With a new remix album in the CD racks, rapper KJ-52 is firing on all cylinders. He spoke to Mike Rimmer.
I have a confession to make. I wasn't sure about KJ when his debut '7th Avenue' was released. I can remember seeing him wandering around in his hoodie in America a few years back. Can a white man sing blues? Perhaps, but what about a white rapper? But that then (2000) and this is now. His album 'Behind The Musik' has simply established him as one of the most skilful rappers on the Christian scene and now he has a truly inventive remix album out.
Inevitably Jonah Sorrentino (KJ-52) has suffered from the Eminem comparisons over the years and these haven't been helped with his two "Dear Slim" songs. So I'm curious to find out whether he's frustrated at the continued comparisons with The Real Slim Shady. " I don't embrace it or try to encourage it," he shares, "but if me being the Christian Eminem to some kid helps him get closer to God and farther away from other things, who am I to scream my artistic pride? Part of it is me keeping it in perspective. A lot of the people that would draw that comparison aren't necessarily what I would consider deep musical critics! It's because I think a lot of what he does has had so much negative connotations for a lot of people. The first and closest remotest thing that they can find that draws comparisons, and people just jump on it. So if it really came from a deep person that I would respect from an artistic level, someone that I could says knows music and knows hip-hop, and they started saying it, then I think I'd probably take it more seriously. But if it's just some 12 year-old kid in nowheresville that just goes, (adopts broad country accent) 'Heeey! You're white too! I think you're the Christian Eminem!' So it's just like, okay, whatever."
"Dear Slim Pt 2" is one of the most arresting tracks on KJ-52's latest album 'Remixed'. What constitutes a remix album is of course a sore point among CD buyers. But anyone concerned that KJ's effort would do little more than make some of the bass lines a tad phatter will be delighted with 'Remixed' which had KJ-52 in the producers seat for the entire project and which includes radical re-assemblages of many of his best known songs and even recorded new verses on most of the tracks. The re-recorded vocals on "Dear Slim Pt 2 (True Story Remix)" make it sound much more personal and the new version includes the story of how a pastor gave Eminem KJ's original "Dear Slim", and the witness he was able to be to the superstar, as told by the pastor himself. Plus the new track gives the song a darker, more serious feel in keeping with the life and death, Heaven and Hell theme of the song. Eight of the songs on 'Remixed' were originally featured on 'Behind The Musik' while his reinventions of older songs like "47 Emcees" where beatbox is replaced by thudding beats courtesy of DJ Morphoziz and with KJ adding a verse hailing a heap of West Coast emcees. Other gems on the set include "Jesus (Reggaeton Remix)" where independent reggaeton artist Funky keeps the Latin vibe flowing and "Are You Real? (Oregon Trail Remix)" where Jon Micah of Kutless, featured on the original, is replaced by Jesse Ribordy and Joseph A Kisslebugh of the rock band Falling Up.
Clearly KJ is a rapper overflowing with fresh creative ideas. But what was it about rapping that first attracted him to the genre? KJ-52 ponders for a second and responds, "I think maybe indirectly it could be the neighbourhood I grew up in. I was the minority. So I think to some degree I could identify with that aspect of a black man's art form. I related to some aspects of the struggle of being in the inner city, of being poor and feeling like the whole world is against you; I could relate to that because I was right there too. So I think part of that was there."
He continues, "But I think honestly, the biggest thing about it was, there was a way to convey a message that most genres didn't. Rock music, still to this day, is mostly about love songs. Pop music is mostly about love songs. All these things are mainly about love songs. Whereas, here's hip-hop music and back then when it was Public Enemy, it was about militant black issues. It was about education. It was about drugs in the community. So hip-hop is about saying something. If you did a love song you were considered soft! So it was everything that was opposite of what I was hearing. There was something about that ability of that emcee to take that mic and to control the crowd. I think too because the musical bed of that was all based on funk and R&B and all these things. There was just something about percussion that I loved as opposed to melody. So it just appealed to me."
KJ did not grow up in a situation where faith came easily to him. He remembers, "I had no faith. I had no spirituality. I was if anything very close to being atheist. It wasn't until someone had challenged me at 15 that I began to examine who God was. The funny thing was, the hardest thing for me to give up wasn't the drinking, it wasn't the girls, it wasn't the partying; it was hip-hop music! That was the hardest thing for me to let go because that was my religion. Because it affected what I thought, what I believed, what I said, how I dressed, how I acted, my values. All those things were affected by that. That was my god. That was my religion. So that was the hardest thing for me to let go of. But God just gave it back to me."
In the beginning after he became a Christian he laid it all down. He remembers, "I threw out about 90 per cent of my tapes pretty soon after becoming a Christian. There was a few that I hung on to and then eventually I threw them out too. And then I just swung to the other extreme where all I listened to was Christian music. Hip-hop had become such an idol. It was like an alcoholic getting saved. They can't even go near a bar. Because that is still there. So for years I just filled my mind with Christian music."
When God allowed him to pick it all up again, KJ-52 emerged as a unique observer of popular culture. "Travelling as much as I do now has completely broadened my worldview. People fascinate me because I grew up with so many different kinds of people. And one thing I always noticed was my dad. He had an incredible ability to relate to everybody in the ghetto. I watched that and I try to transfer that to my music. So for example on the remix of 'Fivetweezy' I totally rewrote that song. I rewrote it basically with the attitude that picked on a bunch more pop stars. But to me, it's fun. It's part of my way of taking my jabs back at the culture."
What does he feel about using humour to make a point or to lampoon elements of popular culture? Aren't we supposed to love people and be nice? "It's dangerous because we're always taught to love people. I totally agree with that and there's a fine line you gotta walk. But if you look at what Elijah did when he was confronted with the prophets of Baal. They were all dancing around and he says, 'Where's your God at? Where's your God at? Maybe you should yell a little louder? Maybe he's on the toilet?!'"
He continues, warming to his theme, "That's pretty hardcore sarcasm! That's like 'Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. You stink!' I think when we're in the right to some degree.I think there's room for satire. I think there's a degree of satire and I try to involve a little bit of that." I observe that we really need to laugh a little more at the world. "I agree," he responds. "I totally agree with you. Especially at the absurdities of some of the things that we are into. But I'll tell you, if anybody's the butt of the joke it's usually me because I find that deflates most of my critics in a lot of ways too."
The one danger with including so many contemporary cultural references on his recordings is that it is possible for his songs to become dated very quickly. He laughs at the suggestion, "Yeah! But I usually churn out records every year or year and a half. But some things are timeless. The funny thing is, in my set, I've done this stupid old-school part in my show and I've been doing the same stupid old-school part for the last six years. There's a part where I play Vanilla Ice and I play MC Hammer and I play Sugarhill Gang. I play those three things and I have not changed that in six years! Part of playing Vanilla Ice is me playing it down and doing 'The Running Man'. And I'm thinking, 'Some of these kids weren't even born when 'The Running Man' was started!' But they still find it funny. Some things are just universally hilarious. But you're right, there are certain lines I've put in songs and I'm like, 'Dang! Why did I do that?! Nobody even knows who that guy is anymore!'"
In the meantime, there's no danger that people are going to forget who KJ-52 is. Each release seems to be getting better and his wit is sharper than ever. There's no danger he's going the way of MC Hammer.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.