Jamaica’s Tosh Alexander on Dancehall, R&B and Working with Pharrell

October 4, 2013

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley

Tosh Alexander

If you’ve heard Busta Rhymes’ recent single Twerk It,” you may have wondered, “who is that mad Jamaican ooman shouting Yuh dun kno! and all that we come fi flatline everything inna dis bumboclaat til clash dun business?” If you look into the voice behind the shriek, Tosh Alexander, you may be  surprised by what you hear. Hailing from Jamaica by way of Brooklyn and South Florida, Tosh is a singer whose own music evokes contemporary R&B stars like Kelly Rowland and Ciara more than the soundbwoy-killing banshee on “Twerk It.” But that’s not to say she doesn’t rep her culture—another recent tune, “Killamanjaro,” refers to the long-running Jamaican sound system by that name.

And while Tosh might sound all tough on “Twerk It,” she’s pretty kind on the eyes. You may have seen her in our recent countdown of “The Baddest Jamaican Gyals Right Now.” We recently got to know the starlet-in-the-making at Miami’s vintage art-deco hotels, where she told us about her history with Busta Rhymes and Pharrell, her favorite places to party in Kingston, and her many voices. Given the venue, it only seemed right to conjure to Miami’s past with a classy shoot evoking classic ’50’s glamour. Feast your eyes on Tosh—and your ears, too.

LargeUp: Tell us a bit about who you are, and where you come from?

Tosh Alexander: My name is Tosh. And I was born in Brooklyn, NY—Flatbush. But I was raised in Jamaica. And then I moved here for high school and college. I came to Florida, the Coral Springs area, at age 13.

LU: Does music run in your family?

Tosh: My father always told us about his father that was a guitar player, like the real original Brushy One String or something like that. He’s supposed to have came up with the concept of using one guitar string. I have an older brother—he sings and he writes—and growing up, he would push me to sing. If there was talent shows, he’d always push me to do it. It was him that believed in me first, before I really believed in myself.

LU: How did you link with Busta Rhymes?

Tosh: I’ve had a relationship with Pharrell and Busta Rhymes for a while now. I think since I was 19. That’s when I first worked with them. We did a song with Sean Paul that wasn’t released. But we worked well together, so we maintained that relationship. So whenever Busta needed like a Jamaican accent or something, he’ll call me to do it. I’ve done like three songs like that [with him] but this is the first that actually became a single.

LU: What were those songs?

Tosh: There’s a song with him and Vybz Kartel [“Wine and Go Down”] that he put out two years ago, I’m on the chorus of that. And there’s one Busta put out with Pharrell probably five years ago [“Kill Dem”] and I was on the chorus as well. Whenever you hear this high-pitched, Jamaican, annoying voice, who is a female, on any of Busta’s records, it’s me. I never really liked them. I did that, because [Busta and Pharrell] liked that aspect of my voice and, in this industry, you kind of do what works. I’m pretty amenable when it comes to my voice. I can sing, I can deejay. They liked that, so I did it, but I didn’t love it, as far as Tosh’s music.


LU: I was surprised to hear what your music sounded like after hearing you on “Twerk It.” After hearing that, I thought you’d sound more like, say, Spice. But your sound is… a lot softer.

Tosh: That is the reaction from a lot of people. And that’s why it was necessary after they dropped that [“Twerk It”] video that I dropped “Killamanjaro,” also known as “Love/Hate.” On that song, I actually sing. People’s first time seeing me was the video. I actually did not want to do [the video] because I thought they’d see me as this crazy, skettel Jamaican girl saying bad words in a song. But it gave me great publicity. People’s reactions were “oh, you can sing.” I am a singer, but I do what the song calls for. That’s me. I can get into character easily. I don’t turn down anything, as long as I’m not saying anything too low, or passes certain moral beliefs.

LU: What are some other things you’ve done?

Tosh: I used to get on the riddims, and do the whole singjay thing, in patois. I used to do that all the time. I had a song that came out on the Dutty Wine riddim. People didn’t know who was singing, but it got a lot of plays. It’s called “Push It Boy.” But that’s not what I wanted my core music to sound like. For the most part, my music is pop. So, I just stepped back. And then I ended up meeting with Tony Kelly up here, and Brian Stanley, the people I work with now. And they have brought out my sound, the sound I’m proud of. An eclectic blend of everything that Tosh is—the American world, the Jamaican world, and just my personality as a whole.

LU: What producers did you work with in Jamaica?

Tosh: Supa Hype, Baby G, Leftside…Leftside is the one that allowed me to get my voice, and he would say “Tosh, just open up your mouth” and imitate a Spice or imitate a Lady Saw, and I love dancehall, so it was fun for me. He helped in that sense, because he’s very talented, but for some reason it didn’t happen there for me.

LU: Tony Kelly, now…. That’s a big man in dancehall.

Tosh: He knows the formula for music. Anyone can make music, but there’s a formula. I know he’s mastered the formula to making not only great music, but friendly music. Friendly to not just one culture. As him say, music with visa—everybody will like it. Tony and Brian have been in both places. They have the Jamaican descent but they have also been in America, and they have a good ear for what people want to hear. Plus they saw my potential. Tony’s been working on my project, since ’08. I was in college when I started recording with him. But music wasn’t something I was focused on 100 percent. And music is something that needs your 100-percent attention, at all times.

LU: What did you go to school for?

Tosh: International relations and communications at Florida International University, in Miami.

LU: Was that how you met Pharell?

Tosh: A friend just told me one day to get dressed but not overdressed. She told me to meet her somewhere, and it ended up being Pharrell’s studio. He knew about me the whole time, but she didn’t want to get me too excited and become disappointed or nervous, so I kind of walked into the situation. I sang for him, and immediately he had me lay some vocals and, when Sean Paul and Busta Rhymes were making a song, he called, and flew me out to LA. It was a very cool experience, one of my best experiences to date. But they never released [the song]. He’s really good at giving philosophical chats, encouraging you about the industry, and to keep your eye open to certain things.


LU: How did “Twerk It” happen?

Tosh: I was recording, and Busta Rhymes called me at 11 in the night. I heard it and said, “what do you want me to do,” because the song was pretty much completed. And he’s like, just add a Jamaican mad ooman sound. He wanted me to mimic back-in-the-day clashes, when dancehall was dancehall. So I just envisioned myself being Tony Matterhorn. I unleashed my inner Tony.

LU: How do you get in that zone, being so soft spoken?

Tosh: I’m not soft spoken all of the time. This is only for the interview. People think my voice was probably EQ’ed, or they put something on it to make it that high pitched. No, that’s how I get if you get me angry, or if I get the least bit excited. That’s me. For a long time, my parents thought my voice was so annoying. And I realized, after hearing that song, that it was. But that’s what [Pharrell and Busta] liked. They liked that it was squeaky and annoying.

LU: But your voice doesn’t sound squeaky.

Tosh: I’m telling you, that’s just for the interview. I have a “cool” voice. I can’t go around screaming like that.

LU: Show us what it sounds like…

Tosh: No! [Laughs] You want to hear me scream like a mad ooman? I remember leaving the studio [after “Twerk It”] like ahhh…I’m not proud of that one. I didn’t want to curse, but I knew I had to. And I thought lawwd God, suppose if mommy hear it, or daddy hear it. I called my mommy, and said let me tell you something: I did a song, and I had to get into character. She’s like “who cares? You’re in a video with Nicki Minaj!” They went to Halfway Tree and got themselves the edited and non-edited version of the song, and they play it in the car. Sometimes you think about what your parents would think or people who you look up to, but you’re just hindering yourself when you do that. It kind of liberated me, doing that song.

LU: You would do something more raw now with your own music?

Tosh: Yeah. A lot of people want that side from me, and I’ve always been, “No!” And they’re like [closes eyes] “yess, we want that.” And not Jamaican people, but the pop crowd, they want that crazy girl on the track. So we’re finding a way to incorporate that into my music.

LU: What are some opportunities that have come from “Twerk It”

Tosh: The world being able to see me, and get acquainted with Tosh. My name was on the screen as well as my face. I have a single called “Tell Me Why” that I’m really excited about. “Killamanjaro” is on a reggae beat with a one-drop old roots vibe and I’m singing out my heart. “Tell Me Why” is real trap, club record but done very sexy. And it’s softer. On “Killamanjaro,” I’m belting, it’s more aggressive.

LU: What is Killamanjaro about?

Tosh: Killamanjaro used to be a sound.

LU: It’s still a sound..

Tosh: The whole feel of the beat is very reminiscent of back in the day so we just said “Killamanjaro” and got the idea from that. We wanted to do something that was rugged and would blow out the speaker, like big bass. That whole back-in-the-day era feeling, we captured that for that song.

Tosh Alexander, photographed by Martei Korley

LU: So what do you have coming out?

Tosh: Tell me why, tell me why, tell me why, tell me why! I know this is the song that’s going to give me my moment.

Tosh’s Friend and Stylist Rochelle: That song tun up!

LU: Is there one style in particular that you would prefer to focus on?

Tosh: When you’re from Jamaica and the Caribbean, you’re naturally a lot more rounded than many people. You don’t just grow on one thing. I think Nicki Minaj and Rihanna have shown what it’s like to basically jump into any genre, while making it all them. They’ve mastered that, and it’s not just because they’re talented. You have a lot of artist in America who are talented. But having their Caribbean background, and just that natural switch up, they’re able to do it all. And I know I can do it all. I’ve done that. They’ve done it, and it comes across authentic, and they’ve mastered the formula. I’d like to go where it’s taken them, or even better.

LU: What do you like to do outside of music?

Tosh: I’m a homebody now mostly, but I really love a good party. I love to dance. I’m a really good dancer. Not choreography, just like Caribbean wine up, wine up. I dont think it’s too vulgar, but people say I dance like a Jamaican girl. But I’m an old soul, I love old-time music. In any of my songs, I might jack a line reminiscent of an old time singer who I look up to. In “Killamanjaro,” towards the end, I go [sings Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”] You’ve abandoned me, love don’t live hear anymore. I’m not trying to copy but music influences me.

LU: You said you like a good party. What’s going to get you to come out?
Tosh: It’s two things. I love a nice dance. I like when they play old time music, and it’s going to be old time R&B, old time reggae culture, and just reel it into early ‘90s, up until mid 2000s. That will draw me out, on a rainy day, if I have the flu–it don’t matter. Other times, I just love real ratchet Ricky Ross, fun music. But I have to be able to dance to it. I cannot go into the club and stand up and just look at people. It can not happen.

LU: Where do you go when in Kingston?
Tosh: All over! I used to be a Quad person, and then when Fiction became the hotspot, I’d go [to] Fiction. I used to go to nuff dances, hole-in-the-wall Hot Mondays, Weddi Weddi Wednesdays, Passa Passa when they had it. Those dances where they just play music, not so much what’s hot right now. I’d leave from Club Quad and go there, just to get the mix of both worlds. I like that.

Follow Tosh on Twitter and on Instagram (ID: Toshington), and keep up with her music on YouTube and Soundcloud.