One of the best of the gospel rappers is Detroit born MIKE-E. He spoke to George Luke.
If you're the sort of person who reads every last name on album covers, you may have come across Michael Wright, aka Mike-E, at least once, even if you don't own any of the man's own records. And when not playing guitar or acting as music director for the likes of BeBe & CeCe, DC Talk or Aretha, Mike has been tackling the uphill task of getting Christian rap the respect it deserves from the CCM establishment.
Classically trained, Mike played cello and French horn in elementary and high school and won a scholarship to a vocational high school. His introduction to music, he says, was by Andrae Crouch and Mike recently got the chance to tell him when they met at this year's Dove Awards. "That was like a dream," Mike says. "I always used to watch him on TV at the Grammys and there I was at an awards show, nominated for an award, sitting next to Andrae Crouch. So, I guess my career has come full circle."
Being born and raised in Detroit, getting submerged in music wasn't difficult. "It had Motown and all the gospel artists such as the Winans, Commissioned, Vanessa Bell Armstrong came out of there," Mike explained. "I started playing in the early '80s, with the Winans, when I was 14 or 15. They were called the Testimonial Singers then; their early songs, like "The Question Is", "Everything You Touch Is A Song", "Restoration" etc, we kinda all wrote together in Marvin's basement." Mike toured with Tramaine Hawkins when he was 18 and his career took off from there.
As a teenager, Mike succumbed to the pressures of being a preacher's kid and rebelled for some years, getting involved in gangs and fathering a daughter. But even during his wild phase, come Sunday he'd be in church playing guitar. Mike attended Wayne State University and a junior college called Spence Howard School Of Broadcasting (both in Michigan) graduating with a degree in Communication, which helped him secure a job hosting a TV show called In The House. "Television's something I'm very comfortable with," says Mike.
Like many older rappers and rap fans (this writer included), Mike's love of rap goes back to the days of the Sugarhill Gang at the close of the 70s. After "Rapper's Delight", Mike started researching the art form and discovered Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, Kurtis Blow "and all of those fellas - the more articulate rappers."
However, early attempts at introducing hip hop to the black gospel crowd were futile. "Because of the lifestyle of rappers, and what they represent, people have the tendency to be blind totally to the art form," Mike says, in a somewhat accommodating manner. "Me, I just got into the art form from the beginning. I kept trying to convince all of these groups that I was listening to, like Commissioned and the Winans, to let me rap on their records; I'd say, 'You know, this rap thing's going to be around,' but nobody seemed to listen. It took the gospel industry - or should I say, it's taking the gospel industry this long -15 to 20 years - to actually start accepting it."
Ironically, it was from the predominantly white CCM arena that Mike got his first major break. "Michael W Smith was the biggest boost to my solo career," he recalls. "I had a showcase within his show and I did one song with DC Talk, so every night for 80 dates I was on stage for three hours - first with DC Talk who opened the show, then playing guitar for Michael, and while he went to change his clothes, I'd do two of my own songs. I worked hard that whole tour, but I loved every second of it. I loved coming off the stage totally exhausted, falling on the bus totally drenched, because for the first time I felt like I was really giving my all to what I was doing."
Apart from his work within the gospel scene, Mike's packed CV includes live session work with Luther Vandross and - wait for it -Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane. Playing to a less friendly audience does present a Christian musician some challenges, Mike pointed out. 'The average gospel artist is really spoiled, because of what they do. I tell people that it's much easier for a preacher or a pastor to go into a strange church where people are already saved. If you say the right thing, people are going to identify with it. But take a Pentecostal pastor into a Catholic church and let him speak and see how easy it is. Or into a Bhuddist temple, or a mosque. That's what I equate it to. When I do gospel shows, it's almost effortless. It's like self-satisfaction for me, but when I do secular shows, I've got to be on my game; I have to make sure what I'm saying is right and well put together, and I have to be aware of my environment - these kids are smoking blunts while I'm doing my show - that's when I have to be way less of me and let Him do His thing.
"In the secular scene, it's an T mentality; 'I'm the best,' 'I can rap you under the table,' T, T, 'I'... I can't go in there with that same mentality. I have to go in and let Him shine so they'll notice that there's something a little different and stop and listen to me. The thing I have to do is keep my skills up to par and be very, very polished. That's important in the secular arena. If I'm good, they'll say let's listen to what this guy has to say.' But if my skills aren't good, they aren't going to stop and listen at all."
In the 'God community', as he calls it, Mike has always been one to try and address these issues that seem to get swept under the carpet - in particular, the race issue. It hasn't endeared him to a few people, as he recalls, but has had its benefits.
In America, Mike points out, "The Christian music industry is not immune to some of the vices of regular life, as far as us having to cross some racial barriers with 'their' music and 'our' music, and it's amazing that in America, when you say 'gospel' you're usually referring to black artists and when you say 'Christian' you're referring to white artists. My thing was, I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed to find it so prevalent in the arena that we work it, because it isn't supposed to be. There really is no excuse for it in gospel music.
"In the Christian music industry," Mike continues, "if you play the game - which is, if you write songs that create no waves and most of your mentality is geared towards Heaven - which is cool, but unfortunately, I still live down here - that's fine. I've been the one so far in the Christian music community to say, 'Why is it like this?', 'How come it's like this?' or 'Did you notice it's like this?'
"I use the analogy that if a person has got a toothache, they're going to complain. You can do one of two things: you can say, 'Will you please shut up?', which is easy to say - it's not your tooth that's hurting. But if you extract the tooth and remedy the pain, I'll shut up automatically and we'll both be happy. But know that as long as I've got the toothache and I'm in pain, I'm going to try to find some way to get it pulled. And don't give me an aspirin or a painkiller, because that's just going to numb it for a while and it's going to come back. You've got to go all the way to the root and do the surgery, and pull the tooth out. So a lot of things they thought we were just complaining until I started pointing them out, and said things like, 'Did you notice that the budgets for your white Christian artists are three or four times those for your black artists?', or some of the other issues. I created some waves, but some positive changes got made."
And indeed they have. Thanks to Mike's campaigning, two extra categories were added to the Dove awards this year, and certain positions in some companies have been rearranged. "I feel we've made some accomplishments, because I put my whole career on the line for those who would come behind me," Mike says. "I didn't mind; if you put me in a position where I've got nothing to lose, then I've got everything to gain."
Mike's first piece of major media exposure over here was via Channel 4's tacky but popular talk show Ricki Lake, in an episode that dealt with the issue of people judging by appearances - something he has been the victim of a few times. "I get stopped at the airport, looked at strangely just because I've got dreads," says Mike. "One word out of my mouth and they'd see that God is in my life and not feel threatened, but over here, they're so trained to go by what they see, as opposed to what they know, feel or hear. When they see that I can articulate the King's English (sic), can hold a conversation and have a degree, it all changes. The funniest thing is when I get on a plane, looking like I do with sagging pants, sneakers and my dreads, and then pull my laptop computer out. Some guy from IBM sitting next to me all of a sudden wants to hold a conversation. Why did I have a laptop, like I'm not supposed to. But that's life in America."
Ricki's producers figured that Mike's being a Christian rapper "created a judgment in itself. Ironically over here it's like a blasphemy to put the words 'Christian' and 'rapper' together - it's like saying 'antichrist' or something. I did the show because I was trying to take to the mainstream, which is our goal; to deal with those who are lost."
Mike's commitment to taking the gospel to the streets is reflected in the whole ethos of his new business venture, the Big Doggie record label - a joint venture between Mike and American football star Reggie White. White called Mike after seeing him on one of BeBe & CeCe Winans' tours. They soon discovered they were very like minded and decided to work together. Their vision is to go into areas many in the Church would do anything to avoid. "We ride through the ghetto on our way to church," explains Mike, "and we go inside; we spend three or four hours listening to the preacher tell us what we should be doing on the outside. Then we go outside, get into our cars, lock our doors and go home. Well, I've never been one who's been down with that mentality. And fortunately, neither was Reggie."
Apart from Mike's own solo offering, the first Big Doggie release is from a group of Chicago kids called YWFC (Young Warriors For the Cause), whom Mike met whilst compering a talent show in their hometown. Mike likens the feeling he had when he first met them to the way Berry Gordy Jr must have felt when he discovered the Jackson 5. "I just wanted to do something with them before the secular industry got hold of them and started pimping them, basically," Mike says. "I told Reggie, 'If this is really what you want to do, to try and make a difference in the city, here are five lives that we can possibly save.' He was in agreement with me and we took them on."
Another Big Doggie signing is a girl group from Milwaukee, called Touch Of Faith. While most girl groups in the gospel industry now are rather glamourous, Mike decided upon a more tomboyish image for the girls, whom he calls 'the gospel roughnecks', a gospel version of Mary J Blige, Faith or Brownstone. So far, it's proved successful; "We're getting wild reviews and tons of requests so it looks like it's something that's going to be widely accepted. I'm excited about them."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.