Peter Tosh - Legalize It / Equal Rights [Legacy Editions] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Peter Tosh

Legalize It / Equal Rights [Legacy Editions] (2011)


It's one of the great crimes of popular music that two-thirds of the world's highest-selling, most influential reggae act are basically unknowns to the masses. Maybe it's because the marketing of the two lesser-knowns was not as good. Maybe it's because they weren't as good-looking as their famous partner. Maybe it's because their ancestry was fully African, while their famous college was possibly of mixed race. Maybe it's because they were more erratic and at times simply crazy. Maybe it's because they didn't succumb to the niceties of pop music as much and cut fiercer, darker, rawer music. In its expansive Legacy re-issues of Peter Tosh's landmark albums, 1976's solo debut Legalize It and the following year's Equal Rights, Columbia digs through its archives and unearths material that shows that whatever kept Tosh in the shadows of his partner, to his credit, he had plenty of it.

While Bob Marley released his first "solo" LP, Natty Dread less than a year after the break-up of the original Wailers, it took Tosh nearly two years to release his first solo release, Legalize It. By the time Legalize It was released, Marley had already become an international superstar, and as some interviews from that period suggest, Tosh was as angry as he was jealous at Marley, decrying that the only reason Marley was famous was that he was half-white. (This fact has not been confirmed or denied.)

Likely in response to Marley's success, and the somewhat safer and friendlier sound of Natty Dread, Tosh released the confrontational and biblical Legalize It. On the album's cover, Tosh defiantly smokes ganja in a rushing marijuana field. On the album, in addition to demanding the legalization of herb, he mixes traditional soul music with fiery indictments. "Burial", one of Tosh's masterpieces, features him crying out at what he felt was the sham politics of the "One Love" concert, where Marley held the hands of two political opponents during a time of mass violence in Jamaica. On "Igziabeher", Tosh proclaims his Rastafarian beliefs and sentences oppressors to gruesome deaths.

But Tosh was not limited to being a political ranter. He also cuts a few lover's ballads referencing early soul legends like Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding. On "Ketchy Shuby" he plays the part of a teenage "doin' it" for the first time. But, almost confoundingly, on the LP's last track, "Brand New Second Hand", a remake of an early Wailers song, he reprimands a woman for being too promiscuous.

The Legacy Edition features a dearth of prime bonus material. The jewel of this release is the addition of a second disc that includes the entire Jamaican mix of Legalize It. After white British-born producer Chris Blackwell brought Marley to international stardom with mixes which had more in common with expensive European studios than the organic sounds of Jamaica, many producers and distributors would make an "international" version of the record with cleaner sound, and a "Jamaican" version with a more raw sound. Sometimes the international versions would be mixed and re-cut without either the producer's or artist's knowledge!

Interestingly, the Jamaican edition of Legalize It was never released–even Jamaica distributed the international edition. On the previously unreleased Jamaican mix, Tosh's music is both warmer and more ambiguous in a radically different mix. Instead of the guitar being placed up front, it's washed in a thick mix of bass, drums, and even electric organs. Noticeably, Tosh's vocals are cleaner and brought to the front, so much so that on "Burial", at times it almost sounds like a spoken word recording with musical accompaniment. Additionally, many of the vocal takes are different from the international edition, and Tosh cuts some almost scary lyrics. As he was wont to wander into fanaticism, on "Igziabeher" he actually places curses on heathens, declaring that they should die, and might even suggest that all non-Rastas should die. While it's certainly not politically correct or even necessarily thoughtful, it's Tosh at his most truthful, creating music unconcerned with commercial–or even non-Rasta–acceptance.

Rounding out the set are rare dubplates that feature extended versions of the albums tracks and some demos. While the dubplates are interesting extended grooves, the demos are treasures as they feature Tosh, bass legend Robbie Shakespeare and drummer icon Sly Dunbar literally creating the songs as the tape rolls, working out the kinks. These recordings are of particular note in that they feature some unusual quirks, rarely seen in Tosh catalogue, such as what might be a frog randomly croaking on "Till Your Well Runs Dry". Throughout the demo set, it becomes apparent that while Tosh wrote some genius vocals, his backing band was essential to the album's success.

Barely a year after his solo debut, Tosh released Equal Rights, which seemed to focus more on current politics than Tosh's earlier spiritual investigations. On the mind-blowing "Downpressor Man", a remake of the traditional soul song "Sinner Man" (also previously recorded by the Wailers on three occasions), Tosh condemns politicians and describes a scenario where Jah chases them down to exact revenge, and even inanimate objects such as rocks refuse to yield shelter. Similarly, on "Aparthied" Tosh comments on both the South African separation and argues that even if not direct, apartheid exists in most countries.

Tosh also focuses on sociopolitical issues within the black community. During the mid-'70s (and throughout Jamaican history) skin-whitening creams have received criticism from black leaders as being tools that make black people ashamed to be black. Tosh responds to this directly both on "African" and "I Am That I Am", encouraging the black population to be proud by proclaiming that Africans will always be Africans, not matter their nationality. Notably, Tosh's muted humor is heard if one listens carefully. On "African" he turns a clever pun, when he howls "I don't care if you are from Taiwan / I don't care if you are from Tai-Two / you are an African."

While the bonus material on Equal Rights doesn't feature the album in different stages of creation as with Legalize It, it hosts a mass of unreleased additional songs and dubplates. Of the unreleased bonus songs, Equal Rights features an early cut of "Vampire", which Tosh would re-record throughout his career. Inspired by the ghoul-themed instrumentals of Lee Perry, and Perry's fondness for calling white record producers bloodsuckers, Tosh expands the scope of a vampire and affixes the tag to all those that would oppress the downtrodden. "Jah Man Inna Jamdung" is one of Tosh's most introspective pieces; while he often hurls barbs outwards, on this track he allows listeners to understand why he feels like an outsider–even in his home country–due to his beliefs.

With these Legacy Editions, Columbia doesn't seem to be making the argument that Tosh was unfairly looked over. Rather, these sets show that Tosh was extreme in both music and politics, something that's not always palatable for the masses nor for building healthy portfolios. Still, these alternate and extended versions feature the pure heaviness of Tosh, and prove that without his extreme and highly creative views, Tosh's legacy would not have been so epochal. These sets don't play to the crowd, but to those that are already Tosh converts. For those just learning about the most radical Wailer, start here; you're in for a treat.