Kevin "Toby" McKeehan, better known as TobyMac, has one simple goal:
"I want to wake up every day sitting on the edge of my seat wondering what's going to happen — with a song or with a conversation or with a life," he says. "People who live life in a jaded way where you're like, 'Aw, I've gotta do another record,' or, 'Aw, I've gotta do another song ... or another tour. ... Life is much more beautiful on the edge of your seat wondering what's gonna happen, what God's gonna do."
By any reasoning, that's a place McKeehan has a right to be. His album "Eye On It" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts a few months ago and on Feb. 10 it earned him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. It was his second Grammy as a solo artist and his sixth if you count his work with DC Talk and other projects.
DC Talk began in 1987 when McKeehan, Michael Tait and Kevin Max Smith met at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The act, was one of the first contemporary Christian acts to incorporate rap, was one of the first to break out of contemporary Christian market into the mainstream with the success of 1995's "Jesus Freak." The disc sold more than 2 million copies and earned the group begrudging respect from critics and previous naysayers.
By 2001, the group went on hiatus. McKeehan says he hadn't really planned on ending the group — and he really doesn't do much planning ahead.
"I thought DC Talk was just taking a break. It was just an intermission. Then I had a solo career."
McKeehan's music has gone through a lot of changes.
"What I enjoy is so all over the place and it affects my music. I've never been a one-style of music guy. There's a thread that goes through it all and that's my lyrics, my melodies, my rhythms ... I've always wanted to move where music is. I'm in the river of modern music. I just enjoy that. I'm a pop artist."
He says, though, starting as a rapper has a strong influence on the way he writes melodic songs.
"The way I make the rhymes on a song like 'Steal My Show,' on the new record, almost sounds like it's written from a rap perspective, even though it's sung. It's got this rhythmic thing that makes it feel like me. But keeping my ear to the ground and staying in that river, rather than checking out ... I know a lot of people sort of jump out at a musical place and say, 'This is MY musical era.' I don't feel the need to do that. I love music from the '80, the '90s and right into today. I've enjoyed it the whole time."
It doesn't mean that McKeehan hasn't grown up. He's been married since 1994 and he and his wife, Amanda, have five children, including 14-year-old Truett, who has appeared on the most recent TobyMac albums.
"He's always playing me something new," says McKeehan. "I love hearing it."
Everything that McKeehan goes through is fodder for his songs, including family.
"There's more dimension to my songwriting now. You have more responsibilities. You're learning to love in new ways … I will write songs based on the things I'm struggling with – the good, the bad and the ugly of my life. One thing I've learned is that when I write songs about what I'm going through it affects people more than a fictional song."
McKeehan also nurtures younger artists on his Goatee Records label, which has championed Jennifer Knapp, Relient K, Jamie Grace, Abandon Kansas and other young acts.
Currently, though, he's mixing with younger artists on the road – younger artists who have sometimes grown up on McKeehan's music.
"I think I get more inspiration from them than they do from me," he says. "Their passion moves me. It reminds me of something important in me."
And McKeehan hasn't forsaken the past. He says he still talks with his former DC Talk partners on a regular basis.
"We found out they're tearing down all the dorms where we met," says McKeehan. "Tait was getting all emotional about it. I told him, 'Are you kidding? They needed to be torn down!' But we do talk about doing something together again someday."
Winter Jam 2013
With: TobyMac, Newsong, Red, Matthew West, Jamie Grace, Sidewalk Prophets, Royal Tailor and others
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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