Hard beats and in-your-face evangelism are the fare of a veritable explosion of American rappers. Francis Blight surveys what's out there in America's gospel hip hop scene.
"But no matter what the wickedly wack world will see/I'm on fire for Jesus and I gotz to get busy/So I'm goin' around the world to lets you know/Because in Mark 16 it says to do so/And tell y'all Christians where's the place to be, is to non Gees/We gotz to get busy."
Young Ministas "We Gotz 2 Get Bizzy" from the Sanktifuctafyd West Coast Rap compilation.
All over America gospel hip hop acts are getting busy. With little help from the mainstream CCM industry and forging its own underground scene, some of the most radical musicianaries emerging to battle it out for the attention of the streetwise urbanites bombarded with the violence and sleaze exhortations of gangsta rap is America's growing wave of gospel rappers. These Jesus-in-your-face evangelists are recording albums and taking their music on to the streets across America. The rise of gospel hip hop has little to do with the marketing manoeuvrings of Nashville CCM scene (whose early albums by DC Talk or Michael Peace are a long way from what would grab a sidewalk audience in Washington or Compton) and in some ways parallels the rise of the metal/alternative rock Christian underground. For like that scene, it is one largely ignored by safe Christian radio and gains much of its impetus from a fanzine-driven system of networking. The key party in gospel hip hop's emergence is the Austin-based Heaven's Hip Hop Magazine and its sister record company Grapetree Records.
I spoke to Knolly 'Rubadub' Williams who is both a rapper and the founder of Heaven's Hip Hop. This mag has been a massive influence on the scene since its launch in '93. Knolly started out with the desire to see rap music used to spread the gospel. With his wife Josie, Knolly started Grapetree, but found a vehicle was needed to promote hip hop artists. The Christian music world wasn't giving them the support they needed. Said Knolly, "The [Christian] younger generation really hasn't had a voice for so long and if you look into the mainstream world, rap and alternative are the top 40 music of tomorrow and so some of the leaders of the Christian industry are a bit behind or they are more or less locked into their own time frame from when they got started."
Christian hip hop is a growing underground in the US. "I've gotten over 300 demo tapes," commented Knolly, "from groups that are out there doing Christian rap. Most of them are doing it in church at the local level. They are doing it in the streets and projects, wherever they can set up a mike and speakers, just to be able to proclaim the Word. What usually happens is they might set up in a project or somewhere in a park and they begin to play the music and kids just run out. When you go to a rap concert you'll see some of the most evangelistic outreaches that you will see at any musical event. Rappers really preach the Word, that's really the whole point behind the music. They're making music for Christians, but they're more so making music for the world to hear."
The groups are unquestionably getting the Word out. Recently KlIS, one of Grapetree's groups, were invited to do a concert at an orthodox Catholic church. The church was traditional and the people there weren't really into Jesus Christ. KIIS preached the Word and did a good concert after which a group of over 100, mostly young people, accepted Christ. This group of new converts included the priest of the church!
I asked Knolly how Christian rap artists have been received by the mainstream rap scene. "We've found in most cases that we're better received by the general market," Knolly replied, "by the secular market, than by Christians and the Church. About 85-90 per cent of the singers who are in R&B came through the Church, that's how they got their singing career, and then they split and they started doing their own thing. And it's the same thing with a lot of these rappers. A lot of them grew up in churches or went to church, so the message that we bring to them isn't really something they've never heard. It may be something they don't quite wanna hear, but it seems like to me that they accept us with open arms in most cases."
However, Rubadub pointed out that if the music isn't quality or it sounds cheesy, then the mainstream isn't really interested. The public want something that sounds true to the streets with a rough edge and hard beats. Rubadub finished by explaining how the Lord is using him and other Christian rappers: "I came from being a drug dealer and a hustler, that's how I grew up and the Lord was able to use a lot of the hustling abilities behind putting together something for him. He had to channel my energies towards his kingdom. So right now being 25 years old, black, in a minority, while a lot of the other guys are out their saying, 'Well, you know the black man can't do anything, we're being held down,' and all this kinda stuff, the Lord says, 'Through Christ I can do all things.' So like right now it's interesting that the Lord has put me in this place, because the people that he appointed at one time just wouldn't go. He said, 'Here's rap, go ahead and feed my people.' But they just sat back and said, 'Na, never mind Lord, no thanks.' But he gave it to me and we're running with it, me and many others who are out there in the Christian rap game."
The following is a survey of some of the current wave of gospel hip hoppers. To help would-be album purchasers we've listed them under record companies.
BRAINSTORM ARTISTS INTERNATIONAL
Brainstorm release SFC (SOLDIERS FOR CHRIST), DYNAMIC TWINS and FREEDOM OF SOUL These were pretty much the first gospel rap acts to make it into the Christian bookshops. However, the distribution deal with Nelson Word is no longer running so you'll need to search out albums.
SFC is really Chris Cooper (Super C) with various others who get on board for individual tracks and albums. 'Phase IN' came out in '92 and opened up the Christian hip hop scene for me. After a two-year absence, Sup returned in '95 with an album, 'Illuminations'. Having heard the chunky and bumpy 4-track single "The Vibe", he has returned fresh, with even better productions than on his last offering. Look out for one of the other tracks on the single called "We". Its dreamy production cuts are masterly. On it Sup declares:
"Relax, as I break you off a small portion of these skills that are sicker than abortion/No enforcing, but endorsing the name above all names Jesus my Saviour/If you're not knowing him, then like Harrison Ford you're in clear and present danger/Don't be coming around with that Jesus was just a prophet crap/Because I'll prove you wrong in that/And step back/And kick you in the grill like a, power, ranger/It's better to get beat down by a brother than a stranger."
Clearly Sup isn't trying to please his Christian listeners. He has seen a lot in his time and has realised that most Americans memorise their ethics and values, rather than thinking them through. While churches and Christians want to copy those who have successful ministries, Sup doesn't see why every Christian has to be the same. Sup wants to come real. So on the song "How I Cope" he talks about the fact that he carries a gun to protect himself because of the area he lives in. "The reason SFC has captured the eye of some people in the secular is because not every song is just preachy, preachy, preachy; I do it from the heart," said Sup. "The experiences, things I go through. I try to be real instead of following what everybody calls Christian."
Is Sup losing it, or is he maturing as a Christian? We will have to wait till we hear the album to tell. But whatever you make of Chris Cooper, he is one of the originals, and having played a major part in creating the Christian hip hop stage, he has given many people the helping hand they needed to get onto it.