Lauren Selby investigates the intriguing life and music of rapper and singer HEATH MCNEASE
By his own admission singer and rapper Heath McNease is "not very well known in the USA" yet this articulate and intelligent crafter of music has a growing clique of fans who snap up the thought provoking albums (five at the last count) but an artist who names everyone from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to Simon & Garfunkel as his influences.
'Thrift Store Jesus' is the new album from the acoustic singer/rapper from South Georgia. On his own website Heath spoke about his intriguing singer/songwriter album title and the song from which it came. "'Thrift Store Jesus' was a really fun and interesting song to write because what I wanted to do was just tell the story about this really, really awful painting of Jesus. I mean he looks like Richard Marks with a beard. You know, there's just a terrific story to go with it that would take 30 minutes to tell but suffice to say I wrote the song about this guy who just gets this painting, this horrible painting of Jesus at Goodwill. You know when you're at the Salvation Army or Goodwill and they have a junk sale? Where there's VHS tapes, Billy blanks, Tybos and there's always just a couple of really bad paintings. The idea was this guy brought the painting from there and of course nobody else wanted it, but he wanted it because to him it reminded him. . . this is probably what it would look like if I tried to paint Jesus."
Heath explained what the album means to him. "I think this is the most important album I've ever done for a lot of reasons. I think it's the most serious, the most lyrical, the most spiritually significant thing that I've ever done and I think that it talks about a lot of things that are really important as it pertains to my faith, my viewpoint and just how we all see things. It was not an easy process but it was one that I would gladly do all over again, it's a clean, cuss-word free, beautiful album to be listened to. Not for the whole family, you know if you're six you don't need to listen to it. . . you know Larry the vegetable from Veggie Tales? It's not there. But enjoy it."
The rapper-cum-singer/songwriter was born Heath Daniel McNease in a little town in Georgia called Colquitt. He was the youngest of three. He told journalist Tony Cummings, "My Mom's a judge, my Dad is an architect so naturally, they're overachievers and I'm not, so there's no pressure there! I grew up in the church and Mom was the choir director, Dad was a deacon so I grew up around church music, old Southern gospel hymns and stuff like that. I had an older cousin who lived with us for a while and he was obsessed with music and he kind of chose me as his little pet project. He would pump whatever music he was listening to into me so that's where I found the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd so I was into that and still am - it's my favourite stuff to listen to. When my oldest brother was in high school, and I was the youngest kid trying to be like my older brother, he got me into rap - gangsta rap - Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, 1999, 'Eternal'. That was the first rap album I really listened to. Then I went and got my degree in theatre. So my background, as far as music goes, has been really diverse. All of the music that I ever listened to manifests itself when I write and record and perform so sometimes it's tough to try and put your finger on exactly what I'm doing."
The unlikely emergence of a son-of-a-judge rapper occurred around 2005. Reminisced Heath, "I went on the road with this guy named Red Cloud - an amazing guy - he's Native American. I sent him a demo that I did when I first started rapping and it was on a TDK cassette and it was horrible, it was so bad. But he thought I was funny. I think he was amused by the fact that I grew up in this little country town and was so smitten by hip-hop, so he wanted to take me on the road with him during the summer break from college that I was on. Because he was Native American a lot of his heart is for the Native American community. He would go to reservations like in South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana - top of the mid west to northwest sections of the country - and play. I just went with him and a lot of it was mission work because these reservations are essentially forgotten pockets of the country where they are given land to live on and not much else. He would come and try and bring a lot of hope to these areas that were plagued by meths addiction and foetal alcohol syndrome and stuff like that and I would be the only white guy there.
"I found out really early on what ministry looked like and what music looked like in correlation with it. And so through touring with him this guy named Playdough, from a group called the Ill Harmonics, which is one of my all time favourite rap groups, heard my demo. He was signed to 7 Spin Records and he just took the demo and gave it to the company and they liked it and got in touch with me. I was still in college; I wasn't really planning on doing anything full time with my music. I was just trying to get my degree and see what happened from there. The Lord really orchestrated it without me having to do a lot of work which proves that I was squarely in the middle of what he wanted me to do."
Heath's 'The Heath McNease Fan Club Meets Tonight' was a left-of-centre hip-hop album. He talked about how he came up with the unusual name for the album, "I tried to base things obviously on the irony that ok, no one's ever heard of me so obviously I don't have a fan club. . . It was released on 7 Spin. It was definitely the sort of thing where I was just letting the process happen organically because nobody knew who I was. So it was like, release the album and then hit the road as hard as possible. It was a slow growth for sure - a couple of years of hard, hard work."
In 2010 7 Spin released Heath's second album 'The Gun Show', continuing Heath's hip-hop direction. He said, "Maybe unconsciously, the album is divided into a few different scopes and ranges of what it is that I do. There are some very underground hip-hop songs and some light, humorous ones. There are some lyrical, serious things and then there are a lot of melodic things too. One of my favourite songs I've ever written is on the album. It's called 'Space Cowboy', which is loosely built around the Steve Miller Band song. I grew up so influenced by the blues and I love it so much. And I just love gritty, gross, raw sounding stuff so we came up with this dark and bluesy [sound] and we put so many different drums on it; we filtered broken drums through broken guitar amps and we milked them so everything sounds really gross. There's a lot of singing but it's like double time rapping and half time so it's heavy, lyrical and really fast. The pace is grinding. What I like about it is it's not very specific; it's not trying to convey a specific message as much as it is conveying a vibe."
Heath continued, "I used to be into and still am into Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons And Dragons, really nerdy stuff that would make women avoid you. One of the first hip-hop groups was Africa Bambaataa and they had a song called 'Planet Rock' and that was sort of what I was thinking when I was writing 'Space Cowboy' and it manifested itself in a little dirty sound. Also on the album I did a song called 'The Gun Show' with Playdough and it's just us talking about how 'fit' we are, bragging about our body size and how rich we are. In truth neither of us are posters for physical fitness; just over the top, kind of battle rapping. I love the elements of battle rapping because I'm not a negative person I always try to take a battle rapping in the opposite direction and make it really over the top, where no one could ever think I was being serious. Towards the end of 'The Gun Show' there's a song called 'Makeshift Doxology' which is like a fictional prodigal son type story. The character has been overtaken by a lifestyle that's separate from God and the only way that he can communicate with God is when he's impaired by alcohol. It's essentially using God as your drunk dial."
In 2011 Heath surprised his growing legion of hip-hop fans by releasing an acoustic singer/songwriter album 'Shine On'. jesusfreakhideout.com wrote, "For those who heard Heath McNease's 7 Spin Music debut and liked the singer/songwriter stuff more than the hip-hop, you'll be happy to know that the few occurrences on that album weren't just flukes. McNease shows that he's not just a hip-hopper, but he's quite accomplished as a musician as well."
Reinforcing his momentary change in musical direction Heath released a second acoustic album, 'The House Always Wins', the same year. Speaking about the change from hip-hop to acoustic-oriented songs Heath said, "I definitely wasn't taking a complete break from hip-hop. It just seemed like the right time for me. When I am writing/producing/recording/mixing/mastering hip-hop projects it takes so much out of me. The creative process can be a long one, because I never allow myself to come with anything less than my absolute best. It takes time to really build songs with the heavy syllabic structure that I have in cooperation with the mixture of both live and sampled instrumentation and then the engineering phase is 10 times as brutal with none of the fun. So while I'm working hip-hop or while I'm on the road these acoustic songs just find their way out of my heart.
I think the greatest difference between any other kind of music and hip-hop is that with hip-hop your words tell a vivid story. You can describe every detail down to the last thread. You can sometimes beat a dead horse before you can even get to the third verse. With acoustic/pop/rock/indie music there is so much more of an opportunity to abstract your thoughts and ideas. You can try to capture a 'mood' without thoroughly expressing a full idea and I've found that sometimes that speaks to me louder than 48 bars worth of storytelling. It's just a great blessing that I have been given the opportunity to explore both sides of that communication musically. I just thought it was time for less lyrics, more mood. So this album essentially wrote itself."
More moods reflective and manic are conveyed on 'Thrift Store Jesus', released independently in February. Heath spoke about one of the album's strongest tracks, "Natural Disaster Baptism". "I wanted 'Natural Disaster Baptism' to be the first song on the album for a lot of reasons. When I decided that I wanted to do this album I knew right off the bat that it was going to be the most serious thing I've ever done lyrically and conceptually. It wasn't because I thought I'd done a lot of stupid mix tapes that 'oh no, I need to show them another side of me'. It was just building up; there was a lot of serious stuff that I was sussing out. So on my birthday I was playing at this camp in South Carolina and there was no reception, no internet, I couldn't call anyone. I was sort of alone in this cabin which is sort of depressing in itself, and I just wrote this song. It was just to a drum and bass black key samples that I wrote it to. I knew right off the bat that I wanted to rap really, really fast. Like super fast. I think that sometimes people associate rapping fast with being a good rapper which I totally disagree with. I think it can be a gimmick and just a bit of a cop-out. But I like to do it from time to time. So it just sounds like a really bluesy harbinger of the apocalypse is what I like to say. Well, at least the best that I could do it with my 13 year old girl voice.
"I just talk about a lot of the things that are on my mind but try to do it in an abstract way, not super specific about everything that's going on in my head. At the very end it says, 'We knew we had this coming/No use in panic running/Natural disaster baptism'. Basically just saying what would happen if God did decide to break his word and destroy the world by flood again? Not that he would ever do that, but when you're alone in a cabin sometimes that's where your mind goes. So I was thinking what happens if the world were to just like end in this torrential down pour and we'd all be baptised, whether we wanted to or not."
The most important thing to Heath is to stay true to himself and to the God he serves. He explained, "I'm not going to preach at people, but I am not going to hide my faith either. Some of the songs speak specifically about what God has done for me. And some of the songs have no religious content at all. But I feel inspired by God when I'm writing a song about playing Nintendo as I do when I write about the book of Isaiah. A great man once said, 'God is in everything, even ugly things' and I agree with that."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.