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August 9, 2014
Whether you're an American Idol wannabe or a politician seeking the presidency, you can't escape this scriptural truth: Many are called, few are chosen. But what happens once you land among the chosen ones? The Newsboys could tell you first-hand, even as they prepare to release their new album, Restart. After all, how many groups boast a discography with 16 albums and five gold records? And since the arrival of dc talk alum Michael Tait as lead singer, things have only gotten better: 2010’s "Born Again" spawned three No. 1 radio hits, and 2012's "God’s Not Dead" sold more than 300,000 copies. So yes, fans keep choosing the Newsboys—which makes Restart all the more remarkable, because it dares to put so much of that loyalty to the test. With all the fervor of rookies seeking their first record deal, Tait and his bandmates—Jody Davis (guitars), Duncan Phillips (drums), and Jeff Frankenstein (keyboards)—combed through reams and reams of demos and song ideas. Their goal? To compile a stellar collection of tracks into an album like no other … not just in the band's history, but in Christian music history itself as well. In fact, you could sum up the song selection process this way: Many tunes were called, and very few were chosen. "At the start of this record two years ago, we knew we'd be taking great risks," Tait says. "But people will be excited about this album because we've pushed the music and taken it further than we've ever taken it before—we’ve gone through more songs than ever." The search, in this case, boiled down to what Tait calls "world-class songs." (Remember, this comes from a guy who sang on quite a few worldwide hits in his dc talk days.) "If you have one or two of those, they'll be there when the Newsboys are dead and gone." No one's tallied all the numbers just yet, but at least 50 compositions were considered for Restart, putting a team of about a dozen producers and seven mix engineers to the test. Songs were recorded, and recorded again; listening sessions at the Sparrow/Capitol CMG offices turned into regular Tuesday afternoon affairs where Tait and his teammates poured over prospective album tracks as the coffee flowed freely. Imagine the musical equivalent of four-star chefs concocting a tantalizing, secret sauce. "I've never been through such a distilling process," says Tait. While that might sound extreme, you’d be hard pressed to find another record that so successfully embraces tight pop, modern rock, and worship music, and does it all with such focus. Restart sparkles with intensity, passion, and melodic majesty from start to finish. Pop grooves this incessant and immediate don't surface every day, but from the first listen, tracks such as "Disaster,” “That’s How You Change the World" and “Restart” stay with listeners a mighty long time. Will they kick out the jams live? Oh, yeah. Tait, who’s logged more that 600 live shows as Newsboys front man, won't settle for anything less than songs that rouse the crowd from the word "go" (or "restart," if you prefer). "'Love Like I Mean It' might be the people's favorite," he says. "The crowd, when they get to the chorus, they scream their heads off: ‘LOVE LIKE I MEAN IT!’" He laughs, and continues: "That's a first for us as performers. We've never had a chorus with just five words." But if these tracks move your body, they'll move your heart even more. Because when you consider it, what would the Newsboys be without their uplifting message—a constant dating to the band's founding in 1985? The title cut speaks to the group's ambitious reach for stars, and the humble heart that comes with a second chance: "Oh Lord I'm a different man/You gave me a second chance/ I was lost, I was falling apart/You came along, You hit the restart." The single "Live With Abandon" proves equally poignant, even as it gallops home with percussive keys and drums that stomp their way up the mountaintop: "I wanna live with abandon/ Give You all that I am/ Every part of my heart Jesus/ I place in Your hands." Tait chooses his words carefully to avoid overstatement when he compares Restart to one of Christian music's greatest records, one that he played a big role in shaping. "I have not felt this way about anything I've been involved in musically since 'Jesus Freak,'" he declares. So if you're a longtime Newsboys fan, forget what you know. If you're new to the group, you can't imagine what's in store. Restart isn't just an album: It's a spirited pop manifesto from a band driven to recast itself almost from scratch. They didn't have to do it this way, but in music, as in the walk of faith itself, a road less traveled makes all the difference. Other paths called, including a few of least resistance. But this is the one, the only one, they could choose. Or as Michael Tait sums it up: "The pressure was there to make more of the same. It was there from the start. But why not risk something? Why not restart it?"
Whether he’s on stage bringing an audience to its feet with his riveting performance or off stage fielding interview questions with a potent combination of intellect and wit, it’s obvious Andy Mineo is a born communicator and hip hop music is his instrument for reaching the masses.
“It is absolutely undeniable that hip hop is becoming the universal language,” Mineo says expressing an unbridled enthusiasm for his artistic vehicle. “It’s so influential because you are able to say so much in a short period of time. The essence of hip hop is the boldness of it so you’re able to be exactly who you are. You are able to say exactly what you want. You represent exactly what is deepest and dearest to you and people respond to that. They respond to that realness.”
That musical authenticity, heart for people and keen insight into the human condition coalesce on Mineo’s Reach Records debut Heroes for Sale. “We make heroes out of a lot of things,” he says. “We make heroes out of people. We believe ourselves to be greater than we really are. We make ourselves look like heroes to other people. What I really wanted to do is show the brokenness of the heroes that we create and the heroes that we try to be in order to show that there is ultimately only one great hero.”
To underscore that message, Mineo was willing to strip back the layers of his own life and be honest with his audience. “I get really transparent on these songs,” he confesses. “I want to let people see into my brokenness in hopes that other people would identify with that and ultimately know that they don’t have to be great. Their God is. Also I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to show off my love for hip hop. I wanted to try some things. You’ll see a bunch of my big personality come out. I let people see who I am.”
A native of Syracuse, New York, Mineo grew up in a single parent home and was a troubled kid who was kicked out of public school because of his anger issues and aggressive tendencies. Sports and music became positive outlets for Andy’s excessive energy. “I was more involved in basketball and football until one of my friends and I just started rapping as a joke,” he remembers. “We used to buy singles because we couldn’t afford anything else. When you’re 10 years old and you’ve got two or three dollars, you buy the CD single instead of the whole album. The CD single would have instrumentals, so we would just write our own raps to the instrumental on the CD. That’s kind of where my love for it began. My buddy got a program for the computer and we were recording in my living room. I put together my first rap and I fell in love with it the moment I heard myself on the beat. I said, ‘Man, I want to do this forever!”
Mineo became a hard-working young entrepreneur and not only recorded his own raps, but started a studio in his house where he recorded other young hopefuls. He became a local hero and at 17 had money, success and everything most young guys are looking to achieve. “When I got to about 15 or 16, I got all the equipment I needed to not only record myself, but have my friends come over and I’d record them,” he says. “Other people got wind of that and said, ‘Hey I’ll come over and I’ll pay to let me record,’ so I started doing that. The business kept on evolving. I started making more money and bought more stuff, moved it into my basement and built a full studio with one of my friends, who was a carpenter. We created a little ghetto basement studio. That’s how I made my money all throughout high school.”
Yet even with Mineo’s worldly success, there was still an emptiness and restlessness in his heart. He found what he had been looking for when his sister Mary went to work at a church camp one summer and took Andy with her. “I was surrounded by loving people,” he recalls. “There were a couple of guys that invested in me that summer, shared the gospel with me, showed me what it is to follow Jesus, and that’s when I had my first real encounter with Jesus.”
When he returned home, it was hard to grow in his faith. “All throughout high school it was really difficult to follow Jesus without having any community,” Mineo says. “I didn’t have any home church. I didn’t have any men to disciple me. Nothing. When I went to college is when I started to get that. In college, I got away from the situation I was in. God put me there and he put me around a bunch of people that loved God, people that looked like me and talked like me. They were into hip hop like I was and it was really a blessing to meet some of these guys.”
Mineo met producer Alex Medina (Lecrae, Trip Lee) who encouraged the young artist to check out T.R.U.C.E. “It was a group of young people that would gather on Saturdays to work on performing arts for the purpose of evangelism,” he says. “I got invited to come check them out at a rehearsal and there was a whole bunch of men there, people my age, and they all loved God. They were an encouragement for me to start walking with God again. They showed me that I could use my gifts for him. I didn’t have to live the way I was living. I didn’t have to make the music the way I was making it. I could actually use everything that I have for Jesus. I got connected with people that showed me that I could do more with my life and my music.”
Mineo traveled with T.R.U.C.E. and began making a name for himself with such projects as Sin is Wack Vol. 1. Soon others were enlisting Mineo to add his considerable skills to their projects. He’s been featured on Tedashii’s Blacklight, Ambassador’s Stop the Funeral, Flame’s Captured and Lecrae’s “Background.”
“That was the first song we collaborated on and since then we started to build a relationship,” Mineo says of working with Lecrae. “He came to New York and we shot a music video for it. We started to realize that we both had a similar vision, a similar mission in what we wanted to do with our music. They were looking to sign a new artist and I just seemed to be the right fit so I signed with Reach and it’s been a heck of a journey ever since.”
Heroes for Sale reverberates with bold messages and infectious beats, yet in an unusual move, the album opens with the classic hymn “I Will Rise and Go to Jesus.” “I loved it so much that I decided to sample it and use it to open up the album,” Mineo says. “So my album opens with a traditional hymn, which is very rare for a hip hop album, but I think that opening hymn embodies everything that I wanted to say on this project: ‘I will rise and come to Jesus, I’m broken, sick, wounded. All I need is grace.’ Those are the kinds of lyrics you’ll hear on that opening hymn and I think it’s a perfect set-up for the rest of the album.”
The ethereal sounds of the hymn give way to “Superhuman.” “Anytime someone gets a microphone we exalt the person speaking and often times we look at them as some kind of super human,” Mineo says. “We look at pastors that way. We look at basketball players that way, anyone who has a platform. So on the first song of the album I reveal a whole bunch of my struggles. I say, ‘Hey, listen, though I have a microphone and though I might be exalted in some platforms, I’m not a super human. I’m just a fallen, broken person who needs grace.’ We put on these masks and I really wanted to tear some of those down and create some vulnerability on this project. That’s a lot of what that song is about, just saying I’m not that great, but my God is.”
“The Saints” is a party anthem that samples the old classic “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “I was backstage with Trip Lee and KB and I was working on my album and I said, ‘Hey I want you guys to get on this song,’” Mineo recalls of enlisting his two pals for the horn-laced production. “The song is all about what the world should look like when the saints are there.”
The first single, “AYO,” is a potent number that showcases Mineo’s in-your-face skills. “It’s an anthem, a fun party song. It has a big memorable chorus,” he says. “It’s really just a call to say, “AYO!” We’re enjoying our lives. We’re enjoying our freedoms.’ We’re inviting people to come and see what this is all about. This life in Christ! It’s a feel good song that a lot of people can enjoy and it’s an open invitation for people to check us out.
“The music video has a skateboard theme,” Mineo continues. “I like to skateboard, long board and all that stuff around New York so we captured that aspect of my life and put it into the music video. I think that is going to connect with a lot of people because that’s ordinary territory in the hip hop world. I’m just connecting with people to let them know ‘Hey this is who I am. I’m a goofy white kid from New York who likes to skateboard, likes to have fun and rap.’ The freedom that I have is something people are going to gravitate to.”
In recording Heroes for Sale, Mineo freely explored all of his musical influences and the result is a highly innovative album that covers a lot of musical territory. “We took a lot of chances on this album production-wise,” he says. “I’m pulling from different influences and merging them all together. I love classical music. I love hymns. I love heavy metal stuff and I love hip hop, so you’ll hear a little bit of those influences all merged and different things happening that you wouldn’t hear typically on a hip hop album. There’s a heavy metal song called ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ I’m screaming on the song and there’s heavy metal guitars and the song is saying ‘I want to go where the wild things are.’ It’s an anthem to say, ‘Hey let’s step out of our four walls of the church and go where the wild things are, where the people are who need you the most.’ I say a lot of things on this record that will probably shock some people and stir some controversy, but I think it’s good to begin dialogue about where we should be and who we are trying to reach, even if it comes at the cost of me maybe offending some people and losing some fans.”
Mineo is not afraid to be bold and not afraid to reach out and make a difference. In 2012 he and a friend planted a church in New York and now Christ Crucified Fellowship is a vibrant part of the community. “We’re steadily growing and seeing more and more young people our age come and get baptized. It’s exciting,” he says. “I think that’s why God made us this way. He hard wired us to love hip hop, to love people, to love culture, to love the inner city, so why not take all the knowledge and things that he’s given us and go teach it to people that need it, in places that aren’t being reached. That’s what made me want to plant the church. I have a passion for that and now that the church is up and running I’m able to fall back and focus more on my music because now other people are stepping into leadership.”
“I want to combine the message that I believe in deeply with the catchiness of these hip hop songs and choruses. I really think it makes a powerful combination to speak to the hearts of people all over the world.”