Free at Last — A fresh look at DC Talk’s ground-breaking album more than 20 years later

DcTalkFreeatLast I have an work commute of close to an hour each way. And over the years I have found that it seems to go faster if I crank some of my favorite music (Third Day, Toby Mac, Air1 radio) and I always end up singing along as I drive by myself.

I spent an afternoon with my younger cousins (9 and 11). I took them to an Angels game. More than the game, I was looking forward to the trip in the car, because I knew I could crank my music and look in the back seat and find them singing along with every word.

They seemed to really like Toby Mac, and the Newsboys song “God’s Not Dead.”

I thought I would drop some old-school knowledge on them. I told them that the lead singer for Newsboys, Michael Tait, was once in a group with Toby Mac.

They seemed interested, so I told the older one to look in the case of CDs and pull out the one that was all black with a white silhouette of three guys with their arms in the air. (DC Talk fans will recognize I am talking about “Free at Last”)

I popped in the CD, and watched as he began bobbing his head to the rhythm, listening intently to the words. I started going over the playlist in my head, trying to figure out which song he might really enjoy.

But then it hit me, this might not be the best CD to introduce to a kid. There are no explicit lyrics or anything, but the subject matter is pretty deep.

Socially Acceptable (dealing with societies pressures), That Kind of Girl (finding a Godly mate) The Hard Way (which talks about the struggles of the Christian walk), and I don’t Want It (dealing with the pressure for pre-marital sex).

I quickly faded it out after the opening Love is a Verb, changing back to Air1. Disappointed that I couldn’t fully share music that meant a great deal to me. But they are inquisitive boys, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to answer the questions they were sure to have on the subject matter.

I have spent the last week listening to my DC Talk music. And have a new perspective on Free At Last.

I have always said that album was groundbreaking musically, putting DC Talk on the map. Their previous albums had more of a garage band feel to them, but this was over the top production-wise, putting it on par with anything else that was out there at the time.

I believe it was really a step forward for Christian music, which at the time belonged to greats like Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and Bryan Duncan.

DC Talk opened the door — make that broke the door down — for those that would follow. From Grammy winners Lecrae and Kirk Franklin to KJ-52 and Manafest (both of whom I recently saw on the Air1 Club Awesome Tour) to a whole host of Christian music artists that flood the airwaves of radio stations like Air1 and KLove.

But looking at it again, it was also the lyrics and subject matter that made it so popular. I was a freshman at Biola University in Southern California when Free at Last came out in the Fall of 1992. And the songs on that album really struck a chord with me as well as that 16-25 age range, as we were all dealing with these issues.

Toby Mac, Michael Tait and Kevin Max Smith changed the music scene.

I first heard DC Talk in the Spring of 1991 as they opened for Michael W. Smith. At the time, my friends and I had been writing Christian lyrics to some of our favorite songs, and DC Talk blew me away. I bought both of their cassettes that night (Yes, I said cassette tapes).

By the Spring of 1993, Michael W. Smith, one of the top names in Christian music was coming out on tour again, and DC Talk was with him. But all anyone on the Biola campus could talk about was, “Are you going to the DC Talk concert this week?”

They had that big of an impact on that age group, because of the things they were singing about. And, as I found out, not just the younger generations either.

A number of years later, I was visiting my family back east and was telling my uncle, several years my elder, about a book I was reading called, “Under God,” which is about stories of Faith from throughout U.S. history. I told him the book was put together by Toby Mac and Michael Tait. He said, “The DC Talk guys?” I asked what he knew of DC Talk, and he broke out singing the chorus to Time is Ticking from the Free at Last album.

Free at Last became so big, the songs were starting to show up on secular radio stations. And with that came the attention of the the larger music labels.

Toby and Michael have talked about how when the secular labels came calling they all had the same request. “If you could just tone down the message some, you could garner a lot more success.” Michael said that would be the point when Toby would get up and walk out on the meeting.

As they were preparing for their next album, they knew they had to go big. Free at Last raised the bar pretty high.

But how do you top a ground-breaking album, how do you give the fans the “Funky Jesus Music” they crave, all the while sending a message to the power structure that you are not going away?

Two words: JESUS FREAK.

The title track off their next album was a hard-rocking anthem the became the signature song for the group.

But through the success of their later albums (Jesus Freak, Supernatural) the group kept going back to Free at Last and remixing those songs on their tours. The Hard Way was remixed several times and became a fan favorite.

Even as the trio launched solo careers, they would still perform old DC Talk songs, much to the delight of the crowds.

With Michael Tait leading Newsboys and Kevin Max the new voice behind the Audio Adrenaline comeback, fans can only hope they team up with TobyMac for a super tour.

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