21. Jesus Freak – DC Talk
JESUS FREAK (1995)
Sometime in 1990 right at the time of the release of DC Talk’s second album (first full length), “Nu Thang”, Toby McKeehan (tobyMac), Michael Tait and Kevin “Max” Smith (K-Max) performed a concert at Southern California’s Magic Mountain amusement park. As the local sales representative for The Benson Co, the distribution company for their label, Forefront, I was asked to take the band on a tour of local Christian Bookstores the following day.
I took them Newport Beach instead!
So began a friendship with the three guys that make up DC Talk that lasts until today. In the early days of DC Talk they were tireless self-promoters and would do (and did do) just about anything to help sales and reach the masses. This included being roadies for then mega-group, DeGarmo and Key while performing as the opening act on the tour. They always seemed tired when I met them in the early years. I figured a day off would do them good.
Every time I see any of them, which isn’t nearly as often as I used to be when I was more involved in the Christian Music industry, that day is always brought up. But it helped me discover the guys behind the platinum albums and their hearts and vision. I will always be grateful to God for that privilege.
The first time I met they guys I had just begun working for the Benson Co. on the East coast. They were doing a concert in the Hershey, Penn. area with DeGarmo and Key and decided to go see this new band that the record company was so excited about.
I had just left my job in Southern California as manager of Maranatha Village. I was also a contributing writer and reviewer for a magazine out of the Lancaster, Penn called “Notebored.” When I met them band backstage they had a copy of the newest issue of the magazine which I hadn’t had a chance to see yet. That issue contained a scathing, negative review of their self-titled debut EP. Some ten years later or more Michael Tait would still quotes from that review!
I think it took me at least two or more years to fess up that I also wrote for that magazine at the time.
The first night I met the band I also was able to secure a copy of the very limited (for some good reasons) demo cassette that the band originally released called, “Christian Rhymes to a Rhythm.” That original demo featured a low-budget (demo) version of “Heavenbound,” the song that would introduce them to thousands of fans on their national debut about a year later.
The three guys met at Liberty University in either 1987 and ’88. At first it was just Toby and Michael and they began performing the combination of rap/hip hop and Gospel music at Churches and youth events in the area. They were originally knows at DC Talk and the One Way Crew and later shortened it to just DC Talk. Toby took the name DC Talk originally from his hometown but then made it an acronym for Decent Christian Talk.
Toby would rap while Michael would sing both separately and then began to merge the sounds. This was actually quite progressive for the time as even in mainstream music at the time the two styles were separated. Kevin joined soon after and his inclusion added a little more of a rock edge with more of a Bryan Duncan and Bono vocal sound.
Upon signing with Forefront records (then the home to DeGarmo and Key) the band released their self-titled debut project. The single “Heavenbound” became instant hit with young “youth group” kids around the nation, especially young girls who found the trio cute and fun like their secular counterpart New Kids on the Block. The comparison, whether justified or not, stuck for at least another album until the maturity of the band took hold.
“Heavenbound” may have been a hit but not on radio because of the taboo attached to “rap” music. At the time there were a handful of Christian rap artists but none had reached mainstream Christian music success do to the fear and bad reputation associated with that style of music. There was also an undeniable racial issue attached to the censorship as well.
The live performances of the band won over many converts in the early days. It’s important to remember at the time that rock and rap were seen as opposing musical forces and the merging of the two was suspect. Plus any connection to a boy band like New Kids was also seen as a detriment. So with that in mind the band opened up on tour for one of the biggest “rock” bands in DeGarmo and Key. That prejudice regarding the style and boy band comparisons was held by me as well.
But the very first time I saw them live I was won over. The pure energy and passion put into the performances transcended genres. Both Michael and Toby were great showmen and owned the stage. At that time Kevin spent quite a bit of time behind a keyboard and didn’t really start to own and work the stage for a few more years. Incredible live performances would be a trademark for the band for the decade or more that followed.
As for the album itself it really does lend itself to the New Kids comparisons with but more a rap feel than a vocal band feel. The album also suffers from a repetitive structure and songs do tend to sound a lot alike, especially “Gah Ta Be” and “Final Days.” The heavier guitar on “The King” sets it apart even though the rapped verse structure is nearly identical to the previous songs. Along with “Heavenbound” highlights include “Spinnin’ Round” and the album closer, the ballad “He Loves” which showcased Tait’s smooth and strong voice.
On a side note, does anyone else think Toby looks like Anthony Michael Hall on the cover?
“Nu Thang” was leaps and bounds an improvement over the debut. More instrumentation and sampling, improved arrangements and significantly more diversity in rap structure. There was also an increase in the vocal side of the songwriting arrangements and the vocals handle both verse and chorus responsibilities. But it is still primarily a hip hop/rap album in the vein of early Fresh Prince style.
“I Luv Rap Music” became an instant favorite and shows a more playful side to Toby’s rap styling. The Fresh Prince comparison remains here as well. Other highlight include the title track, “Walls” and “Talk It Out” which, though a strong song, really falls into the New Kids camp. The album, though, shows vast improvement in all areas and paved the way for the album to come which would shatter the perception of rap and hip hop in Christian Music.
“Free at Last” is the first platinum selling album and also netted the group their first Grammy Award. As much as the boys showed growth from the first to the second, the leap here was even that much greater. More rock influenced hip hop, vastly improved rapping, memorable song melodies, mature songwriting and top shelf production. Song contain improved structure with better and more creative arrangements. The album would also begin a tradition of additional interludes between songs and merging of one song from another.
This would pay off as the band began to receive greater recognition on Christian radio and began to make inroads into the mainstream music market with Grammy recognition and significant mainstream sales. To give an indication just how popular the album was it remained the number one selling album on Billboard Magazine’s CCM Chart for 34 straight weeks!
I received a call from the guys inviting me to be their guest at a taping of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno as they were going to perform the reworked cover of the Doobie Brother’s monster hit, “Jesus Is Still Alright.” This song contained Toby’s best and most effective rap to date with an incredible double time rap in the bridge.
I went early and met with the guys in the green room before they went on and was always amazed at their seeming lack of nerves. We were joking around up until the taping time when I had to go grab my seat near the front. I had been to several tapings of the show, both with Leno and previously when Johnny Carson was the host, and what I saw that night I had never seen before.
It was obvious that most of the crowd was unfamiliar with DC Talk because as JAy mentioned after the monologue who the musical guest was there was no overwhelming applause. It was obvious that Leno was relatively unfamiliar with the group as well. But about midway through the performance I noticed something I had never seen Leno do before.
Leno got up from behind the desk and walked all the way to edge of the stage area that separated the main stage and the musical performance stage and peeked around the corner to watch the rest of the performance. Leno’s guest that evening joined him and you could tell that they were talking about impressed they were with DC Talks performance with the guest jumping and dancing along with the boys. It was obvious to all that Leno was “blown away.”
When they finished what was a really fantastic performance Leno moved over to them quickly and congratulated on an amazing performance. I was really proud of them and still remember the guy sitting behind me saying something to his date as we were walking akin to “Who the f@&# were those guys…that was f*%&#$% amazing!”
Another advancement made was in the area of videos used to promote the album with one of the strongest being the one for “Jesus Is Still Alight.”
Some fans may have thought the band had literally fallen off the face of the earth. Music years are not unlike “dog years” and a three-year span between albums seemed like an eternity in the music business.
And I don’t care who you were…you didn’t see it coming!
Many people believed that with the previous success the band experienced with “Free at Last” and the lucrative deal negotiated with Virgin Records that the band would feel the need to water down its message and embrace a more “neutral” lyrical stand with primarily love songs, social issues and a compromise of their Decent “Christian” Talk.
What they got instead was an album called “Jesus Freak.”
It is almost impossible to describe what a revelation “Jesus Freak” was when it was released. Heavy guitars in the grunge vein (while grunge was popular and not 10 years later), brilliant songwriting, near perfect production execution and the single greatest assortment of songs just about any single artist has ever collected into one album. It is nearly a Greatest hits record unto itself.
The album sold over two million copies, garnered the band its second Grammy Award, debuted in the Top 20 on the “secular” sales charts in Billboard magazine and the single “Just Between You and Me” charted in the Top 30. Videos received regular airplay on MTV and the band moved from co-headlining mid-sized arena and large churches to playing venues like The Rose garden in Portland and The Pond in Anaheim.
The influence of truly modern music married to rap and hip hop was not just a creative twist on the genre it was genre destroying. Rockers, rapper, moms and daughters all bought the album. There seemed to be no crowd that did not find the album fascinating and compelling. it walked away with nearly every award imaginable and landed on more Top 10 lists than any Christian album in history. It was both groundbreaking and earth shattering.
The album also marked the decidedly obvious move away from the rapped verse, sung chorus structure that had dominated previous releases and Toby even began singing. The change alone made way from a solo career that has not showed any signs of slowing down.
The album kicks off (and I mean KICKS) with “So Help me God” and it is obvious from the first 10 seconds that things are not how they used to be. Toby voice has a distorted, sampled sound and his rapping is edgier and the guitars swirl, whine and grind complete with driving distortion and heavy guitar solos. Surrounded by a world that wants to drag them into its trap the opening cries out for God to keep them within His will.
GOD SO HELP ME
THIS IS MY SOULS PLEA
I’M DESPERATELY DEVOTED
I CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF YOU
CAUSE YOU ARE THE ONE I LOVE
CAUSE YOU ARE THE ONE I NEED
CAUSE YOU ARE THE ONE I’M SEEKING
CAUSE YOU ARE THE ONE FOR ME
That is not the normal fair from a band that is supposed to be using this record to become “rock stars.” From the very first song the fears of “selling out” or “watering down” are more than just dismissed, they are obliterated!
The song that should have been the crossover hit follows with “Colored People.” This song clearly shows the growth and maturity in the songwriting as the topic had been addressed by the band previously, but not with the grace, compassion and lyrical acumen. I also found that a song of racial reconciliation would be sung primarily by Kevin and Toby a stroke of genius.
A piece of canvas is only the beginning
It takes on character with every loving stroke
This thing of beauty is the passion of an artist’s heart
By God’s design, we are a skin kaleidoscope
We gotta come together, aren’t we all human after all?
As strong as the opening tracks are there is nothing compare to the title track. “Jesus Freak” remains one of the finest unions of hip hop and melodic heavy music in history. It’s important to remember that this song was recorded and released four to five years before bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park released their debuts! This was not just a creative use of combining musical genres, it was truly revolutionary!
Again the content easily assuaged the fears some fans and creates may have about a lack of lyrical integrity. The amazing thing about the album is that even critics that normally are drawn to and supportive of a more vague content were impressed with the content here. It wasn’t the same old tried and true CCM pabulum, simplistic and “Christianese” lyrics that had infected the industry throughout the years, it was fresh, original, creative and clear at the same time. This is one of the true strengths of the album.
Kamikaze my death is gain /Ive been marked by my Maker a
The high and lofty they see me as weak
cause I won’t live and die for the power they seek, yeah
What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak
what will people do when they find thats its true
I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak there aint disguising the truth.
After a quick sample from Brennan Manning another of the several radio hits beings with “What If I Stumble.” This is one of the best uses of all three vocalist in one song and one of most passionate from Kevin. This is one of the songs that Toby still performs live.
A drastically reworked version of “Day by Day” follows sounding very little like the original from “Godspell.” Heavier, with a real, almost bluesy feel in the verse structure before the more aggressive and energized chorus. The sultry soulful voice of Kevin Max really shines in the verses here.
“Between You and Me” follows and proved to be biggest cross over hit from the project. Borrowing for Jesus’ command to not come to worship if there is an issue between brothers, here is another call to reconciliation.
Just between you and me
I’ve got somethin’ to say
I wanna get it straight
Before the sun goes down
Just between you and me
Confession needs to be made
Recompense is my way to freedom (now)
Just between you and me
I’ve got something to say
The only song I never really went too crazy over was “”Like It, Love, Need It.” It always sounded to much like something Newsboys, Pray for Rain or Audio Adrenaline would have done, and probably done better.
The biggest Christian radio hit ended up being a cover of Charlie Peacock’s “In the Light.” Here Toby takes a rare lead vocal spot for the first half of the verse. The song is highlighted by a special guest appearance by Charlie Peacock in the final chorus. This song has remained a radio favorite and another that Toby still performs during his solo tours. The world music groove sounded unlike anything else on Christian music radio at the time. Of course, if Christian radio had enough foresight and played more Charlie Peacock, that wouldn’t have been true.
An often forgotten masterpiece from the album (and seldom if ever performed live song) follows with “What have We Become.” Tate really takes this song over in the chorus and the more progressive groove really sets that song apart. It wasn’t pop radio friendly and much deeper lyrically, which may have held it back for some fans. I have always believed Tate has one of the truly great voices in CCM, and here he shows it.
This amazing album concludes with alternative leaning “Mind’s Eye.” Bringing with a spoken work opening closer to Steve Scott than rap. The bridge contains a sample from a Billy Graham sermon on the work of the Holy Spirit. The band has formed a relationship with Pastor Graham over the years playing at several Billy Graham youth crusades.
In my mind I can see Your face
Love pours down in a shower of grace
Life is a gift that You choose to give
And I believe that we eternally live
Faith is the evidence of things unseen
People tell me that You’re just a dream
But they don’t know you the way that I do
You’re the one I live to pursue
DC Talk would record one more album, “Supernatural” before taking an indefinite hiatus. This album would actually break “Jesus Freaks” record for the best first week sales in Christian Music history debuting at #4! A strong project on its own, it did not have the total package of impressive content and originality as Jesus Freak. “Freak” simply made the mold and then went ahead and broke it.
The band would call it quits a few years later and the final tour was also a combination of solo sets and hits performed as a group. I attended one of those final shows in Irvine, CA. I count it a privilege that on that evening sitting in front row Toby noticed me sitting there, yelled “Hey Dave” and then jumped from the stage right on top of me.