In part two of our interview with TobyMac about the early days of CHH, he digs deep into the DC Talk archives. The pioneer of Christian music explains his original emcee name and how he and Michael Tait “schemed” churches into playing hip-hop.
“Very few people know this story,” said TobyMac. And anytime you hear that from someone with a status such as his, your ears perk up.
Toby went back to 1987 when he was just starting out. He began rapping and Michael Tait was singing for churches. Kevin Max had not yet entered the scene.
“At Liberty University I was DC Talk. That’s what they called me, it was just me,” he explained. “When I would go out with Michael Tait, he would sing before people spoke at events. It so happens that Michael booked a whole summer of shows based on that he was part of the singing team.”
He continued, “I went with him and I had written a couple of songs, ‘Heavenbound’, ‘Spinnin’ Round’…Michael would be in front of the church every night singing and then he’d say, ‘I have a friend here in the audience who’s running my sound. His name is Toby. He and I do something different together that probably wouldn’t be right for the service unless you guys think it would be?’ He would look at the pastor, and they’d say, ‘Go for it’. Then we’d turn that into a DC Talk concert.”
Toby said if they had been outright about bringing rap into the service, it would have been a ‘No’ every week. But by doing it this way, they worked it into the program every week. It was a scheme that worked out.
From there they navigated the “rap” label by being themselves. The local area knew Tait and began to know Toby, so there was a familiarity there.
“A label might put someone’s hand up, that they can’t deal with it. When it becomes personal and someone in front of you that you know, then suddenly the wall comes down and warmth enters the room,” he said.
Toby said time and time again people did not embrace the WORD rap but did embrace their rap because they knew who they were.
“When we signed in Nashville, they said, ‘We want to talk to you guys about something’. The record label said, ‘We think you three should be DC Talk’ and I’m like ‘hoooold up’. That’s like telling three people they’re Lecrae,” Toby said with a laugh.
At the end of the day, Forefront Records nailed it, and DC Talk became Christian music legends. Also, TobyMac has a much better ring as a solo artist than DC Talk. One remnant of the “DC Talk” solo moniker remains. On the first album, it says, “DC Talk and the One Way Crew.” The “Crew” is Max and Tait. Early on, they were more like backup singers but as the albums went on, the three parts became equal.
The first three DCT records, self-titled, Nu Thang, and Free At Last were the group’s hip-hop years. 1995 saw them switch gears entirely when they dropped the pop/grunge game changer Jesus Freak. Many consider this record to be the group’s seminal project. Toby disagrees.
“Everybody talks about Jesus Freak as DC Talk’s best record but I still think it’s Free At Last as far as best sounding for the moment,” he admitted. “Free At Last is still that mix of R&B and hip-hop that I love and I will forever claim that. I still listen to it and say, ‘Dang’. It’s just the beats and everything. There’s a lot of nods to hip-hop and R&B in Jesus Freak that people wouldn’t think of though.”
That jump from Nu Thang to Free At Last in terms of style and substance is huge. Toby says it was the right mix of people who helped make that change.
“Hip-hop was transitioning even then. Getting more musical, getting more melodic, it was like New Edition meets hip-hop in some ways,” he said. “I think because of that it was a good moment. It felt like R&B and hip-hop were leaning into each other with their team. Then we had the right people.”
Toby said during the creation of Nu Thang he had lived in Memphis for 10 months in a hotel. The label set him up with a band and a producer.
“No one was programming. It was drummers, horn players, and background singers. It was soulful hip-hop and we made the record and I had concerns saying, ‘This isn’t the type of record I wanted to follow up our debut with’. The label, said, ‘You’re right. Let’s try to make it in town with more programming’.”
The product of album No. 2 was them trying to remake a record over in Nashville after already finishing it in Memphis.
“So when Free At Last came out, we already had a community of people here to make hip-hop, more R&B, venturing into rock and hip-hop with ‘Luv is a Verb’,” he shared. “Producer Mark Heimerrman understood what I was trying to do. Before we brought it to him after we made the record in Memphis and he tried to reconfigure it.”
That third record helped propel them into the spotlight, where they never left until they went on an “intermission.” Even until this day, their fanbase is strong and always at the ready. That’s why two years ago’s DCT reunion cruise and this upcoming one is sold out. Those were the first reunions of the group since 2002.
Here’s one more relevant story to the early CHH days. In the previous article, we mentioned Danny D-Boy. Last year Rapzilla highlighted his life cut short with a series of articles. While interviewing D-Boy’s sister M.C. GeGee, she mentioned that DC Talk dedicated one of their Dove Awards to her brother who was murdered a year before.
In 1992 they won for their VHS “Rap, Rock, & Soul” and their song “I Luv Rap Music.” We asked Toby about why they dedicated the award and what he remembered about the slain rapper.
“I remember D-Boy pretty well. I always liked him and liked where he was coming from. He had a quiet demeanor. He wasn’t real loud, he was kind and meek until he got on the microphone. I respected that,” Toby said. “We were definitely cheering for him and we were all cheering for each other. We all had hopes for each other. Even though at the time there were a lot of battles going on in that era, it kind of was popular.”
He continued, “For us, we needed each other and D-Boy to me…I liked the fact there was someone coming from that Dallas region. Liked the fact that he was Latino and bringing something different. I just remember when he died, it was a tough day. We wanted to recognize who he was as one of us.”
Rapzilla sent this quote over to GeGee who responded by saying, “Danny was only quiet around DCT because he was star-struck and nervous.” Later that year, Toby helped orchestrate a performance at Six Flags Over Texas where GeGee opened up for DC Talk.