DC Talk - Jesus Freak Music Album Reviews

DC Talk - Jesus Freak Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit the story around the ’90s boom of Contemporary Christian Music and one of its biggest records.

At the Caffè Greco in downtown San Francisco, three young men sit around a table with a stranger. The trio mention that they’re musicians, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s in the biz himself. Helped master All Things Must Pass, in fact—did some arrangements on the first couple Police records, working on a tour for Dick Clark’s people. The young men start to squirm. Then, a reprieve: a couple enters the café, camera crew in orbit. It’s March 1994, and MTV is shooting the third season of The Real World.

The musicians are amused, and—if they can be honest—a little annoyed. They too are being followed by a camera crew, gathering material for a documentary that they hope to show in theaters. The film is intended to do that which MTV, to this point, has declined: introduce the trio to a secular audience. They are DC Talk: the biggest thing in Christian rap, the hottest thing in Christian music, and that is not enough.

Four years earlier, the head of their label had to beg festivals to give DC Talk 15 minutes out of his band’s own set. Now they were filling arenas on their first headlining tour. Their resources were commensurate with their ambition: to put on their hyperkinetic set, they employed a crack band and a team of hip-hop dancers. They performed on The Tonight Show and got a video in rotation on BET. They sang something called “Two Honks and a Negro” for Arsenio Hall and got invited back. Watching MTV attempt to make stars out of nobodies was frustrating, especially when they were just a couple tables away. In the mid-’90s, the record industry was a boom town, and DC Talk felt that they were claimants with a strong case.

In buses and hotels and dressing rooms, the three young men hashed out how to make a record that would succeed on their terms, as well as the terms of the culture they felt was excluding them. The result was Jesus Freak: an album that sold more in its first week than any Contemporary Christian Music release in history. It was the high water mark for a particular kind of evangelical pop, and DC Talk’s success accelerated the transformation of CCM from a commercial backwater to an essential corporate asset. But for the trio’s Christian fanbase, the most astounding thing about Jesus Freak was that it wasn’t a rap album.

Back in the mid-’80s, when the three young men of DC Talk—Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max—were students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Christian rap was barely a concept. While minister MCs like Stephen Wiley and Michael Peace were beginning to wed hip-hop to a message of salvation through Jesus Christ, McKeehan aspired to be a golfer. He’d been a hip-hop head since the Sugarhill Gang: In 1986, he even helped the Beastie Boys find a decent ice cream shop after a soundcheck at the 9:30 Club. He was a yappy private-school jock from suburban Virginia whose early raps mainly dissed his ex-girlfriend, but no matter: at Liberty, he was DC Talk.

His trajectory changed when he met Michael Tait, a native Washingtonian. Tait was a glee-clubber in high school; at Liberty, he landed a regular spot on Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour radio show. (On a 2012 return to campus, Tait visited Jerry’s grave. “I always would joke with him,” he told the student paper, “calling him my white daddy.”) In those early days, Tait and McKeehan ran a bait-and-switch. Tait booked a string of church gigs. He’d lead everyone in the old-time favorites, then he’d pause. I have a friend here in the audience who’s running my sound. His name is Toby. He and I do something different together that probably wouldn’t be right for the service... unless you guys think it would be? As McKeehan remembered it, the pastor would usually agree. “Then we’d turn that into a DC Talk concert.”

In 1987, the duo recorded a two-song demo titled Christian Rhymes to a Rhythm. Tait was singing from his sinuses; the beats sounded like breaking-news library music; the tapes sold out. To expand their sound, they recruited a second singer: Kevin Max. On campus, Max—a native Michigander—claimed his stepfather was Rod Stewart. He had a malleable tenor and something akin to professional experience: He’d once fronted a band that played at Jim Bakker’s waterpark. Max had been a rock guy ever since a neighbor kid played him Queen’s The Game, but he was down with DC Talk. The trio’s early press kit contained a ringing endorsement from Falwell (“God has great plans for these three young men and their powerful program”), designed to open up the church performance circuit. But DC Talk was dreaming of bigger venues.

After college, the three—billed as ”DC Talk and the One Way Crew”—signed with the Christian indie label ForeFront. They were the only label to show interest in DC Talk, but they considered the signing a coup. Hip-hop’s golden age was underway, and a host of new Christian rappers were sampling its fruits: End Time Warriors, D-Boy, Soldiers for Christ, JC & the Boyz, P.I.D., Dynamic Twins. Within this brotherhood of gospel rap, DC Talk was a double anomaly: a rap group with only one MC, and a white MC at that. In no time, they were labeled CCM’s New Kids on the Block. “Maybe as far as the way people look at us from an image standpoint,” McKeehan conceded, “but the New Kids don’t rap on one song, and our songs are 50 percent rap.”

But that other 50 percent unlocked McKeehan’s—and ForeFront’s—pop ambitions. While Toby hammered his pipsqueak delivery into something resembling the tough bark of his New York rap heroes, Michael and Kevin were adapting their talents to any number of Top 40 styles: hip-house, New Jack Swing, Rick Rubinesque rock/rap hybrids. Their first record was marred by nursery-school rhymes and rhythmic malpractice, but quickly sold 100,000 copies. The second went gold. By 1992’s Free at Last, they were a force. The songs were tighter, fuller—dare I say sensual: no small feat for an album featuring a pro-chastity response to George Michael. Even the ballads strutted. For the first time, Tait and Max sounded like full partners. The former’s Southern gospel intonations were gone; the latter had figured out how to approach R&B hooks like a rocker. They were doing fluid work in complex emotional registers. And they wanted a bigger role in songwriting.

Despite their group’s success, neither singer had developed any loyalty to hip-hop. Tait was getting deeper into rock. And Max—who was now being referred to as a “bad boy” for venialities like wearing eyeliner and being photographed holding a beer—had long been ready for DC Talk’s artistic ambition to match his. But McKeehan was keeping the powder dry. During the Free at Last sessions, he and programmer/backing vocalist Todd Collins would geek out over buzzy mainstream rap acts. One day, Collins started pushing him about updating DC Talk’s sound. As Collins recalled in a Jesus Freak retrospective, McKeehan set him straight. “We have to earn the right from our audience to make whatever records we want down the road.”

During the Free at Last tour, at a show in South Africa, he debuted a rap-rock song he’d just put together. It got a massive pop, and in August 1995, the “Jesus Freak” single hit stores. The riff, the loud/quiet dynamic, the bass that drops out during the breath-catching bridge: there was no mistaking the song’s provenance. “[A] radical change for the boys,” mused CCM Magazine at the time, “but it sounded an awful lot like... teen spirit.” Unusually, the song was pitched up a half-step, as if reaching for bubblegrunge higher ground. McKeehan’s bars—hollering about tattooed street preachers and John the Baptist’s nappy hair—took on a goonish glint. Tait and Max dove with him into the sour sea of the chorus: “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?/What will people do when they find that it’s true?”

God’s people went bonkers. For untold numbers of mainline Protestant and evangelical teens, the song was inescapable. ForeFront mailed promotional CD singles to 4,000 youth pastors, who dutifully employed it as a sort of jock jam, propelling kids from Sunday-night youth gatherings into the hostile territory of Monday homerooms. The day after wrapping the album, DC Talk flew to Los Angeles to film the “Jesus Freak” video; McKeehan had tabbed Simon Maxwell after catching his work for Nine Inch Nails. The director cooked up a voguish mash of vintage newsreels, overexposing strobe flashes, and blurry foregrounds. MTV accepted the clip, which was fortunate for the group because their documentary was, by that point, dead in the water. Christian bookstore sales pushed the single to No. 10 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart, but without more secular support, that would be its peak.

“We have not gone down the road to alternative grunge as much as they think we have,” Max assured CCM, a month before the album dropped. His warning went unheeded. The popularity of “Jesus Freak” cast the album that followed as a late jump on grunge’s long tail: the redeemed version of Live or Bush. It certainly didn’t help that the album itself was cloaked in self-serious esoterica. For the first time, the group wasn’t on the cover. In their place was a brand-new logo that recalled the Eye of Providence, embossed on a sepia background lifted from a toxicology text in Max’s antique book collection. Even their typography changed: from here on, they were “dc Talk.” But Max was right. DC Talk was a vocal trio—by the letter of the law, a boy band—and thus disqualified from grunge. 

In truth, Jesus Freak was a Nashville pop-rock record: impeccably performed and results-oriented. As with so many Music City productions, the collective CV of its players is boggling: Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Jerry Jeff Walker, Scritti Politti. They employed the drummer from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and the teenage guitarist from Johnny Q. Public. Everyone from CCM lifers to one-time apostates popped in for a spell.

Overseeing it all was Mark Heimermann, McKeehan’s writing and production partner since DC Talk’s second album. Heimermann had no lead guitarist to please, no bassist angling to cut through the mix. He was free to stack the pieces as they suited him. As on Free at Last, he went for density. Opener “So Help Me God” was the step-down converter from New Jack to adult alternative: between two dust-dry funk-rock riffs, Tait receives the pre-chorus from a host of Kevins—harmonizing, overlapping—like an anchor leg breaking from a crowded backstretch. Wanting to record the definitive version of Charlie Peacock’s 1991 CCM smash “In the Light,” DC Talk swapped Peacock’s synthpop hook—an homage to a multi-racial crossover pop act—for a full complement of strings and a crisp, palm-muted rhythm guitar. (Peacock, bearing witness, cameos on the outro.)

McKeehan had one more change: He excised Peacock’s bridge devoted to the greatest love and inserted his own Ecclesiastical lyric: “Pride has no position/As riches have no worth/The fame that once did cover me/Has been sentenced to this earth.” It wasn’t the only time on this album he’d touch on the temptations of stardom. It wasn’t even the only time he did it on a cover. He and Max retrofit the Godspell number “Day by Day” (itself a crossover pop hit) with new verses, turning the placid hippie artifact into a bleary shuffle that alternates professions of faith with gripes at Satan’s tactics. “Blinded by distractions,” Tait groans, “lost in matterless affairs.” On the glumly paddling ballad “What If I Stumble,” Tait doubts his very motivation to create. “Is this one for the people?/Is this one for the Lord?” he muses, circled by a slow-exhaling accordion. “Or do I simply serenade for things I must afford?”

Each of these songs, to some degree, resolves into trust or triumph. Even so, it was startling for a mainstream Christian pop act—especially one gunning to cross over—to be this frank about the pitfalls of success. (In CCM, as in wrestling, you’d often have to go underground to catch the real grappling.) A typical CCM album was programmatic: a couple praise songs, a few genial pep talks, a lament about America’s moral decline vis-à-vis abortion or the teaching of evolution. For that last one, DC Talk substituted “Colored People,” a jangle-pop anti-racism anthem that botched the diagnosis and the cure (“Ignorance has wronged some races/And vengeance is the Lord’s”). Jesus Freak didn’t skimp on the condemnation, but its makers shared in the malaise. For a generation of evangelical listeners, hearing Christian music’s biggest stars acknowledge their struggle to live a holy life was, paradoxically, profound encouragement.

On some level, of course, this is the evangelist’s tack: descending to your perceived spiritual depth. But in reaching the pinnacle of CCM, DC Talk was both ministry and moneymaker. They’d tear up an ecstatic arena, then take turns playing video baseball with the kids hanging outside the tour bus. In the spring of 1996, at a Christian-music symposium, McKeehan detailed his unease with fame: “[A] gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Can I have your signature for my son? He totally idolizes you, Toby.’ That’s scary. I don’t mind telling you, that makes me want to run from this industry. Wealth makes me want to run from this industry. I shake when I think about those things because wealth does not draw you to God—it doesn’t.” That year, DC Talk would gross $4.7 million on tour.

The industry couldn’t ignore that kind of number. The year before Jesus Freak dropped, CCM and gospel accounted for half a billion dollars in sales. The vast majority of these purchases, though, were rung up at Christian retailers, making them ineligible for Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, and keeping them from DC Talk’s dream audience. The big-box retailers weren’t stocking CCM, and the smaller Christian labels either lacked the personnel or didn’t see the need to get their artists onto secular shelves. But multinational labels had both the staff and the vision. Majors and massive indies started snapping up CCM labels: Sparrow, Reunion, Brentwood, Star Song. By the end of the 1990s, acts as disparate as Jars of Clay, MxPx, and Sixpence None the Richer were notching hit singles and albums. For ardent enthusiasts of Christian rock, it felt like overdue recognition.

In September 1995, point-of-sale purchases from the Christian Booksellers Association began counting toward the Billboard 200. Two months later, Jesus Freak debuted at No. 16, selling 85,000 copies, 90 percent from Christian retailers. Not even Amy Grant—CCM’s original crossover queen—had matched those first-week numbers. Four years after Billboard’s switch to SoundScan, DC Talk’s feat was less revelatory, perhaps, than Garth Brooks or N.W.A. topping the chart. But it emphasized how big Christian pop had become. In July 1996, EMI announced their purchase of ForeFront, whose ownership recognized they had taken DC Talk as far as they could on their own. In the fall, the trio signed a deal with Virgin to market Jesus Freak to mainstream North American audiences. Virgin had the perfect single in mind.

”Between You and Me” was gorgeous adult alternative in Seal’s mode: a downcast ballad urged onward by funky sixteenths and chunky wah. The radio edit removed the song’s explicitly Christian bridge. To some, the single clearly depicted a spiritual rapprochement: an application of the apostle Paul’s directive about anger. To others, it was a love song between friends, the kind of homosocial pledge (“We’ve got a love that’s worth preserving/And a bond I will defend”) rare in pop. Wunderkind director Ramaa Mosley shot the enigmatic video. which entered rotation at MTV and VH1. The song—likely the only hit single to use the word recompense—cracked Billboard’s Top 30. It would be DC Talk’s only appearance on the Hot 100.

Just for a moment, the band had reached the audience they had always sought. It took a ton of money, three labels, and an overhaul of their sound, but they did it. Jesus Freak would go on to sell two million copies. CCM journalists had already taken to calling DC Talk the Christian Beatles. Now they called Jesus Freak the group’s Sgt. Pepper’s: a generational work that suggested new possibilities for the genre. But, like the Beatles, DC Talk would cease to be a functional group within five years. 1998’s Supernatural was their next and final album, a turgid effort (there was a five-minute pop-punk song, which shouldn’t be possible) delivered with the assurance of stars. It debuted at No. 4 on the Top 200, moved a million units, and lodged itself as a footnote in CCM’s attempted pop takeover.

There would be no repeat of Jesus Freak’s achievement: not from DC Talk, nor anyone else. They were ambitious men who leveraged their claim on a particular patch of rap to reach a mass audience. Convinced that they possessed the needed gifts—spiritual, sure, but also compositional—they translated the distractions of stardom into testimony. They were aided by an industry anxious to preserve the alt-rock bubble, and to drive early returns on its investments in Christian music. At the dawn of the new century, though, CCM was looking inward and upward. Rather than take risky bets on aspiring crossover stars, it focused on praise and worship music: easier to produce and readymade for licensing to churches. Having built such a peculiar path to stardom, the members of DC Talk would have to find new lanes.

It’s October 1996. DC Talk is filming again. This time, it’s the European leg of the Welcome to the Freak Show tour. Tait and McKeehan stroll the streets of London, taking in the sights. A girl approaches Tait. “Are you a pop star?” The camera apprehends her, and she retreats. The camera pans back to him. He laughs, and shrugs.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
DC Talk - Jesus Freak Music Album Reviews DC Talk - Jesus Freak Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on August 08, 2021 Rating: 5


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