, 9 in the morning for Dennis Brown to come on stage, and it was always magical. I would love to have people standing up till then for me, but stage shows doesn’t go that late anymore. No one has top Bob Marley to date, but Dennis Brown was really my biggest influence.

LU: You did a lot of work with Gussie Clarke and Mikie Bennett in the late 80’s early 90’s; and together you guys made a lot of songs that became international hits, talk about that period in time.

CT: Gussie Clarke is one of the pioneers when it comes to Lover’s Rock music. Gussie is a perfectionist and, if it isn’t the ultimate song, he won’t touch it. He utilizes the best personnel; first him draw for an engineer call Steven Stanley, who is the best engineer in Jamaica—in my opinion. Steven Stanley will take three days to mix one song to get it perfect, when Steven is finished with a song, every instrument in the song talks to you but they all work in harmony. Me, Shabba Ranks and Mikie Bennett started working together from around by King Jammys, from the song  “Who She Love.” Gussie loved the songs, and he wanted to work with us. Now a lot of people would not think that Gussie would want to work with DJ like Shabba Ranks, but Gussie can identify talent and he is a conceptualist. At the time in England, the [Department of Trade and Industry] was shutting down all the pirate radio stations across the country, so Gussie said we had to do a song about this because it will be an immediate hit. Shabba, Mikie Bennett and myself wrote the lyrics but Mikie was the one that was really the architect after Gussie provide the idea and all the resources. After “Pirates Anthem” was completed, Gussie said this is going to mash up the whole a England, and it did.

LU: What was the difference between Mikie Bennett and Gussie Clarke?

CT: Well I think a lot of the things that Mikie Bennett has done, he learned from Gussie Clarke but Mikie is a really great songwriter and a musician, which Gussie Clarke isn’t; but the approach, the ability to come with a winning concept and put together the perfect team of the best people, that is who Gussie Clarke is. There was this guy called McKenzie that use to park cars at the US Embassy, he came up to Gussie’s car window with some lyrics on a piece of paper, Gussie brought it to us and said he liked the lyrics, but it had no melody or structure, but we worked it out and, it became the song “One Away Woman.”

If you have an idea and tell it to Gussie, he will find the perfect person for you to work it out with, it sounds simple but it isn’t. Gussie also had people such as Hopeton Lindo, Dean Fraser, Mikey Irish and a bunch of other people, and we just work on many songs as a team of writers, singers, musicians, melody makers, and we only made hit songs at Gussie’s Studio everyday. It was a higher level of professionalism and it also felt like a family affair.

LU: Looking back at your career, tell me what are some of your most important achievements?

CT: The wealth of knowledge I have acquired—meaning my ability to correct myself when singing, knowing when I am on or off key, timing, the ability to deal with people in this business without any problems and staying out of controversy, while still relating to my fans and audience to keep them entertained and keep myself relevant to them. That is what is even allowing me to talk to you right now as an artist who came from the country, went to town, made it, and still here 28 years later.

When I started, I just loved music and anywhere it play, I just wanted to go there. I never imagine music buying me a house or car or making me travel, I just wanted to sing, entertain the crowd, and hear my own voice. After recording my first song and a career never happened, I went to Caymanas Park to train as a jockey. I was singing as I trained and people told me to leave the racetrack and go sing. Everything I tried, construction, fishing, I was singing and people always told me I was in the wrong places, I should go to studio and sing. It was 10 years between my first and second song, but singing was my calling.

Cocoa Tea. Photo: Niketa Thomas