Toots Hibbert: “It takes time to build a mansion”
In his rollicking tell-all book, “The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread” (Akashic Books 2015), Gary Himelfarb a.k.a. “Dr. Dread” and the founder of “RAS (Real Authentic Sound) Records,” wrote of Toots Hibbert: “[H]e is the Otis Redding of Jamaican music. He’s toured with the [Rolling] Stones and has had the likes of Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and Willie Nelson pay tribute to him on record.”
Echoing this high praise in a documentary about Toots’s life called “Reggae Got Soul” (airing on the BBC in 2011), renowned reggae historian Roger Steffens said: “I found some words in a British encyclopedia that sum [Toots] up that I’d like to share with you: No artist ever painted a broader and truer canvas of daily life in Jamaica than Toots. The full-blooded celebrations of ‘Sweet and Dandy’; the screaming cry against injustice in ‘54-46’; The harsh strains of ghetto life in ‘Pressure Drop’; the sheer exuberance of first love in ‘It’s You’; the happy companionship of ‘Never You Change’; the ever-present threat of violence described in ‘Bam Bam.’ That’s Toots.”
Also appearing in the documentary, Bonnie Raitt observed: “I think the reason Toots resonates so much with the rest of the world, and especially America, is he is just a badass soul singer”; and, distinguished music critic Anthony DeCurtis declares: “Toots’s voice is one of the great musical gifts of our time.” All of this happens in just the first nine minutes of the hour-long film! Afterwards, the moving, awe-inspiring tributes – from a vast number of equally impressive luminaries in music – just keep on coming.
And so dear reader, I’m sure you can imagine just how humbled I felt walking into Toots’s trailer to interview him shortly after he headlined the ninth annual Reggae on The Mountain in Topanga Canyon, California; upon leaving the stage there were deafening chants of “Toots! Toots!” from ecstatic festival-goers who knew they’d just been a part of music history, and who desperately wanted to hold on to Toots’s magical, legendary aura, just a bit longer. Instantly put at ease by Toots’s friendly, extroverted manner, I interviewed this one-of-a-kind figure in music; what follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Toots, thank you for blessing Reggae on the Mountain with that great performance!
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Oh, we didn’t have enough time to make it “great”!
Q: I heard you had some bus trouble getting here?
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Oh Lord!
Q: So Toots, this was your first time [performing] at Reggae on the Mountain. How was the crowd and the experience for you?
Toots Hibbert: My experience was very, very strong. To see so many people out there – and this was my first time. And it won’t be the last.
Q: Great! Awesome. Now, an article in Rolling Stone magazine announcing this tour that you’re on said you have recorded a whole heap of new material. And you sang at least one of these new songs tonight, right?
Toots Hibbert: Yes!
Q: “Marley” was a new song. Were there any other new songs that you sang tonight – that I may not have caught?
Toots Hibbert: No. That is the only one I want to release [and promote right] now.
Q: When will you be releasing your next new album?
Toots Hibbert: Uh, I don’t have a good plan yet. Because there’s so many good songs. And you know when I [perform], people always want to hear [all of my] old number one [hit] songs dem.
Toots Hibbert: So we’re going to find a way out of it, me and my management, and um …
Q: Do you have a title for [your new] album yet?
Toots Hibbert: No.
Q: Are there any collaborations with other artists on your new album?
Toots Hibbert: Some. Not really a lot. It’s [going to be a] surprise. Maybe four.
Q: Four collaborations?
Toots Hibbert: Yes. Maybe I’ll get more. But we don’t know [how many there’ll be] right now. The songs are very good: I play the guitar, I play the bass, I play the keyboard –
Toots Hibbert: I play everything.
Q: Every instrument?
Toots Hibbert: Every instrument. And I produce this myself, as I used to produce all of my songs. I wrote them. I built them. I put it up, and I break it down. And I mek it to be real good.
Q: Toots, in a documentary about your life that aired on the BBC in 2011, you said you were maybe 8 years old when your mom passed –
Toots Hibbert: Yeah.
Q: – and then, you were only 14 to 16 years old when your father died. And you were the last of fourteen children. And every day you walked 5 miles from home to school.
Toots Hibbert: Yeah.
Q: But despite all of this sufferation [and more], there is such a joy in all of your songs. Can you explain how that could be – how were you able to be so joyful [in your music]?
Toots Hibbert: Because I go into a spiritual home, my family. I’m very spiritual. You have to go to the church. You have to love certain respect, and manners. And to know how to treat people. Black and white. We all must come together by the rules of right. No one is better – no black people are better than white people; no white people are better than black people. Everywhere I go, I have that international power: from my parents, [and] from God. So we just have to appreciate my audience, appreciate you, appreciate everyone.
Q: A spirit of “One Love”? [Of] [u]nity?
Toots Hibbert: Yes. [But] [i]t’s more than “One Love,” it’s true love. (Smiling)
Q: Like your Grammy [Award]-winning album, “True Love”?
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Yes.
Q: Toots, your 1968 Hit Song “Do the Reggay” is credited with coining the word “reggae” – later spelled with an “e” at the end, not a “y” – and for a very long time you’ve been recognized as a living legend. Reggae music would not be as big today or nearly the same without you. In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles that exist that are still keeping reggae music down and/or that are preventing reggae as a [music] genre from being even bigger than it is – in Jamaica, in the U.S., and also, in the rest of the world?
Toots Hibbert: Some of the obstacles [are]: the younger generation [don’t have] the true lyrics to [make] international [hit songs]. Myself and Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff [and the] other great[s] still in Jamaica – we sing history. My songs tell history –
Q: Yes, sir.
Toots Hibbert: – and tell not just stories, but true stories.
Q: Yes, sir.
Toots Hibbert: My songs heal people and uplift the audience. So the younger generation just sing[s], “baby, I love you,” and all those things –
Q: Not as meaningful?
Toots Hibbert: Not as meaningful as tradition.
Q: And not as timeless?
Toots Hibbert: Yes, yeah.
Q: Why is it that yourself and other old school foundational reggae artists seem to be more popular abroad than in Jamaica?
Toots Hibbert: Oh, well, we are very popular in Jamaica. But you know, not everyone can do it the international way. [And] our records don’t sell enough. Jamaica is very small, you know? [But] my songs live forever. Bob Marley’s songs live forever. Good singers in Jamaica, their songs live forever, also. But the younger generation needs to learn from us, and they’re trying their best. I love all the youth dem in Jamaica – they’re trying. It’s not easy to beat my style. Or Bob Marley’s style. Or Jimmy Cliff’s style. It’s hard. They have to go with what they have. So that’s what’s holding back the music. Music needs to be uplift[ing]. And people need to recognize reggae more in Jamaica. Just like we recognize it over here.
Q: Now Toots, you famously wrote your massive hit song “54-46” after being framed –
Toots Hibbert: Yeah, for weed.
Q: – and receiving an 18-month prison sentence in 1966 for marijuana possession in Jamaica. What are your thoughts about, and are you happy with, the progress that has been made toward marijuana legalization in Jamaica and around the world –
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing, lighting roach) Yes! Yes!
Q: – including here in California, where as of this year, herb is finally –
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) Oh Lord!
Q: – fully legal for adults?
Toots Hibbert: This weed is from California (indicating roach).
Q: (Laughing) And it’s legal this year!
Toots Hibbert: (Smoking) So happy, yes. Happy with the progress. The first time [when I was jailed in Jamaica for marijuana], I never have any. But it was a political reason why they put me in –
Toots Hibbert: Jail. Because I was young, and I just grow, go to Kingston, and get my ideas to write songs. I used to do boxing first. But not internationally. I grew up doing boxing and singing. And it was in Kingston where I entered the festivals and won with “Bam Bam.”
Q: You won a couple of times?
Toots Hibbert: I won with “Sweet and Dandy,” “Pomp and Pride” –
Q: You kept winning.
Toots Hibbert: Yeah, I kept winning. [And] some people who were living in Kingston were very jealous seeing that I’m a country guy – country bwoi just come to Kingston and make 31 number-one [hit] records in Jamaica.
Q: So they were jealous?
Toots Hibbert: Jealous. So it was politics. I never smoked. Never. (Takes long draw off of roach.)
Q: When did you start to smoke [weed]?
Toots Hibbert: When I came out of jail.
Q: Toots, in a 2016 interview with Billboard magazine you spoke about your friendship and your great respect for Bob Marley –
Toots Hibbert: Yes.
Q: What is your best, fondest memory of Bob Marley?
Toots Hibbert: We used to … share words together. He wants to be a dreadlock Rasta, and I wants to be a comb-lock Rasta. (Laughing)
Q: A what-like Rasta?
Toots Hibbert: Comb-locks. Comb-locks.
Toots Hibbert: Yeah, like comb my hair. And that’s why I wrote this song too –
Q: [Your new song,] Marley?
Toots Hibbert: Yeah. The word is — we used to “uplift” one another. With our words.
Toots Hibbert: Yeah, reasoning. He said he wants to be a dreadlock Rasta, I says, “ok with me.” I say, “I want to be a comb-locks Rasta,” like Selassie, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, you know? It’s a true story. So, uh, that really make me want to sing about Bob.
Q: You remember all the conversations you used to have with him –
Toots Hibbert: It’s just like what I told you. And some of it [was] about Rasta, and Babylon, and [how] we should come together as one.
Q: Joe Higgs [known as “The Godfather of Reggae”] said in an interview he gave to [reggae historian] Roger Steffens that when Bob Marley’s song “Simmer Down” first came out on the radio in Jamaica, he said that he was touring with you at the time, and that both you and him had gone into the bush together to smoke some herb with some Rastas. And “Simmer Down” came on the radio, and you said, quote: “Listen to this, this is the group that’s going to give us a hard time, and they can’t even find their key, some are out of key.”
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) I never say that!
Q: (Laughing) I wanted to ask you if you remembered saying that.
Toots Hibbert: No, I wouldn’t say that. They were singing before me. “Simmer Down” was way [back] when I start[ed] to sing. But, um, Joe Higgs [was] older than me, and older than Bob [was]. I think he was a greater singer than me, too.
Q: Really? [Joe Higgs is] the one who told this story to Roger Steffens. And he [further told Steffens] that he agreed with you at the time, that [Bob and the Wailers] were singing off-key, but to give them six months and they’re going to be “kicking ass.”
Toots Hibbert: (Explosive laugh) I [never] hear him say that!
Q: You don’t remember this?
Toots Hibbert: No. Because it’s like a parable. Why? Because I don’t remember having a tour with Joe Higgs.
Q: In that same 2016 Billboard interview [you did], you said that Bob Marley’s sons “are like my nephews and they respect me as their uncle.”
Toots Hibbert: Yes.
Q: Last year at Reggae on the Mountain, I interviewed King Yellowman, and Papa Michigan was also [present].
Toots Hibbert: Yes?
Q: And I asked whether the Marley family and the Marley estate have an obligation to do more to invest in reggae music in Jamaica. And Papa Michigan told me, quote, “you can’t compare these kids with Bob Marley. It is unfair.” And he explained, quote, “Bob suffered. So, Bob Marley had a different mentality. These kids didn’t suffer. When you suffer, you do things different.”
Toots Hibbert: Yes.
Q: Do you agree with Papa Michigan –
Toots Hibbert: Yes.
Q: – and do you think that the Marley sons and the Marley estate have done enough to invest and promote reggae music in Jamaica – and throughout the world?
Toots Hibbert: Yes. Yes. They’re gonna do more, too. Because they have to [follow in] the footsteps of their father, the footsteps of me, the footsteps of Joe Higgs, and everybody [who has played a part in the growth and rise of reggae music]. And they’re doing that – doing that in their way. Some [of the Marleys] do it [in a] dancehall way.
Q: They have the cruise that they do, the “Welcome to Jamrock [Reggae] Cruise” –
Toots Hibbert: I’ve been on there one time. Ziggy and Damian.
Q: So that’s a good thing that they do –
Toots Hibbert: Yes.
Q: And they also promote other artists. I guess I just always wonder whether they should be doing more.
Toots Hibbert: Well, they’re doing more, yes. It takes time to – to build a mansion.
Q: You’ve said before that although you were once under contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, that Chris Blackwell “didn’t do anything for you” and that he “didn’t promote your music.”
Toots Hibbert: Up until now.
Q: Has he started to do so now?
Toots Hibbert: No, he’s just a good friend.
Q: Because at the same time, you’ve also said [that] Blackwell has done a lot for reggae music. Ultimately, do you think [Chris] Blackwell has had a good, or a negative impact on reggae music, and why?
Toots Hibbert: I think he’s had a good impact on reggae music. He did some good things for a lot of people. Not enough for me, but I respect him. [And] [w]hat he’s done for music.
Q: One of the things I read was that he suggested “Funky Kingston” to you – that he basically suggested that as a [song] for you to do –
Toots Hibbert: There was a song coming from the islands – I forget the guy who sang “Funky Nassau.” And Chris came down [to Jamaica] and said, “I just got to meet [with you]” – I’d met him maybe three times before. And he said: “Have you heard this song about funky? Something about funky? And I said, “yeah man, we give it a try.” So me and my two friends, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, we go to Trenchtown, and we sit down, and I take my guitar, and I drop [the chords]. And [we went] to Dynamic [Sounds] Studio the next day, and we record it. So he actually gave me the idea to write the song.
Q: Chris [Blackwell] did?
Toots Hibbert: Yes, and I learn him. I [taught] him when he came to Jamaica, I said “man, I wrote the song, Funky Kingston.” And he said, “man, it’s so great.” And I said, “no man, it’s not great, it’s wicked!” So I teach him the word “wicked” (laughing)!
Q: (Laughing) That [wicked] is a good word?
Toots Hibbert: (Laughing) It’s very good. I just come up with the word “wicked,” and everybody catch on with the word “wicked.”
Toots Hibbert: And they don’t know that it’s me –
Q: That you’re the one that started it –
Toots Hibbert: When asked [I’ll tell them, but] people get jealous over everything.
Toots Hibbert: But when a thing is good, you have to learn to say, “it’s good.” And when a thing is wicked, you have to say, “it’s wicked”! (Laughing)
Q: In April, in an interview with Angus Taylor for online-magazine United Reggae, you said you knew that Donald Trump has praised your music, and that once, you met and took pictures with him on [the popular U.S. television program] “Saturday Night Live.” With all the things Donald Trump has done since you met him —
Toots Hibbert: Uh-oh.
Q: – and since becoming President in the U.S. – would you still be friendly with him, and take a picture with him, if you saw him now, today? And why?
Toots Hibbert: I will take a picture with anybody. I don’t think that would be a problem for anyone. Because you can take a picture with a good person. And you can take a picture with a bad person. But you don’t know his quality. So let friendship [rise] through all eternity, good and bad. [Rise] together through the day of harvest. You know, what he’s done, I may not like it. But I think he’s a movie star. (Laughing) He’s a movie star.
Q: Maybe just not much of a president?
Toots Hibbert: When I say that, every day you see something in life about him. (Laughing) So, I think he’s a movie star.
Photos by Stephen Cooper
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. His twitter is: @SteveCooperEsq