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Finding the Soul of Music

Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, a young man steps from a limousine and heads for the building in Hollywood where he’ll spread the word of the Lord to an eager gathering.

But Kirk Franklin isn’t going to church. The gospel music sensation is standing outside a Paramount Studios sound stage where he’ll soon make his first appearance on “Soul Train.”

To church elders, it might look like enemy territory. The syndicated show, the “American Bandstand” of R&B; music for a quarter-century, is as well known for its sexy dancers as it is for its star-making power.

Franklin, however, says he feels at home in the secular music world, where his gospel recordings get airplay on the same radio stations that play R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige.

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“Kirk Franklin and the Family,” his 1994 debut album on Gospo Centric Records, has sold nearly 1.3 million copies. It’s the first formal gospel record to crack Billboard magazine’s R&B; Top 10 since Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” in 1972. His follow-up, “Whatcha Lookin’ 4,” entered the pop charts in May at No. 23.

Franklin, 26, is so hot that Interscope Records, the home of such successful and controversial acts as Nine Inch Nails and Dr. Dre, recently signed a production deal with B-Rite Records, a new label started by Gospo Centric founder Vicki Mack-Lataillade and her husband, Claude. Franklin, who will continue to record for EMI-distributed Gospo Centric, has a production deal through the new company.

“We think [Franklin] is an innovative artist with a long career ahead of him,” says Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine. “He’s going to create a lot of avenues for artists in the genre that they don’t have right now. I think the spirit of gospel will expand and be an even more important factor in the pop world.”

“Soul Train’s” creator and executive producer, Don Cornelius, agrees that Franklin is a genre-crossing artist with the potential for creative longevity. “Kirk has a special quality and is definitely a star,” he says. “He will be for ‘90s gospel what the Winans Family was for the 80s.”

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Amid such praise, Franklin tries to keep his sudden emergence in perspective.

“I’m not getting caught up in what the [people] are saying,” the Fort Worth native says with a slight Southern drawl. “If you believe your own hype, that’s the first step toward failure.

“My message is simple and plain. I’m trying to change the way people look at gospel music. It’s not corny, and it’s not hokey. We’re not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It’s not about that anymore, kid.”

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Dressed in a bright Tommy Hilfiger sailing jacket, sparkling new Nikes and designer jeans, Franklin could easily be mistaken for a member of one of the hip-hop crews that frequent the show. But his idea of what “keeping it real” means differs greatly from the viewpoints of hard-core rappers, with their gritty tales laced with marijuana and gun smoke.

“For all the hustlers and pimps, ‘reality’ means expressing the street life,” says Franklin, speaking softly as he sits on a bench and toys with the brim of his baseball hat.

“My ‘real’ is Jesus Christ,” he says with the stern demeanor many urban artists use when expressing allegiance to their neighborhoods. “I mean that with all my heart and soul, and that’s not changing for anything.”

Moments later, while selecting a suit for his performance, Franklin talks about singing before thousands of young fans at a New Jersey theme park the night before. To capture the attention of the skeptics, he and the band will do versions of current hits--adding their own Christian interpretations.

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Thus, the chorus of Busta Rhymes’ popular “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” became “When the Holy Spirit comes, you know it comes correct. . . . Woo hah!! It gots you all in check!”

“They were caught off guard and started going crazy when we did that,” he says with a laugh. Franklin, who sometimes gets mobbed by his fans, joked that he was tempted to do a stage dive and be carried over the crowd.

“The girls scream, ‘We love you,’ but I say, ‘Jesus loves you more, baby,’ ” Franklin says with a wink.

Label CEO Vicki Mack-Lataillade says she doesn’t feel that reaching out to a secular audience compromises the integrity of gospel music.

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“We’re on a mission, and I can’t think of too many shows we wouldn’t appear on,” she says. “We want to show people that there’s another way to go with the music. When Kirk’s music stops, people don’t feel violent, and today that’s worth something.”

Franklin finds that mixing the sound of his energetic live performances with the music of contemporary pop hits helps him dissuade his audience from the idea that being religious is “soft” or “passive.”

“Sometimes the church can be intimidating to people who don’t know,” he says. “You have to look, pray and shout a certain way, and we’ve made Christianity so complicated, and it was never meant to be that way. Audiences feel better talking to someone who looks like them, who has experienced some of the things that they’ve faced.”

Born Kirk Smith in Fort Worth, Franklin was abandoned by his teenage mother when he was 3 and never met his father. At 4, he was adopted by a great-aunt, Gertrude Franklin, whose surname he adopted.

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“She taught me everything,” Franklin says of the woman he considers his true mother. “She taught me how to respect people and respect myself, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Before he even started school, Franklin showed such an ability with music that his great-aunt arranged for him to take piano lessons. They were so poor that they recycled tin cans and newspapers to pay for them.

By 11, the youngster was singing, composing and even directing an adult church choir as a minister of music at Mt. Rose Baptist Church. “It was scary,” Franklin remembers. “I was [in charge of] people 60 and older. Could you imagine someone that young telling their elders they were singing wrong?”

Despite the choir responsibilities, Franklin had his wild side. As a teenager, he hung around with older hustlers at a nightclub near his home, smoking marijuana, drinking beer and getting into fights, he says.

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Because of his short stature (today he stands at 5 foot 4), he had to be that much more aggressive to get the respect of his peers. It took the death of a close friend to make Franklin realize that he wasn’t invincible.

“I didn’t think anyone could die so young,” Franklin says of the 15-year-old friend, who was killed accidentally when a gun fell from a closet shelf and discharged. “I knew what I was doing was wrong. That was a major trip for me.”

After a few false starts, Franklin was able to get his life back on the right track. In the early ‘90s, he worked on a home demo tape that found its way to producer Milton Biggham, who tapped Franklin to compose songs for the Dallas-Fort Worth Mass Choir’s debut album. Franklin then formed the Family, bringing together 17 of his closest singing friends, and recorded the Gospo Centric album.

Mack-Lataillade, who used a $6,000 loan from her father to start the company, used her 25 years of experience in the record business (working with such acts as Al Green and Evelyn “Champagne” King) to help her operation keep pace with the album’s unanticipated popularity.

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For Franklin, the success is a dream come true.

“I called my group the Family because it was the extended family that I never had and the sense of family I always wanted,” he says. “The reason I stayed with gospel is because I loved God with all my heart. I didn’t make a dime at first, but I loved to do it. . . . And because I developed my own personal relationship with the Lord, I stayed with it.”

At 3:30 p.m., Franklin, dressed in a neatly pressed light-brown suit, finally faces his congregation. The throng of hip-hop kids eyes him, their expressions a blend of curiosity and anticipation. Why is this act doing this show?

When a rhythmic beat hits the speakers and the Family begins to harmonize, their question is answered.

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As Franklin leads the group through “Jesus Paid It All,” he begins moving across stage with energetic dance steps. “Hype it up!” Franklin says playfully between takes. “I’m telling you, hype it up! I don’t know what they told you to expect, but hype it up!”

Responding to his invitation, the audience limbers up even more for the second take. For the following song, the slow-rolling “Melodies From Heaven,” it appears even more inspired. Even after the song ends, the crowd continues its hand-clapping and foot-stomping, caught up in the rapture.

“That’s the power of music,” Franklin says with a satisfied smile after the performance. “The ability to tell people about the power of God and have the word move them at the same time. It’s a blessing, and a great responsibility.

“I’m the pen, God is the poet, and the people are the paper. I’m just writing his will on them.”

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