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Strike A Pose: Madonna's "Vogue" Dancers Recall Blond Ambition Tour & Gay Life In The '90s

Life after superstardom…

In 1990, Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition World Tour. She trekked from Japan to Europe to North America, challenging societal views on sexuality while entertaining the masses. She pushed the envelope with wildly provocative dance numbers and concert themes, yet never failed to promote safe sex. “You know you never really get to know a guy until you ask them to wear a rubber,” she unapologetically said to a crowd in Japan, before jumping into her set of “Get Into The Groove.”

Due to the tour’s highly sexualized and risqué acts, she faced various death threats, ban threats from the Vatican, and warnings of arrest. However controversial, there was no denying the pop star was on a journey to put a human face on the gay community and empower female sexuality.

After the tour in 1991, came Truth or Dare, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the show, which also chronicled the lives of seven of Madonna's back up dancers—Luis Camacho, Oliver Grumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Gabriel Trupin, and Carlton Wilborn.

“You see the dancers that I work with and little bits and pieces of their life,"  said Madonna during an interview on Good Morning America circa 1991. "I deal with a lot of  issues… and what I think to be a big problem in the United States and that is homophobia. There is a real big section in the movie devoted to that. These things exist in life. I’m only presenting life to people. I’m not presenting anything that they are not exposed to in everyday life, but maybe they don’t want to deal with it. If you kept putting something in somebody’s face eventually maybe they can come to terms with it.”

Twenty-five years later, these dancers are telling their own narrative (with the exception of Trupin, who died in 1995 at 26, due to complications from AIDS) in Strike A Pose, a Tribeca Film Festival documentary created by Ester Goud and Reijer Zwaan. The film, which had its grand North American debut on April 15, explores the truth behind everything that happened on tour and in the aftermath of the release of Truth of Dare. Three of the dancers — Stea, Trupin and Grumes — sued Madonna for the film due to issues with contracting and for publicly showcasing their homosexual identities, a huge issue for Trupin at the time. Trupin’s mother echoes his feelings about Truth or Dare in the recently-premiered Strike A Pose. "[It's] not a statement that he wanted to make. It was Madonna’s statement,” she said of her son’s sexuality.

The documentary also sheds light on how the tour first got started, with Madonna recruiting a pair of Latino dancers from New York City: Luis Camacho of Puerto Rican descent and Jose Gutierez of Dominican descent. Together, they choreographed her famous “Vogue” video.

Both were kids from the underground voguing scene and part of the House of Extravaganza, a crew of the New York ballroom scene.  Camacho and Gutierez were dance majors at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School Of Music And Performing Arts, and with a little hard work and a serendipitous encounter, they got the job.

“It’s crazy when you have this person give you this opportunity and we really didn’t work for it,” Jose muses. “It wasn’t a job that we were training for, like most dancers do.” Prior to dancing with Madonna at just 18, Jose trained at Eliot Feld Ballet Tech School since the third grade and traveled to Brazil and Japan with the House of Extravaganza.

On a bright spring day, Luis and Jose are holding court in a pressroom on the second floor of The Smyth Hotel. They discuss their experiences with Madge, the tour, Strike The Pose and the impact Truth Or Dare had on the gay community. “The first film gave us an opportunity to be express ourselves,” says Luis.“This new movie gave us an opportunity to express ourselves in a different light."

VIBE VIVA: What was it like being a gay Latino in the early '90s?
Jose: At the time it was crazy because there was a lot of a crime in the streets. Being gay wasn’t accepted as it is today, and I was very rebellious at a young age. [Laughs] So growing up then, even though what was around me was very distracting I managed to try to stay focused on my dancing. I’m from the Lower East Side—my family came from nothing really, they migrated here from the Dominican Republic. [Dancing] was a way to get out of the ghetto.

The gay scene opened my eyes to so many artistic things, and that also helped me develop as an artist. I was more dedicated as a kid, growing up I loved to dance, but other than that it was very hard growing up in the ghetto, trying to stay focused when everything around is drug deals and stuff like that. I came out at a very young age to the club scene, and that was my escape where I got to dance, perform and travel.


So were you part of the famous ballroom scene voguing documentary Paris is Burning?
Jose: Yes, oh my god I was a baby! I was 16-years old. I remember sneaking off for a weekend to Washington, D.C. to go compete at a ball. I snuck away without telling my mom. And that was a scene from Paris is Burning. I remember thinking to myself ‘I want to win, so I’m trying to get everything in there.' I was voguing at the speed of light, 'cause I didn’t want to lose. [Laughs]

Take me back to that night when you and Luis auditioned for Madonna at the club?
Jose: It was in club Sound Factory. A mutual friend of ours, Madonna’s make-up artist Debi Bazar, was like ‘Madonna’s coming she’s looking for dancers soon, and I told her about you guys, you have to meet her.’  In situations like that, you’re always like 'yeah yeah, whatever.’ And so we submitted a video of us dancing with the whole House of Extravaganza.

One night we walk into the club, and we see Debi and she was like ‘Come here I want you to meet somebody.’ She introduced me right there to Madonna. I remember being in awe. She said, 'Hey, I heard a lot about you guys, you guys do this vogue thing and I want to see.’ I was still stuck 'cause I remember thinking ‘you want us to show you now in the club? And she was like ‘Yeah, right now.’

I was always fashionably inclined, I was done up in this crazy Gaultier outfit. And I was like ‘how do you want me to dance like this?’ Her bodyguard took off his pants and gave them to me in the VIP bathroom. I couldn’t believe I was wearing her bodyguards’ pants; he was this huge dude. But I managed and practically auditioned on the spot. And once the club got wind that she was there, the whole club turned into an audition. She said ‘Sit here with me,’ to me and Luis. ‘And let’s watch these guys, tell me what you think.’

We were there for at least two hours, then she invited us to the actual audition. We beat out 7,000 dancers. It was crazy, because she thought that I was just an underground dancer—a voguer from the gay community. She didn’t know that I was 10 years into training. So she was like ‘Oh I want you to come and do the “Vogue” video, but I don’t know if I’m going to take you on tour, because there are other forms of dance that you have to be able to do.’ Then when she saw me she said ‘I didn’t know you can do all of that.’ I was like ‘You didn’t ask me’. [Laughs]

"DATHROBACK"

A photo posted by INtheNAMEoftheFATHER(J🙏🏾SE) (@fatherjose.xtravaganza) on

Did you feel any pressure to do well in the video for “Vogue”?
Jose: Oh yeah! We wanted show good work coming from the community—especially on a main stage for the world to see. We wanted to deliver the goods.

What was that first night like on tour?
Jose: The minute she came up on a lift and they saw a little bit of a hair, everyone just went crazy. And your heart is beating out of your chest. I remember that was the first moment in time I was like, ‘Oh sh*t is real’ And when you hear them screaming your name, at 18-years old, you’re like ‘They are screaming for me?’ It was like you just want to jump out into the crowd—such a great feeling.

How did it feel like when Truth or Dare came out?
Jose: It was very overwhelming for me at the time. I didn’t set out to move people; you’re so young that you don’t realize that. You don’t think that people are like ‘Oh my god Truth or Dare saved my life.’ Today, I still get ‘Watching that movie, saved my life, seeing you being so open and comfortable made me want to come out to my family.’ That to me is amazing cause at that age, you don’t set out to do any of that. You’re not looking to be a role model, you’re just looking to live in that moment. That’s why I think I didn’t realize till much later what I had accomplished. I was just there to dance, and I loved what I was doing. I was just a young kid expressing my art. I’m so glad I was able to touch and move people. The fact that people still appreciate it 26 years later is amazing.

Why do you think the '90s needed this?
Jose: Because it was a time where we needed something new. The '90s just came in and being part of the community and part of the scene—with the rise of pop art, I think they needed somebody like Madonna to put the community on the map. [She] opened up people’s eyes to so many things that are going on in the world. It’s here: boys like each other, we’re gay, we’re human, we’re talented.

I think it played a major part in the early '90s because you never seen anything like it. That was before reality shows, now you see it like nothing. But back then to see two boys kissing was overwhelming, but it was happening. I can’t even imagine someone being not proud of who they are. We have to be proud of who we are, and everybody is somebody. We are all here for a reason. And ever since I was a kid I always remembered that: ‘You’re gay, but you are special.’

Truth or Dare showcased the love Madonna had for you guys. How would you define your relationship with her back then? 
Jose: I didn’t know how to take it. I was so young, and yeah I loved the love. She was almost like a mother to us.

Luis: This was our first big mainstream thing. We were quote in quote kings of the underground with House of Extravaganza. But this crossover was the first to us. She really took to us. By the time we got to Los Angeles and started working we were really tight. We felt very akin to her. She was really loving towards to us.

Oh yea!!!"almost forgot."HOPE ALL YALL HAD A WONDERFUL FOURTH O JULY WKND!!!!"

A photo posted by INtheNAMEoftheFATHER(J🙏🏾SE) (@fatherjose.xtravaganza) on


How was it like dealing with all the controversy the Blond Ambition tour spurred?
Jose: When they started calling hotels and leaving death threats [it] was scary. But at the same time that made us want to be even fiercer. I was ready to take off my clothes and everything. And after all of that, we were extra provocative.

Can you describe to me a different side of Madonna that you guys were privy to?
Jose: I saw such an emotional side. I thought I was going to lose my job because I got her so upset, to the point where she was crying. The tour was almost ending and we got into a conversation, and she was promising us to continue with a record deal, and performing at the MTV Awards. And I sad, ‘You’re a liar, we’re not going to see you again.’ I said ‘Oh please, you’re just gong to forget about us.’

It really hurt her feelings. And she just kicked me out of her dressing room. So that was a moment for me that I never saw—cause you think, ‘When this is over you’re going to move on.’ She just started crying and she said, ‘Just get out of my room.' She kicked me out.

Luis: She honestly was really loving and motherly to us. But besides that, she was an around-the-way girl when there weren’t any cameras around. She was really chill, relaxed and we hung out.

What was it like adjusting  after you guys got back home from tour?
Luis: The phone wasn’t there for room service!  [Laughs]

Jose: It was a rude awakening. You’re spoiled with this lifestyle. As a kid you can easily adapt to all of that. I hated home, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in my mom’s house. My mother looked at me like ‘Calm down before I smack you down.’ [Laughs]

Luis: Even though we didn’t come back to the situation we were accustomed to, we came back with so much knowledge.

Jose, in Strike A Pose, your mother mentions her disappointment because you didn’t continue with your dancing career. Why didn’t you keep going after working with Madonna?
Jose: I got distracted for a moment and I hid for a while. A lot my friends started dying when AIDS began to hit and I lost grip of a lot of things. I was still so young and I didn’t know how to deal with everything. All my family and friends that we had looked up to passed on. I was also caught up in messy relationships. Not to say that I regret anything, it made me who I am today, but I think that all of that was happening so fast. There were times where I had three or four friends in the hospital dying at 18-years old and nobody knew where it was coming from. It became very hard, and you do things that you wouldn’t normally do because you feel cheated and you walk around bitter. I did that for a while. I was getting so much love and adoration, but I didn’t see any of that stuff.

What are your fondest memories of Gabriel?
Luis: He was never upset about anything.

Jose: He was always smiling—so sweet.

Luis: He was such a good-natured person. We never came across someone like that, especially us—we came from a lion’s den. We come from this background of either you're fierce or you’re not. Gabriel was this little ball of sunshine and light.

How did you guys feel about the lawsuit Kevin, Oliver and Gabriel filed?
Luis: We were in the middle of doing a record deal, so we really didn’t want to get too involved with what was going on. At that time we didn’t understand why.

Jose: It divided us.

Luis: They had something in their contract from their agency that they were not honoring.

Do you guys understand why Gabriel did it?
Luis: I understand why he did it, but that wasn’t our situation. We were out and proud already. Do I understand why he wanted out the movie? Yes. Do I understand why she would want him in the movie? Yes.

How does it feel like not having a relationship with Madonna now?
Jose: Sometimes it feels weird, because you like to think that these moments you share with a person aren’t just business. There are feelings involved. I know she thinks the same. Whatever the reason is, she has moved on. Life happens and she is a celebrity as well. I don’t expect her to come knocking on my door, but I definitely miss her on a personal level. It doesn’t have to be gig. It was more than that.

How do you feel about critics who say Madonna hasn’t given people of color the proper recognition for starting the vogue dancing movement?
Jose: She took two of our own and allowed us to take it all over the world. This vogue thing needed somebody like her.

If you can give your younger selves advice what would it be?
Luis: To be more focused

Jose: Be more present.

Do you guys have any regrets?
Luis: I don’t regret anything.

Jose: Sometimes. I always say that everything that we did has made us who we are today. No I wouldn’t change anything that happened. We would do everything the same way. [But] just be more focused like Luis said.

Luis: If could have went to Los Angeles afterwards and gotten represented, I would’ve probably done that.

What are you guys doing now?
Luis: I own a show in Palm Springs, it’s called "Carnival Cabaret," and it’s a female impersonator show. I choreograph for it, but I’m not in the show. And I’m writing a memoir right now, too.

Jose: I’m working with the kids at The Door, an organization dedicated to helping youth. I just did a project with Baz Luhrmann and Jaden Smith, which is coming out on Netflix. It’s called The Get Down. I was on it as a consulting choreographer, and they asked me to be in the project. I also just got back from Sweden, from teaching a workshop there— still trying to keep dancing.

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Then & Now: Common Details How He And J Dilla Collaborated On The "Thelonious" Track With Slum Village

J Dilla and Common had a really tight creative bond and, at one point, lived together in L.A. So you know that Common got dibs on all of his hot beats first. They were hip-hop brethren just trying to work together and of all of their collaborations, living and posthumous, the track “Thelonius,” is the sharpest intersection of the two legendary artists' careers.

A singular song fit for two albums, the cut was placed on Common’s fourth studio album Like Water for Chocolate and Fantastic Vol. II, Slum Village's classic sophomore album. “Thelonius” as we know it was in a way an accident...a soulful snafu that we get to enjoy forever. In this excerpt of VIBE's Then & Now video franchise, Common shares how the song manifested unplanned, willed into existence by Dilla’s uncompromising creative compass.

The story is brought to life with artwork by visual artist supreme, Dan Lish (@DanLish1), the man behind Raekwon’s The Wild album artwork. The illustrations you see in this video are a small fraction of what you can find in his upcoming book: Egostrip Vol 1 – The Essential Hip Hop Art Book, a psychedelic visual history of hip-hop to be enjoyed by the genre’s oldest and youngest fans alike. 

Today is the last day to support Lish's Kickstarter for the incredible project. Click the following link for a copy of your own: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dan-lish/egostrip-book-1 

“I picked up on what inspired me about the artists, whether it be a certain lyric from a classic song or my perception of what may be going through their mind at the moment of creation,” says Lish.

There is much more to be said about all of these artists. For more stories on Common’s catalog, including several more Dilla cuts, stay tuned for the upcoming episode of Then & Now, where we dig deeper into notable tracks in the career of one Lonnie Rashid "Common" Lynn, Jr.

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Quavo Is Introducing 'Fan Controlled Football' To The Culture

From their penchant for popping tags and name-dropping designer brands in their rhymes to the obsession with diamond-encrusted neckwear, the Migos are the modern-day poster-children for decadence and opulence. But when it comes to balling, group member Quavo is a seasoned veteran, literally and figuratively. Notorious for his appearances in NBA all-star celebrity games, where he routinely dominates the competition, Huncho has built a rep as one of the athletically gifted hit-makers in music today.

Although he's known for his skills on the hardwood, football is definitely among his passions. His newest endeavor, an ownership stake in Fan Controlled Football (FCF), the first professional sports league to put the viewer in the coach's seat and the general manager's office, in live time, finds him putting his focus back on the gridiron. Having inked an exclusive, multi-year streaming broadcast partnership with Twitch, the FCF will be the first professional sports league to be fully integrated with the streaming platform with the potential to explode in the digital age, where user interest and participation is the main recipe for success.

Having tossed the pigskin around as a Georgia high school football star, to Quavo, it was a no-brainer to get involved with the innovative league on the ground level. “We are building a brand and something different in our league – with the fans. They are in control and get to pick the team names, colors, logos, and more,” said Quavo said in a press release. “I’m really excited because FCF is fast-paced, high-scoring 7v7 football and you are in control. You go from sitting on the couch watching TV and pressing buttons on the remote to actually pressing the buttons on the plays.”

Played on "a 35-yard x 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones,” the Fan Controlled Football league will kick off in February 2021, with a four-week regular season, one week of playoffs, and a Championship week. The league will consist of former elite D-1 athletes, the CFL, XFL, and the Indoor Football League. Broadcasted live from the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, each game will be 60 minutes in length and will allow the viewers to play a hand in the final outcome on Twitch.

Aside from sports, Quavo has been relatively lowkey on the musical tip as of late, with two years having passed since a solo release or a Migos album. However, according to him, this delay can be considered the calm before the storm, as he assures him and his brethren are primed for one of their biggest years yet. VIBE hopped on the line with Quavo to talk Fan Controlled Football, what he's got cooking in the studio, and his foray into TV and film.

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You're the newest team owner at Fan Controlled Football (FCF). What about the league piqued your interest and made you wanna get involved?

It's just showing my interest in the game of football and just trying to put a twist to where it's fan-controlled, fan-involved. A lot of times we watch the game, you watch the game, you just have some concerns. Sometimes you feel you can make the plays or call the play, [with FCF], you can sit on the couch and make the play. I just think we came together to make something crazy like that. I feel like it's something hard, it's something new, it's something fresh. It's a new beginning to something, like giving ni**as a chance. Giving D-1 players who couldn't make it to the league a chance, giving ex-NFL ni**as a chance if they still got it, [and] to go with the fans. When we saw the Falcons lose the Superbowl LI, we [fans] just knew what plays to call, we knew to run the ball. We were up 28-3. All we had to do was hold the ball, but we wanted to air it out and we made a mistake and lost to Tom Brady. Just like when Marshawn could've won a Superbowl. If they'd have given him the ball on the two-yard line. We knew that Marshawn Lynch was supposed to get the ball, [but] they wanted Russell Wilson to win it and the New England Patriots caught an interception. So that's how we're trying to shape it, we're trying to make something new.

The FCF will be live-streamed exclusively on Twitch, which has become one of the leading platforms for eSports live-streaming and will kick off in February 2021. Do you feel the FCF has the opportunity to fill that NFL void during the spring, particularly given the fan engagement that FCF enables?

Most definitely, cause after the Super Bowl, it just feels like you just want another game. You feel like you want one more game. and coming from something [where it's] eleven on eleven players to seven on seven, I feel [there’s] still a difference. After coming from watching the game and the regular politics, the regular structure of the game, now you're getting to be involved in a game that you can control. You can pick the jersey, you can pick the helmets, you can pick the jerseys, you can pick the coaches, you can pick the plays. I just feel there are two different dynamics [between the NFL and FCF). You come from sitting on the couch and pressing the remote to actually pressing the button on the plays."

Speaking of fan engagement, the FCF is the only professional sports league that enables fans to call the plays in real-time and puts the viewer in control of a game’s outcome like never before. Have you ever had that experience, as far as fantasy football?

Nah, but I'm into Madden. You can sit at home and pick your plays [with FCF], it's just like the lifestyle of Madden. It's like a reality of Madden. You're playing with people at home, with these unique athletes, and it's seven-on-seven.

As an Atlanta native, how significant was the FCF’s state-of-the-art facility being in your hometown in your decision to come on board as an owner?

It's very important. We got top-tier talent here, so it's opening up opportunities for a lot of guys. We're just glad it's in the south, it's like a hub. Everybody loves Atlanta and everybody wanna be here. Everybody wanna play and the weather is good.

NFL Super Bowl Champions Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, boxing legend Mike Tyson, and YouTuber and podcaster empire Greg Miller are among the FCF's team owners. How does it feel to be competing against some of the most accomplished athletes and entertainers in the world? Have you had the opportunity to meet with any of them?

Most definitely. I have a good relationship with Mike Tyson. I've met Marshawn Lynch, it's a blessing. I feel like we're not competing right now, I feel like we're building a brand. I feel like we're building a league. I feel like we're trying to make the world understand what we're bringing to the table and what type of game we bring to the table, you feel me? I feel we're trying to create something different. Once we get the ball rolling, it's all together and moving into a real FCF league, then we'll get to compete. Of course, we all wanna win, but right now, we're just trying to get the foundation and the basics going and letting the strength of the owners and the relationships show on the field.

Being that you'll all be working with your respective fan bases in shaping your team’s personality and identity, any thoughts about what the team’s name will be? 

Man, I wish I did, but it's so straight strictly fans that you never know. Just like with music, can have an idea that is a smash, and then the fans don't think it is. You gotta strictly listen to the fans on this one. You gotta listen strictly to how they want it because it's the point of the game, that's the point of the league. We gotta let them control this game and then we the players and we the people that's listening to the people, the culture. FCF stands for culture, too, you feel what I'm saying? We listen to the culture, we're letting the culture run the field.

How involved will you be in the drafting and scouting process for your squad?

The fans make the draft, fans get to see everything. Open books, everything. It's an open thing, it ain't nothing to hide over here. The fans control it all.

In addition to sports, you've also been delving into acting, with cameos in shows like Atlanta, Star, Black-ish, and Ballers. Earlier this year, you appeared as yourself in Narcos: Mexico. How did that opportunity come about? 

Narcos reached out. We [Migos] had this song called “Narcos” on the [Culture II] album and we went and shot [the video] in Miami and everybody thought it was a Narcos movie scene and it ended up being Madonna's house. So we just shot that there and then they reached out to us. I think Offset had a performance somewhere and Takeoff had to do something and I just ended up being free that day and I went and shot it in New Mexico. I had fun, I loved it.

Do you have plans to pursue any supporting or leading roles in film or television?

Hell yeah, most definitely. I've been sitting down and having real great meetings with directors and people that got some movies in the works for 2021. I feel like I’ve got some good spots. I don't wanna tell it cause they’re gonna make some announcements. It's coming soon.

It's been two years since you've released a solo project or one with the Migos. Can fans expect any new music from you anytime soon and what are your next plans on that front?

Most definitely, hell yeah, we're shooting videos right now. We’re vaulting up a whole lot of videos so we can give you music and visuals at the same time. “Need It," the song came first and then the video. Right now, we wanna get a lot of videos and a lot records in the vault and smash [them] all at once 'cause it's been two years.

Pop Smoke's passing was one of the more tragic events in rap in recent memory, but his debut album, which you appeared on throughout, has been one of the most successful and acclaimed projects of 2020. How has it been seeing how the album’s been received, especially after you and him developed such a bond in a short time?

I'm happy. I'm proud of him, that was my partner. We did a lot of records, we spent a lot of time together and I feel like the album would've did even more with him being alive. A lot of people's album just go crazy when they die, I feel like his sh*t would've still went crazy. He had the momentum, he had the buzz. He was having fun. He was hot, he was fresh, he had everything ready.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

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When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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