In 2013, a fan who was having a little too much fun at a concert struck then-71-year-old Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert, lead singer of Toots and the Maytals, in the head with a bottle of vodka. The incident caused Hibbert to suspend touring, and instead to hunker down in his home recording studio where he composed and recorded reams of his own music, playing every instrument himself.
Got To Be Tough, the first studio album from Toots and the Maytals since 2010’s Flip and Twist, is the result of this hermitage. Hibbert worked with Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr and the founder of Trojan Jamaica Records, the label releasing Got To Be Tough, to digest and distill the mountain of music Hibbert had amassed.
The result is a magnificent sonic melange of the Black diaspora’s musical traditions: a powerful mixture of reggae, roots rock, soul, psychedelia and the African griot tradition. Starkey enlisted the assistance of drummer Sly Dunbar and percussionist Cyril Neville, as well as playing guitar himself on the album.
Like any good recipe, the main ingredient in Toots and the Maytals’ musical stew is difficult to identify, but it seems to be pulsing reggae rhythms with their emphasis on beats one and three in each measure. In fact, Hibbert was the first artist to use the word on a recording, the 1968 single, “Do The Reggay.” While this pulsing rhythm creates the core of the musical groove, over this rock-solid musical bed Hibbert layers overdriven blues guitar, staccato horn lines and thick thumping bass to create a dynamic wall of sound.
The album’s opener, “Drop Off Head,” bubbles with thick bass and stabs of slightly overdriven guitar. Hibbert delivers his lyrics with a mixture of leathery toughness and grandfatherly encouragement that adds tension to the fairly mellow groove. Sings the artist: “If you fall, you can rise/ Pick up yourself from off the ground/ Sometimes your good friend let you down/ Saying bad things about you/ Just use it as a motivation/ ‘Cause I know your expectation/ Don’t you prejudice against no Nation/ I know what you anticipating.”
The title track is the purest distillation of the reggae sound on the album. But the song’s fairly conventional reggae riff, which could easily be confused for something by the Wailers after a spliff or two, is updated by stabs of modern-sounding synthesizers.
But Hibbert and company are not afraid to explore other musical genres. “Just Brutal” evokes the high energy funk of Sly and the Family Stone with its vaguely disco beat and horn lines designed to summon you to the dance floor. “Having a Party” borrows some serious rhythmic uplift from the ska of bands like The Specials.
The closest comparison I can come up with for this album is Los Lobos’ lo-fi garage-based side project The Latin Playboys. Got To Be Tough has the same DIY production, the same earnest and rootsy vibe, the same assimilation of diverse musical traditions and the same palpable love for music that comes though in every note.
Hibbert has the rare gift of making albums that feel like products of love rather than another commodity produced for a marketplace. After 10 years of sheltering in place, Toots and the Maytals have returned from the mountaintop with a whole bunch of new recipes.