Tony Cummings reports on the latest album from the master of hip-hop, rock, funk and reggae fusion TOBYMAC
With the first single "Made To Love" from Toby Mac's latest release already a big radio hit, things are set up for the artist to deliver, with 'Portable Sounds', his most successful album since the halcyon days of dc Talk. Toby told America's Christian Retailing magazine, "'Made To Love' is doing better at radio than any single I've ever released. It's really a song about recognising who you are. It's first forgetting, and then remembering and then walking in that recognition."
The pop rock hook of "Made To Love" had worried some long term fans that he was moving from the hip-hop and funk that characterised 'Momentum' (2001) and 'Welcome To Diverse City' (2004). But once again the album is an eclectic gumbo of hip-hop, rock, reggae, old school soul and pristine pop immediacy. Toby told the Infuse website, "I think my records will always be more diverse. I think I always have since dc Talk. The way I approach songwriting is song by song. The way I record songs is song by song. I don't set up the band and record this cohesive sounding record with the same players on every song. I've always approached it more like a group of singles. In my mind, every song on the record is something I'm trying to make into a single. Now, the label ends up saying, 'You only get three singles or four.' But for me, I'm going after each song saying, 'This is the big one.' I rarely focus my attention on what they call album songs. I want every one to be hot. I want every one to be expressing the point I'm trying to make or the thought going through my mind or the prayer I want to be expressed. So that's the way it goes.
"So what did I do on this record? I jumped in the studio and took a bunch of lyrical hooks I had in my mind and started supporting them the best way I thought they should be supported musically with different players. Chris Stevens, my producer, and I would come up with parts. It is more of an organic record. It's more live."
Even after one play of 'Portable Sounds' one is struck that there is far less programming on Toby's latest project. "We thought, 'Let's start with the basics. All the songs are gonna be hip-hop grooves and will grow from there, but let's grow them organically.' So we started with live drums or we start with programming but replace them with live drums. Then we began putting Wurlitzer on it, Rhodes, old pianos. Then you get a bass player like Toddiefunk - he just lives for the Motown era, the funk era. Then you bring in live horns on like 10 or 11 songs and live strings and put guitars on it. . . that song is not gonna sound like modern hip-hop. That song is gonna find its way between rock and hip-hop. But that's sorta where I've always lived. I don't know what you'd call it. I don't know if my music is hip-hop with a nod to rock, a nod to reggae and a nod to funk. Or I don't know if its funk with a nod to hip-hop or reggae with a nod to hip-hop. (Laughs) I think it all comes down to melodic hip rock or something. I don't know."
The eclectic in Toby has always been there. He admitted, "I love rock and roll. I grew up listening to not only Run DMC, Beastie Boys and others but I also listened to The Police. My first LP was Aerosmith's 'Toys In The Attic'. That was the first LP I was ever given as a kid. I got it for my 12th birthday or something like that. So you know, I'm into that. But for me, my heart is in hip-hop, especially expressive forms of hip-hop. Hip-hop that reaches beyond a beat and a rhyme. I respect that but my taste has always been to drop a few more textures in there. So I said all that just to say that when Michael, Kevin and I decided to do some solo things, I really wanted to do the programmed beat. I was dying to drop claps that are obnoxiously in your face, 808 kick drums that last forever.
"I think I've sorta rounded that corner and got that out of me. Now I've landed somewhere very comfortable to me. It's a little bit like respecting the way a hip-hop song moves. The chant within it and the way the beat moves, the way a bass line moves. But then taking that and dropping all these textures on it. These melody things - which typically on a hip-hop song, the melody would be by a very R&B-type soulful vocal typically by an African-American - but to drop a white boy on there singing with a rasp in his voice, particularly when he starts screaming. It's just a unique sound and that's what we're supposed to do with our art, right?"
Toby was asked whether he felt validated by the fact that both 'Momentum' and 'Diverse City' have gone gold. "It's nice to know that 500,000 people have bought each of those CDs, but I've got records in my past that have sold over 2 million. So you know it might be a bit of a validation, but I've been doing this for a little while so I know that the numbers are fun and they can be enticing and excite you, but at the same time, a letter from a person I got yesterday - and I'm not just saying this - said their son who had just passed away, my music was what he held onto. It cheered him up, made him smile and gave him hope. Now I'm smart enough that was God breathing through me and not Toby, but I mean c'mon. Compare that to a gold record. It's not even close. That will take you to new heights right there, just to know that you are used in some way like that."
The lyrical subject matter of each song is hugely important to Toby. He told Christian Retailing, "I take my time. I wait for the 10 to 11 songs. I try to listen and wait to see things that God is really breathing through me. I just sort of wait on those things."
During the time between projects, the singer found himself dealing with issues of personal relationships like losing friends, loved ones getting divorced, the struggle of living holy and his own busy lifestyle. "I try to write songs about life," the singer commented. "I almost called this record something like 'a soundtrack to my life.' I find that when you really write from what you're facing, the things you overcome, the things you stumble into, how you relate to God, how he relates to you, people will respond. It will connect with them."
Toby spoke to Infuse about his duties at Gotee Records, the successful record label he co-founded. He remembered, "There were times when I was Gotee four or even five days a week. It seems like since dc Talk, it's gotten harder for me to be at Gotee. I mean, since doing the TobyMac solo thing. When there was three of us, it was easier to shoot over to Gotee more often. But now what I'm doing, this is very full-time. Now the thing that I've always done and will continue to do is find bands and hook them up with the producer on the front end.
"If you look at our release schedule, I'm not signing our Mono vs. Stereo bands, Brad [Moist] is. But Ayiesha Woods, I found and signed. Jennifer Knapp, I handed her to Joey [Elwood] and he signed her. Even back to Out of Eden or Relient K, these are bands where I heard their indie project and brought them to Gotee and said, "Let's rock with these guys." I'm thinking of a few new ones I have coming out soon that are real hot. There's other bands I didn't find. Joey found Storyside B. Joey encouraged Sonicflood to be a worship band and that record blew up. So it's definitely a team effort. But walking with them through at least their first release, because I think that the first release is so crucial. If they find the right path, the right producer in a marriage place - such as Relient K being paired with Mark Townsend - you don't have to lord over it. Those guys are amazing at what they do, producer and artist. Now if you hook them up with a producer and sign them and it doesn't go well, if it doesn't connect, then you have to revamp.
Toby spoke about the loss of Todd Collins, the producer and co-founder of Gotee who left the company to start Beatmart Recordings. "It was hard. He knows I didn't want to see him go. I asked him not to. But he felt like he needed to do this. Really at that time, he felt he needed to be a producer 100 per cent of the time. It's not like he felt he had to go start Beatmart right at that moment. It's nothing I wanted him to do, but I understand when someone has a vision for something and why they need to proceed. I mean, I would be quite the hypocrite if I didn't encourage him to pursue his vision. (Laughs). So I just applauded him and said, 'Go!' I remember we went over to Joey's and had a big sendoff with hugs and tears. It was all good. It was a beautiful thing.
"I sit back and just cheer for Beatmart. If you want my opinion, I think they're doing it well. I think if you're gonna do something like that in hip-hop and Christian music, you have to create a subculture and go from there rather than just have one artist pop out. And that's exactly what they are doing. I just applaud them. So I call them every once in awhile and just say, 'You're doin' it right, man. You're doin' it right.' It's still a long haul for them. It's an uphill battle."
With 'Portable Sounds' just out TobyMac begins a major tour of the States with Family Force 5, Thousand Foot Krutch and Building 429. Then, in the summer he'll be playing the major festivals. He said, "I'm working hard at promoting what I do. I have an amazing band and I just love being out there. I love my family life and it means the most to me. But at the same time, my wife and I truly believe God has given these songs to me and that there are things that need to be said. At the same time, I've been in the studio for the last week or so with my band messing around with creating a band project that's not called TobyMac but maybe. . . Diverse Citizens? I don't know. It's just me and my band and my vocalist and we're just literally dropping ideas in the bucket and seeing what happens."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.