Bobby Digital Dies at 59; His Reggae Rhythms Spread Worldwide

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An obituary by Jon Pareles for The New York Times.

The producer born Robert Dixon was responsible for hits like the Shabba Ranks song “Dem Bow,” which became a staple of global pop.

Robert Dixon, who as Bobby Digital became one of Jamaica’s most influential producers, and whose production of the Shabba Ranks song “Dem Bow” became a cornerstone of reggaeton and 21st-century pop, died on May 21 in Kingston. He was 59.

His son Giark Dixon said the cause was kidney disease.

In the 1980s, Bobby Digital was at the forefront of dancehall’s transformation from rhythm tracks built primarily on live studio performances to computerized and electronic beats. In a prolific career that yielded more than 800 released songs, he recorded influential hits with the gritty-voiced dancehall toaster (rapper) Shabba Ranks, the spiritually charged singer Garnett Silk, the vocal harmony group Morgan Heritage and the socially conscious artist Sizzla.

His credits also include memorable recordings by Bounty Hunter, Buju Banton, Cocoa Tea, Capleton, Beenie Man and Chaka Demus, among a long list of Jamaican vocalists.

Bobby Digital — not to be confused with RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, who has also used that nickname — produced Shabba Ranks albums that won Grammy Awards in 1992 and 1993, “As Raw as Ever” and “X-Tra Naked.” And the terse, crisp beat of a 1990 Shabba Ranks song, “Dem Bow” — itself sampled from “Poco Man Jam,” a 1989 record by the Jamaican vocalist Gregory Peck, produced by Steely and Clevie — infiltrated pop worldwide after the Dominican production team Luny Tunes used it in early reggaeton hits. Bobby Digital’s productions have been sampled for hip-hop tracks by Jay-Z, Method Man and 50 Cent.

Robert Dixon was born on March 11, 1961, in Kingston and grew up in the impoverished neighborhoods of West Kingston. His father was a carpenter, his mother a dressmaker.

As a teenager, Bobby was drawn to sound system shows — parties where producers, singers and toasters could unveil their latest tracks and instantly gauge the response of dancers. He sometimes hung a cassette recorder in a tree to capture the music.

He learned to repair radios, televisions and other equipment by reading textbooks that belonged to an older brother, Eric, who was studying electronics, and the brothers opened a repair shop. But Bobby then got the chance to apprentice at the recording studio run by the producer and sound system owner King Jammy, and he worked his way up to chief recording engineer. Bunny Lee, a producer who used the studio, nicknamed him Bobby Digital because he was so quick and diligent at learning to use new equipment.

In the mid-1980s, when Bobby Digital was at King Jammy’s studio, Jamaican dancehall was turning to computerized rhythms and electronic sounds. Wayne Smith’s 1984 hit “Under Mi Sleng Teng,”produced by King Jammy, is widely credited with inaugurating dancehall’s digital era, and Bobby Digital easily adapted to the new approach, working with drum machines and loops.

In Jamaican music, a popular rhythm track, or riddim, is often reused by other vocalists to create new songs, or versions. With King Jammy, Bobby Digital recorded multiple versions based on the Sleng Teng riddim, including songs by Tenor Saw, Johnny Osbourne and Nicodemus.

Bobby Digital started his own label, Digital B, in 1987, and in 1988 he opened his own studio, also named Digital B. With a friend, he started a sound system, Heatwave, where he could play the newest tracks. His new studio immediately delivered a hit in 1988: “Peenie Peenie” by Shabba Ranks.

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Bobby Digital’s productions were sparse, snappy and percussive, with sharply defined stereo syncopations. They offered space and propulsion to both the raw-voiced toasting of Shabba Ranks and the romantic crooning of singers like Sanchez, and they were widely imitated. Many of his riddims — among them Kette DrumAll Purpose and One 2 One — spawned multiple versions.

Bobby Digital in 2018. In the 1990s, he began turning away from the aggressive machismo of dancehall toward the more thoughtful and idealistic messages of roots reggae.

In 1992, Mr. Dixon married Merva Facey. She and his son Giark survive him, as do another son, Sheldon Stewart; a daughter, Trudy Ann Dixon Smith; a brother, Herbert; a sister, Kathleen Dixon Jackson; and two grandchildren.

In the early 1990s Bobby Digital began working with Garnett Silk, whose voice brought a prayerful longing to songs like “Bless Me.”He produced Mr. Silk’s debut album, “It’s Growing” (1992), which became a best-selling album in Jamaica.

That project was part of Bobby Digital’s turn away from the aggressive machismo of dancehall toward the more thoughtful and idealistic messages, and the more melodic approach, of roots reggae. His productions reintroduced live instruments, and working with him spurred even rough-hewed dancehall performers like Bounty Killer and Buju Banton to offer songs about faith.

“Maturity brought that next level,” Giark Dixon said.

Bobby Digital worked in the late 1990s with Morgan Heritage — a vocal harmony group formed by children of the Jamaican reggae singer Denroy Morgan — and with Sizzla, a singer and toaster who focused on sociopolitical messages. He produced impressive albums for both of them in 1997 — Morgan Heritage’s “Protect Us Jah” and Sizzla’s “Black Woman and Child” — and equally strong follow-ups, Morgan Heritage’s “Don’t Haffi Dread” (1999) and Sizzla’s “Da Real Thing” (2002). He also continued to nurture newcomers, including Ras Shiloh and Jahmelody.

He released fewer songs in recent years, even as variations on the “Dem Bow” riddim spread across pop worldwide. In recent years, he lamented what he called a “fast food” approach to making music, as opposed to his own efforts to record music that would last. An extensive collection of his work in two volumes, “X-Tra Wicked” and “Serious Times,” was issued by VP Records in 2018.

In “Shake Them Down,” a 1988 song produced by Bobby Digital, Pad Anthony praised his producer. He sang, “Digital him in the studio why him a mix me/And every time he come up wit a new stylee.”

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