Which band do you reckon has shaped Christian music the most? Has reminded us that songs about God, faith, hope, doubt, boldness and truth, need not to be sung and delivered in a cheesy over-spiritualised way, but rather, with power and emotion, coupled with musical genres of pop, hip hop, rock, fusing together a myriad of genres to let people know that there is more to Christian music than just hymns sung in pews each Sunday morning? Sure there have been bands like the Newsboys, Jars of Clay, Audio Adrenaline, Third Day, PETRA, Stryper and Family Force 5; that have all amassed fans alongside critics praising their involvement in shaping Christian music history over the years. but for me, there’s one band that stands tall above the rest, in terms of their own influence, not just in Christian music, but for music in general. Yes, if you’ve read this far, you probably know which band I’m gonna delve into. DC Talk– Toby McKeehan (now known as TobyMac), Michael Tait and Kevin Max, who make up this trio, are even now considered to be one of the most influential bands of the Christian music genre (if ever there is a boxed ‘genre’ music of a Christian nature can go in!). DC Talk, though only active for a little over a decade, have nevertheless encouraged and impacted so many, and even now, as TobyMac continues with his solo career, Kevin also with solo offerings and Michael in another popular band, the Newsboys (as lead singer!); these three humble members of arguably the greatest Christian band in modern history, are still impacting the world today, both with their solo (and Newsboys) material, alongside their DC Talk repertoire of yesteryear!
If I am to be completely honest, during the time when DC Talk was relevant, popular and churning out radio singles and albums like it was nobody’s business, I wasn’t listening to them. Frankly, I wasn’t even listening to them during my very own high school years. Sure I heard songs like ‘Jesus Freak’, ‘Say the Words’ and ‘In the Light’, and a few more for good measure; but for me, the time where I realised how great the band really was and how ahead of the curve they were in terms of stating their beliefs very boldly, was just like every other band/artist- a week or so prior to discussing about them. So yes, you guessed it- around a week ago, when I heavily listened to the band, to rediscover, if you will, what this trio really had for the world to be captured by them sonically; I fell in love with 1980s/90s music all over again. And let me just say that this group’s longevity was sadly cut short.
Be it because of each member’s desire to create music on their own, or even a shift in dynamic with the band; whatever the case, in 2001, the band parted and went their separate ways. Sure they’d come together every once in a while, and create music that sounded like them over the years (‘Atmosphere’, ‘Love Feels Like’, to name a few); the atmosphere of the group (no pun intended) was never the same again. Toby, Michael and Kevin all went on to have between moderate and really successful solo careers. So what is really great about the DC Talk years of primarily the 1990s? Should we as lovers of music, need to dig deeper and mine whatever gold there is within these 5 studio albums that these men created? TobyMac, Michael and Kevin indeed made an imprint on Christian music way back in the day, and, 5 studio albums, a decade, and a couple of JESUS FREAK Cruises later- embarked on by the three members of the band (once in 2017 and again in a few months!); DC Talk still has people talking, about what has been touted as some of the most overtly Christian evangelistic music people have heard…ever!
DC Talk never shaped my formative years. Nor did the band shape my high school or even university years. But that doesn’t mean that the band wasn’t influential. On the contrary- the band was deeply so. They challenged the status quo as to what Christian music was to look and sound like. Remember, artists like Switchfoot, Lifehouse, and even other more deep and artistic artists like Jason Gray and Andrew Peterson, weren’t around yet. When DC Talk was at the height of their fame, you had guys like Audio Adrenaline, Jars of Clay, and to some extent Third Day as well. Yet I’ve felt that for me, DC Talk epitomised the term that we as Christians use as overkill- Christian in the marketplace. A term where we are called to be Christians wherever we are- outside the walls of the physical church and to be Christ to people where they are at- in work situations, or even with friends outside what can be an intrusive setting of the church. DC Talk was and still is a great example of what someone living the Christian life should behave- unashamedly. Sure, there is indeed times to stay still and not speak for fear of polarising views, but when it comes to Christ Jesus; finding the right time to say anything, can nevertheless be seen from the outside as someone being timid and unsure about their faith- full stop. DC Talk have always written their songs and proclaimed them with certainty and boldness, things we as Christians and humans in general, need in our own lives.
When you compare DC Talk to the myriad of CCM acts of today, to be completely honest, there is a stark difference between the music of back then compared to the music of now. With the influx of bubblegum pop and the influential ‘mainstream song that can be considered as a spiritual song if we look hard enough’, there’s rarely the artist that proclaims from the outset their faith without hesitation, and there’s rarely songs and artists (aside from the game-changers like Switchfoot and Andrew Peterson) that really ask questions that really tug at our hearts and allow us to look deep within ourselves. DC Talk have done such things, and continue to do so, with their music. Sure songs like ‘Love Feels Like’ and ‘Atmosphere’ are great and homages to decades ago when the band was in their prime, before their hiatus (emphasis on hiatus, rather than breakup!). But for me, I’ve found that it was their time spent in the 1990s that really challenged what it really means to be a God follower (or in other people’s terms, a God botherer), to create songs, and really declare them unashamedly without any concern of what the consequences could be.
While their first two albums (self-titled and ‘Nu Thang’- released in 1989 and 1990 respectively), weren’t as popular commercially, in terms of listening to the band now and recognising hits; the band still showcase great songs that tug at the heart namely from their third album Free at Last onward. ‘Luv is a Verb’, one of the band’s most popular hits, ever; is a reminder that there is indeed a distinct and very real difference between love and physical attraction, between love and lust, and when it boils down to it, between love and sex. Such a song is much needed both when it was written, and now- as we’re reminded that there is a distinct difference between love and other things which aren’t. ‘That Kinda Girl’ and ‘I Don’t Want It’ both promoted abstinence before marriage, while a song like ‘Socially Acceptable’ spoke to the issues of the time, and carried with it a realisation that the things we do and say that by society’s terms, is ok; isn’t necessarily. What we do or say, if it is in any need to be justified, is from the start something that shouldn’t even be undertaken; and ‘Socially Acceptable’ takes this into account. The band also undertook a gospel cover of ‘Jesus is Just Alright’, a soul-gospel song written and recorded in the 1960s, even adding rap verses; and with the ever trusty reliable cover of ‘Lean on Me’ to bring this back to nostalgia; the band has just about everything covered in Free At Last, an album that challenged a generation that needed to be woken up. Hopefully, just hopefully, people can continue listening to the band after they hear renditions of songs like ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ and ‘Lean on Me’.
Released in 1995, Jesus Freak was life defining for a lot of people who heard such a powerful album, arguably one of the greatest in the whole 1990s-decade period! Gone are the hip hop and rap influences of Free At Last and in comes more of a pop-rock focus. Regardless of the holistic change in music style, their message still stayed the same. ‘So Help Me God’, the first song on the album, is a plea and a prayer for help against all of the things that come at us from different angles that are not of the Lord. ‘Colored People’ as much needed now as it was back then; is a tackle upon the issue of racism, as we’re reminded that we are all God’s children, and that He is the creator of all skin colours; while a song as catchy as ‘Jesus Freak’ has become an anthem for so many- young people, older people, everyone alike, as this anthem gives us a declaratory voice, that we don’t care what the world thinks of us- we are Jesus freaks and unashamedly so! It is for the teenager who needs to come to terms of what it means to live out a Christian life in a world seems so hostile to Christians in general. DC Talk also give us reflective melodies in ‘Say the Words’ (saying the words ‘I Love You’ and watching change on a global scale take place), ‘In the Light’ (finding the light of God on our own but then coming to a point where we surrender and declare the longing to be in the light of Christ Jesus!) and ‘Between You and Me’ (a reconciliation song that could’ve done well on mainstream radio); while the lead single of Supernatural, ‘Into Jesus’, seems like a ‘Jesus Freak’ part 2- no longer are we worried about what we believe people will think about us, or whether we are still believed to be freaks; but rather, we are stating boldly that we are into Jesus, because we’ve seen things and thus we believe out of that. DC Talk also contemplate in ‘What if I Stumble’ and ‘My Friend So Long’- the former about wondering about what the consequences would be if we were to have stumbled ‘too far’ into sin, while the later is about our own worries for a person who falls deeper and deeper into the world- similar but different themes. Below is an excerpt from a blog about these two songs- written in a far better way than I could ever do- and thus, I’ll let this quote below explain these two songs, songs that I reckon are some of the most underrated in all of the band’s career!
The success of dc Talk caused some to wonder if the band would go “mainstream” and sacrifice their Christian identity. “My Friend (So Long)” answered those rumors with a defiant “Never!” It was the group’s reaction to a fictional member of the band betraying their Christian calling and compromising with the world. The song bounces back and forth from anger and sadness, with a declaration of the band’s unfailing love for the compromiser, but also a firm recommitment to never join him in seeking the world’s popularity. The message rings loud and clear: “We will always love you, but we will never compromise.” Reflecting on “My Friend (So Long),” I can’t help but think about some of my youth group friends who’ve left evangelical Christianity. Some pivoted to a raucous libertarian hedonism of the right, while others fell for “Emergent” and wound up emerging out of the church altogether. Relistening to this song makes me wonder how it may have shaped my response to friends who walked away.
Not all of dc Talk’s music was “bold” and “in-your-face.” The quietly introspective “What if I Stumble” opens with Kevin Max’s quote from Brennan Manning: “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world is Christians who confess Jesus with their lips and then deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” The song then captures the inner struggle of a young person who worries about the consequences of falling into sin. Will their sin lead others astray? Will they let down their friends and family? Listening to the plaintive lyric and melody today, I wish that dc Talk had been more gospel-grounded in their answer to that question. The gospel isn’t for those who never stumble, but for those who do – again and again, and rise in repentance. Still, when placed within their overall body of work, I see how it functions as another “fortifying song.” It urges the listener to consider what stepping into sin will do to one’s reputation and the cause of the gospel.
Not only have the band released their album material, they also created a lot of songs that were on special projects throughout the years. Both ‘My Will’ and ‘My Deliverer’ have been standouts from the band throughout their career- the former being a song originally on a compilation album called Exodus, while the latter was originally a Rich Mullins song prior to the rerecording, and placed on The Prince of Egypt soundtrack way back in 1998. The band also tried their hand in collaborating with popular CCM artist Carman way back in the day for Carman’s song ‘Addicted to Jesus’. Regardless of the varying successes of these songs (you can judge with videos/song lyric slides below), DC Talk as a whole have give us things we can think about, both then when their career was exploding in a good way, and now, even when these three artists have gone their separate ways. Relevant now and relevant then, the band were not ashamed for speaking up for Jesus and out against the things of the world that have been popular. Now all these years later- the hiatus has not changed to ‘ended’, and there’s not one but two reunion tours with the band. Whether they need a comeback is really irrelevant. Their music is timeless. A comeback album would be great, yet with TobyMac’s influence now and the Newsboys creating song after song of hits, DC Talk may just have to wait a little for another reunion cruise!
Does DC Talk make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song (other than songs like ‘Jesus Freak’, ‘In the Light’ and ‘Between You and Me’) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!