Flip open the dictionary and by the word "reggae" there ought to be a picture of Frederick "Toots" Hibbert. He didn't just put the R in reggae. He put the E, G, G, A, and E in it, too. The singer from May Pen's 1968 hit "Do the Reggay" coined the word that came to mean an entire genre. But one novelty record does not make a legend. Toots & the Maytals' string of 1960s and 1970s hits went on to define the music. With his soulful style, Hibbert even put the skank into John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." He's part of new wave history, too - the landmark "Pressure Drop" was covered by The Clash and The Specials, who knew a revolutionary anthem when they heard it. As Toots prepared to perform at the Jamaica kick-off concert for Tempo, the new channel dedicated to Caribbean music, we spoke to him about where reggae came from, where it's going, and why Mick Jagger has him on speed dial.
Will Tempo become a positive force in reggae music?
Yes. It has a good intention. It's like what we do today, making sure that reggae is involving everything that is important. Tempo is gonna be the best.
You are one of the links between the time before reggae and now. Did you see artists like James Brown and Sam Cooke when they came to Jamaica and performed?
No, I wasn't that big, so I couldn't leave my parents home. I was a little boy in those days. But I always listened to their songs on the radio. When I started in the business it was ska music. That's why I did so many ska [records early] in my career. Then it was rock steady, which is the music not so fast - just a different way.
So how did reggae come out of that?
The musicians started the riddim and a lot of us didn't know what to call it. Some people call it boogie beat. But I accidentally do a song called "Do the Reggay." It was the song that put the "R" in our music today. I was just kidding around with Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, the two that used to sing with me. We say, We're gonna make some rude sounds. That name just slip in my mouth. I say, "Let's do the reggay." It wasn't a song that have a lot of great words, but months after, people come and talkin' that I'm the inventor for our music that we play.
Before that word, was a word called "streggae." You see the girl going down the street, she don't dressing so good, she not [wearing] proper shoes, we call her "streggae." She would call the guys, "streggae" also if we don't have on good looking shirt. So really I think reggae is coming from streggae. That's where the vibes coming from to me.
Do you like where the music's gone?
Reggae is just dirty. If you read the song, it's not reggae. Reggae carries a message and good vibes. It don't carry no hype words or no indecent words. So even if people calling their song reggae, deep down people know that is not reggae, because it don't have spirituality. All the foul words, it's not reggae, it is streggae!
What do you do in your spare time?
I pray. I pray all the time. I don't have no spare time and believe Bob Marley never had no spare time neither. As good singers, we don't have no spare time [from] the message of Jah and the son of Jehovah. So we don't have spare time, unless we are going to do foolishness.
Marley, Jimmy Cliff and yourself are the three reggae stars everyone knows. Do you think the circumstances could produce another Bob Marley?
People have to write good songs that have meaning - songs of crazies, songs of constellations, messages of salvation, songs of good inspired-ness. If you are intelligent, you write intelligent songs. If you are not intelligent, you write nursery rhyme. I'm praying that people take a look deep down in the lyric and make it properly, especially if you want to call it reggae.
What you're not in Jamaica, what do you miss the most?
I miss the sunshine. I miss the nice beaches. I miss the nice herbs: Herbs to cook, herbs to eat, herbs to smoke, herbs to make you pray, herbs that bring you closer to Jah. If he's in the air, he's not in the air alone. He's in you and me and every soul, every living thing.
What's next for Toots?
I'm always working in the studio, working on new sound and working on sound that hasn't been finished as yet. It will be real reggae music - a touch of R&B, touch of acoustic, but it's gonna be good. I always have to try to do the best of the best. And I'm getting ready to tour with the Rolling Stones. We tour with the Rolling Stones every other year sometimes. They request for us to work with them for many years.
What is the one thing you want people to know about Jamaica that they don't know?
Jamaica is a good place to relax. Come and relax, especially in the west end, in Negril. If you're a vegetarian, you can be happy in Kingston also. When I invite people down here I always tell them about the countryside, because they don't know a lot of bushes away from the forest in America. But they can walk in Jamaica without any snake biting them, without anything that's gonna hurt them. After a while, maybe they walk the wrong place. But I always invite people down here because of the sunshine, all the time.