Little Brother
Jenny Regan

Little Brother On Building Friendship, Bucking Nostalgia, And Embracing Freedom

Little Brother is back for the first time in nearly a decade, with a stronger friendship and the same musical brilliance that made them such an important act.

When Little Brother first emerged in the early 2000s, they impressed fans with 9th Wonder’s warm, sample-based production and Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh’s smart, relatable rhymes about holding down regular jobs and pursuing rap success while lobbing jokes and life lessons along the way. During a time where many people wrongfully pigeonholed the South for snap, crunk and trap music, Little Brother brought a different vibe from North Carolina, adding thoughtfulness to their fun, in the lineage of Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest. Their first two albums, The Listening and The Minstrel Show, earned critical acclaim and die-hard fan bases. But as many groups do, Little Brother eventually broke up: 9th Wonder left the group and has continued his success as a producer, and Phonte and Pooh recorded two more albums together before calling it quits. Both have continued to make music since then. Phonte has released two solo rap albums and earned a Grammy as half of Foreign Exchange, an R&B/soul group he formed with Netherlands producer Nicolay. Pooh has released several albums since the group ended as well, along with using his industry experience to manage Dreamville rapper Lute and producer Blakk Soul.

But while each of them has earned continued prosperity in the music business separately, their fans have consistently begged for Little Brother to come back together. And after a reunion show that was chronicled in a documentary, this year, they did exactly that: Phonte and Big Pooh, sans 9th Wonder, released May The Lord Watch. The group’s vibe is still intact as strong as ever with their thoughtful rhymes and hilarious skits, and the album doesn’t only sound like they never broke up – it feels like they’ve actually gotten closer. That tone continued when they visited the VIBE office in New York City, where they’re laughing and sharing memories between answering questions. “We’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers,” Phonte said. “We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.”

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VIBE: I’ve heard a lot of stories about how artists resolve differences. Sometimes, things reach a boiling point and the two parties sit down and hash things out. Other times, they won’t even speak about the issues because they weren’t truly a big deal in the first place – they just start working together again. How did you two get on the same page?

Rapper Big Pooh: Niggas aired it all out. I saw when 9th and I first started back talking, we didn’t have a real conversation. It was more like, “the past is the past and we’re good,” but a lot of shit was still unresolved because you never have that conversation. So when ‘Te and I first got on the phone for the first time, it was a four-hour conversation.

Phonte: You can’t just treat the infection, you have to treat the cause.

Pooh: We went through it all, man. It was deeper than just, “I apologize.” We broke it all the way down so, if this is the last conversation we have, I’m going to tell you everything. Everything is on the table. When we broke it all down, we realized, niggas just didn’t know how to communicate certain things. And when you don’t communicate certain things, you’re left to assume … As a mature man at this point, you’re like, “damn dog, I really didn’t talk to you over bullshit. We could’ve cleared this up and that would’ve been the end of it.” Even to this day, we make sure that we’re upfront with each other. “Ay bro, I said such and such yesterday, I didn’t mean it that way” just to make sure we stay there, because things could easily get out of control.

Phonte: Keep that line of communication open because you need to check in with each other. Even with the album title May The Lord Watch, you’re sending well wishes to someone – while we’re apart from each other I hope the Lord is watching over you, but at the same time, we’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers. We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.

VIBE: What is it like for you guys to be so close now, when Little Brother's rift was so public before?

Phonte: With me and Pooh, our rift was never really public. Me and 9th had a moment where our shit got real public, but me and Pooh never had that.

Pooh: People didn’t know we weren’t talking until we said we weren’t talking.

Phonte: It was a three-man group, but if you’re all frat brothers, me and Pooh crossed the burning sands. We were in the foxhole together. That wasn’t the case with the third member. He was like grad chapter; you’re on paper. The dynamic just ain’t the same. We all brothers, but… Even in our disagreements, when [Pooh and I] weren’t talking to each other, it never got to the point of disrespect. We never went out on each other like that because even at the root of disappointment, anger and hurt, there was always respect there. I think that made it a little bit easier, vs. if things got super ugly on the Internet where nothing dies, if we had some stupid online war.

Pooh: That was definitely always there. And I’m not a fool. I’m not going to war with a nigga who’s a magician with words online. [both artists laugh] Nigga’s an English major! Magna cum laude! I’m not going to war with that nigga online that knows everything about me.

Phonte: That’s the thing. You get in a beef with a nigga you’re cool with, that is assured mutual destruction. It’s over. Because by the time that shit is over with, the only niggas y’all gonna have is each other. Because everything else is over. Your marriage, your job, your family. We blowing all this shit up.

Pooh: Can’t go to war with a nigga that knows where the bones are buried.

VIBE: When I heard May The Lord Watch, I was surprised by just how much it truly sounded like a Little Brother album. Both of you have done so much since then, so I was didn’t know what to expect. How much effort went into capturing that feel, and how much of it was natural?

Phonte: It was hard. I can’t front. This is the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my career. You know what you’re looking for, you know what the feeling is, you know in your heart and your bones what Little Brother is and what that sound is. But you don’t know it until you hear it. So trying to explain to another producer what you’re looking for – you know what it is, but I’ll know it when I hear it. The good part is that if you’re working with a good producer, when they find it and you say “that’s it!” they can move forward. But it was hard. We went through a lot of tracks and probably three or four different configurations of the album. We started in October 2018 and the final finish was probably three weeks ago. It was a real painstaking process. I’m happy that it sounds easy to people, but there was a lot of work that went into that.

VIBE: Was there any hesitation to do the album at all once you realized 9th Wonder wouldn’t be part of it?

Pooh: I think once he was removed from the picture, it actually became less complicated. The thing people don’t understand is that ever since the beginning of recording The Minstrel Show, it’s just been me and Te anyway. Once he was back in the picture, it was really back to ground zero because we had to figure out how this works. If we were Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron, Wade and LeBron been best friends since fucking forever, now you gotta integrate Chris Bosh into the picture, how does that work? When he was out the picture it was less complicated and we could just focus on the work. … We just dove in. Niggas didn’t check the temperature of the water, we didn’t see how deep it was, we didn’t know if anybody else was in the pool. Niggas just jumped in and saw if we could swim. That helped us because we didn’t take the time to overthink it.

… We started at the beginning of October. By the time we realized it was official that 9th was not going to be in the picture, in December, first thing I said to Te was: “nigga I know we’re starting over, but we’re here now, we gotta finish this shit out.”

Phonte: That was a real conversation we had. At that point I had to ask him if he still wanted to do this, because I didn’t want to assume. We started the record over again from scratch and rebuilt it from nothing, and kept working and pushing through until we finished it.

VIBE: Was is frustrating for fans to always be asking you guys to get back together, when you knew you weren’t in the space to do it?

Pooh: It was definitely frustrating. Each of us individually had to learn to reframe their want. I had to think about it from a standpoint of, “damn, some shit I did in 2002 and 2003 is still ringing off. That’s so flattering. Why would you want to not have that happen?” I thank my man Rich Bartell for this, man. I expressed my frustration and he said, “you gotta understand what this means: when you have this type of reaction, the game isn’t finished with y’all. Until y’all come back and set shit right, this is gonna happen.” He proved prophetic, but that changed the way I framed the idea of people asking for Little Brother. At that point, once I made that change mentally, I was able to take it more in stride. It’s frustrating as fuck when you’re trying to promote a new record, and people are saying, “yeah that’s cool, but when we gon get that Little Brother?” But at the same time, I really did some shit that’s resonating with people after all this time. Who can really say that, especially today, when you can be popping today and by next month, who?

VIBE: How did you react when A Tribe Called Quest dropped their final album, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service in 2016?

Phonte: I was just amazed that the shit got done. It was amazing to see, something I never thought we’d get in this lifetime. And Phife passing just put it in a different space because this was the last time we’re going to hear his voice. He had verses on that album that were as good as anything else in his catalog. Even though he was at the end of his life physically, creatively he still had juice left in the tank. That informed us when we were working on May The Lord Watch. We aren’t making a nostalgic play. We’re not just coming back and making The Minstrel Show 2, or The Listening 2, or Get Back Again.

Nostalgia is bullshit. When you fall in love with a song, and people say “I love this thing,” you don’t love the song. What you love is that time in your life when you had less responsibilities and you were 40 pounds lighter. That’s what you love, that’s what you want to go back to. It’s what that song represents. “That was before I had you, me and your mom was kicking it good.” I can’t compete with your feelings or your memories. … It’s not that I don’t believe in sequels. If we’re talking movies, if there’s more of a story to tell, then it’s cool. But [often, with music], it’s just a marketing technique. It’s just niggas saying, “I’m gonna take my biggest album, then call this new album my biggest album part two,” but that may not have shit to do with your biggest album that you named it after. With Wayne (Tha Carter) and Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, it was more of a series. But with The Blueprint, he could’ve stopped after the first one. I’m always living in the present and thinking what’s the best way to serve my audience now? We don’t need The Color Purple 2: Mistah Strikes Back. (laughs)

VIBE: Phonte, I want to take a couple of quotes from your music. On “Dance In The Reign” from Charity Starts At Home, you said, “No one can say his life ain’t his / Some may even say underachiever, ‘cause they are not believers / that you don’t want the world, but I done seen the world / and if you ever saw hell, you wouldn’t want it either.” On this new one, you say, “peace of mind rarely comes with a check attached.” When did you begin to think that way?

Phonte: I started seeing it when I started having conversations with rappers who, on paper had more than me, and were trying to convince me that I should do this, but yet they were miserable. I remember a very specific phone call one time where I had a certain MC hit me and he was talking. “I’m trying to sign you.” I was just like, “dude, no. I’d never sign to another rapper, are you shitting me?” He’s going on. “I think you’re one of the best.” It was cool and it was fine, but at the end of the conversation, it turned into, “man, I’ve got one record left on my deal, and I’m out of this shit. I’m going to do me.” I stopped him: “I want you to understand what just happened. You’re calling me to try to convince me that I need the thing that you’re selling, but I already have the thing that you want, which is freedom.” That was the end of the conversation.

VIBE: Pooh, you really bodied this album too. There’s the line that I quoted, “my pen used to run across the page doing suicides,” on "All In A Day." And on “Right On Time,” you talk about delivering UberEats and being bittersweet that people didn't recognize you. What did it take for you to be comfortable sharing that much of yourself?

Pooh: Getting comfortable with who I am. I’m a very private person. You look on my Instagram, and it’s just me and people I’m doing business with. But as I was writing this record...we criticize people who rap about drugs and say, “you’re only showing one side, the glamorous side.” Or we criticize people on Instagram, “you’re just showing the good shit happening in your life.” I just decided when I was working, I gotta let these people know. This is what being a real musician is: peaks and valleys. When I hit that valley, I fucked up money, I fucked up opportunities. A lot of shit I fucked up on. That’s what I had to do to maintain. I’ve substitute taught, I’ve delivered packages for Amazon, and I drove Uber.

Phonte: I think that’s something that resonated with people because particularly now, I’m seeing the death of influencer culture. The jig is up on that shit. This buddy of mine said his girlfriend’s Uber driver was someone who’s killing it on social media. Even in those times where Pooh was substitute teaching or driving Uber, there was always pride in his work. The message to artists in 2019, there is no shame in an honest day’s pay. In this music shit, until you get to a point where you’re really established and you’re shit is on on, this shit is a sandcastle on a windy day at best. Until you get that rock-solid foundation, there is no shame in being a working musician.

VIBE: So what has it been like to take all those experiences to now managing other artists?

Pooh: That’s probably the best thing to happen for me, because I know what not to do. I have Lute, Blakk Soul, and my guy T. Smith. They’re all in different places in their careers and they’re all different ages, so it’s a wealth of information for them. And I don’t hide shit from them. So they know what it is. It’s okay if you have to get a job to support yourself until you don’t have to work that job anymore. And once you don’t have to work that job, let me show you how to budget your money accordingly so you aren’t doing stupid shit with your money, you make $100,000 in a year but you can’t account for $90,000 of it. I can make music, I have connections, but my greatest benefit for my artists is that I am an artist.

Phonte: I’ve always thought – and not saying this about Pooh, because I think he’s an amazing player – but a lot of times, the best players don’t make the best coaches. I think it’s easier to give instruction for someone like Pooh who has had those struggles and had to learn to play the game three or four different ways. It makes you a more compassionate coach because you can look at that kid say, “I see what you’re struggling with because I struggled with that,” versus a Jordan or somebody that had a lot of natural ability but isn’t able to teach that. Pooh is one of the best A&Rs I knew. He was responsible for bringing so many people in our circle. He was the first one to put Darien Brockington on a record, and that led to me and him working together. Pooh was the first one to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar, he was doing records with TDE way back before they were TDE. Pooh was responsible for King Mez coming into Dre’s camp and writing all that shit on Compton. He was the one making all those things happen, so when I saw him going into management, I knew he would kill it.

VIBE: A lot of rappers, if they aren’t from a popular rap area already, their goal is to put their city on the map. You guys actually did that: you put North Carolina on the map. Now there’s Cole, DaBaby, Rapsody.

Phonte: Me and Pooh say all the time: we were lead blockers. It wasn’t a glory position, but we helped clear the way and make daylight for these other brothers to come on. You just have to thank God that your influence was able to open that door. Because you could’ve been a wack nigga who opened the door and fucked it up for everybody. (laughs) It’s not a glory position, but me and Pooh never did it for the glory. We did it out of love for the music, a way to support our families, make beautiful records, and that was the end of it.

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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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Courtesy of Biz 3 / FCF

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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