NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Long before he was the Grammy Award-winning solo artist TobyMac, Toby McKeehan, one-third of pioneering Christian rap group dcTalk, was well known for upsetting the status quo in Christian music.
With the February 9 release of his fourth solo album, “Tonight” (ForeFront), TobyMac is challenging a different set of rules — namely, how to break through to the mainstream market in 2010 when traditional (i.e., secular) promotional channels are closed off.
“I don’t have MTV at my fingertips. I don’t have VH1,” TobyMac says. “I can’t immediately get all this coverage when my record comes out. The way I sell gold and platinum records is by being on the road. The record company (gives) me support, and they are very good at it, but at the end of the day people hear about my music from word-of-mouth and touring. That’s the two things I can control.”
Lead single “City on Our Knees” has been a hit on Christian radio, selling 222,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and peaking at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart. But fans have also gotten a taste of “Tonight” through Yahoo and iTunes promotions, as well as multiple licensing deals. The NFL Network licensed the track “ShowStopper” for every Thursday night football game — “cool usage,” TobyMac says, that led to a request to use the song in a trailer for a Bruce Willis film.
TobyMac has been hopping genres and categories since college, where he and his Liberty University pals Kevin Max and Michael Tait formed the groundbreaking trio dcTalk. After moving from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Nashville, they introduced the contemporary Christian music community to rap and hip-hop with their 1989 self-titled debut album, becoming one of the best-selling acts in Christian music in the process.
Their third album, “Free at Last,” was certified platinum and stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Christian sales chart for 34 weeks, earning the group its first Grammy for best rock gospel album in 1994. The following year’s “Jesus Freak,” distributed by Virgin Records, notably traded hip-hop sonics for rock guitar, and has been certified double-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. The trio released its final studio album, “Supernatural,” in 1998. It debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, then an unprecedented feat for a Christian act.
Max still records and releases solo projects. After a stint as a solo artist, Tait joined the Newsboys as lead vocalist last year when frontman Peter Furler retired. McKeehan reinvented himself as TobyMac and embarked on a successful solo career, debuting with “Momentum” in 2001, followed by 2004’s “Welcome to Diverse City” and 2007’s “Portable Sounds,” which bowed at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. He also released two remix albums. His 2008 live CD/DVD set, “Alive and Transported,” earned a Grammy for best rock or rap gospel album.
For “Tonight,” TobyMac is again backed by his aptly named Diverse City Band. “Musically it’s still that same big pot of gumbo,” TobyMac says. “What I call hip-rock, funk and soul.” In addition to the vocals of longtime band member Nirva Ready, TobyMac enlists an array of special guests on “Tonight.” John Cooper, frontman for hard rock outfit Skillet, lends his voice to the title track; Grammy-winning worship leader Israel Houghton is featured on the reggae-flavored “Break Open the Sky”; and Relient K’s Matthew Thiessen appears on “Wonderin.’”
TobyMac’s 11-year-old son, Truett — also known as TruDog — contributes to “LoudNClear.”
“It’s grown into this thing where people kind of expect it,” the father of five says of his eldest son appearing on his albums. “This time he was (asking), ‘When are we going to do my song, Dad? When are we going to do my song?’ I don’t know if I’ve created a monster.”
“Break Open the Sky” bears the stamp of his wife’s Jamaican upbringing. “I feel a sort of rite of passage when it comes to reggae,” he says. “What’s cool about that song is the way we recorded it. We didn’t do it digitally. We listened to a lot of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. We wanted this song to feel like it was cut in the ‘70s, so we ran it through a two-inch tape machine and we put the background singers around one mic like Bob used to do, and we put the horn players around one mic.”
The title track was the last song TobyMac wrote for the album, and when he finished, he immediately knew he wanted Skillet’s Cooper on it. “His voice is just perfect for it,” he says. “It just shreds through the CD.”
“Wonderin’ “ is a wistful look at his days with dcTalk. “We faced a lot of things together we never dreamed we’d face and had a lot of dreams come true that we didn’t even know we had. I’m thankful for them.” The group parted ways in 2000, but Christian music fans still root for a reunion.
“We talk about it occasionally,” TobyMac says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever do any more recording. As far as some kind of a reunion tour, I think that is absolutely possible, but I’m walking very deeply with the Diverse City Band. I’ve been with them almost 10 years creatively and spiritually. I’ve been walking with them almost as long as I walked with Michael and Kevin. Our roots are very deep, and I don’t plan on walking away from them.”
The artist faces a problem familiar to many faith-based acts: Mainstream radio stations are reluctant to spin songs with overtly Christian content. EMI Christian Music Group product marketing director David Sylvester says he’s evaluating the options for gaining a foothold on mainstream radio while pushing full throttle at Christian stations.
“I wish (the label) had a vision for mainstream radio the way film and TV have a vision for my songs in the mainstream,” TobyMac says, referring to the way the EMI CMG publishing department has aggressively secured use of his songs in such films as “Batman Begins,” “Hancock,” “Transporter 2” and “Fantastic Four” as well as TV shows and advertising campaigns, among them Microsoft’s Windows 7 launch.
“Some of my main inroads into the mainstream have been through action films and sports usages. EMI CMG’s film and TV division absolutely kills it for me,” TobyMac says. “They have done an amazing job. They look at my music differently. They don’t put it in a box, and I love that.”
He adds, “I always try my best to work with my label. I don’t ever want to sit on the opposite side of the table. I want to inspire them to take my music places that it’s not already.”
Beyond his role as artist, TobyMac is also a label executive. He and partners Joey Elwood and Todd Collins (who has since exited) started Gotee Records in 1994 and are responsible for launching the careers of Relient K, Family Force 5 and others. The label is distributed by EMI CMG’s distribution arm. (TobyMac records for ForeFront, which is part of the EMI CMG system.) The Gotee roster includes B. Reith, Stephanie Smith and House of Heroes.
This spring TobyMac will team with Skillet for the Awake Tonight tour, which will also include House of Heroes. He also has a string of dates this summer with worship leader Chris Tomlin.
TobyMac’s live shows feature horns, break-dancers and DJ Maj on turntables. His audience runs the gamut from hip-hop-loving teens to their parents who have followed him since his dcTalk days.
“People love that you’re human,” he says, “and that we’re frail and that we face the same situations. Honesty tends to communicate with people better than standing up there like you have an ‘S’ on your chest.”