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The Sound

Can’t fake this

10/21/2015

Let’s clear one thing up right off the bat: TobyMac is frequently described as a “Christian rap” artist. He is described that way by fans, in other interviews, even in some of his camp’s own press material. And yes, there was a time — those groundbreaking, wildly successful, slightly cheesy DC Talk years — when TobyMac did, indeed, rap.

TobyMac

TobyMac plays Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday, Oct. 22.

But those days are increasingly behind him, no matter what anyone else may try to tell you. Nowadays, the 50-year-old (full name Toby McKeehan) stands as one of the most successful Christian artists, regardless of genre. But as the years have ticked by, TobyMac’s sound has evolved from his hip-hop-ish roots into a kind of Justin Timberlake-lite, R&B tip. You could pull TobyMac’s single, “Feel It,” off his latest album and stick it on JT’s “The 20/20 Experience,” and it would be right at home. In fact, the latest album, “This is Not a Test,” was released earlier this year to nearly universal acclaim. It stands as one of the best-reviewed albums of his career and sees the singer at a full-circle point in his life.

After playing to packed arenas with DC Talk, TobyMac started from the ground up with his solo career, playing to small crowds at intimate clubs. Now, as his 2015 tour rolls into Wells Fargo Arena, TobyMac looks back on the past decade with fondness.

“I never imagined doing a solo career when (DC Talk’s members) decided to climb new mountains,” he said in a phone interview. “For me, it was more about starting Gotee Records and helping develop younger talent. Then I got asked to do a song for a movie soundtrack, and it just ignited something in me.

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“I actually embraced (starting over). I tell all artists that are on the come-ups, ‘Enjoy every moment along the way.’ Because if you make it to the top, there’s no place else to go. I enjoyed it in DC Talk, too. We had the time of our lives together.”

It stands to reason that he would appreciate the difficult journey. TobyMac’s career has never been about finding the path of least resistance. Before he started writing rhymes with what would soon become DC Talk, there was nobody writing hip-hop songs with Christian overtones. In fact, with a sound that was not guaranteed to hit with Christian groups, nor widely expected to have much crossover appeal, DC Talk ran the very real risk of being a group with no audience at all.

“I like challenges,” he said. “I grew up around sports, and like to try and make the most of every opportunity that I get. I love that process.”

The gamble paid off, and DC Talk went on to sell nearly 7 million albums. Since releasing his first solo effort in 2001, TobyMac has added another 3 million albums to that total. His Christ-driven message has remained as strong as ever, even as his sound has grown and evolved over the years. TobyMac is one of the most popular voices in the history of Christian music. In fact, he has now climbed that mountain twice. And while I swear to you that he is not a rapper, there is no doubt that his hip-hop influences have carried him far.

“It just made sense to me,” he said of his rap roots. “Why would I do music that I don’t love? If I’m writing about my life currently, I’m going to write using music that I currently love. If I did anything else, I would be faking it.” CV

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