Follow their footprints

Follow their footprints: T.O.K.'s album Unknown Language finds a new way to talk about contemporary Jamaica

  • T.O.K. Photograph courtesy VP Records

They were hailed by the New York Times as “the world’s greatest dancehall-reggae boy band,” but T.O.K. — stands for Touch of Klass — are much more than that. Yes, they’re famous for the dancehall smashes on their 2001 debut album My Crew, My Dawgs, but unlike most boy bands this quartet — Xavier “Flexx” Davidson, Craig “Craigy T” Thompson, Alistaire “Alex” McCalla, and Roshaun “Bay-C” Clarke — also demonstrate a social conscience.

2005 may be the year they go mainstream. From Kingston to Brixton, Footprints, their tribute single to victims of violence, has spread across the globe faster than any other Jamaican song this year. Crafted masterfully on Donovan “Don Corleone” Bennett’s “drop leaf” riddim, Footprints began as a tribute to Alex’s own brother, who was killed by a stray bullet. “We feel a duty to be positive role models,” T.O.K. said at the time.

Their storytelling approach and heartwrenching authenticity place listeners bang in the middle of an urban world where violence has become commonplace. This isn’t the sugar-coated unreality of MTV “bling” videos — this is the real deal, and Footprints’ urban poetics relate to listeners the world over.

In June they dropped their sophomore album Unknown Language to much hype. Named for the language barrier imposed by their native Jamaican patois, the album combines sweet melodic crooning and R&B harmonies with dancehall gruffness and pop hooks. The track Fire Fire even works in a sample from Tobagonian Calypso Rose’s classic Fire in You Wire. “The inspiration for the new album title comes from just wanting to take the group and dancehall music to another level,” they say.

“We’re making music that cannot be put in one particular genre. It’s not dancehall straight. It’s not pop straight. It’s not R&B straight. That’s what makes us very different . . . this is just the beginning. We want to capture the whole world with our music,” explains Bay-C.

With their refreshing style of urban truth and a far less glitzy production than most mass appeal bands, T.O.K. may just have found the right formula to follow.

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