If Christian hip-hop has an O.G., it's TobyMac.
A well-known genre figure from his days rapping as one third of D.C. Talk (you know, “Jesus Freak”) through his genre-bending “Extreme Days,” he's spent the past two decades being musical and faithful and stuff.
TobyMac performs at the Forum on March 1.
We spoke to him about his journey from the early days of the fledgling Christian rap niche through the struggles hip-hop artists face in the Christian music world today.
How did your new single “Speak Life,” which recently debuted on Fox and Friends come together?
]I was writing with a couple guys in the studio, we were talking about words and how powerful they could be. I remembered a quote by a guy named Brennan Manning in a book called Ragamuffin Gospel, which is kind of edgy. This guy was a Catholic priest, on the edge a little bit, which I loved. He passed away two years ago, but in one of his books he said, “In every encounter we either give life or drain it. There is no neutral exchange.” It made us think and then we went out to storyboard a video. I usually do videos for songs that are “energy songs,” as I call them. I've always been fearful message-oriented songs with videos come off corny so many times. We wanted to make something that would truly cause people to think and not stop until we did that.
Being such a visible figure in the world of Christian music for so long, are there any misconceptions about you?
No, I've always been sort of an artist that's fairly eclectic stylistically. It's always been rooted in hip-hop, but it's definitely been on the pop side of things. It's what I've always loved, it's who I've always been and my influences from day one. Sometimes, I think the “Christian music” moniker causes your music to fall on deaf ears because people can be like “that's not for me because I don't believe that way.” But, when I sit down to write a song, I'm not thinking about this niche market, I'm writing a song for everybody to enjoy. I think that music can stretch beyond that and find something for them whether they believe the way I do or not.
What was your first exposure to hip-hop?
Growing up in northern Virginia, just outside of DC, jumping on the metro rail with my cousin and going to DC to buy rap records. You couldn't really get them in the suburbs. Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, buying the first Beastie Boys record when they only had a single out. I started rapping about making fun of ex-girlfriends who broke my heart, but then I thought “why wouldn't I write something that I really care about that really moves me?” and I began writing about society and this world and, with my faith being important to me, trying to figure it all out and taking it more serious.
When did your faith began surfacing in your lyrics?
It was at school, I was in a place where most people felt the way I did, except the administration didn't like rap music at the time. We would go around and do songs around campus and beatbox. It was me, a guy from Baltimore named Chris Williamson and another guy from Philadelphia named Barry. We would just rap in common areas and slowly we got asked to play parties. The next thing you know we're half-court at basketball games. I started making beats with a drum machine.
The next version came when I thought, “Man, people want to walk away with a melody” and people weren't really combining singing with rap. It wasn't a normal thing like it is now. I met Michael and Kevin [of DC Talk] and we started writing melodies and choruses and it really was right on the edge type stuff. People just kind of took to it, people began sharing it and the next thing you know we get a record deal and an album with a national record company.
[When did you start noticing other Christian rappers and a viable Christian rap scene?
It happened fairly quickly. We didn't invent it, by any means. I thought we did, I didn't even know when we started writing those songs that there was an entity called “Christian Rock Music.” I was just writing about my life and what mattered to me. And then I look up and there's a group called P.I.D. from Dallas and there's a group called S.F.C. from, I think, L.A. or Orange County, and there's the Dynamic Twins from San Jose. I started to find out there's so many people doing what we were doing, but we were always a little more unique because we were hip-hop with a pop slant. We were made of two singers and a rapper.
After discovering them and reaching out, did you feel there was a community building?
Yeah, it sort of built and then it went away for a little while. And now, with Lecrae and the 116, that's sort of the re-emergence, really. It's amazing how legitimate, how respected, and at the same time, how strong they stand.
There was a moment in the late-'80s and early '90s where mainstream hip-hop had a visible presence of militant 5% doctrine. Do you recall an openness in the world of Christian music that time as well?
I think music and spirituality goes through phases. You start to hear people are open to it, and then people want party music all of a sudden and they're done with a message in music. I've seen that ebb and flow for a while now. That Native Tongues movement in the early '90s had spirituality prevalent. I do think people were open to it. I do find, generally speaking, BET and having faith and having God in lyrics is pretty accepted there. It's very traditional and people aren't opposed to that. It's part of people's lives when it comes to soul music, R&B music and hip-hop. I don't think people are fearful of putting spirituality in music, or at least that's the way it seems to me. We were on BET as DC Talk three or four times. Much more than MTV accepted us.
Are there any stigmas that Christian hip-hop carries within the Christian music community?
Oh, without a doubt. It's not being played on the major radio networks. I think it's considered outside of the sound of most radio stations that would be considered “Gospel” or “Christian.” I think things are changing greatly in a lot of other areas – on award shows rap is represented and recognized and stores are eating it up, iTunes is eating it up. The slowest area would be radio. Adult contemporary radio thinks it's outside of what their listeners want, and I'm not sure that that's right. I think it's maybe somewhere in the middle. A lot of families, who listen to Christian A.C. radio, when they're on their way to school tell me they're bumping Lecrae or TobyMac or whatever. And they're not going to play my songs that are rap, they going to play my songs that lean into saying more.
I just think that, maybe we need to stretch that area and really recognize what people want. I try to not get involved in the politics of music business. My statement I try to tell myself is that if you focus on the art and you make great music, people will come to it and walls will fall. If you try to make music that people want – I can't kick the walls down, that won't work. Make great music, make the people demand it. DC Talk happened that way, radio weren't playing us but the people wanted it. When I signed Reliant K, people wanted it, they were the hottest band at every show and radio played it.
Speaking of your music being played, I was surprised a few years back when you had a song licensed to be the theme of a WWE pay-per-view.
(laughs) Yeah, I've been there, the Transporter films, Fast & Furious. A few years ago at the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals ran out to the field to “Ignition,” one of my songs. I had no idea it was going to happen, and I almost spilled my chili. I'm always an advocate of my music going wherever it can. In film, in sports, by wherever means necessary, you want your music out there.
Have you ever turned down an offer for your music to be played somewhere?
I usually don't because I just find, when people ask me, I don't know what the scene is going to be. My music speaks for itself. If it's a film that maybe leans a little dark, if I could be a little light for the moments I'm there, I'm happy.