Christian rock band
Is “Christian Rap” an Oxymoron?
The Christian rock group dc Talk has led the recent surge in gospel music’s popularity. The heartfelt lyrics and rap beat, as delivered by three young Christian men, put a positive and progressive spin on the previously stereotyped genre. Their spiritual leadership has led to incredible commercial success, both in religious sectors and the mainstream, and established them as a dominant act in the gospel industry.
Toby McKeehan, Kevin Smith, and Michael Tait became friends while attending Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in the mid-eighties in Lynchburg, Virginia. The moniker dc Talk was originally chosen as a reference to Washington, D.C., their stomping grounds while in school. Their record label, ForeFront, nonetheless promoted the initials as standing for “decent Christian,” as a marketing effort to appeal to new listeners. In 1989 the group signed with ForeFront Records, moved to Tennessee, and released their self-titled debut album.
Nu Thang, the group’s next album, was released in 1990. Distribution of both records was achieved mainly through Christian channels; dc Talk had sold over
For the Record…
Members include Toby McKeehan (born October 22, 1964, in Fairfax, VA); Kevin Smith (born August 17, 1967); and Michael Tait (born May 17, 1966).
Group formed in 1989 in Lynchburg, Virginia; signed with Forefront Records, released first album, dc Talk, 1989; signed with Virgin Records for the mainstream market, 1996.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best Rock Gospel Album, 1994, for Free At Last; Campus Life Music Survey Award for Best Group, 1995; Dove Award for Song of the Year, 1996, for “Jesus Freak”; Dove Award for Artist of the Year, 1996; Dove Award for Rock Recorded Song of the Year, 1996, for “Jesus Freak.”
Addresses: Record company —Forefront Records, 201 Seaboard Lane, Franklin, TN 37067.
100,000 copies, and Nu Thang surpassed that, but the band was just beginning to tap into a wider market. In 1991 dc Talk toured with Michael W. Smith—one of Christian music’s bestselling artists—as his opening act. Following the release of their “Rap, Rock, n’ Soul” video, the group began to gain a larger audience.
Is “Christian Rap” an Oxymoron?
dc Talk’s Christian rap sound surprised their audiences as the vulgarity and violence usually associated with the rap genre was nowhere to be found in the band’s upbeat, optimistic lyrics proclaiming their love of God. The band has defended their use of a formerly stereotyped lewd form of music. McKeehan was quoted in Christianity Today as saying, “Rap music did not start out that bad… It’s always been explicit, but it hasn’t always been explicitly vulgar. This is something I love, and they’re ruining it. So I said, hey, if they can make it explicitly vulgar, I can make it explicitly positive and Christian!”
dc Talk’s musical focus has been toward reaffirming their Christian faith and sharing their beliefs with their audience. Their songs have been about family values, salvation through Christ, and racism. “Walls” was a gritty number that addressed racial disharmony often traditionally experienced even in churches. Smith, incidentally the only black member of the group, was quoted in Christianity Today: “We were singing ata highschool assembly in Jackson, Mississippi. Theaudience was split down the middle—whites on one side and blacks on the other. But at the end of the song, a white football player walked over and stood right next to a black football player, and they put their arms around each other. The crowd started cheering. It was incredible!”
The success of the band’s third album, Free At Last, reflected the surge in popularity of dc Talk’s sound. An appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show helped prompt high sales of the 1992 release, and the album went platinum. Free At Last dominated the Billboard CCM sales chart in 1993, holding at #1 for 34 weeks. The 1994 Grammy Award for Best Rock Gospel Album was awarded to dc Talk for Free At Last, securing their place in Christian music history.
Jesus Freak, dc Talk’s fourth album, was released in 1995. Their focus on the album was toward deeper, personal lyrics and a darker, more alternative sound. Tait was quoted in Billboard: “I feel that the core fan will continue to support us, and because of the material on this album, I think we’ll gain newfans.” He couldn’t have been more right. The album Jesus Freakwas preceded in release by the single with the same title. The great success of the single suggested the album’s commercial possibilities, but ForeFront launched a mighty marketing campaign to assure high sales. This promotional boost, along with the group’s 65-city tour, rewarded dc Talk with a their biggest hit yet. The album sold 85,000 copies in its first week on the market, breaking the record for Christian album sales. Jesus Freaksoon went platinum and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Gospel Album in 1997.
The album’s title refers to the band’s admiration of Jesus. While a “freak” in the seventies may have been frowned upon, dc Talk checked the dictionary and found that the word didn’t dictate such a negative connotation. McKeehan was quoted in USA Today as saying, “The third definition and the one I cling to said: ‘Freak: Noun. An ardent enthusiast.’ So call me an ardent enthusiast of Jesus.”
International fame soon followed, dc Talk toured Europe in 1996, discovering a devout following in Germany, Sweden, Ireland, and England. They also played on MTV Europe that year, and gained more worldwide exposure through their appearance on the internationally-televised Billy Graham Crusade. While dc Talk’s fan base continued to grow, the music industry recognized the need for better promotion of their less commercial type of music. The growing success rate of gospel music astounded distributors who scrambled to cash in. Adam Sandier wrote in Variety: “Mainstream music execs took notice, recognizing that audiences for gospel/Christian music are increasing and the genre is showing gains in an otherwise stagnant industry.”
In November of 1996, dc Talk signed a deal allowing Virgin Records to handle the secular releases of their recordings. Their Christian distribution remained with ForeFront Records. The split was a result of dc Talk’s popularity with the mainstream audience, and Virgin Records’ ability to reach that sector through both retail and radio channels. Virgin was also retained to release any solo projects by the individual members of the band. McKeehan was quoted as responding to the deal in Billboard: “Our main hope in the Virgin situation is that they can be that promotion and marketing arm into the mainstream that we’ve never had. We’ve always wanted our art to be out there for the world to hear, and this is a dream come true for us.”
dc Talk, ForeFront Records, 1989.
Nu Thang, ForeFront Records, 1990.
Free At Last, ForeFront Records, 1992.
Jesus Freak, ForeFront Records, 1995.
Billboard, April 30, 1994; October 21, 1995; November 23, 1996.
Campus Life, January 1995.
Christianity Today, June 24, 1991.
USA Today, December 4, 1995.
Variety, April 1, 1996.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from ForeFront Records promotional materials.
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