Tony Cummings reports on the rise of the Moss/Clark gospel dynasty and its latest singing star J MOSS.
The huge success of the 'V2' album by J Moss is very much the continuation of the second massive gospel dynasty to emerge from Detroit. For as well as the Winans, the famed Motor City has also been responsible for the equally astonishing Moss/Clark dynasty from whence J Moss has emerged. Intriguingly for an artist who, as part of the PAJAM production team, has worked with secular hitmakers like N'Sync and Destiny's Child, today J is extremely ministry-minded and credits all his current success to God. He told journalist Steven Jones, "For me now, man, it's all divinely orchestrated. The reason why I say that is because I'm at a different place in my life where everything I do now is geared toward and centered around Kingdom building - straight ministry. Six years ago when we first started as producers, it was like half from the Lord and half just gifts and talents (laughing). But now God is saying, 'J Moss, I have you in a place where I need you to let everything else go, and focus on me.' So now everything is coming directly from him."
The son of gospel pioneers Bill and "Missionary" Essie Moss and cousin to those renowned divas the Clark Sisters, James Moss was born in September 1971. His childhood was immersed in music. His parents pushed him to study the piano and his father also urged him to write songs. J's father had founded Bill Moss And The Celestials who recorded a stream of albums for labels like Bilesse, Westbound, Bell, Jewel and Savoy and toured churches across America. By the ages of seven and 10 respectively, J and his brother Bill Jr were spending major portions of their summers touring with their father's band, playing package tours with some of traditional gospel's greatest names, among them the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, the Highway QC's and the Gospel Keynotes.
After J spent time as a part time Celestial, his father paired him with his brother in a group called the Moss Brothers, which continued for the next seven years, recording two albums, 'Time To Seek The Lord' (1985) and 'Cry It Out' (1988) for Gospearl Records. The Brothers played locally and regionally on weekends until Bill Jr left for college with J soon to graduate high school. "When I was a kid I didn't think anything about singing," recalled J. "I just wanted to be out playing with my friends. But somewhere in high school I really began to feel a tugging from God telling me music was my calling in life."
J attended Michigan State University until his musical calling became his primary preoccupation in life. He remembered, "I only stayed for two years because I'd gotten to a place where all I wanted to do was write and play and sing music, all the time, and that's ALL I did." Enlisted by his college roommate to co-produce a musical variety show at the university, J realised in the process that he had a strong talent and interest in the "backstage" aspects of the music field, and thoughts of a career in production, as well as performance, began to seriously cross his mind.
J recorded two solo projects, 'Last And Evil Days' and 'Together We Sing: Jam #1', on a small, Detroit-based independent label Aviday Records that failed to generate any commercial success but, as he recalled, were invaluable learning experiences in his development as a writer, artist and producer and also his introduction to Paul Allen, and later Walter Kearney, the other two thirds of what was to become the hitmaking production team PAJAM. Paul Allen was working with Michael Powell (producer for such big time R&B acts as Anita Baker and Oleta Adams) which Walt Kearney was a producer of TV commercials and an expert music biz negotiator.
A series of odd-jobs over the next several years helped pay J's rent, before he took a job with a computer programming firm. Still feeling a calling to a career in music, he nonetheless began to wonder if it was all just a dream. His doubts didn't linger too long, however, as an opportunity arose in the mid-'90s to tour with his cousins, the Clark Sisters, by then one of gospel's major acts.
In 1996 J came to the attention of mainstream giant Island/Def Jam Records, which signed him to a recording contract. Once again, J's efforts as an artist were left unreleased and it was J's cousin Karen Clark-Sheard who got the release and the big push. Clark-Sheard's first solo album became a smash gospel hit in late 1997 and also heralded the official debut of PAJAM, with the team producing four of the album's songs. Clark-Sheard's album rode the gospel charts for the better part of the next two years, during which time J and his partners in PAJAM saw their own star begin a rapid and notable ascent, contributing to projects by both major gospel artists (Hezekiah Walker, Trin-i-Tee 5:7, Virtue, Ramiyah and Kierra 'Kiki' Sheard) and secular artists (Kelly Price, Destiny's Child, 'N Sync, Dru Hill and Backstreet Boyz).
By 2002 though J was becoming increasingly impatient to make music in
his own right. He said, "I have to admit that, at the time, when
things came apart for me again as an artist, I was getting a little
discouraged. I couldn't help wondering when it was going to be my
time. I prayed over it, and I felt God telling me to trust him,
because it still wasn't time for that yet. . .that there were still
other steps to be taken on the journey, largely out of the public eye.
I needed to continue maturing as a writer and to learn what goes on in
the studio in the making of an album and dealing with artists and
In 2003, J and Paul wrote and recorded 'The J Moss Project' in a four-week outburst of inspiration, and it soon became clear that J's long-awaited "season" was in fact at hand. When released on Gospo Centric in 2004 the album was immediately heralded as a gem. Wrote Billboard, "The edgy hip-hop with which he and his partners have made a name is on prominent and punchy display ('You Brought Me', 'Psalm 150'), but the real surprise lies in Moss' old school take on the infectious 'Don't Let' and his truly masterful touch with stirring, pop/R&B ballads ('The More I Think', 'Unto Thee', 'Me Again').
With the major sales success of 'The J Moss Project', Moss, and indeed the whole PAJAM team, seemed to pull back from producing non-Christian artists. J spoke to one journalist about his disenchantment with the recent movement of more and more secular artists performing gospel songs. Said J, "I'm tired of seeing artists who have warning labels on the cover of their albums but then the last song on their project is a gospel song. How can God mix and mingle in that?"
He explained on the subject when being quizzed by journalist Candace Walker (Bellaonline.com), "We have done a ton of tracks that I'm sure people have no idea that PAJAM was a part of. Not to disassociate myself from that but, like right now, I haven't written an R&B song or secular song in over two years. That's just the place that God has me at. However, our company PAJAM is still a full blown production house which will produce and write whatever. I think everything should be done in order and not confuse people. (Let's not have) an album of 11 tracks of 'I want to sex you up and do you five ways' then all of a sudden at the end lift up the name of Jesus. . ."
J is virulently opposed to such mixed messages. "I'm just saying I don't want people to get the idea that this kind of life is okay. Killing people, doing promiscuous stuff or stuff that we talk against while trying to walk the straight and narrow, and then at the end of the night we tell them that as long as you get your Jesus in it's all good, God understands. That's the part that I have a problem with. I have a problem with that, I have a problem with them being on the gospel shows because I just think that it is enough of us (Gospel artists) to go around. Why do we always have to have help? We don't need no help. There's enough talent, there is enough writers, there's enough strategic people in place to plan great shows and we can do it as long as the resources are there, we can do anything just as good if not better than other genres. I think just let gospel have it's time to shine. Now I definitely think there is strength in numbers and I don't have a problem with Patti (LaBelle) putting a gospel song on her album or Beyonce putting one on her album, it's just that if it leads people to think that this is a watered down way of life then that's wrong and promoting the wrong message. I guess I'm tussling with it right now."
Candace Walker asked J Moss what he'd do if an act like the notoriously off colour Ying Yang Twins came and asked J to put down some beats for a gospel song on their next album. He responded with laughter, "Oh man! I mean, it's all business so you just can't say no. Unless the Lord spoke and said don't affiliate yourself with them. A lot of times me and my partners (PDA and Walter) will come together and say, 'Hey look fellas, is this a good decision to make?' I think that counsel is great. A lot of times we will feel one way but a good support team behind you will come and say something and say the right thing. Then you say you know what. . .I was tussling with that but that was the deciding line that helped me make the decision. So I would really have to think about it and pray about it."
J was featured on Kirk Franklin's 'Hero' album while PAJAM recently produced the live at the Apollo project for Byron Cage. J is keen to see interchange between different gospel artists. "I definitely think that there is a need for more of us artists to get together and just collaborate; even if it's just for two or three bars on a song. It's just good to bring Byron Cage's audience into my realm; it's good for me. Tye Tribbett and other artists like that to be featured in Kirk Franklin's realm. And, it just adds so much effort in trying to win souls, which is really what this is about."
J admitted there is a great deal of forward planning that goes into the numerous guest appearances on PAJAM productions. "If you know anything about PAJAM, we're strategists. We strategize about everything. So, of course, we definitely sat down at the drawing board. We then took it to the label (Gospo Centric); we took it to Monica Bacon and others as such. We said, 'Hey, look. We think such and such a person will work well on this particular song. What do you all think?' And we basically all just kind of pulled together and made this happen, strategically. It was definitely strategy to put 21:03 and KiKi (Sheard) on, 'Jump, Jump' and Karen Clark Sheard on 'Know Him'. Those songs just matched with their voices. Whether it was the hype behind them or the message behind it, everything was completely strategic."
J spoke more about the 'V2' album. "We took the seeds that fell off 'The J Moss Project', replanted them in ministry and God just flourished the 'V2' project. That's just what happened. We used the same prayer, 'God lead us in the direction that you want us to go. Give us the messages that you want us to say.' And the Lord spoke to me. He responded, 'J, you're going to feel a little awkward doing this album. You're going to feel a little weird and uncomfortable with some of the messages. But don't worry about that. I've already set up the audiences to hear this particular message. And they will only receive it from you.' So, I'm like, if that's what my commission is, if that's what my calling is, then let's go for it. I thank God for that commission because it led me to follow Christ and it makes my dream and my vision come true. I love that about PAJAM. We all come together and make it happen once the vision is actually stated."
'V2' may be full of effervescently funky tracks, but as he told journalist Christopher Heron, off stage the singer/producer is far from being hyped and jumping off the hinges. "Actually, the music is the total opposite of how I really am. It's so funny, because people who know me, when they come to the show and they see me demonstrate all that - they're like, 'Wait a minute! Was that really you up on stage?' Because everybody who knows me knows that I'm a homebody. I like to stay home with the kids, play and roll around on the carpet with them. Me and the wife love to spend a lot of quiet and quality time together. So I'm really a laid back kind of guy. . .a nerdy, computer, techie guy. But when it's time for ministry, you know, it's time to put on the J Moss hat and flip it, PAJAM style. All of the energy and everything comes out at that point."
Anyone who might have mistakenly thought that J Moss albums were very much products of the studio and that the veteran didn't have a live act to follow through with were well and truly put right in February 2006 when the singer/producer went on the road as opening act for the Yolanda Today Tour. J told journalist Steven Jones, "It was a very big challenge. I thank Yolanda Adams for the opportunity, because she could have called a lot of people to do this tour with her. Yolanda is at a point in her career where she has her own built-in audience. I say it's a challenge because a lot of her audience didn't know me, or what I was about. A lot of people will come up to me after the shows and say, 'Wow! I didn't know you sang that song.' Or, 'Wow! I didn't know you were about ministry.' So, it's been both a challenge and a blessing."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.