12 September 2020 20:33
Toots Hibbert brought out his most recent album, Got to Be Tough, in August. What now stands as his final album is a positive listen, with lyrics about overcoming obstacles and needing more love in your heart, and his voice is as soulful as ever. He produced the album himself and it features Ziggy Marley, Sly Dunbar, Cyril Neville and Zak Starkey. He was busy: during lockdown, he was a finalist in the recent Jamaica festival song competition (a big deal on the island), with the upbeat Rise Up Jamaicans. Toots was massively successful in Jamaica: with the Maytals, he had 31 No 1s there, more than any other artist.
I spoke to Toots over the phone (no visuals, sadly). He was in his studio, drinking orange juice and water. Sometimes he chatted to people in the background. Ebullient and charismatic, he laughed a lot during our chat. He was never less than charming, but I noticed he had a knack of avoiding tricky questions by talking in broad terms rather than detail. What's your home studio like? It's a very big studio because it's very important, to get beautiful songs. It's called Reggae Centre. Do I have any lucky charms there? My lucky charms are my songs. I am in my studio every god almighty day: start at 10 o'clock in the morning, finish at 8 o'clock at night. And then back again on Monday morning. Writing songs is so hard to do: I'm not easy to please. In the studio I say, "Do that one more time", over and over. A song takes one year, two years, three, five years. It can also take five minutes, but it is a hard task. It's good when you can write a song quickly, but then when the song is released, you hear it and say, "It could be better". Can you describe your new album? (Sings) Warning warning… Be careful of what you speak and what you doing. It's not complicated. Don't take life for granted, be careful, be strong. In my songs, I tell a story that kids in Europe, Jamaica, America could learn something about. Every song does a lot to the audience, I make sure all my songs are positive and give confidence, elevate people, black or white. I play the drums, I play wicked drums, and then I get Sly [Dunbar] to play over my wicked drumming and Sly plays wicked drums too! Toots and the Maytals: Rise Up Jamaicans – video What was the first song you ever wrote? The first song I wrote, it was the Bible. [Sings] In the name of J, E, S, U, S … I did this going to school and I sang it at school, they think it was very nice, I sang it in church and they think it was very nice. Everyone knows you now in Jamaica… Only in the forest or in the sea they don't know me. Everybody knows me, I love it. I did the Jamaica Festival this year, I sing "Rise Up Jamaicans". I don't think I'm very special, the people make me very special. My songs, I grow up in them. A man threw a vodka bottle at you during a gig in 2013 and it hit you in the head … [In 2013, while performing in Virginia, US, Toots was struck by a bottle thrown by an audience member. He took some time away from gigging but he and the Maytals returned in 2016.] No, he did not throw it at me, he loves me a lot. When I was performing, he got so high … He shouldn't be having any alcohol, it was a college concert, he shouldn't be drinking, but he loves me a lot, he drink that liquor and he didn't chase it with any water. The bottle was coming to hit the drummer and I moved between it and the drummer and I got hit in my head. I asked the judge to be lenient so he don't go to jail, he didn't mean to hurt me, he was just a joking guy … I'm still feeling the pain sometimes. Toots in 1997. You call yourself a country guy, what does that mean? I never knew Kingston. When I went to Spanish Town, I thought it was Kingston. I went to Spanish Town after school when I was around 15, and I was not allowed. If my father found out, he would beat me, so I came back. And then I try to run away again, to go to Kingston and I see it was different to Spanish Town!, I was like, "What!" It had a good vibe … When I was 15, I follow bad company. My father, when he died, he was 114 years of age … Sorry, he was how old? He was 114 year old. We were 14 kids, I'm the last one, and then here am I. (Laughs) I'm a good man, but sometimes I am wrong. I made four girls and three boys, maybe I'm mistaken. She's a baaaaad singer. My son Opie, a bass player, he's baaaaad. Cassius, he's in California, he's a baaaaad singer. They listen to me, they follow my direction. You were a boxer when you were younger, what was your technique like? I was only amateur … I'm a very fast puncher and quick, quick. You say something, I punch very quickly! I never was an international boxer, I was from the ghetto, I made no money. Have you seen the Black Lives Matter protests in the US? What do you think of them? People have to live together, black or white. I see you got jumped, don't do crazy things. People should be aware of what they're doing. Don't do crazy things, if you're black or you're white. It does not show love. Your song Pressure Drop is one of my favourites, it seems to take on different meanings when I'm at different stages of my life … I wrote this song two ways … Pressure gonna drop on you, if it drops on you, it's bad. Pressure gonna drop off is a good thing. Pressure is gonna drop on people, and they work to get the pressure off. You got to be tough baby! That's why I call my album Got to Be Tough. I want the world to listen to me. I am tough! Toots and the Maytals' Got To Be Tough is out now, via Trojan Jamaica/BMG