Rap Gets Religion : <i> So hyper fundi, don’t be dismayed Check out the lyrics when the record is played : Not a borderline tune but I got a case : Of puttin’ God’s Word right up in your face</i> : --"Time Ta Jam” by DC Talk
Marvin Winans, a member of the most famous family act in contemporary gospel music, seemed a bit anxious as he spoke to a roomful of radio programmers and disc jockeys at the recent Gospel Music Assn. convention here.
“I can’t rap to save my life, and I am neither an advocate nor a fan of rap,” Winans confessed to the crowd at a luncheon sponsored by Warner Bros. Records’ new gospel division.
“But our children are listening to it, so we as Christians can either sit where we are and let them be filled with negative, degrading songs which become a part of their spirit, or we can paraphrase what Paul said when he says ‘I am become weak’ and we can say ‘I am become a rapper to the rappers that I might win the rappers.’ ”
The room broke into an ovation. And at that point, a video screen lit up with “It’s Time,” the Winans’ new single in which their R&B; vocal stylings and a hard-core dance beat are combined with a gritty spoken message rapped by Teddy Riley (who produced Bobby Brown’s multi-platinum debut album as well as this effort).
The video clip pulled few punches either in its downbeat depiction of urban street life--complete with drug use and barely-dressed prostitutes--or in its up-to-date musical authenticity. If Winans was worried about the reaction from the religious radio programmers, he need not have been; at the video’s end, he was rewarded with another ovation, this time a standing one.
Secular programmers have taken to the song as easily as their Christian counterparts: “It’s Time” hit No. 12 with a bullet last week on Billboard magazine’s black music charts.
And if the Winans--who record for Quincy Jones’ Qwest label--are perhaps reluctantly adopting rap as a nod to changing times, a generation of acts raised on rap is rising up to swell the ranks of once-conservative Christian music labels.
In fact, rap--as seemingly unlikely a wrinkle in gospel now as heavy metal or punk were a few years ago--is the hottest new development in the $300 million-a-year Christian music industry.
Surprising, except that if, as Winans told the audience, “what makes it gospel is the words,” then the appropriation of the ultimate lyric-oriented genre makes more sense.
“Metal is not considered the hot trend anymore” in the contemporary Christian pop world, said Mike Atkinson, the editor of Media Update, a publication that assesses current music trends for evangelical parents and teens. Sorry, Stryper. “Rap has certainly taken that over,” he added.
Atkinson, along with Winans and more than 3,000 other registrants, was in Nashville for the simultaneous conventions of the Gospel Music Assn. and the National Christian Radio Seminar, where the influx of rap and speed-metal were the hot topics.
Ten years ago, the beyond-conservative GMA was almost exclusively the province of Southern gospel quartets; this year, traditional gospel music proved virtually invisible amid all the long-haired rockers and buzz-cut rappers.
The two most prominent newcomers in Christian rap--both with debut albums that have quickly passed 75,000 in sales with little airplay, publicity or promotion--are PID (which stands for Preachers in Disguise), a Dallas-based group that represents the “hard-core” end of the genre, and DC Talk, a teen-oriented trio that leans toward the whiter, lighter side.
Other evangelical rappers with record deals and substantial followings include D-Boy Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican with a special ministry toward gang members; Michael Peace, recognized as the pioneer of Christian hip-hop; and E.T.W. (End Time Warriors), Fresh Fish, SFC (Soldiers for Christ), JC & the Boyz and Transformation Crusade.
But is this brand of rap the real thing or just a pale, palatable, Puritan imitation?
“Most of it has been stuff white kids could swallow,” Atkinson said. “The contemporary Christian music scene that most of this has come out of doesn’t have much of a penetration within the black church or with black kids, and the black gospel market itself is very conservative. But there is some very good hard-core or street rap coming out, of which I’d say PID is the best.”
Yo, it’s Sunday morning
In the a. of m.
About 8 is when it begins
The most segregated time of the day
While everyone has it their own way . . .
Church, let’s change our ways!
We’re talkin’ ‘bout racism . . .
In the sanctuary
Is where it worries me
--"Racism,” by PID
“Jesus called ‘em vipers, you know what I’m saying? I just call ‘em suckers, man, ‘cause they don’t know what’s up.”
PID’s deejay, K-Mack the Knife, was speaking in an interview not of the great unwashed, but rather of the “so-called real churchy people” who have given them flak. Not everyone in the church community, it seems, is eager to welcome with open arms a group of unsmiling black men from a rough ghetto background performing an admittedly aggressive music associated in the popular media with illicit sex and gang warfare.
That PID refuses to sweeten its rap for novice listeners with traditional song choruses like some more genteel Christian rappers; that they unapologetically deal in thick street lingo indecipherable to most wary youth pastors; that they write explicitly of the homeless, sexually transmitted disease, racism in and out of the church and other hot potatoes--these have been barriers to their complete acceptance among the church set.
“A lot of people think we’re just mad,” said PID’s Barry Hogan, an admitted fan of such inflammatory rap acts as Public Enemy, in a Nashville hotel suite between convention appearances. “But who wants to write about ‘the deer that panteth in the forest’ and that type of hype, when that ain’t even what time it is?
“We got brothers and sisters dying next door to us, dying in your backyard, but you want to send a missionary overseas. Come on, get off the hype.
“America is dying, man. We’re trillions of dollars in debt. Crack is big-time. The government wants a piece of that because they can’t get taxes on it. And then you got this racism hype that’s rising up once again. We’re not mad at the Christian industry, but they’re not talking about everyday issues like we want to.”
“That’s why people can receive our music, because we ain’t out to sugarcoat nothing,” added partner Fred Lynch, a former gang member. “We ain’t out to do the Jim Bakker thing.”
Or the Luke Skyywalker thing, either.
“I don’t like them punks, man,” Hogan said. This time he was dissing not the fussy church world, but rather the million-selling rap group that’s getting attention from both teen-agers and state legislators these days--2 Live Crew, whose “Nasty as They Wanna Be” is a veritable sex manual of an album. PID is supportive of acts like Public Enemy who, like themselves, are “looking for substance,” but “those guys that are out there on that perverted tip are another matter.
“I’ll square things off with them in the corner, quick, no guns or nothing, we can get busy,” said Hogan about 2 Live Crew. “I’ll tell you why--because they ain’t got respect for women. They put them girls on the album covers--how would they feel if somebody took their mother and did her like that? I get tired of brothers dissin’ women like that. And it’s brothers that are doin’ it.
“Man, raise up out of that. That’s lame. ‘Cause then you get girls out there getting pregnant early, getting STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). Come on, you’re hurting young people, man. When they do something to hurt another young person, that’s when I get hyped with them.
“Other than that,” he said with a smile, striking a rare conciliatory tone, “we chill.”
Michael Black, a publicist for Graceland Records, the group’s label, admits that PID “might not have all the tactfulness in the world” and notes that “churches sometimes are scared of them because they are so street.”
But, Black hastens to add, in the evangelical world, “the controversy has been a lot less on rap than it was when Christian metal first came out and Jimmy Swaggart was leading the troops against it. Jimmy hasn’t been around to fight rap.”
So hyper fundi, don’t be dismayed
Check out the lyrics when the record is played
Not a borderline tune but I got a case
Of puttin’ God’s Word right up in your face
--"Time Ta Jam” by DC Talk
“The cool thing about rap is you can just come so explicit with it,” said DC Talk’s Toby McKeehan.
“Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, N.W.A--it’s craziness what they’re saying, to me, but that’s what’s on their hearts, and they’re coming bold with their beliefs. And that’s what we do. It’s what all rap is, it’s bold and it’s explicit, and we’re sharing our faith and sharing Jesus Christ--not indirectly, but directly.”
Though DC Talk hails from crime-riddled Washington, its background is far different from PID’s. Raised in Christian homes, the trio (made up of one black and two white members) met and formed at Liberty University, and their press kit even comes with a recommendation from the college’s president--Jerry Falwell, who apparently is no “hyper-fundi” (their term for an intolerant fundamentalist), at least when it comes to music.
Kevin Smith admits that the Falwell connection might not do much for their street credibility, but acknowledges with a resigned chuckle that “it’s definitely a good angle for the churchgoing youth” who might not otherwise be allowed to buy rap records, “because at least their parents will think that we’ve been brought up nicely.”
Such is their strong appeal toward the youngest end of the demographic that DC Talk--whose videos have been played in regular rotation on BET, the Black Entertainment Television cable channel--has even been called the New Kids on the Block of Christian music. “That comparison never lets us go, man. It follows us,” Smith said, shaking his head.
“Maybe as far as the way people look at us from an image standpoint,” McKeehan said, “but the New Kids don’t rap on one song, and our songs are 50% rap.
“A lot of people want rap but they don’t want to swallow that big pill, they want a little taste of it. So what we did is make it a little more palatable for ‘em, and added some music and singing vocal choruses to make it more enjoyable for someone who isn’t really totally into hip-hop. But hopefully it’s still got enough edge to where the hip-hop person will buy into it.”
Likewise mixing rap and song in a “palatable” way is E.T.W., a black trio that came out of . . . Oral Roberts University.
“The people want to do something with the kids in the churches,” said primary lyricist Mike Hill, “and a lot of the time they’re throwing their hands up saying, ‘We don’t know what to do. Maybe these guys can help.’
“When we go into public high schools, a lot of times the principal or someone will approach you and tell you what’s happening--'Hey man, there’s a major drug problem here, there’s a problem with teen pregnancies here.’ And we try to address whatever issue is at hand.
“Rap has a bad stigma. There’s a lot of violence and negatives that has been associated with rap. It’s not all like that--there are some people who want to help, not just create more confusion but try to give a positive solution.”
“The Christian music that’s going on now by and large has separated itself from the church,” said John Styll, editor of Nashville-based Contemporary Christian Music magazine. “It’s not church music. And I think that’s an area where people have some of their biggest problems. They can’t imagine these rappers doing their thing on Sunday morning. Well, frankly, neither can I. It’s not intended for Sunday mornings.”
Among those who’ve crossed over from the secular to the Christian music arena is Dez Dickerson, former lead guitarist in Prince’s band, circa 1982’s “1999.”
Dickerson moved to Nashville recently to join Star Song Records in his new capacity as vice president of artists and repertoire. Among his recent collaborative efforts as a producer and songwriter was the latest album by Christian rapper Michael Peace.
“Music can be a temporary fix or it can be something that can help us to reflect on things that have some eternal value,” Dickerson said.
“The main thing is that we can’t just ‘party till it’s 1999,’ ” he added, quoting one of his former boss’ signature anthems. “That’s not gonna work. I’m real excited about the potential of gospel music to reach people with a message of truth and of hope rather than singing songs of despair or selfishness or lust, songs that really aren’t gonna make much of a positive difference in anybody’s life.
“In the music industry, there’s been a great deal of denial of the degree of responsibility we have toward the public. I think we have to look seriously at what’s going on around us as a culture and see that we are indeed in a downward cycle.
“Rather than saying art is imitating the culture, we need to admit that the art is influencing the culture. And I think Christian music is a great way to try and diffuse that.”