With the continuing success of dancehall and it’s influence on pop music worldwide, the buzz is on: Who are the next superstars to rise from Jamaica’s bottomless musical psyche? If you ask The New York Times, it’s T.O.K. the reggae/R&B infused harmonious quartet who the paper hailed as “the world’s greatest dancehall-reggae boy band.” Unlike reggae dancehall crooners of yesteryear, Xavier “Flexx” Davidson, Craig “Craig T” Thompson, Alistaire “Alex” McCalla, and Roshaun “Bay-C” Clarke – the crew of 20 something Kingstonians collectively known as T.O.K. – don’t need to hunt down the right Stateside hybrid to take their music worldwide.
Raised on MTV, BET, and hip-hop culture, the members of this quartet aren’t strangers to the spotlight from media powerhouses like the above. T.O.K.
was included in MTV’s first “Advance Warning” (a prestigious nod to up-and-comers)and appeared on the very first season of BET’s “106th & Park,” well before any dancehall artists graced that stage. Now returning with their sophomore album, Unknown Language, the quartet merges dancehall, R&B, hip-hop, and Jamaica’s sound system into their own natural blend. “The inspiration for our album title comes from just wanting to take the group and dancehall music to another level,” explains Bay C. “We want to capture the world with our music.” T.O.K.’s hit single, “Fire, Fire,” produced by Dane “Fire Linx” Johnson has already captured the dance floors. The Dancehall/Soca anthem, the riddim and chant of “fire, fire” vocals that repeat on the high-energy track will leave even the most rhythm challenged person dancing in the aisle. “We didn’t start the fire, but we keep it blazing,” offers Flexx. Still raising ‘booyakas’ on dancehall floors is “Gal You Ah Lead,” produced by Bobby Konders. The song was listed in Blender Magazine’s “Top Songs of 2004.” and is currently in rotation in nightclubs from coast to coast. T.OK. experiments with the reggaeton sound on “She’s Hotter,” featuring Miami’s own, Pitbull, and links with the bombastic one himself, Shaggy, on “De Ja Vu.” T.O.K. has many facets, and the group’s softer side is revealed beautifully on the ethereal-sounding “Footprints,” a tribute song written by Alex and Bay-C for Alex’s brother who was killed by a stray bullet June 2003.
The T.O.K. story started humbly enough more than a decade ago with four ambitious high school boys. Alistaire, Roshaun, and Craig were in the school choir at Campion College headed by John Binns, while Xavier attended Calabar High. Originally, the acronym T.O.K. stood for Touch of Klass, but over the years it has taken on different meanings from ‘Taking Over Kingston’ to ‘To Klaat,’and whatever else the creative minds of T.O.K. can come up with. From the beginning, life was about “T.O.K. – school and music,” says Alex. “Xavier and I loved singing and were good friends. I went to school with Craig and Roshaun, so we brought them in. This was in the early 90’s, during the whole emergence of Boyz II Men, so we started out singing their songs and sounding a whole lot like them. But together as a unit, we developed the sound you hear now. It’s about combining the hardcore dancehall sound with R&B harmonies and hip-hop, creating something brand new.”
The group garnered a lot of attention for their killer harmonies, soaring leads, sinewy deejaying, studly appeal and innovative production on their first album, My Crew, My Dawg released in 2001. “We make our music for all different types of people from all different walks of life and T.O.K. is too big, too broad, and too damn wicked for our music to be used to divide,” explains Bay-C. “Our growth is reflected in our music. Unknown Language is more like a evolution rather than a change,” adds Craigy T. “We wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we did straight R&B covers or tried mimic a style that isn’t our own. We’re Jamaican and our culture is reflected in our music and that’s what gradually happened. Music is music and it’s one big umbrella under which all the genres fall together. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear similarities.”
The key to T.O.K.’s evolution are radio friendly tracks weighed equally between Stateside and home-grown sounds, vocal training from renown Jamaican coach Georgia Guerra, and years of performing on Jamaica’s famed North Coast hotel lounge circuit. “It was all experience for us,” says Flexx. “The cabaret circuit is a totally different audiences.” Bay-C adds “Actually, we weren’t fully accepted in the hotel circuit. The other groups sang straight, but we always tried to do something different and bring something of our own. We’d do a Bob Marley song or an Ini Kamoze song like `Hot Stepper.'” Flexx interjects laughing, “Now that we’ve gotten to where we are, the only time we come to hotels is when we stay there.”
In Jamaica, a young musician’s road to stardom often begins through the annual Tastee [Patty] Talent Contest. Through Tasteee, T.O.K. caught the ear of Nuff Records’ Stephen Craig, and the group voiced a few tracks for the label. In ’96, the famed drum and bass duo, aka “Riddim Twins” Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, released T.O.K.’s “Hit Them High” for the Taxi label. Later that year, T.O.K. went to Main Street (dancehall hit-maker Danny Brownie’s studio/label) where Brownie’s nephew, Richard “Shams” Browne (son of famed guitarist Glenn Browne) was the board engineer. Just two years older than the members of T.O.K., Browne was about to launch his own label. T.O.K. wanted to be part of Main Street’s stable, but Richard made his bid.
T.O.K.’s first track for Browne was “Send Them Come” over the young producer’s Gypsy riddim and released by his first label, High Profile. The group then recorded “Hardcore Lover,” featuring Lady Saw over his Baddis riddim for High Profile. The tune soared to #4 and led to their signing with reggae music powerhouse, VP Records, which further established T.O.K.
as a new force to be reckoned with.
Unknown Language has all the ingredients in place which translate into BREAK-OUT, big time. Hit producers like Tony “CD” Kelly, Steve “Lenky” Marden, Bobby Konders, Cordell “Scatta” Burrell, Robert Livingston and Christopher Birch provide a sound that goes way beyond the usual “strung together proven tunes with new tunes as filler” common to reggae music. “We all want to keep on excelling and pushing as far as we can go,” says Alex.
“Sky’s the limit. We’ve found a certain chemistry and we want to maintain that chemistry and vibe. You grow with the business, track what changes are happening and adjust. We all can sing, harmonize, and deejay, so that opens a wide range of different avenues for us at any point, if any one avenue is the in thing.”
With America’s and the world’s fascination with dancehall steadily growing, T.O.K. knows that they have the watchful eyes of both their faithful fans back home and the genre’s newfound converts squared directly at them. It’s a responsibility the group takes seriously, regardless of any Unknown Language they seem to speak.