As the band's resident rapper, Toby McKeehan put the "talk" into dc Talk. There was "Christian rap" before dc Talk, but it was the trio's 1989 self-titled debut album that brought it into the contemporary Christian music mainstream (see "Rhymin' and Rappin' 4 D King," CT, June 24, 1991, p. 13). The celebrated band has moved away from rap to an edgier rock sound, but McKeehan continues to nurture his hip-hop side as co-owner of Gotee Records, a CCM label specializing in urban and alternative-rock artists like Out of Eden, grits, and Jennifer Knapp. CT's Edward Gilbreath spoke to McKeehan about the attraction of hip-hop.
Did you set out to be a pioneer of hip-hop in the CCM world?
I grew up loving hip-hop, so when I started writing music, that's what naturally came out. I don't claim to be a hardcore hip-hopper. I'm just a pop musician who fell in love with the music from an early age. I grew up in the suburbs of D.C. I wasn't facing the same things some of the people writing those songs were facing. But I loved the culture of it. I loved where it came from.
What is the attraction of rap and hip-hop styles for you as a Christian songwriter?
You can deal with issues more directly, and I think you can express yourself in literal terms more easily in hip-hop. Right now I'm writing songs for my solo record, which will be heavily rap-influenced. It's refreshing for me to get back to writing that style of music because it's like you see something you want to talk about, and you can say it like it is.
What's the attraction for white kids and suburban communities?
It connects on many levels. I think people are drawn to the way hip-hop expresses itself. A rap vocal is poetic, but typically it's from everyday life. People are also drawn to the language itself; it's a language people want to be a part of.
And yet so much of the language intends to shock people.
There's some pretty dark stuff out there in hip-hop music. I've been shocked—when I didn't think anything else could shock me. But some hip-hop artists want to shock people so badly they forget about responsibility. They forget the reality of how their lyrics affect people. And I don't think you can hide behind the fact that it's not life music. Hip-hop is life music.
To take the most obvious example—why is an artist as shocking as Eminem so popular?
He's succeeding not just because he's talking about violence and because he's rebellious; he's also succeeding because he's gifted. He is a great rap artist. He's taken his gift to the extreme dark side, in my opinion. But he's really good at what he does. He can tell a story like none other.
What's the status of hip-hop in the contemporary Christian music scene?
I feel good about the art that is being made. I think there are some great hip-hop artists in the Christian music industry, but I don't think they are getting enough exposure. In the secular market, many of the top artists are hip-hop. If the Christian music industry is a microcosm of the larger music industry, we should have three or four highly popular hip-hop artists, and we don't. But the Christian music industry is starting to open up more and more. They're embracing Mary Mary to some degree. They've embraced Kirk Franklin. I've been ranting about this for five years, and finally the music is getting popular enough for the gatekeepers of the industry to start opening the gates.
Be sure to read Christianity Today's related article, "Hip-Hop Kingdom Come."
The ChristianityToday.com music area has more information about the band, including interviews and reviews.
McKeehan is also co-owner of Gotee Records.
Gotee has aggressively promoted Christian music to popular TV shows, including hip-hop from groups like GRITS. Read more about why McKeehan thinks this is important.
Previous Christianity Today stories about dc Talk include:
Retailers Marketing Martyrdom to Teens | Littleton Massacre Now Merchandise Opportunity. (Dec. 12, 1999)
Elegy for a Jesus Freak | "These are the ultimate Jesus Freaks—the people who are willing to die for their faith." —Toby McKeehen of dc Talk. (Dec. 9, 1999)
What Makes Music "Christian"? | One CCM veteran thinks it means more than mentioning Jesus. (June 14, 1999)
Rhymin' and Rappin' 4 D King | (June 24, 1991) —print archives only.
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