RAP GETS RELIGION:
As growing numbers of preachers and MCs see it, hip-hop needs Christianity and Christianity needs hip-hop. But sometimes it's hard to see what a rhyme-spitting Jesus would do.
CONVERT: Kurtis Blow, one of the pioneers of rap, has a new calling with Hip Hop Church America and other ministries. (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)
A-Man, 13, born Alex Robnett, is in the eighth grade at a middle school in Carson, but he is also a gospel rapper and disciple of the growing hip-hop church movement. His cornrows and the black suit slacks and vest he's wearing may seem an incongruous stylistic mix of street and pulpit, but they reflect the occasionally clashing relationship between rap and religion.
The origins of the hip-hop church movement are perhaps as disputed as the origins of rap itself, but what can't be denied is that in the last several years, rappers, DJs and emcees have started changing the face of that old-time religion. Christians have staked out ever-expanding turf within the hip-hop nation, beginning in 1985 with Stephen Wiley's "Bible Break," generally considered to be the first commercial gospel rap record, and leading to the robust "urban inspirational" genre fueling record labels, websites, churches and careers today.
Los Angeles is one of the latest stops on hip-hop's religious conversion tour, which has grown beyond a novelty act or religious sideshow into a cultural and religious phenomenon recognized by the World Council of Churches and influencing countless congregations across the country.
L.A.'s own Gospel Gangstaz are recognized by leaders of the current hip-hop church movement as pioneers who set the standard for God rap in the early 1990s, picking up a Grammy nomination in 2000, and local groups Tunnel Rats and IDOL King represent the legacy.
Although Hip Hop Church America's October event was sparsely attended, it was notable that the famous bastion of Christianity in Orange County would welcome gospel artists such as rap legend Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J producer Battlecat and God rap newcomers 2Five and A-Man. Bobby Schuller, host of the event, is no fan of rap -- but as head of Energizing Ministries for the Crystal Cathedral, he embraced the visit of Hip Hop Church America, a special event of Blow's musical youth ministries.
"Right now we're just getting our roots in the ground," explains Schuller, 25, grandson of the mega-church's founder and son of its current pastor. "The elder Schullers love that we're doing this. I don't know if they get it, but they know it's important."
Over the last year, regular hip-hop church services have been held at the FaithDome, attracting 7,000 to the mega-church in South-Central Los Angeles, and since February, Blow, who became an early hip-hop star with his classic 1980 record "The Breaks," has led a hip-hop congregation at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Inglewood that meets on the first Friday of each month.
Similar congregations -- extending the reach of such early ministries as the Hip Hop Church, Holy Hip Hop and HipHopEMass that began in Harlem, Atlanta and the South Bronx, respectively -- are fueling the vital new gospel rap genre and, significantly, a religious revival within the hip-hop nation. It's vibrant enough, even as it grapples with the same theological rifts as its mainstream brethren, to exert a powerful pull. The result: A growing number who didn't relate to traditional Christianity are sampling God -- and joining the debate over what Christianity should be.
Sporting baggy black jeans and jersey, Darren Hughes, 14, trekked two hours from Chatsworth to Garden Grove after hearing about the Hip Hop Church America event from a friend. "I love hip-hop," he shouts over A-Man's preaching. "And I love the word of God."
Word on the street
GOD rap got major media love and street credibility after Kanye West clipped on some wings and performed "Jesus Walks" at the 2005 Grammy Awards.
Over the objections of the naysayers, the sampling had begun, and in the words of one hip-hop ministry leader, "rap and religion finally realized they need each other." What was once considered a musical anomaly by mainstream rappers and blasphemy by some religious traditionalists has been redeemed, or at least repackaged.
One result is that for the first time the rap-religion "novelty" will get a nod from the Grammys, which in 2007 will recognize the "best gospel rock or best gospel rap." The Crystal Cathedral event was produced largely to help promote a proposed Hip Hop Church America television series featuring Blow. The movement has undeniably helped revive the careers of other rap pioneers and stars of the '80s and '90s. Rev. Run of Run-DMC, now star of "Run's House" on MTV; MC Hammer; and Christopher Martin, formerly of rap duo Kid 'n Play, have all become leaders of hip-hop ministries or Christian entertainment companies.
With established hip-hop congregations in Harlem, Philadelphia and Inglewood, and two more begun last month in Dallas and New Jersey, Blow balances hands-on ministry with projects like the television series and an upcoming European tour to promote his forthcoming album, "Kurtis Blow and the Trinity."
Other rappers have become impresarios of the urban inspirational genre. Martin, formerly known as Play, gave up performing to become executive director of Amen Films, a film and video ministry focused exclusively on inspirational and religious projects, including the documentary "Holy Hip Hop."
But some artists have also been known to divvy up their rhymes between God and their old secular fan base. After turning his back on rap for five years while he went to college, became a minister and picked up an honorary degree from a New York Bible institute, Diddy protege Mase returned with "Welcome Back" in 2004. Although the gospel of gats and gangs was absent, the swagger remained front and center. Then in 2005 he joined 50 Cent on the soundtrack to "Get Rich or Die Tryin' ":
I don't know who stabbed you, I don't know who shot you