In the early 1990s, the rap-rock trio dc Talk, whose "Greatest Hits" album is due out June 26 on the EMI label, took the gains that Amy Grant had made in the 1980s and elevated the niche genre of contemporary Christian music from the depths of mediocrity and gave it enough respect and credibility to compete with the much larger, much more well-financed mainstream music scene.
Toby MacKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max Smith formed dc Talk ("decent Christian talk") while attending Liberty University and released their self-titled CD in 1989 on the ForeFront label.
It was a modest success but it gave the artists, especially Toby Mac, the opportunity to develop their skills as songwriters and arrangers. Their 1992 disc "Free at Last" proved to be the breakthrough disc, shattering the mold for modern Christian music.
Instead of straightforward guitar-rock or keyboard-driven pop songs, here was an album with multiple layers of instrumentation, some slick snippets of movie dialogue, and samples of secular hip-hop all swirling around in high-energy songs with savvy lyrics and melodies that grabbed people and never let go.
From the song "Socially Acceptable," for example, the trio sings:
"We gotta back to the principles found in the Word,
A little G-O-D could be society's cure
From the state that we're in 'cause again we're slipping
So pray for America 'cause time is ticking."
And how many young, single guys, as they were when they wrote these lines, would come up with these lyrics from "She's That Kind of Girl"?
"Well I'm lookin' for a girl who virtuous
Cause God laid it on my heart to search for this
So I open up the Word to the Book of Proverbs
The 31st chapter tells me all about her."
"Free at Last" connected with America's youth, going platinum with sales of more than a million copies and winning a Grammy Award for best rock gospel album. Dc Talk's next studio effort, 1995's "Jesus Freak," sold 2 million copies, and the group was now firmly established as one of the driving forces in Christian music.
I remember meeting the trio at the Lenawee Christian Center in Adrian, Mich., in 1992, when they were rehearsing for the Free at Last tour. They picked Adrian because it was the hometown of their road manager at the time, Denny Keitzman, who thought the center would be a perfect facility for practice sessions.
It was clear from the start that these three artists had something special. They were fun and personable, and they had vision, ambition, and a strong work ethic.
Each brought something unique to the table. Kevin was a poet with the soaring tenor voice. Michael had a boatload of charisma along with his versatile vocal talent and winning smile.
And Toby, well, it was clear that he was the architect of dc Talk. He not only did most of the writing and did the rap parts, but he took all the pieces and built them into an entertainment powerhouse. I had not done my homework and remember asking a few questions that were too generic in an interview as we sat around the lobby of the auditorium in Adrian. But Toby answered them with such depth and insight, I realized that he was reading between the lines and looking beyond the surface of every word.
When I saw dc Talk at an outdoor festival in the mid-'90s, when some of the band's Christian fans were worried that they might lose the group to the mainstream, Toby gave the audience this memorable line: "If we cross over, we're going to bring the cross over."
Today, the three artists are focusing on solo projects, which have all enjoyed some degree of success. Not surprisingly, Toby has been rocking the house and the sales charts, particularly with his latest gem, "Portable Sounds," which came out in March.
The three artists will tell you that dc Talk has not broken up, and that it is on hiatus, but in reality, their trio thing has been put so far back on the back burner that is not only has cooled off, but iced over. See for yourself online at www.dctalk.com - you'll find some of the latest "news" items are five years old!
The trio's "Greatest Hits" disc features 16 songs that stand up well over time, showing that quality never goes out of style.
The disc includes a DVD with 11 of dc Talk's music videos, but there's a caveat about this disc: 13 of the 16 songs were included in a 2000 collection called "Intermission: The Greatest Hits." If you already have that disc, then this one would only appeal to diehard collectors who must have everything dc Talk ever released.
Grant and Sparrow: Amy Grant, who was only 16 when her self-titled debut was released in 1976, recently signed a long-term deal with EMI's Sparrow Records, the world's largest Christian music company, that will include her 30-year catalog of recordings and an option for making new discs.
Grant has sold more than 30 million albums in her career but her star has faded in the 21st century. Her last three albums have been pretty much overlooked, and her NBC reality television show, Three Wishes, was canceled after only one season in the fall of 2005. (It was a great show, actually, and often brought a tear to my eye when Grant and her team would roll into a town, interview residents, and "grant" three of their most notable wishes, usually ones that helped somebody in desperate need.)
I still remain a fan of Amy Grant, though. She helped to reinvent Christian music with her landmark albums "Lead Me On" and "Unguarded," and enjoyed mainstream success with "Baby Baby" and "That's What Love Is For," and gave Michael W. Smith his first break, playing keyboards in her band.
That's an impressive resume, but I hope Amy's right when she said in a recent online chat that her "best music is still ahead."
Worship Down Under: United, the youth worship band from Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, has released a new disc titled "All of the Above." This group has a gift for balancing rock music and worship, managing to crank up the volume without losing their sense of reverence and enthusiasm for God.
This set of 14 songs is less hard-driving than the last few United discs, with a number of gently flowing tunes such as "Devotion," a remake of "Draw Me Closer," and the 12-minute "Saviour King" that create inspiring, reflective moods. The upbeat exceptions include "Point of Difference," "Break Free" and "Solution," which are powered by raw, ragged guitars and bouncy rock beats.
"All of the Above" debuted at No. 1 on the Christian rock charts in the United States and in many countries around the globe.
Papal Publication: Pope Benedict XVI has published his first book since being elected Pontiff, titled Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, $24.95, 374 pages).
Begun in the summer of 2003, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope said he has "used every free moment" since his election in April, 2005, to make progress on the book.
It covers the period from Jesus' baptism to the Transfiguration, looking at Jesus through "canonical exegesis," reading individual texts as part of the totality of the Bible.
For one of the world's greatest theologians, Pope Benedict writes in a way that is relatively easy to grasp, although there are some sections that need to be read slowly and carefully.
Pope Benedict said in the foreword that he wants to continue writing with a look at the "infancy narratives," but is saving that for another book.
"As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given, I have decided to publish the first 10 chapters," the 80-year-old Pontiff wrote.
Evan Help Us: Some religious leaders are hoping the Hollywood movie Evan Almighty, opening in theaters Friday, will not only make people laugh, but motivate them to help others.
The Web site www.ArkALMIGHTY.com was created to tie in with the film, with the goal of "matching up the needs in your congregation with the talents and skills of the members of your church."
Once it gets people to perform "random acts of kindness" within their own churches, it hopes to keep the momentum going with more helpful deeds performed in "neighborhoods, communities, and beyond."
The Web site ministry has the support of such groups as the International Bible Society and the Willow Creek Association.
David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.