TobyMac Recalls What the Beginnings of Christian Hip-Hop Looked Like (Part 1)
From the humble beginnings of Stephen Wiley, on to P.I.D., and D-Boy, Christian hip-hop started in the 80s as this tiny niche. No one back then could have imagined the lengths the genre would go roughly 35 years later. This slow build turned from a not accepted in the church unknown, to a mainstream crossing viable force in music. This breakthrough was largely in part to TobyMac and his supergroup DC Talk.
Rapzilla.com had the privilege of speaking to TobyMac for the first time outside of the Chris Chicago show. The goal was to continue to build upon the timelines of Christian hip-hop started by interviews with Stephen Wiley, M.C. GeGee, and stories about Danny ‘D-Boy’ Rodriguez. Toby was more than willing to handle the task and go back to things he may not have even thought of in 30 years.
DC Talk officially started in 1987. They dropped their self-titled debut in 1989 and would explode with the release of their Nu Thang album in 1990. From there, they dominated the Christian music world in the 90s. TobyMac, as a solo artist, has continued that dominance in the 2000s and 2010s. A whole generation knows him as what he is today, and yet there’s still a whole generation that longs for the “glory days.” So, here’s an article about the glory days.
The early days of CHH were tough. However, it was a small tightknit community that all had the same goals. They wanted everyone to know they were for real, overtly Christian, and not stopping.
“It felt like a camaraderie that I loved. It felt like a group of people trying to open people’s eyes and minds, like a movement,” said Toby. “Trying to push something through that people had to be convinced of. We had to let them know that this is legitimate, that we mean this, and it’s here to stay.”
Previously, Wiley had expressed that all the emcees used to gather together during Dove Award week. They’d get together to talk about issues plaguing them and look for solutions. Toby confirmed this story as well.
“I remember getting together at a hotel at GMA week, all of us talking, I can’t remember if we officially labeled it the rap summit. It might have been done down at the sofas in the lobby because that was the only place we can get,” he explained. “I remember there were a few things going on. Some people were offended by the thought of rap. They thought of it in a certain realm like something negative – as something you couldn’t use to express your love for God or desire or pursue holiness.”
He continued, “It never made sense to me. A style of music is what you make of your lyric. I always looked at it as an opportunity to turn people’s eyes to the king. Even my own father, at a certain point, when I said I was doing, ‘God hip-hop, Christian hip-hop’, he couldn’t get over the fact that it was rap. I put a lyric to one of my songs on his pillow one night and when he went to bed he read them without a beat and he suddenly understood it. He got behind me.”
The biggest struggle back then was trying to show people it was Christian. Outside of that, they were trying to show the Christian music industry that it wasn’t a passing fad. A quick look over at the mainstream in the late 80s, early 90s shows hip-hop starting to infiltrate the culture.
“They needed to embrace what we do as art and a style of music that was going to stay around. I never had a single doubt about that,” stated Toby. “It always kind of freaked me out, it twisted my mind out how they couldn’t look at it like, this is jazz, this is blues, this is rock & roll, rap has proved to evolve and grow essentially.”
TobyMac said that hip-hop “completely swept me off my feet.” He sites the socially conscious music coming from New York and rappers of that era and the fun party sounds of groups like Sugar Hill Gang with fueling his passion.
He wanted to reach people with a message and communicate in a fun way. Over 30 years later, he’s still that kid.
“All these years, it’s really a love for writing. I’m really a songwriter. I came up writing and expressing the things that are shaping our world and how it relates to the things of faith whether it’s stylistically evolved and changed over the years,” he explained. “My first years when I stood between two singers as a rapper with Michael and Kevin, that taught me so much and still in my writing I lean more rhythmic than most singers. I don’t hold notes out so long because I came out rapping. There hasn’t been a single record that I haven’t rapped on.”
At this point in his career, he believes it would be misleading to consider him a rapper. He teeters the line as a pop/rap hybrid. He feels he always has. But back during DCT’s heyday, Toby was the face of rap in the CCM world.
“I know it was a pop version of hip-hop, never thought otherwise. People today, they read hip-hop artist TobyMac, and I’m like, ‘Well ok, pop hip-hop artist’. I would say I’m just a pop artist. I came up loving rap and being a part of the culture. That will always be a part of my arsenal, no one can take that from me. It’s part of what I do because I love it. I don’t think I belong under that moniker of hip-hop artist though.”
Regardless, the DC Talk trio sparked the conversation and helped the church start to accept the sounds of hip-hop.
“I know that we were there, we were pushing, it was definitely different. It was melodies with rap. It was a different side of hip-hop that mattered to us deeply and still does to this day. I’ve always said that we’re beautiful together in our diversity. It still isn’t said much. I just think there is something really beautiful about it.”
This “beautiful together” was Toby’s raps, Michael Tait’s soulful crooning, and Kevin Max’s edgy rock vocal power.
“I think it helped that we were mixed race and also did singing and rapping on one song. It’s normal now but back then it wasn’t. It was either rapping or singing,” said Toby. “The only group who did that was Whodini. They were the only group singing with rap. The rap breaks with Eric B. and Rakim were DJ breaks as a chorus. We were doing melodies and choruses with rap verses. We gave people a melody to sing.”
This style was heard on their first hit songs “Heavenbound” and “Spinnin’ Round.” On their second album, songs such as “Walls,” “Nu Thang,” and “Can I Get a Witness” were chorus driven. 1992’s Free At Last record magnified that as each song had a catchy chorus.
It was all hip-hop, and it was them navigating uncharted territories in the Christian space. They accepted their role as torchbearers.
“I will always be an advocate for CHH moving forward from day one until today. If DC Talk as I’ve heard people say helped move the needle a little bit when it comes to CHH, it’s an honor. Our hopes are for it moving forward.”
Check back next week as we dive into part 2 with TobyMac and the DC Talk story. Toby shares how the group started, how a name change shaped his career, and what he thinks DCT’s greatest album is.