Tristan Walker Tristan Walker
Walker & Company

Bevel CEO Tristan Walker Talks Growth, Regrets, And Combat Jack

With the launch of a new line of Bevel products, CEO Tristan Walker reflects on his company's career and shares memories with Combat Jack.

This writer had never used Bevel products before meeting the company’s founder and CEO Tristan Walker, but I still felt like a longtime user when he walked into the VIBE office in Times Square. Walker founded Walker & Company, which houses Bevel, a company that made shaving products specifically for black men, in 2013 – and I first heard about them via repeated ads on The Combat Jack Show and other podcasts in the Reggie Osse-founded Loud Speakers Network. He also scored an investment from rap legend Nas, who shouted out the brand on his song with DJ Khaled, “Nas Album Done,” with lyrics that referenced his own legacy while praising a new one: “signature fade with the Bevel blade, that’s a major key.” Walker continued to build the brand, getting products in Target stores and eventually selling the company to beauty powerhouse Procter & Gamble while remaining the CEO. Despite not using Bevel’s shaving system or trimmers, the company still had an unmistakable place in “the culture” with endorsements from some of its most prestigious figures, so it always felt like one of us was winning.

In 2020, the Queens native is spearheading his first launch since merging with Procter & Gamble and has elevated Bevel into a full-fledged beauty and skincare company for men: body wash, soap, hair products, beard care, face serum, deodorant, and more, all in sleek, tone on tone packaging. There’s also Form, a fledgling line of women’s hair care products. “I want my sons to be able to use this stuff exclusively,” Walker says, before breaking down each product one by one. “...We have exclusively Walker & Company products in my home now, which gives me hope, pride, and excitement to the culture.” In a conversation with VIBE, Walker shares how he maintains his company’s integrity while working with bigger brands, his entrepreneurial regrets, and how black men will continue to build capital in the beauty industry.

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In recent years, there has been a much larger willingness, if not pride, for men to take care of themselves and how they looked. When I was growing up, it was only products for women; men were called “metrosexual” if they had products. What do you think has led to this change with men being more comfortable sharing what they use?

Time. Truth waits for no one. It’s okay to be yourself. I think we were unfortunately early on that; unfortunate because the world wasn’t caught up to that. The fact that you can look however you want to look, with whomever you want to look in that way with. I think it’s just taken some time to have people catch up to it. The wonderful thing about Bevel is that women celebrate us, men celebrate us, LGBTQ celebrates us. Bevel is a brand that respects a culture that is colorless, genderless, and stands for something. It took Bevel to have to realize it now, a brand to help them feel better about sharing what they believe.

The metrosexual thing, you speak to any other company, “men are redefining what masculinity was.” But we always wanted to look good, we just didn’t have the products to serve us. I kind of challenge your sentiment a little bit. We’ve always cared how we look. People wearing du-rags, wave caps and sh*t. We just didn’t have the products and brands that we could evangelize confidently. I used my wife’s stuff for a while, but I can’t say that I was confidently ready to evangelize those things. Bevel gives us confidence to do it. It gave Nas confidence to talk about it; Magic Johnson, John Legend, all these folks. They shop in the same aisles we shop in, and everybody who needs products for the same type of hair that I have, shop in the same shops I shop in, and need products to celebrate that. The combination of time, and having something to celebrate, are two things that over the past six years, have given us something with some type of permanence to it.

Do you think that the increased usage of social media has contributed to it?

There’s no ashy knuckle filter. [laughs] But we need to take care of ourselves before those filters come on. Whether or not Instagram exists, you don’t want bumps on your face. When I started Bevel – I always talk about this story about working on Wall Street, and they would require us to shave, and I didn’t have anything to shave with. You’re walking around the world with razor bumps on your face? That’s not humanity. It’s just healthy to provide people with things that they need.

Social media just creates this new world of people requiring their own upkeep. Whether it’s superficial or not doesn’t matter to me; I just care that our products work for them. [laughs] This also goes back that people should be able to live however they want, share whatever they want, when they want.

You’ve had big moves over the past couple of years: selling your products in Target, and then being acquired by Procter & Gamble. What did those two deals do for Bevel, and how have you been able to keep the company’s integrity through those situations?

The only reason those things happened is that I required our ability to keep our integrity for them to happen. The company didn’t just come and buy us; we had to accept that offer. And the acceptance of that offer was a function of us requiring some things. I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company; I don’t have a P&G title. I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company, that is what I do every single day. I told them – and they’ve respected this – we need to be able to do what we do well, and you do whatever you do well. When there’s a way to merge the minds, we’ll do it, as evidenced by some of the technology that we have. We’re not in a world anymore where we have to keep raising money in order to deliver some of these innovations. We delivered 11 new products in nine months, which is unheard of in the industry, but that’s because we took the best of we do...and what they do. You put those things together and develop something pretty special.

It’s no different in retail; we’d love to work with you, but we aren’t going to be in the “ethnic” aisle. Target was the first to say, “you know what? You’re right.” We were, and they are too. And starting next month, we’re going to be in CVS, Sally’s, Target, nationwide, because people understand the power in this. Every trend report you read, it’s like “people of color, black men, black hair.” We were on this six, seven years ago.

Was there any hesitation with having your company acquired, as opposed to making it public with an IPO and maintaining ownership?

Everything starts with your goal, and I just wanted the company to be around in 150 years. I don’t care if it was standalone, I don't care if it was with another company. I just cared that Walker & Company existed as we wanted it to for the next 150 years. Procter & Gamble is the best solution for us to do that. This is a company that makes tens of billions of dollars a year, spends billions of dollars in research and development, that has a respect for its consumer, and knows that we’re the only brand that’s authentically connected to it in the way that we are. They respected our point of view. They believe that we can exist 150 years from now. Which other company in our space has been around for over 50 years? 100? 150? There’s only one: Procter & Gamble. And I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company. I wasn’t fearful of that, because again, they didn’t just come to acquire us. We said, “this needs to be true,” and they fulfilled their side of the bargain.

You’ve also started Form, a women’s line of products. Have you met the goals you’ve had with Form so far?

Form started out as a dream to do something for women with textured hair. It was really ambitious. We thought there was a world we could personalize and experience a product offering for them. It was a test to learn. Bevel is our motherload business, where we need to make sure that we get this right. Doing one brand alone is a lot of work. We have 15 people on our team, and it’s a lot of work. Form is about to go through something that Bevel has over the past year. We don’t have the stuff to share now, but within the next six to seven months, people will be reintroduced to the brand in the way that Bevel was introduced. Form achieved what we hoped for it to, where we got all the testing and learning required to understand where we really need to be, and what women want, but more to come.

As I said when you walked in, I haven’t used Bevel products, but I’ve always felt familiar with the brand. A big reason of that is because I heard about you on podcast ads – Combat Jack Show, Taxstone, Loud Speakers. What made you take that approach so early?

It was us, Mailchimp and Squarespace, I remember; nobody wanted used to f**k with podcasts. I got on the phone with Reggie, rest in peace. This was 2014, when he started podcasting. Combat was like, “yo, I’ve got a bald head. Give me the product, if I like it, I’ll talk about it.” Podcasting at the time was interesting, because it was starting to take off. The Loud Speakers guys were the guys. You’ve got Charlamagne, Tax, Combat. But no one wanted to advertise for them. They’d advertise on other types of podcasts, but to the brands, they were too risky – cursing all the time, chopping it up, that sort of thing. I was like, this is our audience. You had all the radio guys building their podcasts, so it was only a matter of time before those listeners were going to come listen to their podcasts. These podcasts live forever. You go to Soundcloud, you see podcasts from four years ago with a Bevel ad in it. With the evergreen nature, this is an interesting platform.

The first time I knew it was going to take off, Combat used the product. He was like “I love it, I didn’t get razor bumps anymore.” He did a podcast, and we paid him, I think we were the first people to start funding those guys. Figured, we’ll see what happens. I didn’t give him a script. Now with podcasts, you get the preroll when it first starts, and midway through you do another one that’s usually scripted. That first episode, he spent the first five minutes talking about his Bevel experience. It wasn’t an ad, he was just talking. Halfway through, he does the same exact thing. We got ten minutes of authentic promotion. At that point, I was like, this is it. I’m just going to give them the products, in order to talk about it they have to say that they like it authentically, and you can say whatever the f**k you want. We never policed them. This is crazy suicide to big brands, they’d never do that. But I want you to speak about it as if I was speaking about it. They became able to talk about it in a way – anybody, the first thing they say is, “I heard about you on Combat, I heard about you on Tax.” That’s when I realized Bevel had a cultural influence I didn’t expect.

You’ve said that since you guys have started, no one has tried to do what you’ve done with your level of ambition. But it does seem like companies are trying – Rihanna with Fenty, for example. Companies want to cash in on the black customer, but I’m guessing there aren’t many black CEOs or execs in the space. Does it surprise you that no one has taken your level of ambition yet?

No. I think for one, you said companies are trying to cash in. I don’t give a sh*t about cashing in. I want my sons to be able to use this stuff exclusively. They deserve to not have that Wall Street experience I had. Then we can talk about cash. And it takes time to get there. We haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m the first black CEO in P&G’s 180-year history. And this is P&G. They know that too, so some of this is dynamics and demographic shifts happening and changing. We’re on these trends of necessity that have gotten us to this point. Rihanna is doing Fenty, and it’s wonderful. There’s a lot more on the woman’s side.

There’s a really great book written by Professor Quincy Mills on the history of black barbering. It talks about the difference between women entrepreneurs and men [men] entrepreneurs. The history of black barbering, slaves were cutting their masters’ hair, shaving them. So it started the service model. But women, early 20th century and late 19th, were starting their own salons and product companies. They started as entrepreneurs. But black men, who were barbers, had been in service for the past century. There are very few, until you get to the Scotch Porters and things like that, who are serving black men. I think some of it is endemic to the history up until this point. But now we have a history where in 20 years, there are going to be more people who look like us than the folks who don’t. Time matters with this stuff. But that’s why you’ve seen the Fentys, you’ve seen the Tracy Ellis Ross’, you see all these folks thriving on the women’s side of the equation, because there’s some history there. Now, we want to do that on the men’s side.

 

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Words from the legendary, @blackthought (2018). This year, we take it even higher... #BevelUp ☝🏾

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Having an idea for a business is one thing. Getting to the point of being able to talk about your business is another. You’re really adept at not only what you want to do, but at articulating it to people. Is that a skill you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve had to develop?

That’s good, no one has ever asked me that question. I like making things very simple. I choose my words very deliberately. There’s an economy for words, and sometimes people spend too much money. [laughs] I think words matter, especially for black men. So I believe very much in simplifying things: let’s develop a brand to eliminate razor bumps for black men. That’s a really simple thing for people to understand, especially if you’re black. If you’re white, 30 percent of you still understand it because 30 percent of you have it, but for black men, 80-plus percent of us have it, so let’s start there. If you solve people’s problems, the fame will come later. And then, I’ve been better able to articulate the vision. I wouldn’t have been able to talk about this stuff because it didn’t exist yet six years ago. We did the hardest thing in the world, convincing black men to put razors on their faces. They’re definitely going to believe me if I can do this other stuff like all-day lotion. That simplicity really did help.

A lesson that I learned: whatever I say the brand is, doesn’t matter. It’s what they say the brand is that matters. It got to a point where Combat’s consumers, and everybody else were articulating what Bevel was, and they were all consistent. I didn’t do anything. It’s a feel to it, a tone to it, a vibe to it, a color to it. It all comes together. People make up their own language. Now, our campaigns are tied to what we’re hearing other people say about the brand. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, “Bevel Up;” that’s going to be a campaign we launch soon. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, “hey, you got those Bevels?” Where’d you get that from? How’d you even butcher our name like that? [laughs] But it’s random people from all over. There’s something happening. Some of it is my deliberate nature of simplifying things, but some of it is letting them articulate what they believe it should be, and editing it to make sure that it’s consistent.

You’ve had superstar investors: Nas, Magic Johnson, John Legend. How have you raised money, and what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur to get in the same room as some of these guys?

For the folks you mentioned, I just met them and asked and they got it right away. Nas was the first guy I spoke to, and in five minutes, he said “I’m in.” I spent the last 55 minutes talking about what this could become. And these guys shop in the same aisles. So convincing the individual black investor was pretty easy. “This doesn’t exist, I get razor bumps.” Nas is like, “you going to make a trimmer?” I’m like, “yes I will.” The big investors, where we raised most of our money – that’s hard. We raised tens of millions of dollars trying to convince people that this need existed. Again, I was uniquely qualified to do it because they trusted me with other things that they did. I don’t think anybody else would have been able to raise money at that time for this.

That said, I tell people when they ask me how to get in front of them, raising money was the most regretful thing that I did. I raised $39 million of money, and I wish I didn’t raise a cent of it. With raising money comes things: you have to return it, you have to take in other opinions that might not be meaningful, you lose ownership. I have 39 million reasons I can talk about as to why I wouldn’t do it that way again. Having gone through this, of course I needed to get it off of the ground, but now I know what I didn’t need, either. If I were to do it again, I probably wouldn’t raise a thing. There’s a density of genius in the black community that other people will have to respect with time. I think we just need to believe in ourselves. All too often we forget, sometimes we need to narrow our scope in order to not require having to raise the money. Once you narrow the scope – razor bumps – it opens up opportunities for the lotions, the body washes, and all that stuff. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

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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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