4TH AVENUE JONES from Los Angeles are a groundbreaking band fusing different musical elements, as Tony Cummings reports.
In the past all manner of Christian bands have fused raucous rock rhythms with rap but the release of 'Stereo: The Evolution Of Hiprocksoul' by Los Angeles band 4th Avenue Jones is probably the first time a predominantly black band have fused the two genres. Lead vocalist Ahmad Jones calls the project "an optimistic celebration of music and its ability to help quench our despair." The album is a blistering synthesis of R&B voices, uninhibited rapping (both male and female), funkily programmed bits and cathartic rock guitars in a sound with the potential to click with the mass Christian music public and, possibly, even crossover to the mainstream. In fact, 4th Avenue Jones' roots are in mainstream music.
The group were conceived by Ahmad Jones, known to long time hip-hop fans simply as Ahmad. The rapper's 1994 platinum single "Back In The Day" was used on the soundtrack of the movie The Wood and catapulted the 18 year old rapper into the big time. But frustrated by the corporate politics choking the music industry and the "plastic junk" being forced on the masses, Ahmad decided to abandon his solo career and form his own label, Lookalive Records. He set out to bring together a dream team of gifted musicians who were committed to the art of music. "It was my goal to create a situation that enabled us to make the music we loved on our terms, and be treated fairly in the process," he explained.
4th Avenue Jones began in 1997 when Ahmad commenced rehearsals at a house, which was located on 4th Avenue and Jefferson in South Central Los Angeles. He recruited long-term musical associate Jabu and in 200 4th Avenue Jones pressed and distributed their first full album 'No Plan B'. 4th Avenue Jones began to attract a fan base in the Los Angeles area until eventually they were signed to the big mainstream label Interscope. Ahmad's vision for 4th Avenue Jones was growing and singer Tena Jones was recruited to the ranks.
Ahmad met Tena in 1996 while he was in Atlanta judging a talent show in which Tena was competing. Tena, who had travelled from Little Rock, Arkansas for the competition, caught Ahmad's ear, despite performing with a group. Ahmad gave Tena his number because he wanted her to sing on his second album. Tena eventually travelled to Los Angeles to help record the album with Interscope. The two were good friends who deepened their relationship by becoming man and wife.
At first the group's new record deal seemed to be going well. The group's single "No Plan B's" on Lookalive/Interscope was put on rotation on MTV and BET and the band did plenty of high profile gigging sharing the stage with such notables as Sheryl Crow, Macy Gray, James Brown and Black Eyed Peas. But then it all went pear-shaped. The band's album 'No Plan B: Pt 2' was never released as Interscope tumbled into financial problems. Ahmad remembered, "It was like a straightjacket musically. Like they want you to kind of do it their way and they dangle the budget in front of you, like 'Okay, well you can do what you want but we'll do a video for this one.' And it's like, 'Okay well, we gotta do that one.'"
Today though, Ahmad is quite philosophic about the two years of disappointments the band experienced with Interscope. He commented, "I heard this story about this certain moth, I think it's like a silk moth or something. When it's a caterpillar, then it turns into a little cocoon. If you help it out too soon.it struggles to get out.and if you cut it and opened it up and let it fly out, it'll die soon. Because it needed to struggle in order to develop what was necessary to survive when it got out. And we're kind of like that. I wrote a song called 'Overloaded' - me and Timmy Shakes - that is really touching on that subject. I felt like I got closer to God because a lot of times, when people abandon you, all you have is your faith and your relationship with the Lord. That's why I always tell people I'm not very religious because to me, it's such a personal relationship I don't look at it as a series of like, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. It's like just dealing with my father, you know? And he's always there for me, to support me and to help me and give me strength when I'm in need. I just love God, man! He's the reason that I'm able to do anything. Then once I do it, he's the reason that it succeeds. So he gets all the credit."
Against all the odds 4th Avenue Jones didn't break up after the Interscope debacle. Instead they signed with Gotee Records, the pioneering CCM company run by Joey Elwood and TobyMac. Ahmad explained the reasons for signing with Gotee. "What we really did was, we had our own label, Lookalive, and then we partnered with Gotee in a venture deal. So we finish albums, do our own artwork, come up with our own concepts and then we give it over to them and they help with the marketing and the distribution. So it's a perfect deal for us because we get all the individual freedom that we need, but then we get the help on the other side to really make it a good business venture."
One of the outstanding songs on 'Stereo: The Evolution Of Hiprocksoul' is "Who's Watching Me". Commented Ahmad, "I wrote that song but I had Tena in mind because she's the true star of the family, you know? She's like, 'Oh you don't have to tell me!' [laughs] No, but Tena, she really delivered that song. She was, I think, six months pregnant when she sang it. Just like that life inside of her teamed up with her life and she just sang that song. It's a song about feeling like you're always there for other people but then when it's your turn, who do you have to lean on? Who has your back so to speak? I think a lot of people can relate to feeling overlooked and that's who that song is for."
Ahmad is pleased with the musical progression of 4th Avenue Jones. "This is the first album we've actually had lots of drums on. Before we would have the drum machine with live music with it, but now we combine live drums with drum machines, guitars with violins, rapping with singing.might be more singing on the album than rapping. So it's not really a hip-hop album outside of the attitude of the record. Everything that we do is just a real gumbo type of deal. It's like a jambalaya of sound!
Ahmad is frustrated that many people have labelled 4th Avenue Jones as a hip-hop group. He commented, "To me the songs are genreless. I can be singing a whole song with heavy guitars on it and I'm like, 'That's a great rap record!' I mean, I love hip-hop because that's my culture; that's where I came from. But if you're a guy, once you get into the MBA and you're known for rebounding, then you learn how to shoot and you learn how to do free-throws and pass. You don't always want to be considered a rebounder for your whole career. You want people to see your evolution, you know? So I think that's why it frustrates me because we have so much to offer and it kind of pigeonholes us to say that we're a hip-hop group."
With the release of 'Stereo: The Evolution Of Hiprocksoul' the band have suddenly come of age. Behind the serious beats, scorching raps and rampant eclecticism there are clear spiritual intentions behind the album and the band's whole existence. Said Ahmad, "We want to show people that you can be cool and dress well and still be relevant as a Christian. Because I'm tired of Christians being counted as irrelevant. Like a lot of the people that I grew up with, if you said, 'Oh that's a Christian album' you'd be like, 'Okay that's not for me, that's for Christian people. I'll go and listen to the music that I listen to.' I just want to make quality music and everybody in our band is so talented that the excellence comes through."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.