As part of the phenomenally successful band dc Talk and later as frontman of his own band, Tait, vocalist Michael Tait has been a consistent innovator in the field of contemporary Christian music. A mainstay of Christian rock radio and live music scenes from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, dc Talk pioneered the incorporation of hip-hop and alternative rock sounds into Christian music. After the group went on hiatus, Tait continued to strike out in new directions. His own band was a growing success, and he starred as Jesus Christ in a theatrical presentation, Hero: The Rock Opera. Combining a strong devotion to Christ with themes of social justice in his music, Tait was one of Christian music's most admired figures.
Michael Dewayne Tait was born in Washington, DC, on May 18, 1966, and was raised in the northeastern part of the city. His father, Nathel Tait, came to Washington after a grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan and began preaching on the streets, later becoming pastor at Washington's New Bible Church. Michael Tait was the youngest of seven children, and, he told Terry DeBoer of Michigan's Grand Rapids Press, he "grew up singing R&B stuff, a little gospel and some pop stuff, then got into heavy rock. The influences are deep and wide." He and three of his siblings attended a private Christian school, Riverdale Baptist School, in suburban Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Tait shared a Christian private-school background with two students he be friended at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a fun damentalist institution founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell: before they began performing together, Toby McKeehan, Kevin Smith, and Tait were just close college friends. In the late 1980s, McKeehan (who had grown up in suburban Washington) and Tait began performing as dc Talk, taking the name from their mutual hometown. After Smith was added to the group, they were signed to the Forefront label, whose marketing department pro moted an alternative "decent Christian" meaning for the dc acronym.
Whatever the name meant, dc Talk was successful from the start. Their 1989 debut, dc Talk, and its 1990 successor, Nu Thang, each sold over 100,000 copies—impressive for any new Christian act, and even more so because the group's music included hip-hop elements, which was almost unheard-of in Christian music at the time. The band members moved to Tennessee, home to a strong branch of the Christian music industry, and their popularity soared after they toured with contemporary Christian superstar Michael W. Smith in 1991. Tait settled in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood.
Along with their innovative sound, dc Talk promoted progressive social themes in their lyrics. "Walls" (co-composed by Tait and McKeehan, and originally included on Nu Thang) addressed the issue of racial division, and Tait had the satisfaction of seeing black and white students embrace each other after the band performed the song at a Mississippi high school. The group's insistence on eliminating racism was apparent from the way its individual members crossed musical boundaries: it was one of dc Talk's white members, McKeehan, who had steered the group in the direction of hip-hop, while the dreadlocked Tait favored a monumental rock sound influenced by the Irish supergroup U2. Tait himself downplayed the importance of musical genres. "I don't know how big your god is," he told dc Talk audiences (as quoted by Robert Cherry of the Cleveland Plain Dealer), "but my god is bigger than a person's musical format. God works in ways we can't imagine; let's not limit him. The same bricks that build a whorehouse can build a church. It's not the bricks; it's what goes on inside the bricks."
With distribution handled by the secular Virgin label beginning in 1996, dc Talk experienced massive success with their albums Jesus Freak and Supernatural. Their music drew increasingly on rock's grunge sub-genre as the band tried to reach fans of the late Seattle artist Kurt Cobain. After more than ten years of touring, recording, and making videos, however, the members of dc Talk found themselves creatively exhausted by the late 1990s. Not wishing to foreclose the possibility of a future reunion, they released an album, Solo, made up of solo contributions by each of its three members, and all three members went on to solo projects.
Tait's new direction took the form of a band bearing his own last name, which had its beginnings as early as 1996. He was inspired by Lajon Witherspoon of the metal band Sevendust, one of the few African-American frontmen in the rock genre, to form a band of his own, but his solo music generally fell into the straight-ahead Christian rock groove that had made dc Talk so popular. Tait's interest in social themes intensified. "With Tait, I'm going to write what's in my heart," he told Don Mayhew of the Fresno Bee. "It's social gospel. I sing about the poor, the left-out. There are people who live on the streets. They have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. But for whatever reason, they're out on the street. We walk by them. It's a real thing." He formed a group called the E.R.A.C.E. (Eliminating Racism and Creating Equality) Foundation that toured Christian campuses, combining workshops with Tait concerts.
Tait the band included drummer Chad Chapin (who doubled as Tait's housemate in Tennessee), bassist Lonnie Chapin, and guitarist Justin York (who replaced Pete Stewart). The band got off to a good start with appearances as part of the Billy Graham Crusade in 2001. Tait released two albums, Empty (2001) and Lose This Life (2003) to generally positive reviews; the Christianity Today Web site opined after the release of Lose This Life that Tait "has quickly evolved into one of the most potent and relevant bands on the contemporary scene. Michael Tait's songwriting matured as he drew on personal experiences such as the deaths of three family members over the course of one year."
At a Glance …
Born Michael Dewayne Tait on May 18, 1966, in Washington, DC; son of Nathel Tait, a minister. Education: Attended Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.
Career: dc Talk (band), founding member with Toby McKeehan and Kevin Smith, Lynchburg, VA, late 1980s–; Tait (band), 1996–; E.R.A.C.E. Foundation, founder, 2000s–.
Selected awards: Four Grammy awards for best rock gospel album, 14 Dove Awards, three Billboard Music Awards, three Billboard Music Video Awards (all with dc Talk).
Addresses: Label—ForeFront Records, 101 Winners Circle, Brentwood, TN 37207. Web—www.taitband.com.
Michael Tait also kept busy with other projects and continued to develop as an artist. He wrote songs for other performers, and in 2003 he took the starring role of Jesus in Hero, a Christian rock opera (written by Eddie DeGarmo of the duo DeGarmo & Key) that transplanted the setting for the story of the gospel narrative of the suffering of Christ to the present-day United States (Tait's Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and ministered to down-and-out congregants in New York City's streets). For Tait, the identity of Jesus lay beyond skin color. He didn't look like the blond, blue-eyed man Tait had seen in pictures of Jesus as a child, and "he didn't look like a black person, either, for that matter," he pointed out to the Grand Rapids Press. "The truth is, it didn't matter what color he was…. [H]e was the savior of the world." Hero appeared on DVD in 2005, and Tait and Toby McKeehan participated in the Winter Jam '05 tour that year. Discussions of a dc Talk reunion persisted, but even without one, Michael Tait continued to enjoy continued success.
Albums with dc Talk
dc Talk, ForeFront, 1989.
Nu Thang, ForeFront, 1990.
Free at Last, ForeFront, 1992.
Jesus Freak, ForeFront, 1995.
Supernatural, Virgin, 1998.
Solo, ForeFront, 2001.
Albums with Tait
Empty, ForeFront, 2001.
Lose This Life, ForeFront, 2003.
"dc Talk," Contemporary Musicians, volume 18, Gale, 1997.
Fresno Bee, October 5, 2001, p. E1.
Grand Rapids Press, April 1, 2001, p. B10; April 5, 2001, p. B6; April 14, 2001, p. B5; November 10, 2003, p. B1; January 13, 2005, p. 8.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 26, 2002, p. E7; November 13, 2003, p. F3.
San Diego Union-Tribune, February 1, 2002, p. E4.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 27, 2002, p. F10.
Washington Post, April 20, 1996, p. C6.
Washington Times, April 16, 1999, p. 12.
"Expect the Supernatural," Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/music/interviews/tait.html (March 30, 2006).
"Tait," Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/music/artists/tait.html (March 30, 2006).
"Tait: Lose This Life," Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/music/reviews/2003/losethislife.html (March 30, 2006).
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