FOR MANY ALL-GUY BANDS, FEMALE FANS ARE A WELCOME antidote to the rigors of the road. But for the pop hip-hop trio DC Talk, groupies are an occupational hazard, ranking right up there with food on the interstate and all-night bus rides to Boredom, U.S.A. "We made a pact with God that we wouldn't make love with anyone until we married them," says group founder Toby McKeehan, who coauthored Talk's parody of George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" (Talk's take: "I Don't Want It"). "My friends say, 'You gotta be kidding! No sex?' It blows their minds."

Surprising folks has been the DC Talk creed ever since McKeehan, now 27, Kevin Smith, 26, and Michael Tail, 26, started rocking together in 1987 when they were students at evangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Six years later, the Washington group (the DC stands for Decent Christian, not District of Columbia) is the hottest act in gospel, having earned Bill-board's Top Contemporary Christian Artists award last month for their third release, Free at Last. The gold album, which topped the charts for eight months, even earned Talk some rare secular honors, including appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show and The Tonight Show and a spot on NBC's Friday Night Videos.

McKeehan, who stickered their DC Talk debut album with a parental advisory—"This Album Contains Explicitly Christian Lyrics"—defends his group's right to make a joyful noise of rap, rock and all forms of devil's music. "I think it can be an effective tool to minister the gospel," he says. "We reach out to people, just as Christ did when he sat across from the whore."

Not surprisingly, all three performers come from fundamentalist Christian homes. McKeehan, son of a wealthy Annandale, Va., real estate broker and his wife, a homemaker, became a rap fan early but hated the genre's often vulgar lyrics. McKeehan attended a Baptist high school that was so strict his decision to enroll in Falwell's ultraconservative university was, he says, "considered the rebellious thing to do."

At Liberty, McKeehan met D.C. native Tait, whose father is a street evangelist turned radio broadcaster and whose mother works as a government inspector. Tail had sung hymns on Falwell's The Ole-Time Gospel Hour television show and recorded with the Falwell Singers before McKeehan asked him to help record a song he'd written, "Heavenbound." With McKeehan rapping and Tait singing the chorus, they performed it for a crowd of 8,000 Liberty students. "They went berserk, man," Tail, remembers. "We sold out of, like, 3,000 tapes. They were gone."

To round out their sound, the two recruited Smith, a Michigan native—his dad is a CPA, his menu a home-maker—who had spent a summer holiday singing at Jim and Tammy Bakker's Heritage USA. Signed to a recording contract in 1988, the trio toured with gospel's Michael W. Smith last year and this coming spring will headline a world tour of their own. Although they earn as much as $35,000 for a performance, they insist they'll never stray from the straight and narrow. "We didn't get together to be stars," says McKeehan (who married his longtime girlfriend, Amanda Leavy, 22, in July). "We share the same call—to use the stage to let people know about Jesus."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
BIL CARPENTER in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Bil Carpenter.