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Celebrating 20 Years of DC Talk's 'Jesus Freak'

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Celebrating 20 Years of DC Talk's 'Jesus Freak'

The term “Jesus Freak” was coined around the late sixties and has been used as a derogatory term for Christians ever since.  Like the term “Christian” itself, believers began to latch onto it like a badge of honor and proudly proclaim themselves as Jesus Freaks.  Perhaps, though, none have ever proclaimed it as loudly as "two honks and a negro" did twenty years ago…

dcTalk had fairly humble beginnings in the late eighties.  The name originated as a nickname for group leader Toby McKeehan, but later was identified as “decent Christian” talk.  Due to some success from their demo tape, the group got a deal with the CCM giants Forefront Records (which was started by Eddie DeGarmo of DeGarmo & Key).  Their self-titled debut is pretty cheesy looking back, but songs like “Heavenbound” still hold a special place in the hearts of most fans.  While most of the debut was a rap/rock mix, the group’s second release, Nu Thang focused much more heavily on the hip/hop and rap elements.  The trio’s popularity continued to rise with the release of the now classic Free At Last.  Their third album continued from where Nu Thang left off, but featured more pop elements and brought back a few more of the rock components as well -- such as displayed in “Luv is a Verb.”  The album garnered much success as it went platinum, boasted of several killer singles, landed the boys on Jay Leno's show, and even spawned a movie (that didn't make it to theaters but was released on DVD for the 10-year anniversary of the album).  Many thought Free at Last would be their most groundbreaking (in the CCM industry) album ever, but I don’t think anyone had a clue what was coming only three years later.  dcTalk decided to reinvent their sound some for their fourth record, and the rest is history.

The lead single, and title track, released on August 1, 1995 and jaws dropped.  It was grungy.  It was hard rock.  Toby’s raps were at their best and the hook would be stuck in your head for days.  Where did this song come from?  Fan were surprised, but it only built the hype for the rest of the album.  Nearly four long months later, on November 21st, 1995, Jesus Freak hit shelves full force and debuted at number 16 on Billboard’s Top 200 -- completely unprecedented for its time.  Even more impressive may have been the fact that the album was certified Gold within a month.  dcTalk were breaking down barriers between the secular and Christian industries that had only been dreamt of before.  “Just Between You and Me” lead the way for the crossover and did extremely well on several Billboard charts.  Six of the singles released became number one hits throughout the Christian charts.  Jesus Freak (the album) won a Grammy and “Jesus Freak” (the song) was the first non-AC (adult contemporary) song to win the Dove Award for song of the year.  This is the point in history, and this is the album, that began opening people’s eyes to the Christian music scene. (Even Virgin Records, who would go on to distribute the album to the mainstream turned to look at the Newsboys next.)  Barriers began to be removed and people slowly began seeing Christian music as something artistically relevant, and not just a cheesy knockoff. 

Jesus Freak was the first ever CD I bought.  Sure, I had cassette tapes of other artists across other genres (I LOVED Ray Stevens), but this was my very first CD.  I still own it along with the single and the Ten Year Anniversary Edition -- I’m most looking forward to the 20th Anniversary Vinyl though!  1995 was a big year for music, especially rock music, all across the board.  For a twelve year old kid just coming into youth group, this was amazing.  I was sponging up everything I could.  Many of the albums I discovered in those days have stuck with me, but nothing quite like Jesus Freak did.  I don’t think I would call it my favorite album of all time, but it’s certainly high on the list.  It’s such a special album for me in a way that’s honestly just difficult to explain.  Let’s just say that there is a special place in my heart where this album resides.  It’s a truly legit 5-star album -- and not just because our very own website was inspired by its release; it’s amazingly written.  Every single song, track after track, is on point.  The writing, the music, the message…  Sheer brilliance!  Even the interludes like “Mrs. Morgan” and “Jesus Freak (Reprise)” are fantastic. 

The album is undoubtedly God inspired and tackles all sorts of issues.  Each song still contains relevant messages today -- 20 years later!  Jesus Freak changed the way I saw music; it changed what I thought music could be.  I still listen to it today and it hasn’t worn thin or played out.  It’s a classic.  I could honestly wax poetic and sing the praises of Toby, Mike, and Kevin all day long, but I think you get the point.  Christian music would simply not be where it is today, and accepted the way it is today, without the release of Jesus Freak.  The entire landscape of things changed on November 21st, 1995.  It’s a once in a lifetime album that had a once in a lifetime effect.  I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind thought that the guys who did Nu Thang and Free at Last would release possibly the most game changing album in this generation.  Those seem like big words, but I honestly believe this album is fitting of such accolades. 

dcTalk released one more studio album after Jesus Freak.  Supernatural was another rock experiment and leaned a little more on the alternative side overall.  We all know about the hiatus that occurred afterwards, and the false promise of a dcTalk reunion that was said to occur after each member released their second solo albums (this happened in 2005).  People have always dreamed of a reunion, but it’s doubtful that day will ever come.  Perhaps 20 years of looking back will inspire the guys to reunite though. (I suppose the recent guest spot on TobyMac's latest album, This Is Not A Test, will have to hold us over for now.)  Only the future will tell if and when that happens.  Until that day I’ll just keep singing, “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?  What will people do when they find out it’s true?  I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak.  There ain’t no disguising the truth…” 

Top 5 favorite tracks: “What If I Stumble,” “Jesus Freak,” Day By Day,” “In the Light,” “So Help Me God” 

-- Michael Weaver

 

Remembering "Jesus Freak"...

I've had a similar experience to Michael here. I remember getting the cassette tape for "Jesus Freak" on August 1st -- AND the CD release at some point -- and just being floored by it. That summer I went to a friend's birthday party at a park that had its own DJ. I brought the tape with me and asked the DJ to play it... but he wouldn't. I kept asking and got nothing. Finally, near the end of the party with only a core group of friends remaining there, he finally obliged. As the guitars kicked in and the song blasted through the speakers, I heard the DJ exclaim with shock and awe on his face, "This ain't church music!!" And that about sums up the impression this song and album seemed to give at the time.

I also remember going to a very small Christian bookstore near my house and buying the full album CD for the first time (and, small bit of trivia -- CD prices were on the rise at the time because of their popularity. I'm pretty sure I paid over $18 for the CD! Who knew they would start going down once Napster came into the picture. One has to wonder if the rise in music prices helped cause the rise in piracy... and thus the decline of the industry as a whole ;) ). But this CD changed things for me, too. I'm an introvert (duh, right? What extroverted 16 year old starts a data-intensive website??), so although I was excited about Jesus, it was hard to put myself in a position to be ridiculed or shunned. But here you had a band who sounded awesome and were proclaiming their faith boldly!

After the album's release, I would use the nickname/handle "Jesus Freak" in online chat rooms and later created a private chat room on NetCentral called "The Jesus FREAK Hideout." I never used it, but on August 13, 1996, after I read a short tutorial on very basic HTML, I started "The Jesus FREAK Hideout" on a free Angelfire.com webpage (It was 1996's equivalent of WordPress, kids). The rest -- all the mishaps and struggles, triumphs and failures -- is history.

I honestly can't believe it's been two decades since this landmark release. Toby "TobyMac" McKeehan is still going strong solo, Michael Tait took over as lead vocalist for the Newsboys (who could have predicted that??) and after a brief stint as the replacement singer for Audio Adrenaline, Kevin "Max" Smith is still going strong with his own solo career. They may not be together anymore, but each one is still making their mark in music. And the legacy of "Jesus Freak" lives on!

-- John DiBiase (founder of JesusFreakHideout.com)

 

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