DC Talk's upbeat Christian hip-hop speaks to the soul without preaching

April 14, 1994|By Manuel Mendoza | Manuel Mendoza,Dallas Morning News

Unless they're satisfied simply preaching to the already converted, Christian pop artists have to balance delivering their message with entertaining their audiences. Most fail by either completely selling out to commercial concerns or by sounding as if they're selling something -- namely, God.

But even if they're subtle and talented, Christian performers aren't really artists unless they transcend their specific cause. At its best, art tries to answer unanswerable questions, not relay pat solutions.

That's why DC Talk is such a find. Though committed to their faith, the members of the Washington-based hip-hop/soul group avoid proselytizing. They're not out to "save" anyone. They show compassion toward their young audience instead of being judgmental, and their message, while based on the teachings of the Bible, also takes in social and political issues that grow out of their Christian faith.

And, by the way, they're as musically adept as their secular peers. Bell Biv DeVoe's got nothing on DC Talk.

"We don't ever want to be preachy or come across holier than thou, simply because we're not," says Toby McKeehan, one of the group's three front men and a political science graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty College, where the trio met in a dorm. "We're just three guys. We stumble and fall every day. We make mistakes. We fall into temptations that are the very things we try to tell people are going to come their way. . . . We don't want to paint a picture that we got it all together. We're three guys that a lot of times have to learn the hard way."

As a result of their crossover sound and upbeat lyrics, DC Talk has found a following inside and outside of traditional Christian circles. The group's third album for the Christian label Forefront, "Free at Last," has gone gold -- a feat that has been accomplished by only a handful of Christian acts -- and won the Grammy for best rock gospel album this year.

DC Talk is the 29-year-old Mr. McKeehan and his partners, Michael Tait, 28, and Kevin Smith, 26.

The first thing you notice about DC Talk live or on CD is its loose, funky music. If you listen closer, you hear joyous or hopeful lyrics, occasionally laced with social concerns about racism and other obstacles faced by young people growing up today. The group's Christian faith isn't hidden, but it's not in your face.

As cheesy as it may sound, love toward the audience at a recent show poured out from the trio, their backing band and a troupe of dancers. Without distinguishing between rapping and preaching, the group's innocence on New Jack versions of "Jesus Is Just Alright" and Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" -- both covered on "Free at Last" -- was irresistible.

The recorded versions of songs such as "Luv is a Verb" and "That Kinda Girl" have a bouncy, swinging infectiousness that illuminates the bright side of being young, while "The Hardway" and "Socially Acceptable" express compassion about life's hard knocks and concern about moral decay.

"We're just trying to share some principles that actually might even sound a little old-fashioned, but it just makes a lot of sense," Mr. McKeehan says. "But if you're going to say you love somebody, if you're gonna try to put your brother in front of yourself, then shut up and do it.

"The bottom line is, we're a cause-oriented band. We exist because of a cause. If you take away that cause, then you've taken away our reason for existence. . . . Crossover has had a negative connotation in our industry, but if you can take your message to the mainstream market, that's our main goal. How can anybody argue with that? That's why we're on this Earth."

At the same time, Mr. McKeehan worries about the possibility that too much focus would be put on the members of DC Talk as personalities. They have appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and "The Tonight Show" but turned down an invitation to be on a Donahue show about safe sex because they didn't want to be spokesmen for abstinence, even though they believe in it.

"People want to put us on this platform, saying, 'These guys, they just got it all together,' " he says. "Well, we don't. And as long as we keep being honest about that, hopefully people won't make us superhumans."

In its new stage show, DC Talk has added an "unplugged" section that includes "The Hardway" and "40," a song written by U2 based on the 40th Psalm of the Old Testament. It is Mr. McKeehan's favorite part of the concert.

As with his choice of material, Mr. McKeehan doesn't limit his admiration of performers to Christian acts. For one, he is a fan of Michael Stipe and his band, R.E.M. "I don't agree with all the things they do or all of their social stands, but I respect them," he says. "I think they care about people."

Though DC Talk is not in R.E.M.'s league yet, it's a good comparison. Crossover or not, Mr. McKeehan sees DC Talk as an antidote to the growing popularity of dark-edged pop music. "We're making waves either way," he says. "I just hope that we can go out there and make a difference in some people's lives to where they will know there's some hope in all this gloom.

"It's valid that there's darkness out there. We have dark times. We have times when we struggle with things. We have times when we're lonely. Because of that trend, people are avoiding a side of life, a joy in life. That's a side of us that's true, too. Without going out there and losing all the artistry, there's a way to express that joy and remain an artist."

DC TALK

What: Christian rappers

en: 7 tonight

Where: Show Place Arena, 14900 Pennsylvania Ave., Upper Marlboro

Tickets: $16 in advance; $18 at the door

Call: (410) 481-7328

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