DC Talk and Jesus Freak—reading those two names together sends a flood of emotion and nostalgia into the minds and hearts of Christian music fans everywhere. November 21, 1995 was the date this atomic music bomb dropped, and now twenty years later, Christians are still reeling from its devastatingly positive effects.
Through time, the message of Jesus Freak remains as strong and fervent as ever. What better a way to celebrate in this momentous anniversary, than by talking to two of the people that helped create this 90s classic record? CCM Magazine sits down with member Kevin Max and executive producer Todd Collins, to discuss the landmark album’s legacy.
If Jesus Freak turning twenty years old wasn’t enough to get DC Talk to reunite for even a one-off show, it might be uncertain it will ever happen, which is something that slightly bothers Kevin Max.
“It’s a sad tragic affair that there’s been no show. We need to do something. I’ve hit up both guys and they seem to be happy to do it, and I think it’s coming around,” said Max. “Obviously, Toby [McKeehan] had us on his album and we had a DC Talk moment. We had a couple of great conversations after it, and everyone seems open to it, it needs to happen for the fans.”
When discussing the impact of Jesus Freak on Christian culture and the world outside of contemporary Christian Music, Max agreed that it was a great “timing issue.”
“In the 90s you were able to create out-of-the-box music, and people would really be interested. Radio kind-of put their arms around bands getting out there more and experimenting,” Max remarked.
It is important to recap just how much of a transition Jesus Freak was on DC Talk’s previous releases. Their self-titled record was a gospel/rap album. Nu Thang followed suit as more of an old-school/golden-age rap record, while Free At Last incorporated those elements in addition to adding more R&B, soul, dance, and rock.
Traditionally, McKeehan would create the core of the band’s songs centered around hip hop-style verses, and then carve out a singing chorus along with the producer—which, early on, those foundational sessions were almost exclusively under the guise of acclaimed producer Mark Heimermann. As we will hear from co-producer Todd Collins later (stay tuned to CCMmagazine.com for a track-by-track recollection from Collins and Max), the tag-team of Heimermann and Collins prior to Jesus Freak generally worked on elements of the recordings separately, and at different times.
Those records definitely had more of a TobyMac with his back-up singers, Max and Michael Tait, feel—versus the featured trio each carrying equal weight (the sound that most of us are familiar with). Regardless, at that time, they were still pushing the envelope in the Christian market. Restructuring the way future DC Talk albums were made would be a key part in ushering in a new sound for the band. Max did note in retrospect, that he felt McKeehan would have liked to have executed the majority of this differently, with more of a collaborative effort, perhaps bringing about new sounds even earlier in the band’s tenure.
Max stated, “When we went into the studio to create Jesus Freak, everyone was under the idea of, ‘Let’s push this forward.’”
He then mentioned that all great bands eventually feel the need to allow their sound to evolve, as bands like the Beatles and U2, for example. Entering the sessions for Jesus Freak, Max and Tait had honed their skills as proven songwriters, and the guys knew that it was the right time for big change.
With a sonic separation from the past at the forefront of their minds, they knew that even the session players would have to buy in to this, as well. This can be heard specifically in the “heaviness” of the record, performed by guitarist Oran Thorton.
“Jesus Freak is an album that the three of us stood up and used our talents more than any other record we had done at that point. It kind-of showed a progression of different individuals in the band, where the first three records were more of Michael and I being entertainers. We influenced the track by the sound of our voices. We wrote here and there, had some ideas, and pitched some of them.
“Truth be told, not until Supernatural did I feel that the three of us were a harmonic group—where all of us were coming up with ideas and counterbalancing each other. Jesus Freak was a step in that direction, but it was still helmed by Toby,” Max revealed. “Each guy in the band was writing lyrics and melodies and bouncing stuff off each other. That’s why I think it’d be really interesting to see what each of us would come up with today. I know for myself I have big time matured from what I was doing back then.”
Recalling how Jesus Freak was more of an overall shift on all procedures, Max continued, “I know that when we put our shows together, there was a lot of thought that went into it from management, to production, and so on. It had its genesis in Toby’s brain…like a pop circus. That hasn’t really changed if you look at his live set now.
“Jesus Freak wouldn’t have worked with dancers, but it worked with a live band, projection video, and us, live on-screen,” he added.
“Toby was the mastermind behind DC Talk—from the very early days, until Supernatural. It was his baby. Not to say Michael and I weren’t along for the ride, we definitely had a lot of input. From Free at Last to Jesus Freak, we kind-of became a band that centered around two vocalists and a hip-hop artist, to eventually being a full-fledged band.”
Jesus Freak album became a phenomenon in the music industry. The album went RIAA Gold in just a month, eventually hitting Platinum, then Double Platinum. Max added that they became labeled as, “Pastors to the world of contemporary music.” With the additional partnership with Billy Graham Crusades, people looked to them as a band carrying the banner, “Voice OF The Youth.”
“’What If I Stumble’ was a message to tell the audience, ‘Don’t follow us, look to the One we follow.’
“We were scared of the idea of being on a pedestal, but I don’t think we shied away from it with regards to talking about our faith. We weren’t trying to put a blanket over our faith, or hide it with double meanings,” said Max. “It was pretty in-your-face. That’s one of the main reasons why it hit a core with people.”
In this way, the message of the record was more of a “post punk” attitude that stated, “We’re not afraid of what you’re gonna think, we’ll just tell you what we believe.” This attitude opened up the doors for the group to do more opportunities with general market exposure.
Fast forward to today, all three of the artists that comprised DC Talk have applied this methodology to their solo work. TobyMac, Michael Tait (now fronting Newsboys), and Kevin Max may not be under the same “band roof” or performing as one, but neither of them have extinguished the flame of being a true Jesus freak. Each of them are still carrying the banner high, as they travel further in time from that memorable November 21, 1995 release date.