With Shaggy's pop-reggae fusion controlling international charts for 2001, the buzz is on: What will be next big boom to rise from Jamaica's bottomless musical psyche? Smart money is on My Crew, My Dogs for 2002. T.O.K.'s Reggae/R&B infused debut set packs all the explosive power of Shaggy x 4.

Unlike Reggae Dancehall stars of yesterday, Xavier "Flexx" Davidson, Craig "Craigy T" Thompson, Alistaire "Alex" McCalla, and Roshaun "Bay-C" Clarke - the crew of 23 year-old Kingstonians collectively known as T.O.K. - don't need to hunt down the right Stateside - Jamdung hybrid to take their music worldwide. Raised on both MTV and Jamaica's sound system circuit, their blend of beats and sensibilities come naturally.

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, Alistair, 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 y ears it has taken on different meanings to '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 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" say Xavier. "The cabaret circuit is totally different, different audiences."

"Actually, we weren't fully accepted in the hotel circuit," say 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 since, we tried to do things differently and bring something of our own."

"Now that we've got to where we are, the only time we come to hotels is when we stay there," Xavier interjects, laughing.

In Jamaica, the youth's route to the hit parade is often through the annual Tastee [Patty] Talent Contest, but T.O.K.'s second place showing in the '93 semi-finals was more a lesson then a leg up. "We learned from our mistakes with that, then we moved on," says Roshaun. "We didn't rehearse enough. We were young and giddy-headed and interested in girls."

Still, T.O.K., caught the ear of Nuff Records' Stephen Craig, and the group voiced a few tracks for the label, including a cover of "Anything For You," originally recorded by 3T (Michael Jackson's nephews.) 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. Late 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 a part of Main Street's stable, but Richard made his bid.

"We said if you can get us a song with Lady Saw, that's it," recalls Roshaun. But 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. Browne then fulfilled his promise with T.O.K.'s "Hardcore Lover," featuring Saw and recorded over his Baddis riddim, again for High Profile. The tune soared to number 4, restoring Saw as a chart bully and establishing T.O.K. as a new force to be reckoned with.

High Profile is defunct, but Browne quickly became a behind-the-scenes Dancehall star, one of the genre's leading mixing board wizards, who churns out hit after hit for his 'Call Me Shams' and 'B Rich' labels. Among the durable Shams riddims that have carried Dancehall's finest - including Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Cobra, Mr. Vegas, and Elephant Man - onto International charges are the Baddis, Grasscyart, Intercourse, Orgasm and Juice riddims.

With Richard Browne as manager and frequent producer, T.O.K. slammed out a series of hits, including "Whoa" over Uncle Danny's Heavy Metal riddim and released by Main Street, "Ill Nana" for singer/producer Richie Stephens' Pot Of Gold label, and other tunes recorded for top producers, among them Donovan Germaine, Jermey Harding and Louis 'Flabba' Malcolm.

"Eagles Cry" inspired by the "Purple One's" emblematic tune, was recorded in '98 for Dave Kelly's X Large label over his Bruk Out riddim. The musical dissection of deejays fronting like thugs became T.O.K.'s first number one and is included on this CD, alongside "Gun Shy," another 'bitch-slap' at wannabe don men, produced by Shams exclusively for the album.

"Eagles" was followed closely by the MONSTER that won't go away, "Chi Chi Man," produced by LOY for the eponymous label and riding the Sashi riddim created by Dave Kelly's equally bombastic older brother, Tony Kelly.

My Crew, My Dawgs - also the debut release for T.O.K.'s own X.C.A.R.R. label through VP Records - opens on another T.O.K. chart-stomper, "Man Ah Badman," featuring Shams' ubiquitous Juice riddim. Released early this year, the slugging anthem of self-preservation features the original Poor People's Governor, Bounty Killa and is still camped out in the top ten on local charts.

Shabba Ranks returns via a sample of his classic tune "Respect" on "Gimmi di Music," pure central nervous stimulation with a jamming track crafted exclusively for the tune by Shams, and including reinvented snipps from Anglo-Jamaican group Musical Youth's 87's hit, "Pass the Kutchie".

Among the singles set to drop before release date is "Keep It Blazin'," on the Liquid riddim produced by Jeremy Harding and dedicated to Reggae's current lineup of "Firemen" - the incendiary group of brimstone chanters lead by Capleton. "We didn't start the fire, but we keep it blazing," says Xavier. "On the Radio," produced by Shams on his Ecstasy riddim and released by the Shocking Vibes label in early 2001, muscles its way onto the set with the requisite "taking over the airwaves" boast.

And what would a T.O.K. set be without praises sung unto their biggest fan base, the gal dem? "You ah Murder," released late summer, 2001, spins off the old "If looks could kill" lyric over Shams' Glue riddim. "Shake Yuh Bam Bam" weighs in as T.O.K.'s Dancehall version of the Hip Hop's thong obsession. Recorded over Shams' Juice riddim and dropped the same time as "Man Ah Bad Man," the tune has also staked out a long-running spot in the top ten. "All Day," another original produced with an exclusive track by Shams, promises a sunlit version of R&B's classic "all nightlong" love.

Yet T.O.K. has many facets, and the group's softer side reveals itself in "Alone," an anecdotal tale of a bereft lover mourning his dead sweetheart. The 9 to 5 man gets his props in "Money To Burn," a Friday night bust-out that released late summer, 2001, motored by Tony Kelly's Buy Out riddim. My Crew also features a hidden track "Creeping," a revealing account of a stalker, produced by Shams with an exclusive riddim track. Stalkers are, after all, an inevitable part of the T.O.K. story. With their 'cris' good looks and dress style, kinetic stage act, and driving lush sound, ladies are drawn to the boys of T.O.K. like filings to a magnet, and that fan based multiplies with each radio spin and performance.

Killer harmonies, soaring leads, sinewy deejaying, tunes that hit, studly appeal, plus a canny album production that goes way beyond the usual "String together proven tunes with new tunes as filler" M.O. - all the ingredients are in place and they translate into BREAK-OUT, big time.

"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 can all 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."

Written by Elena Oumano, supplied by VP Records October 2001.


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