Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was a technicolor Daddy Warbeats of pressing social issues many decades before they were ever called that. He has also always been a full bird colonel of funk and a creative high-performer of the Black diaspora that manages to embody receptivity and realpolitik in equal measure. Think Boo Radley, Soul Division. While this current generation acts a bit like certainty is somehow deranged, when Toots was a jolly chap of sporadic beard, it was an artist’s only hallmark of honor, not to mention the mainspring feeding the sense of exploration that would come to define the whole genre of music he helped invent. The latest Toots & The Maytals record, Got To Be Tough, verifies that Our Guy Irie is still writing songs in the key of fait accompli, and remains ever the ebullient underdog-rajah of the rocksteady rabble.
Though Toots & The Maytals are self-described under the workaday quilt of “reggae,” gospel and ska have also been drinking rhubarb mint juleps with punk and funk in the creolized musical hand gestures shaping their legacy. To best describe Toots, perhaps we must borrow a line from a younger Black king of surprising musical geometries – D.C.’s own Spank Rock: “Call it pop, rap, rock, funk, fusion / It’s too confusin’ / I do what I like.” From its inception, Hibbert’s career has been an Old Testament tale of sonic swashbuckling and back-porch guitar licks, showcasing all the sinuous style of an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.
With Bob Marley gone, Toots represents the last mega-mogul of One Drop. Never polemical, but always admirably disjunctive, his music is made of all the same elegance and quirk that would characterize a high tea set on a desert dune. A recipient of the prestigious Order of Jamaica (one of his country’s highest honors), the record-holder for most number one songs by any artist in Jamaica, and a declared inspiration to everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Roots, Toots & The Maytals are an echelon unto themselves. A troupe of flying Elvises would struggle to pull more attention or inspire more instantaneous at-home degrees in audio engineering.
Named after Hibbert’s hometown of May Pen, Jamaica, the original Maytals consisted of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias. They were initially produced by Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One in 1962/1963, alongside a little band called The Wailers that you might have heard of. A notorious wrongful conviction for marijuana possession in 1966 left Toots a lifetime advocate for pained people of every kind, and firmly set him against governmental systems of everyday oppression. The tune that gelignite-esque experience inspired, “54-46 That’s My Number”, became an enduring hit for Toots & The Maytals, as well as the 14-karat gold Slinky that crowned Toots the mellow-Che of Port Royal.
Not many men come out of the grotesquerie of illegal incarceration to found entire culture-shifting classifications of art. Toots’ 1968 “Do the Reggay” did just that, and this groundbreaking tune is widely regarded as the song that coined the term ‘reggae’ as far as wax was concerned, and likewise formally named the newborn genre. The distinguished “Pressure Drop” of 1969 essentially brought reggae to the world, and 1970’s barnstorming international hit, “Monkey Man”, followed hot on its heels, a juicy indiscretion so irresistibly cool that none other than The Specials later felt compelled to include it on their 1979 debut. Hibbert featuring alongside Jimmy Cliff in the instant-cult-classic film, The Harder They Come, reggae’s prequel to Tommy, solidified Toots & The Maytals as official Mento forefathers from Rajasthan to Rochester.
However, it was 1973’s “Funky Kingston”, which the legendarily caustic Lester Bangs himself described as “perfection,” that would become the pellicle under which nearly every other reggae song of international note unspooled. Fast forward to 2020 where everyone from Dave Matthews, The Clash, Willie Nelson, Amy Winehouse, and Sublime, to name but a tiny few, have lined up to play inside baseball with Toots & The Maytals. 2005’s True Love took Best Reggae Album, with Toots re-recording classics with a full-court press of behemoth statesmanship that included Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, and Ben Harper. Toots then went on to seal himself eternally as the peerless point man of hip in 2006 by covering Radiohead’s “Let Down” on Radiodread, a stag-adorned reggae rendition of the Oxford oligarchs’ seminal OK Computer.
Many Grammys later, at 77 years young, Toots Hibbert is still a medical illustration poster for razzmatazz. Got To Be Tough follows 2009’s Flip & Twist as his first recorded offering in just over a solid decade. It is self-produced and snugly certain of its swerves. Released by Trojan Jamaica/BMG, it emanates a celebrant air and Mafioso flair befitting the animated boxing jab Toots throws on the cover. The only place his years show their weight is in the amour propre both visible and tangible within the exquisitely calibrated machine he has become as a performer and arranger.
The kitchen-sink compendium of champions that is “Three Little Birds”, featuring Ziggy Marley on vocals, Ringo Starr on percussion, and Zak Starkey on guitar, is a song to call off your wedding for, and is almost certain to become the permanent calling card for this record. Such a lively golden triangle of heavy-lifters, all in pure plate-spinning form, covering such a famous song by such a revered artist – and one that has already been covered by everyone from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Billy Ocean – could easily have devolved into a kingdom of leitmotifs across the road. But these idiosyncratic chieftains turn this primary Bob Marley track into a floating palace to which you’ll want to burn all other rope ladders.
Where lesser artists might ham-handedly topstitch cutesy tautologies aimed at the lowest bidder, Hibbert teases out pigmented polygons of wisdom-largesse in the form of his signature thrumming modesty on “Freedom Train”. To be skinless, tonally, is a rare gift indeed, even for a fortuitous master of reggae’s potlatch patois as accomplished as Toots Hibbert. Many artists that have been in it as innovators for as long as Toots seem to feel the need to parry with former iterations of themselves, and it can come to make the records feel paltry. Toots is always refreshingly free of such shadow boxing. Every Toots & The Maytals album, including and perhaps most impressively Got To Be Tough, is competently devoid of such worrisome wildebeests of self-aware agitation. He just takes you there. It’s not schlocky or full of purposely nostalgic slapstick. It is never a Rasta-Borscht Belt riff on the reggae that spawned all the rest. It’s the actual reggae that spawned it all itself, as clarion and candid as it was that first time back in 1962, and still brimming with the cool mystery of the cultural currents that forged it.
“Having a Party” is screwball and saucy, with a bassline throwing maneuvers similar to those a skillful cheater might make as decoy or penance, or the conversational curves of a bamstick and a crackerjack cardsharp, fighting for gags and girls. “Stand Accused” is Toots showing off just how much he is the last true bohemian holdout, and reminding everyone that he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the price of good-heartedness. “I stand accused/for doing the right thing,” he almost hums. “Drop Off Head” is a song that sounds the way a Cohiba cigar smells – all brash banana colors and bossanova album covers getting it on in HD – while “Good Thing That You Call” spills Pepto-pink earnestness out every cranny in a manner that should make you get straight up to phone your parents.
Raf Simons once brilliantly referred to Sterling Ruby as a “gangster Rothko” and “Romeo Gigli on acid,” but Toots & The Maytals could borrow and wear these lyrical laurels with efficacy and ease if you switch out ‘Christ-minded’ for gangster and ‘Obeah’ for acid. Anyone who has the antennae for it knows that real soul is a spiritual bloodline. It is a finicky ethnicity that spans all races, but can skip whole families/geographies/eras, only to rise up again at some unpredictable human vector bending in shapes like Sam Smith, Fiona Apple or Lang Lang, and clinking champagne flutes at a sunset only its other fellow bearers can even see.
The twin helix of Toots Hibbert’s DNA appears to consist of the purest distillation of this kind of soul, spiraling around a species of artistic merit that barely exists anywhere anymore. Unfortunately, unheard-of excellence long ago ceased to be a guarantee of anything in the music industry. The pretty little alimonies governing the sales of modern songcraft (or our inherent lack thereof) have all but consigned the notion that not every celebrity can be a cultural contributor, and in the wake of Spotify many of our most spangled progenitors glitter in the public dark. The happy news is that red-blooded royalty like Toots & The Maytals navigate that fact much like Cleopatra navigated any and all waters separating her from her chosen destination. The Egyptian queen is said to have soaked the sails of her ships in rosewater so that the scent would envelop her as she stood on deck watching the traveling water knife by below. Got To Be Tough is exactly that regal a display of quiet presence, with precisely that level of subtle power, and you are sure to be encased in the aural bouquet of its authentic Lignum Vitae atmosphere for many journeys ahead.