Toby McKeehan, the longtime mainstay of dc Talk, has now metamorphosed as tobyMac. Tony Cummings reports on the re-birth.
It's birthed in hip hop, grows from the [formative] stage and takes wings from there," says Toby McKeehan about 'Momentum'. The record covers a range of styles and topics. Much of the pop/hip hop record is built inside walls of rapcore guitars with songs like "Get This Party Started" and "Yours", kindred spirits to his American number one rock radio hit "Extreme Days", bringing to life a longtime penchant for mixing beats with guitars. Yet there's a logical, 'Supernatural'-like R&B connection to his dc Talk team on cuts like "Somebody's Watching" and "Irene".
On the first solo album by Toby McKeehan, now with his fresh tobyMac moniker, there's a pointed wink at rumours of dc Talk's breakup on "Quiet Storm", a mock interview with a reporter. That leads into "Wonder Why", an explanation of sorts setting the record straight about dc Talk's intermission. Giving voice to his extra-dc Talk work, McKeehan summarises in "Wonder Why", "I've been away for some down time/But thought it was 'bout time/To give my freaky people what they came here for/I guess I needed some head space/And felt that by God's grace/My homosapiens would still be up for some more/I'm talkin' God in my hip hop/If not, then my show stops..."
Like dc Talk's 1995 classic 'Jesus Freak', 'Momentum' departs from tidy musical and lyrical uniformity treasured by many Christian music critics and fans and approaches musical schizophrenia, an accessible sonic experience just crazy enough to help listeners hear again an age old story.
"Music spreads the message outside the Church, hearts will begin to listen and ears begin to hear," says tobyMac. "You can't argue with truth, peace and resolve in someone's life. Say that in an artistic way and the world will listen. It doesn't matter how many guitars you put on top of it or if you leave it with the same hard beat, hopefully it'll move us toward embracing hip hop, which is the other end of the spectrum from where [Christian music] came from.
"I came up through Christian music and I take pride in that. But I have a heart to commune and bridge the gap, not a heart to rebel. I want to bridge that gap and push for diversity of what we have here. It's something that can work as the walls come down, to reach out and touch people's lives and be effective. Reach outside the Church and touch lives as walls come down."
There's a sizeable list of special guests on 'Momentum' - from the instantly recognizable Kirk Franklin to sidemen Pete Stewart, Otto Price and John Painter to DJs Maj and Form -it's hardly surprising the album's release was considerably delayed. But for tobyMac, the wait was worth it. "My hope is that the record stirs people up to thinking about God," he says. "It's a socially conscious record that deals with real life problems and situations and finds resolve in the arms of a loving God. It's real life in-your-face on hardcore issues as seen in life in Christ. When I go out and look around, I feel peace and joy in the midst of an extreme outside. It's encapsulating a celebration and reality...pointing to extremities."
Even before its release 'Momentum' produced a major radio hit with the thunderous rapcore anthem "Extreme Days", a track premiered on the dc Talk side project EP 'Solo'. On the song Toby raps over crunching guitars, "Mr Therapist, why did I go this direction?/God had a plan to end all my schemes/I had a dream, he said to be.. .Extreme." McKeehan's desire to be extreme stems from what he sees as a culture out of control and the need to respond with an attitude that will get noticed. Toby explains, "When you look outside your door, you see what people are putting up with today and what is making our society tick, or not tick. When people are making a plan to go in and shoot fellow students, almost for fun, almost for the rush of it, you are talking about extremes. The moral line, the social conscience line, the ethical line - it seems to be pushing further and further out. I think these are extreme days. The way you get the extreme's attention is to be extremely passionate about whatever you are passionate about... I am passionate about God, about Jesus, and what his influences do to me. It's what accepting God's grace has done for my life."
But his vision entails more than a passion for his faith. Toby sees his version of being extreme as part of the call to community, reaching out to others to make a difference, an idea in stark contrast to societal norms. "Everything is telling us to, look out for number one, baby!' If we are all doing that, though, it just isn't going to work. Socially, we need to be looking out for others, loving them and putting their needs above our own. That's an old message, but it's like we could be beaten over the head with it every five minutes, and we'd still walk in the other four minutes struggling with it."
Toby is keen to praise the young musicians he has encouraged and mentored at Gotee down the years. "They inspire me in my artistic life, to watch the way they work, think and write inspires me. I'm supposed to be there as their A&R guy, but they move me. That's what fellowship and community is about."
Like a proud teacher, he says of Out Of Eden, "I have such respect for their endurance. I love their heart and their calling. They are pushing the envelope. They shoved the gate open and took the blows, but now more people are growing to like music with the beats. They had a lotto do with stretching the industry." Toby speaks with equal enthusiasm of singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp. "She inspires me over and over to look into myself and to look honestly at my relationship with God, to write and commune with God at a deeper level."
Although styles of rap music have changed hugely since those early, rather cod, recordings of dc Talk, Toby has retained his enthusiasm for rap music. "I think I've always been drawn to the culture. It's more than just music. It really is a culture which I embrace, to a degree. But being married with a child, it definitely changes how much you can be involved in the entire culture. But it's something I love. It's the kind of music that moved me when I was 12 and continues to move me today. It's an undeniable pleasure to my ears musically.
"I think that it is a music that cries out social consciousness. It cries out with making wrongs right and causing people to think about things outside of their comfort zone. In other words, it's a great forum to cause people to think. It's typically a literal, in-your-face lyric. It's not just abstract, super-artsy, l-don't-really-know-what-they're-talking-about. It's something that leads people to a discussion. But it's also very tongue-in-cheek, which appeals to me. I love that side. For dc Talk with 'Supernatural', I felt we were missing a little bit of that. We hit on it a little in "My Friend (So Long)" and maybe "Since I Met You". That's what I like to write. I like to write about real life situations, but in sort of a left of centre way. Not extreme left of centre but just enough to get you thinking and talking.
"I think hip hop is a culture that's very inviting. You want to be part of it. It's very much less about the stage and the audience and more about one big positive party. Or it can be negative. In my case, it would be more like family. There's a family feel. Maybe it's less about party because that seems to have negative connotations, even though you know what I'm talking about. Maybe it's more about family and you feel like everyone's worshipping together, experiencing joy together, experiencing intensity together, experiencing passion together. I lose the stage and the crowd and it becomes 'were together in this.' That's what I love about it and that's why I think people are drawn to it."
What did Toby think of a recent survey that seven out of 10 American kids preferred hip hop as their favourite style of music? "I think, again, they're drawn to the community of what hip hop is, just like the community of what punk is. It's perceived as outside of popular culture. And it is popular. It's the most popular, as you're stating, but it's still different than the popular culture. And I don't think it's rebelliousness as much as it is a desire to be in the community, in the family. I think it is a music that's speaking about issues, confronting things, causing people to think, causing people to discuss.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.