Tony Cummings reports on such acts as SFC, DC Talk and PID.
Masters of rhythm and rhyme have at last emerged from the Church to present a radical, biblical alternative to the polemic-and-sleaze beat-box boys.
Swaying and hallelujahing, arms aloft to indicate they are indeed witnesses, matronly mommas and impeccably be-suited dudes are doing more than attending a black gospel concert. They're having church. The Gospel Music Association might be a decidedly 'honkie' organisation but this is the black gospel night, and the plush confines of Nashville's Andrew Jackson Theatre is as good a place as any to get down and praise God helped along by the Williams Brothers, Commissioned and BeBe and CeCe Winans.
But first off, the audience-turned-congregation enjoy warm-ups and Nu Colours and Charizma got them amen-ing and waving. But suddenly their joyful celebrations are halted in mid "praise the Lord". Onto the stage bound two human dynamos in army fatigues while a DJ strutting proud behind a mega system plays a mean jam, cutting and scratching a bass and drums riff so hard it makes the teeth vibrate. PID begin to rap it, "The aggregation/of segregation/is a proclamation/The church needs a revelation/Open your eyes/realise/the world's lookin' at you/What ya gonna do?" Each syllable is barked in syllable-sniping stabs of rhythm. The black church audience gaze shell-shocked. The mouth 'of a bewigged lady behind me literally hangs open. This is hip hop. This is a nightmare, the Public Enemy in the sanctuary and the bemused audience sits agog as the salvo continues. "It's Sunday morning/in the A of the M/About 8 o'clock is when it begins/the most segregated time of the day/When everyone has it their own way." The jam hits even harder as they reach the hook. "Racism! Racism! How low can you go?" PID leave the stage, with audience in turmoil - confused, dazed but wide open.
It takes a Puerto Rican and a white boy to rap them up D-Boy Rodriguez delivers a blistering rap about a true experience on the streets of Dallas - an account of witnessing to a pimp/pusher who'd stopped D-Boy to offer drugs - while his side-kick, Tim Miner, sings such seeringly soulful 'black' vocal interjections, it makes nonsense of his pink skin and hippy-throwback haircut. D-Boy's rap recounts the way he laid it out for the pusher. "Give God a chance from the bottom of your heart/He'll mould you, scold you, break your chain apart/Like it says in John 3:16/Jesus died on the cross so your heart can be clean."
For the black church audience packed into that Nashville theatre, that muggy night in April, this was a disorientating collision of two worlds with the sound of the streets storming the insular enclaves of the saints. For unlike most forms of contemporary music, rap doesn't trace its roots back-to-back street storefronts and righteous gospel choirs. It evolved in the clubs and on the mean-streets of urban America and has for a black church audience the same taint of worldly decadence that heavy metal has for white evangelicals. A cruise around the ghettos of New York or Washington reveals the reason for this ' by association'. The torrid polemic of Public Enemy or the sly sexuality of LL Cool J seems as inexorably linked to the crack houses, muggers, hookers and dance-'til-you-drop parties of inner city America as Iron Maiden and Anthrax seem fused to a dozen social ills besetting Britain's working class youth. Where in fact did rap all begin? Back in the '60s, as a youthful lover of soul music I was particularly fond of soulmen who talked instead of sang. Who could forget King Curtis "Memphis Soul Star" or New York DJ Dixie Drifter's sonorous raps about departed soul legends? But it was in the clubs that the genre was really born. The Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia Of Rock And Roll, defines rap as "a form of dance music in which vocalists - rappers - speak in rhythms and rhyme over pre-recorded instrumental tracks." Further, the Encyclopaedia tells us that this "specialised style originated in the mid '70s in the discos of New York City's black neighbourhoods," alongside a number of other ghetto art forms. For many years, R&B singers, reggae toasters, and djs have talked over their music - and any number of rock vocalists like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed have developed near talking vocal styles - but rappers began to develop "extensive routines, lines of lyrics, slogans, double dutch rhythms, call-and-response exchanges with the audience, or the rhythmic doggerel called hip hop."
Considering how long rap has been around, it took a near millennium before Christians took their first tentative steps in the genre. Throughout the '70s and '80s while the world's rappers addressed social issues, made boasts about their sexual prowess, touted black consciousness or engaged in nonsense doggerel, the Church looked on in seeming incomprehension or distaste - evangelism being simply too middle class and white, while the black church was too culturally insular. Secular rap did abound in god-talk, but it was the wrong god, as the head of Sparrow Music, speaking at a recent GMA seminar has pointed out. "So many of the rap artists are Muslims. When they win an award they say, 'first of all I'd like to thank God'. But they're not talking about the God of the Bible."
It was ironic that when born again Christians finally made their first tentative venture into rap, it should be more of a tongue-in-cheek joke than a serious attempt to take the gospel to urban youth whose ghetto blasters boomed out music tough enough to reflect the hard reality of mid-'80s street life.
Star Song's release of 'Gospel Rap' by the Rap Sures hid the identity of Daniel Amos/Da members Terry S. Taylor and Rob Watson who with producer Doug Doyle, posed as Tyrone, Darrell and J. J. Washington Considering its jokey origins 'Gospel Rap' and its successor 'O.T. Rap' were surprisingly funky and successful pastiches of streetwise rap. But the first truly authentic (i.e. black) examples of gospel rap quickly followed though neither Rev Dexter Wise or the Rappin' Reverend enjoyed much sales (though the former's deliciously funky "I Ain't Into That" did gain a UK release and became a Capital Radio 'hit' in London).
More pioneering gospel rap releases followed. Stephen Wiley released two projects on Brentwood 'Bible Break' and 'Rappin' For Jesus', and in 1987 Roy Suthard released a pleasing indie called 'Plain White Rapper", referring comically to the artist's skin colour. But the record that established rap in the consciousness of the burgeoning CCM audience was the '87 debut of Michael Peace, RRRock It Right' on Reunion Records. Says Peace about the rap genre.
"Rap is an expression of inner thoughts to any type of audience of any type of listener, with a pulsating beat or rhythm to carry the message. Most definitely, a form of street poetry." At the time that Reunion Records sought him out to record the project, Peace was a street preacher in the truest sense of the term. "I was travelling around the country, working in prisons, community centres, working with gangs, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, that kind of stuff. I used the rap music as a way of drawing crowds," Peace explains. "When you go to a park or playground and people are hanging out, and they hear somebody's rappin', they immediately gravitate toward the music. I just take my 'Ministry Monster' - they call it a 'boom box' or 'ghetto blaster', I'd rather call it something a lot more pleasant - I just pop in a soundtrack of a drum beat and just start in. I'll talk about conditions around and about us, how these conditions got to be this way, and from there just segue right into the gospel and make it possible for people to receive the Lord." Peace admits that his first album was a little timid, considering the gritty edge of most rap on the market. "We were trying to get people to listen to something new. My mother used to say 'if your head is in the lion's mouth, you don't just yank it out. You ease it out.' Peace also saw his rap cover of the Amy Grant "Wise Up" as a way to get across to a fresh audience with a familiar tune. His second release, 'Rappin' Bold', was closer to the sound of the streets, but his conviction to forge his "own sound, making my own music, not imitating others," led Peace to work with former Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson on last year's 'Vigilante Of Hope'. The sound will be funked up for the next release, which the pair say will "go back to that authentic street rap feel." If Michael Peace was the CCM rap pioneer it was a stunning duo from Dallas, who were to take gospel rap into radical new territory. As US critic Brian Q. Newcombe wrote "PID's debut, 'Here We Are' for the independent label Graceland, turned out to be the def-est rap effort on a Christian label, opening the door for real hip hop grooves and rap that addressed the concerns of the streets head on."
Preachers In Disguise otherwise known as PID are Barry Hogan and Fred Lynch. Barry, who also goes by the moniker MC Barry G is outspoken in his defence of rap. "When people first heard rap and hip hop, to them it was just this negative noise coming in off the streets of some inner city, but that was totally not what time it was. What was really going on was this art form. We look at rap as the real rock'n'roll. We're not like a lot of rap, in that we're expressing Biblical content, our heart motivation, our whole thing."
Despite being the son of a preacher Barry has a background some way from the sheltered cloisters of the church. "I was running wild on the streets. Dealing cocaine, selling weed. But was intrigued to hear my father preach. Finally I went and dad preached, I ran to the altar and repented." Barry met up with Fred Lynch five years ago, Fred being the youth pastor in his church. PID were formed in 1987. When asked how he responds to criticism of the whole concept of Christian rap, Barry is as outspoken as one of his raps. "I don't care how they feel. I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing it for the Kingdom of God, for God Almighty. Jesus went to the cross for me so I can put up with a little criticism from some church people who've forgotten that we need to go out and tell the world about the Lord."
PID's new album 'Back To Back' is as radical at its predecessor. From the opening "Back" which over a sample of "Jailhouse Rock" tells an agog church that these enfante terribles with their clerical shirts, flat-top haircuts and blistering lines in rapid fire delivery are well and truly back through to "Slide" ("this song simply talks about staying strong as Christians and deals with the issue of backsliding.") 'Back To Back' is as tough as they come. "What people don't understand about rap" explains Hogan after emphasising that the history of the hip hop beat goes back to bebop jazz, "is that it brings back old music from every walk of life: R&B, country, you name it. If it was good music back in the old days, we bring it back. A lot of the tunes that get sampled are songs that nobody remembers any more. Rap music is like bringing to life the music of people who were dead. It's a resurrection style of music."
While the legality of sampling from previously released recordings, and deciding who deserves the financial earnings from the newly crafted work is all being decided in the courts, Hogan says the rap groove "is most live. For performance we do 12-inch (vinyl) mix downs of the instrumental tracks (from the albums), and the dj just scratches and mixes and, you know, whatever's clever." And scratching is? "It's a sound, a groovy noise," says Hogan to describe the manipulation of the record by the DJ to create a percussive sound, repeat phrases or nail a groove. Says Hogan, "Our DJ is our drums; he's our band. We can rock out on two turntables. We like to put on a show, but it's all about ministering to people. The show is really a hook, so we can tell people about the Lord".
If PID are the Public Enemy of Christendom its DC Talk, with their Dove nomination and their US Christian radio airplay who've taken gospel rap out of the underground scenes and into the CCM charts. The rapper for the group (Michael Tait and Kevin Smith mainly singing a style at times uncannily close to the Imperials) is Toby McKeenan whose background could hardly be more different from the streetwise Barry Hogan's. Toby attended Liberty College, the fundamentalist institution run by the Rev Jerry Falwell, a man as far removed from black street culture as is possible to get. Toby warms to the paradox of his background.
"This nice young white boy was raised in Washington D.C., before he ever got to Liberty College. I grew up listening to rap since I was 16." Originally using DC Talk as his own rap name, "everybody needs their own initials in rap - I think it's a rule, but I'm not sure".
McKeenan brought in his friends when he decided to lighten his rap sound with some diverse musical segments. "I was doing some demos, while my friend Kevin Smith was singing in a Christian rock band on campus, and my best friend Michael Tait was doing this solo thing, kind of R&B/church-orientated music. I asked them to come in and sing some songs I had written to go with my raps, and people really got into the other styles of singing. So, we all became DC Talk," says McKennan.
More akin to New Kids On The Block than harder edged rap, McKeenan admits some scepticisms at first when DC Talk got compared to the Imp's in the reviews of their self-titled Yo! Forefront debut. "None of us really listened to contemporary Christian music. Liberty is not a real 'contemporary Christian music campus;' Falwell's not really into it. Now I've heard the Imperials, and I've taken a second listen, I can see the comparison, but I think we've got a little more soul." As with most debuts, DC Talk is not as aggressive as McKeenan had envisioned. "We went for real R&B, but were a little white on the first one. We're recording this one (tentatively titled 'NewThang!') in Memphis with Tommy Cathey (DeGarmo & Key's bassist) co-producing with me. Tommy's helping out with that soul feel, and I'm giving it that hip hop thing." How does McKeenan describe this music? "Hip hop is a different beat than R&'B, it's a different beat than rock'n'roll, it's a beat that just makes you want to dance, it makes you want to move. The rap is another element that makes it very interesting, it's not just talking to a beat. Articulation and the words you choose to say are so important. You've got to have kind of an attitude, it's got to be an image, so whatever you're saying, you're saying it real bold. That's why it's so good for contemporary Christian music, because we can hold nothing back and just preach Jesus."
The author acknowledges with thanks the use of material originally published in 'Rhythm, Rhyme And The New Word Music' by Brian Q Newcomb (April 1990. CCM) The rap continues in issue 3 with D-Boy Rodriguez. JC and the Boyz and moreThe 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.