Check the latest in several year's worth of T.O.K. hit singles, the long-legged “Chi Chi Man,” a never-say-die boomshot included on My Crew that was released way back in 2000. Still raising 'booyakas' on dancehall floors, the track's currently in rotation at mixed urban radio stations from coast to coast. Pure, unadulterated T.O.K., “Chi Chi Man” is about hard beats driving a hard subject – a slam at corrupted individuals eating away at society's foundations like termites (“chi chi” means termite in Jamaican patois) – and vocals that slide back and forth between glorious, near operatic singing and rough-riding deejaying [reggae rapping] to rival any screw-faced MC out of Jamaica's pressure cooker ghetto.
Opposition leader Edward Seaga adopted the gem of rhythm and song to boost his bid for Prime Minister in the next national election, but T.O.K.'s staying out of it. “We're not at all politically affiliated,” insists Craigy T. “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 any head to ignore it - hip hop, R&B, dancehall, Babylonian or Rasta.
The T.O.K. story started humbly enough, 9 years 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 in growing 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, thus creating something brand new.”
“It's more like a evolution rather than a change,” notes Craigy T. “We wouldn't be true to ourselves if we did straight R&B, straight covers of Boyz II Men, or tried to write songs like them. We're Jamaican. That has to come out in the music, and that's what happened, gradually. Music is music and it's one big umbrella under which all the genres fall together. If you listen hard enough, you hear all the similarities.”
Key to the T.O.K. evolution were a radio diet weighted equally between Stateside and home-grown sounds, vocal training from renown Jamaican coach Georgia Guerra, and years of hard time put in at high school party performances and, a bit later, on Jamaica's famed North Coast hotel lounge circuit. “It was all experience for us,” says Xavier. “The cabaret circuit is totally different, different audiences.” “Actually, we weren't fully accepted in the hotel circuit,” says Roshaun. “We weren't the norm. The other groups sang straight, but we always tried to do something different. We'd do a Bob Marley song or an Ini Kamoze song like `Hot Stepper.' From ever sin...
T.O.K. OUR WORLD
Welcome to T.O.K.'s world where exquisite four part harmonies contrast rough edged deejaying, soaring falsetto hooks and gently crooned love songs are as plentiful as rapped verses and gritty gangster exploits; a world where crisp production and idiosyncratic, taut songwriting yield a daring fusion that ranks them among dancehall's most distinctive and enduringly popular acts. T.O.K. (an acronym for Touch of Klass) has named their third album for VP Records “Our World” because it encompasses an assortment of musical ingredients that have had the greatest influence on the group's sonic identity. “With this album we have consolidated all that variety into one project,” explains group member Roshaun “Bay-C” Clarke. “We have dancehall, one-drop, Latin flavored beats, music for the hardcore listener, for the conscious listener and for the party goers; that is what our world represents.”
“Our World” is dominated by previously unreleased tracks with a few of T.O.K.'s recent hits including “Guardian Angel”, a prayer for spiritual strength sensitively sung over a one-drop reggae rhythm, produced by Arif Cooper. In March 2009, nearly two years after its initial release, “Guardian Angel” topped Japan's Ring Tone Download Chart. Japanese fans have consistently shown tremendous love to T.O.K. since their initial performance there in 200l. T.O.K.'s debut album “My Crew My Dogs” and their sophomore effort “Unknown Language” were, respectively, certified gold (sales of 100,000) and platinum (sales of 250,000) by the Recording Industry of Japan. Encouraged by the great response to “Our World” since its Japanese release on June 16, T.O.K. anticipate equal success in various global territories when the album drops worldwide on August 25th.
“Besides Japan we have a following in Germany, France, all over Europe,” Bay-C continues. “We also have a following throughout Central America, we have fans in the US and we just came back from Canada where we had three sold out performances and we did three major concerts in Africa. So all of that is also what we mean when we say it is “Our World”.
T.O.K.'s world has greatly expanded since November 1992 when high school students Craig “Craigy T” Thompson, Xavier “Flexx” Davidson, Alistaire “Alex” McCalla and Roshaun “Bay-C” Clarke formed a vocal group. Like many of that era's young singers they were greatly influenced by the brilliant harmonization of 1990s American boy bands including Boyz II Men and their favorite Shai, but as Jamaican youth they were equally inspired by the island's ubiquitous reggae and dancehall rhythms; their shared vision for T.O.K. was to create an adventurous union between beautifully nuanced vocalizing and dancehall's rough and rugged edge.
Bay-C and Craigy T introduced deejaying into T.O.K.'s performances at Cactus (the now defunct nightclub located in the Kingston suburb of Portmore), which is where the group learned how to connect with a hardcore dancehall crowd. They began writing original music, individually contributing significant concepts, choruses and verses to the group's collective compositions and were transformed from a mellifluous high school boy band into a tough rhyming rude boy band. However, it took some time for audiences to embrace their audacious yet appealing hybrid. “We fused harmonies with dancehall subject matter, Flexx and Alex's sing-jaying with Craig and my deejaying and created this new sound,” says Bay-C. “But people who liked that clean cut boy group sound said why are you going into dancehall and the dancehall community was like you are a boy group, what are you trying to do?”
Undeterred by such criticism T.O.K. persevered and secured their first recording session, covering 3T's “Anything For You”, which was produced by Stephen Greig, the group's first manager for his Nuff Records label. Flexx then approached ace selector Rory of the immortal Stone Love sound system with a copy of “Anything For You”; Rory started spinning the tune at Stone Love sessions and before long it was playing on the island's airwaves.
In 1997 T.O.K. sought out producer Danny Browne whose Main Street Records label was having great success with General Degree, Red Rat and Buccaneer, among other artists. Browne had a lukewarm reaction to T.O.K.'s sound but his nephew (then fledgling) producer Richard “Shams” Browne was so impressed he offered to manage the group. “We said if you get us a song with Lady Saw (dancehall's queen, then at the peak of her reign) we will make you our manager,” recalls Flexx. “So we did “Hardcore Lover” with Saw, Shams produced it, and it became our first top 10 hit.” A succession of hits recorded with several top producers followed including “Man Ah Bad Man” (Shams), “Eagles Cry” (Dave Kelly) and “Money To Burn” (Tony “CD” Kelly). The aforementioned hits were included on T.O.K.'s acclaimed 2002 VP Records debut “My Crew, My Dogs”, which reached the Top 10 on Billboard's Reggae Chart; that year T.O.K. became the first dancehall act to appear on BET's influential video countdown show106th and Park.
T.O.K. made even greater strides with “Unknown Language” which featured the dancehall smashes “Fire Fire” and “Galang Gal”, and a few crossover triumphs. Its up tempo lead single “Gal You A Lead”, anchored by Alex's mesmeric vocal hook, became a hit on prominent urban stations including New York's WQHT (Hot 97) and Miami's WPOW (Power 96) and was the first T.O.K. song to enter the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 85. The anti-violence sentiment expressed throughout the group's somber number one Jamaican hit, “Footprints”, which honors Alex's brother Gavin who was killed by a stray bullet in 2003, also connected with a wider audience, reaching number 22 on the Billboard's R&B Hip Hop Singles and Tracks tally and number 93 on the Hot 100.
T.O.K. foresee scaling even greater heights with “Our World” as they express on the album's first track “The World Is Mine”, produced by Rohan “Jah Sno Cone” Fuller; over a brooding synthetic beat, the group declares their invincibility, “heading for the top and we a reach, nah lef without the prize/the world is mine, watch me take it, cant stop me, I'm gonna make it”.
Tony “CD” Kelly, the producer responsible for some of T.O.K.'s biggest tunes reunites with the band after a six year lapse contributing several dancehall boom shots including the gangster anthem “It's Over”, the male camaraderie chant heard throughout “Me and My Dawgs”, and the stern instructions issued to a cheating gal on the pop-friendly “Get Out (Don't Come Back”). Kelly also produced the intriguingly titled “Afternoon PornStar” which chronicles role-playing in real life relationships, not the lewd celluloid depictions suggested by the song's name. “That song is based on our extensive research on the topic,” explains Alex to supportive laughter from the other group members. “It's about the side of a woman's personality that she only shows to that special someone and we try to facilitate that type of behavior as best as we can.” Assisting in the pursuit of such behavior is the (for mature audiences only) ain't-too-proud-to-beg dancehall ditty “Gimme Little (If You Want Me)”, produced by Karim “DJ Karim” Thompson.
The group's extraordinary versatility allows them to effortlessly flip from the risqué to the retro. The joyous “Couple Up” (voiced on Arif Cooper's appropriately named National Pride rhythm, which boasts synthetic banjo instrumentation inspired by mento, Jamaica's first popular music form) features T.O.K.'s effervescent vocals celebrating the pleasures of a dancehall session: “watch de hot gal dem wine again, man and woman dem a form conga line again,/it nah gun time, fun time again, bassline a move waistline again.” The percussive driven “Gyrate” produced by Shane Browne, and the hit “Whining” produced by Flexx both highlight the fluid pelvic motion that is key to successful dancehall moves.
Flexx and Bay-C have each released self-produced, various artists projects in Japan, which were primarily intended to broaden T.O.K.'s collective strengths. “We went into production to support T.O.K. so we are not dependent on outside producers and to invest more in our talent as a group,” says Bay-C, who produced “Miss World”, featuring the incomparable rapid-fire flow of dancehall's self-proclaimed king Beenie Man alongside the foursome's gleaming harmonies. The song honors the band's devotees, which of course are “the hottest girls inna de world”.
Slower paced one-drop rhythms have consistently provided the ideal framing for T.O.K.'s alluring vocal textures. “Our World's” one-drop tunes range from the crooned expectations derived from a lasting relationship expressed on “I Wanna Love You”, produced by Mario “Mad Scientist” Lawrence and the acoustic plaintive peace plea “Live It Up”, produced by Shane Brown, each song reaffirming the unparalleled aural sophistication the group brings to popular Jamaican music.
The tough lyrical posturing T.O.K. adopts on tunes like “Gangsters Never Die”, produced by Chester Walker merits the rude boys' respect but it's the ladies that are undoubtedly the group's most ardent fans. The group's stunning harmonies deliver a lifelong pledge of love and devotion on the R&B flavored “Die For You” produced by Craig “Lefside” Parkes and Mathew Esco Thompson.
T.O.K.'s continual refinement of their immense talent has kept them at the forefront of Jamaican dancehall and brought them widespread success. The group's diverse song content, unique sound and the sheer magnificence f their vocals as heard on their third album, guarantees prominent placements on international charts and an ven greater musical presence in Our World.