Where does the career of a Christian pop star begin?
Toby McKeehan -- the Virginia native who sings, raps and changes lives as TobyMac -- mulls it over as he noshes on a bagel. It might have started in 1983, when he saw Sting fronting the Police. "I pointed to the stage and said, 'I want to do that,'" he says. "I loved music. But I also loved that it spoke to people's hearts and lives."
TobyMacWhen: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23
Where: Sears Centre Arena, 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates, (847) 649-2270 or www.comcasttix.com
Or maybe it started when McKeehan was 13, attending a church camp in rural Virginia, listening to a counselor read words off a page.
"At church, it was a guy behind a box yelling and screaming," McKeehan says. "This dude sat on the floor of a cabin with us, opened up a Bible and read it. And it all came to life."
Today, McKeehan stands as arguably the biggest star in Christian pop music. In the '90s, his groundbreaking group, dc Talk, made faith-based rap-rock that was brash enough to crack MTV, but wholesome enough to get them invited to Billy Graham's house.
Last year, McKeehan's 10th solo album as TobyMac, "Eye On It," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's album chart -- the first contemporary Christian music album to achieve that feat since 1997. Last month, McKeehan snagged four trophies at the Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, including artist of the year. After the show, Christian rap star Lecrae gushed to reporters, "TobyMac is a legend."
But on this fall day, nobody on this Washington street recognizes McKeehan. He's lean and chipper, sporting a crisp baseball cap that makes it difficult to believe he's just a year shy of 50. He's left his wife and five children back home in Franklin, Tenn., for a weekend festival gig in Middleburg, Va. -- one of the 80-ish concerts he'll play in any given year. (His Hits Deep Tour brings him to the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates Nov. 23.)
He speaks of his rising profile with careful humility, consistently deflecting credit to his fans. And they've been an extremely loyal bloc, helping McKeehan's career thrive while secular artists have suffered the aftershocks of a perpetually slumping record business. Since going solo in 2001, McKeehan says most of his albums have sold between 600,000 and 700,000 copies each.
"They're very loyal people," McKeehan says of his fan base. "They're looking to rock, they're looking to dance, they're looking to throw their hands in the air. But they're also looking for something that speaks to their life."
Strolling Georgetown's brick sidewalks, McKeehan reminisced about a 1986 chance encounter with the Beastie Boys, who were in D.C. to play the 9:30 Club. (He ended up taking them to Georgetown for ice cream.) McKeehan had discovered hip-hop years earlier, while attending Bethlehem Baptist Christian Academy in Fairfax. Early discoveries included Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow, as well as go-go groups Trouble Funk and Redds and the Boys.
But McKeehan didn't really start making music of his own until college. After a year at Jacksonville (Fla.) University on a golf scholarship, he was itching to join his friends at Liberty University, the college founded by Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va. McKeehan's father, a real estate agent who had sold then-Washington football coach Joe Gibbs his home, helped with some string-pulling.
"The story that I was told was that Joe Gibbs called Jerry Falwell and said, 'You need to start a golf program,'" McKeehan says. "The next year, I'm at Liberty, playing golf."
He also started making music with his buddies Kevin Max Smith and Michael Tait. Tait was into gospel. McKeehan wanted to rap like LL Cool J. They named their group dc Talk.
The band's career exploded in 1995 with the release of its double-platinum album, "Jesus Freak." A video for its grunge-rap title track was directed by Simon Maxwell, who had worked with Nine Inch Nails, and helped catapult the group onto MTV. In the years that followed, other Christian rock bands quietly floated onto mainstream radio airwaves with little fanfare being made about their faith -- Switchfoot, P.O.D., Creed, Evanescence, Chevelle, Skillet.
Since going solo in 2001, McKeehan's music has mellowed into a glossier, more inclusive shade of pop. He's casting a wide net through his own music, and through Gotee Records, the Nashville-based record label he launched in 1994. In its busiest years, Gotee released big-selling albums from songwriter Jennifer Knapp and emo troupe Relient K, and is currently home to clean-cut pop duo Capital Kings.
But if reaching people means selling great quantities of albums, does McKeehan see his work as ministry or business?
"To me, this is business," McKeehan says. "If I'm charging 25, 35 bucks a ticket and charging 10 bucks to buy my CD, it's a business. You can't call it ministry at that point ... If God chooses to minister through me talking about my life, then so be it. But I can't call it that."
These days, McKeehan doesn't look a lot older, but he certainly feels a lot wiser, and says he's invigorated by changing attitudes currently sweeping across the Christian faith.
"I love to see (Christians) reaching out and loving well, instead of being insulated and judging," he says. "I would hope that I'm an artist that's opening people's minds about what it means to be a believer walking in this world every day."
And he'd rather do it through a song than a sermon.
"I want to draw people in because they love the music," McKeehan says. "And if they hear something in it that's for them, it makes me happy because it's something that worked for me. It's the hope that I've been offered. You're gonna hear hope in a lot of people's music, but we might resolve differently. I resolve in hope."