Christian Rapper TobyMac Dishes on Staying Relevant at 50 -- and Why He's Inspired By Justin Timberlake

Toby Mac
Lee Steffen

?Christian hip hop pioneer TobyMac has always been a fan of the collaborative process, but never more so than on his sixth solo set This is Not a Test, dropping Aug. 7.  The six-time Grammy winner reunites with his dcTalk bandmates Kevin Max and Michael Tait on “Love Feels Like” and enlists newcomers Capital Kings, rapper NF, Ryan Stevenson and Hollyn on other tracks. This is Not a Test is the follow up to TobyMac’s 2012 Eye On It, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making him one of a handful of Christian acts to top that list.

TobyMac Earns First No. 1 Christian Album on Billboard 200 Since 1997

Why title the album This is Not a Test?

The main line in the song is kind of describes it well:  “There ain’t no practice runs in life.”  This song really is about making every day count, making every moment count and reminding people that now really matters.  So this is not a test. It’s the real thing.

Do you support a candidate for president yet?

Not yet. I’m just going to keep watching keep listening and make my decision when the time comes.

What do you think of SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage?

I've always felt my music is for everybody. It's music about loving people right where they are and counting on a faithful God. I want my music in every home falling on open ears listening to the beautiful story of grace.

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As a rapper/hip hop act in your 40s, how do you stay current?

I've always thought there's two things you can do with your life in music. You can either remain in this moving river called music or you can get out at a certain era and start camping on the on the river bank.. I feel perfectly fine making the kind of music I make. I’m moving with music. I’m moving with the current because I love music that is now. I've never chosen to get off on the river bank and say, ‘This is my era.’ I’m still moving with this river called music. 

What do you think of the success of Hillsong United and needtobreathe?

I love the diversity in Christian music now or music made by Christians. It's more artistically forward than it’s ever been. The creativity in the lyric is better than it’s ever been. We have to remember that we are people living in this world, living the life, running into the same things everyone else is and we have to write about those things. We have to be honest with our struggles and for us to isolate ourselves and act like we’re not dealing with the same things the rest of the world is, is a mistake because we are. The more transparent we become, the more people are drawn to what we do. We’re not that different really. We’re chasing the same things.

What was it like working with your dcTalk pals Kevin Max and Michael Tait again on this album?

It was great. I don’t think we missed a beat. Those are two of the best singers that I've ever had the pleasure to record with and tour with. I really heard them on that song very early in my mind. It was the right song. It feels a little bit like DC Talk, the texturing of it all. It’s got an edge. It’s about losing my dad in the last year and really having to dig in to greater depths of love and really serving. My son Moses is dealing with muscular dystrophy. It’s called me to new levels of love and love showing itself through this servant’s heart. You might be drained and tired but at the same time it's a beautifully fulfilling type of love. I say in the song, “Poured out, used up, still you’ve been stretching me out to the end of my limits but this is what real love feels like -- empty has never felt so full.”

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Why is collaboration so important to you?

I’m learning more and more about how collaboration can bring uniqueness to records. It can bring variety. Just having someone else on the song can absolutely change the spirit of the song. I’m better when I get together with people and write or collaborate. Life is more rich when lived together. Could I write a song by myself?  Sure, but I just think that when we come together in our differences there's a richness that only us coming together can achieve.  It invites more people in. It expands the song and usually takes it to a level that’s beyond yourself.

“Feel It” sounds like an homage to Michael Jackson. Was that intentional?

Definitely! The Off the Wall record was my favorite Michael Jackson record.  “Feel It” was definitely a nod in that direction -- the use of percussion, the guitar part, the rhythm section and horns. It definitely has that feel about it.

For a long time you were like the Lone Ranger in pioneering Christian rap/hip hop. How do you feel about how the genre has grown?

I was privileged to be there involved in the beginnings of hip-hop and the Gospel message... I’ve always loved it. It’s always been a part of my music. It’s never been wholly who I am but I’ve always been sort of a conglomeration, a big ole pot of musical gumbo as I call it. Hip-hop is one of my ingredients.  So is funk, so is soul, so is rock but in hip-hop, I’ve flow the flag for a long time. It’s dear to me and to watch it begin to take root at the level it's taking root I could not be more pleased, more excited about the future of it. LeCrae and others are taking it to the next level. There’s just something very legitimate and authentic about what they're doing in the realm of hip-hop and I couldn’t be more excited to watch it grow. They tip their hats to me every once in a while and it's an honor that they would do that.”

It’s been more than 20 years since you founded Gotee Records.  To what do you attribute the indie label’s longevity?

Focusing on one thing at a time, not trying to have a great amount of artists but to go deeper with a few and build a real relationship with the artists. We want to remain that boutique label... I really attribute the success to our artists.  We’ve been honored to work with such great artists over the years, even now getting to do it with Jamie Grace, Finding Favour and Capital Kings.

Is there any artist in the mainstream you admire and would like to take a page from their playbook?

The first person that comes to mind is Justin Timberlake. I just respect him. He makes very smart moves. He’s setting himself up to be a classic. So for the long term, he’s not chasing after anything. He’s making decisions and moving on them. That’s a great place to be.  He’s not thinking, ‘Oh this star’s going to dim soon I’ve got to hurry and do this,’ he’s taking his time to do things right. That’s impressive.

And I think Bruno Mars is a great song craftsman. I don't agree with all his lyrics... but he understands how to write a modern hook and pay homage to the old school soul.  He has a way with words and has a way with melody that’s very special... I don’t agree with everything he says but he’s a great lyricist. 

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of Billboard.