“As long as I am strong, I am young,” Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, the reggae architect whose deified, six-decade musical career helped popularize the genre, told Rolling Stone earlier this year. The ska-reggae legend sounds stronger than ever on Got to Be Tough, his first album in more than a decade.
Co-produced by Zak Starkey for his Trojan Jamaica label – with contributions from Starkey’s dad Ringo Starr – Got to Be Tough is the result of two rum-fueled, round-the-clock recording sessions that blends incendiary, soul-inspired resistance music (“Freedom Train”) and horn-driven reggae-funk blasts (“Just Brutal”). “We were brought here/Sold out, victimize, brutally,” Toots sings on the latter before expounding on the need for peace. “We need more love in our heart.”
Fighting against systemic corruption has been a theme for Hibbert since his wrongful imprisonment more than 50 years ago for drug possession (the incident inspired his signature song “54-46 Was My Number.”) In 2020, the machines Hibbert rages against with pacifism – systemic racism, economic injustice, climate destruction – only seem to be multiplying. “Let decency counteract your dirty principle that you possess,” he sings on “Warning Warning.” “And be respectful so that everyone can see.” The former boxer can still jab with his left hand, even if he’s trying to hug you with his right.
But Hibbert’s versatility has long been his greatest gift; that singular singer – inspired as much by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Willie Nelson as the reggae giants – who can plead for peace in the morning (“Stand Accused”) and belt about partying later that night (“Having a Party”). Ziggy Marley joins Hibbert and Ringo for a boisterous cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” with Jamaican drummer extraordinaire Sly Dunbar and Meters drummer Cyril Neville adding percussive firepower to the album.
“This is my last chance, man,” he told Rolling Stone. “I gotta do this now. Every day I’m getting older. But I still have my strength, so now it’s time.” At 77, reggae’s king is still perpetually in the studio. And still perpetually wearing the crown.