American rock rap band UNIVERSAL ROYALTY talk to Tony Cummings about their all out commitment to minister the Gospel
If I went on about a band who, after forming over 10 years ago, have made several visits to the UK playing dozens of gigs here you would expect them to have the backing of a big record company. or at least a small one. In fact, New York-based Universal Royalty, otherwise known as UR, have managed to play gigs in Britain as well as many other parts of the world without any kind of music biz backing. In all their years of existence the group have only managed one album release, 2003's 'Only If You Go With Me'. Yet they are a seasoned crew with a wealth of gigging experience. Earlier this year I saw a storming performance by the band at the Creation Fest in Woolacombe, Devon, and was hugely impressed with UR's powerful rock rap music. After one of their sets the group, Dave Toro (lead vocals), Juan Toro (vocals, turntables), Daniel Toro (drums), Chris Vasquez (guitar, piano), Luis Toro (guitar), Marcos Toro (bass) and Nick Toro (sound technician), sat in a noisy hospitality tent to talk to Cross Rhythms.
I began by asking how come they'd only managed one album in so many years of gigging? Said Dave, "In all things we wait on the Lord. There have been many times when we have had the opportunity to record our next but we always go to the Lord with different opportunities to see if it's the door we should be walking through. Very faithfully the Lord shows us where we should be next; usually it's serving somewhere in the world playing music. That doesn't give a lot of studio time. But the music making and creativity is still there, we're still making new songs and stuff."
There is, at last, a new album in the pipeline. Dave continued, "We just started a couple of weeks ago recording our second CD, putting all the new songs down on track and it's going really good. It's a lot of fun just to be back in the studio, recording."
Dave explained the band's early history. "We started rapping and singing together in 1998. In 2000 Luis and Chris started playing guitar together, and in 2002 Daniel, Marcos and Juan began playing their respective instruments; everyone in the band plays music 'by ear'. We were born and raised in New York city, we grew up with a lot of rap. Then our parents moved us out to Pennsylvania and there wasn't any rap where we lived in the country side. We loved rap but we started listening to rock so we started the formulation of music 10 years ago. It's not secular music like Linkin Park or anything like that, it's just the Lord allowing us to bring our hearts out whether we feel the Lord wants us to tell the message in rap or to mix the two together or just in a total rock song. It gives us a broader range of how to give the message of what the Lord wants us to say of what we feel in our hearts is an issue."
From the beginning the band have been seriously focussed on ministry, taking their name from 1 Peter 29 ("You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood"). They have travelled in Central America, Africa and Western Europe. While on the road the band function as a kind of travelling church. Said Juan, "One of the most important aspects of our ministry is meeting together every morning and praying as well as keeping each other accountable in all matters - you know, sexual purity, emotional purity and so on. Three of us are married now so we also have our wives helping to keep us accountable. We treat everything as a large family. Our mother travels with us so she's a big source of accountability as well. She does the same thing as she has always done as a mother, but obviously gives us the freedom to grow in the Lord, in our own faith. It's all important to us we read the Word every day and we try to not just do it in the morning but throughout the day, sit down and spend time with the Lord and just see exactly what he wants us to do. Then as the Lord speaks to us individually we speak to each other about it and say, 'I felt the Lord telling me this,' and we bounce it off each other and test the Spirit on it. Something we've done, or the Lord's done and we were just a part of it whether knowing or not knowing. I don't know if you know the story of Abraham and his servant Eliezer. Eliezer was by a well when he found Isaac's wife and he praised God saying, 'You've found me in the way.' That's what we try to do. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life so we try to be in the Word, be praying and stuff like that and leave the details to God. We just try to be 'in the way' of Jesus basically."
Being so focussed on ministry the band are quite prepared to play even if equipment on some of their Third World travels is far from adequate. Said technician Nick, "The Lord's provided us with some equipment that I can travel with and be able to pull out when needed. But sometimes we just have to work around situations; sometimes we'll do it completely acoustic so that way we don't have to worry about something. I've been in the situation where speakers have exploded on us because they weren't properly hooked up, so yeah, it can be interesting. It definitely gives me more of a way to be humble and to know that the Lord is the one who established the sound and not so much the equipment you have, but how it's done and the gifting that the Lord has given. One thing we've seen, it just happened to us - we were playing in a school and were supposed to be playing in their theatre. We had all the sound equipment and everything and then they said we couldn't use their theatre as it was booked. They said, 'We're going to give you the biggest classroom,' and we're like, 'A classroom! We're going to play in a classroom?' So we go into this classroom and we really can't set up the sound equipment as the room is not big enough. So then we felt the Lord say, 'Listen, I give you these strange places so that you can shine and show your skill from what I've put into you so that you can be excellent. You don't need the top gear all the time, so be excellent at anything I give you because I've made you that way.' So to shine what the Lord has crafted into us sometimes we'll just have to sit there with a box to beat and a guitar and just straight vocals, you know, acoustic vocal and we just do it."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.