Toby McKeehan seems like a man who had it all. He was a founding member of the three-piece dc Talk, a band whose achievement includes over 7 million albums sold, four Grammy awards and continuing stature as the best-selling group in contemporary Christian music history. But Toby-as did each of the other individuals who make up dc Talk, Michael Tait and Kevin Max-took some big risks in 2001, launching a solo career as Toby Mac. Having been a part of a most successful group, Toby-who describes himself as a perfectionist-could not rest on past achievement, and it was difficult to see how those heights could be matched.
But the Momentum album, driven by its first single “Extreme Days” was one of the most ear-catching releases of the year, collecting five Dove Awards at the Christian music industry's annual awards ceremony. “Extreme Days,” which was also featured on the soundtrack to the movie of that name, spent a record ten weeks on the CCM Update Rock charts-and Toby Mac, the solo artist, was launched.
The momentum continues. The year 2003 saw Toby perform more than 150 shows and issue a re-working of his earlier release with Momentum Re:Mix. He is a busy producer, collaborates regularly with other Christian artists, and runs his own music label-Goatee Records. And 2004 looks set to be an even bigger year for Toby Mac with a new album-Diverse City-to be released October 5 and a major US tour with Third Day. After temporarily stepping away from dc Talk for the past three years, Toby Mac continues to be one of the biggest names in contemporary Christian music.
CQ: Is going solo all about Toby Mac as an individual?
TM: I know enough about the record business to know it takes a lot of people’s hearts and a lot of people’s efforts and it’s by no means one person. It’s about recognizing that even though there might be one artist up there whose picture is on the cover, who’s receiving that Grammy or Dove, it takes a whole army of people to make something like that come about. It’s about having people around you who will tell the truth.
In leaving a band like dc Talk for a break and doing my own record, I think immediately people’s assumption would be weaker; I don’t have the heavy vocal artillery of Michael on my right and Kevin on my left. So I had to rely on this little voice and the creativity God’s given me. I’m realistic about who I am, and I think my view of who I am comes from God’s Word. I recognize that He’s my strength and it’s really that simple.
CQ: What is dc Talk about?
TM: We’ve always said that dc Talk is first and foremost the friendship of Michael, Kevin and Toby. We became friends on campus and got an apartment off-campus at university. Out of that friendship grew the band dc Talk. Sometimes the worlds clash, but we ultimately know we need each other. And dc Talk is not dc Talk without all three of us.
CQ: What prompted the members of dc Talk to go solo?
TM: There wasn’t a major conflict. We just each looked at each other at the end of the Supernatural tour and said, “You know we’ve been talking about doing a solo for years. I think now is a good time.” We all had some pent-up creativity that did not fit the dc Talk format. So it was a great opportunity for all of us.
CQ: So how did you become something of a spokesman for urban music in the Christian music scene?
TM: I didn’t plan to be this guy that holds up that banner, but I just think there’s a need there. I grew up in an urban environment and I just fell in love with urban music from when I was 12 or 13. Because of that and the recognition that there was none of that in Christian music, I immediately started trying to attack it. And suddenly I’m this white guy that’s out there fighting for urban music, which is mostly black music, not to put a color on it, but in the United States, that’s the way it is.
CQ: How do you promote this style of music?
TM: The way I attack it is by finding great bands that are involved in that kind of music-that are making fat beats, that are singing great R&B vocal licks, writing from the heart, and have a faith in God. And I’m actually having to compete when I’m looking at urban artists now. There are other labels in there for the first time. But I’ve thought about it a lot and that’s a great sign that tells me all labels are beginning to get interested in hip hop and urban music.
CQ: So what does Toby Mac, record executive, look for when checking out a potential Goatee artist?
TM: For me it’s really about passion. I really believe that the artists that I’ve seen that make it are artists that are doing their thing whether they’re signed or not. And then, of course, we have those just flat-out, left-of-center artists who are making music that just impacts your heart. We have to be looking out for those too. The most important artist is someone who’s passionate and has something to say.
CQ: So what is your personal approach to making music?
TM: Diverse it is, but diverse is who I am. Every record I’ve made is sort of all over the place. It’s just part of what I love to do. Diversity is like my favorite word right now because I just love the challenge of putting things together that people don’t think should go together.
I’ve been doing it for enough years to know that my audience is a pop audience. As much as I have a heart for the hard-core kids, I realize that a song might grab their attention, but my entire body of work is typically going to connect to the masses. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think that’s right where I need to be. I applaud groups that go more for a specific audience. I think they’re absolutely needed. But I also think we need some groups who are willing to connect with people of multiple generations that enjoy a great melody, that just enjoy a great group, that want to smile but also want to be challenged.
Check out Toby Mac’s Web site.
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