tobyMac (a.k.a. Toby McKeehan) rose to prominence as a member of dc Talk, but garnered further critical and popular acclaim as a solo artist. After the group's first single, "Heavenbound," the band's popularity grew through the efforts of a brand new label, Forefront Records, in Nashville, Tennessee. (The "dc" originally stood for District of Columbia, the stomping grounds for the members of the band from Lynchburg, Virginia's Liberty University, and then morphed into "decent Christian".)
Forefront Records was started with a mission of "engaging culture through innovative music." But with the advent of dc Talk, critics couldn't resist lambasting the white-boy rap/hip-hop music as anything but innovative. After all, the Beastie Boys had the genre shored up by that time with Licensed to Ill, which was released in 1986, and most newcomers to the hip-hop/punk/rap field would be compared to them. Nonetheless, dc Talk became a sensation of sorts within the evangelical church, with the combination of tobyMac's rap and Michael Tait's soulful vocals, complemented by Kevin Smith's vibrato.
The "Christian music industry," for all intents and purposes, had been around since Larry Norman released Upon This Rock in 1969. Christian music had been seen by critics and the public as an industry that simply replicated the proven success of artists in the secular market by adding Christian lyrics to that proven formula to capitalize on the success. The Christian music industry created a subculture of music that came of age in the 1980s, which sounded similar to the music of popular secular bands but was stylistically a few years behind what was popular on top 40 radio. As a result, during dc Talk's early days, the trio was accused of trying to artistically mimic the sounds of secular artists. Their records Nu Thang and Free at Last fused hip-hop and rap and began to infuse more rock guitar and rhythms into the music, providing the group with a firm standing in the annals of Christian music stardom.
In 1995 dc Talk delivered a vibrant, welcoming shock to their audience when they released to Christian radio the title track of their soon-to-be-released album called Jesus Freak. Massive popularity ensued. Virgin Records signed them for distribution of the record, and Jesus Freak went double platinum. It was followed by another platinum record, Supernatural. After a steady run of successful albums and tours, dc Talk officially declared a hiatus, and all three members made solo records.
tobyMac's first solo effort, Momentum, lived up to the musical direction that dc Talk had been drifting toward for the past ten years, in its combination of rock/rap and hip-hop. Two songs from Momentum went to number one on the Christian charts, and each reflected the new-found blend. "Extreme Days" was Kid Rockesque, a driving track that combined the artist's singing and rapping, and "Somebody's Watchin' Me" revealed a mastery of hip-hop. The album went gold, and helped to solidify tobyMac as the most successful solo artist from the trio up to that point. The following year, 2002, saw the release of a Momentum-themed Christmas CD with two songs on it. The album art was virtually the same as that of the Momentum album, with an added illustration of tobyMac sporting a Santa hat and carrying a bag of goodies. A DVD in support of the record was also released that year. The year 2003 saw yet another Momentum product, a remix CD.
2004 saw the release of the single "Gone." The subsequent album, Welcome to Diverse City, was a mix of rap and hip-hop, with a tendency to stay a bit closer to hip-hop while moving away from the Kid Rock funk. The sound was more reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz, and as far as his audience was concerned, tobyMac had never sounded better. The record also featured the reuniting of all three members of dc Talk for one track. That song, "Atmosphere," made its rounds on Christian radio and helped to stir up speculations of dc Talk reuniting (especially since tobyMac was arguably the only commercially successful artist of the three). Welcome to Diverse City became another gold record.
Apple Computer featured the video for the "Gone" single on its Web site in 2004. The reason was that Apple's software program, Final Cut HD, was used to edit and finish the video, providing the kind of exposure that every "Christian" artist would love to have: something that proves that the artist has been able to reach an audience outside of the Christian music scene and appeal to a wider culture (ForeFront Records' stated mission was to "engage culture").
In 1994 tobyMac co-founded a production company that turned into a record label called Gotee Records (now part of EMI Christian Music Group). The handful of Gotee artists ranged in musical styles from pop/rock act Soryside: B to the rock/funk fusion of newcomer Family Force 5 and the gold-selling favorites Relient K. tobyMac remained on the Forefront label, however, as he had throughout his entire recording career. In 2005 Forefront released another remix record in the wake of the continued success of tobyMac's albums, called Renovating Diverse City. In 2005 he also began touring and headlining a "Winter Wonder Slam" concert, a Christmas show that worked with the Marine Corps to collect toys for Toys for Tots. The singer is married and has five tots of his own.
"Made to Love" (2006) was a new single from the soon-to-follow full release of Portable Sounds in 2007. The album sold more than 50,000 copies during its first week and garnered two number one singles that year. "Made to Love" and the full album were also nominated for Grammy Awards in the Gospel and Pop/Contemporary genres. Portable Sounds featured American Idol semi-finalist Mandisa on vocals for a song with Kirk Franklin, and Mandisa toured with tobyMac as a backup singer. The record continued his string of successes since 1989's dc Talk debut. He followed up the success of the album with a mid-2008 release of the live album Alive and Transported.
tobyMac also has several books under his belt. The first was a companion book to 1995's Jesus Freak album, and contained short accounts of people who had died for their Christian faith. It chronicled stories from the time of the first Christians to the martyrdom of modern-day missionaries. Several related books were released during the decade following the Jesus Freak album, including Live Like a Jesus Freak: Spend Today as if It Were Your Last, Promises for a Jesus Freak, and Jesus Freaks, Volume 2: Stories of Revolutionaries Who Changed Their World - Fearing God, Not Man. Under God inaugurated McKeehan's second series of books. The Jesus Freaks series was authored under the band name dc Talk, whereas Under God and the subsequent Living Under God listed only Toby Mac and Michael Tait as authors—note that his name on the book is listed as Toby Mac, which indicates his desire to expand his image and audiences' expectations for his career.
For the Record …
Born on October 22, 1964, in Fairfax, Virginia. Education: Attended Pine Ridge Elementary School, Annandale, VA; Luther Jackson Intermediate School; Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.
Formed dc Talk, 1987; released first solo album, Momentum, 2001; released Portable Sounds, 2007; released concert CD, Alive and Transported, 2008.
Awards: Gospel Music Association Dove Awards: Rap/Hip Hop Recorded Song of the Year, for "Somebody's Watching," 2002; Rap/Hip Hop Album of the Year, for Momentum, 2002; Short Form Music Video of the Year, for "Irene," 2003; Rap/Hip Hop Album of the Year, for Welcome to Diverse City, 2005; Song of the Year, for "The Slam," 2006.
Addresses: Media Contact—The Media Collective, e-mail: Velvet Kelm, [email protected], Lori Isaacs, [email protected], telephone: 615-591-7989. Web site—tobyMac Official Web site: http://content.TobyMac.com/.
tobyMac has made an impact on the Christian music scene that appears to be unlike that of any other artist during the past two decades. As of 2008, Forefront Records still listed dc Talk on their roster of artists, and if the past is any indication, whether as a solo act or in a band, tobyMac remains a musical force to be reckoned with.
Momentum, Forefront, 2001.
Re-Mix Momentum, Forefront, 2003.
Welcome to Diverse City, Forefront, 2004.
Renovating Diverse City, Forefront, 2005.
Portable Sounds, Forefront, 2007.
Alive and Transported, Forefront, 2008.
USA Today, December 28, 2004.
All Music Guide,www.allmusic.com (April 1, 2008).
Forefront Records Web site,http://www.forefrontrecords.com/artist_tobyMac.aspx (April 1, 2008).
tobyMac Official Web site,http://www.tobyMac.com/ (April 1, 2008).
—Bruce Edward Walker
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