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Hot Gospel Album Has a Surprising Backer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A young Dallas choir accomplished something this week that no gospel music group has ever done in the history of the record business.

The group’s debut album, “God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation,” burst onto the nation’s pop chart at No. 3 during its first week in the stores, selling an estimated 119,000 units--more in the last seven days than Michael Jackson, U2, Aerosmith and Sheryl Crow combined.

The strong sales underscore the emergence of gospel as a commercial force in the mainstream music market. But there’s also a surprising twist: “God’s Property” (which is also the gospel group’s name) is marketed and distributed by Interscope Records, a Westwood company that moral crusader William Bennett has called “a purveyor of pornographic smut” for its success selling gangsta rap music.

Not only is Interscope--distributor of such acts as Nothing Records’ Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, and Death Row’s Snoop Doggy Dogg--backing the new gospel album, but its owners are vowing to be even more active in spiritual music in the future.

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“I promise you that Interscope is going to back gospel music in a way that it has never been backed before,” Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of the company, said.

Half-owned by Universal Music Group, Interscope arguably has become the most potent record label in the country with a stream of hits in rock, rap, pop, R&B; and now spiritual music.

Gospel star Kirk Franklin, a devout Christian who produced and performs on the album, released by B-Rite Records, said he was not bothered his association with Interscope.

“Our Bible tells us that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the use of the righteous,” Franklin said. “There is nothing wrong with believers tapping into the resources of the secular world to get our message across. Ninety-five percent of Christian music available in this country is put out by major entertainment corporations, all of which release controversial music. For those who would be critical, all I can say is that Interscope has treated us with dignity and respect.”

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Iovine scoffed at the suggestion that the company aligned itself with a gospel company simply to improve its public image.

“That’s ridiculous. The reason we invested in B-Rite and Kirk Franklin is the same reason we invest in anyone: These are extraordinarily talented people with remarkable vision,” Iovine said.

The album’s first single, “Stomp,” a funky urban fusion of rap and church chants, is a top request on urban radio, and its video is already in heavy rotation on MTV--another unprecedented feat in the gospel world. The song, which talks about holding a “Holy Ghost party” and “getting a church thing going on,” could help usher in a new era of hip spiritual crossovers in a business where gospel music is already booming.

Total revenues in the Christian music industry have more than tripled over the last decade--from an estimated $160 million in 1987 to $550 million in 1996.

Hoping to capitalize on the upsurge in spiritual music sales, the nation’s six major entertainment conglomerates have jumped into the gospel music fray. EMI, Sony, PolyGram, Time Warner, Bertelsmann and Universal (through Interscope) now have ownership interest or distribution deals with Christian labels Sparrow, Word, Perspective, Alliance, Beacon and B-Rite, respectively.

Although the debut of “God’s Property” in the Top 10 is unprecedented, a string of Christian acts--including Amy Grant, dc Talk and Steven Curtis Chapman--have edged their way into the upper regions of the chart after months of radio exposure focusing on pop singles with a quasi-spiritual message.

Indeed, Christian singer Bob Carlisle’s album climbed this week to No. 5 months after its release, driven by the sentimental single “Butterfly Kisses,” a folksy love letter to his daughter. Carlisle’s album is being promoted by Bertelsmann-affiliated Zomba, which also distributes sexually explicit songs by X-rated rapper Too Short.

In addition, an increasing number of pop stars--including Whitney Houston, Puffy Combs, BlackStreet, Mary J. Blige and even gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G.--are quoting Biblical scriptures and including songs reflecting spiritual beliefs on their most recent secular albums.

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“This God’s Property record is not just some flash-in-the-pan hit,” said Geoff Mayfield, chart director for Billboard magazine, the music industry’s leading trade magazine. “Gospel music is growing as a commercial force, and I think Kirk Franklin is personally responsible for breaking down a lot of the barriers over the past few years. Interscope was smart to align itself with an artist of his stature. I see him as the pied piper of modern gospel music.”

Iovine and his partner Ted Field were introduced last year to Franklin’s music by former Interscope talent scout John McClain, the same executive who in 1992 brought controversial rapper Dr. Dre and his Death Row roster into the Interscope fold.

Franklin, who is signed as a recording artist to his own Gospo Centric label, has released two R&B-tinged; gospel albums over the last three years, each of which sold more than 1 million copies. Gospo Centric, which is distributed through Sony’s Sparrow division, is run by Vicki Mack-Laitaillade.

Iovine says Interscope jumped at the chance in May 1996 to launch a joint venture with Mack-Laitaillade’s husband, Claude Lataillade, whose new B-Rite label promised to feature record productions by Franklin aimed at the young urban consumer. B-Rite’s roster includes the 50-member God’s Property choir, an R&B-styled; female trio called Trin-i-tee 5:7, and Gospel Gangstas, a hard-edged rap duo that hails from the Compton area.

To put into perspective the dramatic first week sales showing of God’s Property, it is important to understand that most Christian music companies are satisfied when an album sells a total of 100,000 to 200,000 copies.

Although a few traditional superstars, such as singer Shirley Caesar, regularly sell twice that number, few spiritual singers can touch Franklin’s track record in recent years. Even the Edwin Hawkins Family 1969 album, which spawned the giant pop hit “Oh Happy Day,” never charted higher than No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart.

Interscope critic Bennett described the company’s sudden success in the spiritual music market as an “encouraging development,” adding, “In a line from one of America’s great movies, Rhett Butler said, ‘What most people don’t seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization as from the upbuilding of one.’ ”

Two years ago, Bennett’s complaints about Interscope’s distribution of violent and sexually explicit rap and rock music prompted Time Warner to cut ties with the controversial label. After Seagram-owned Universal last year purchased half of Interscope, Bennett began chastising the Canadian corporation’s leaders for profiting from what he called a stream of aural “smut.”

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But just because Interscope has ventured into the sacred music realm, the company has no intention of abandoning its commitment to such controversial acts as Nine Inch Nails or Dr. Dre.

And despite the recent upsurge in gospel music sales, consumers still purchase twice as many rap albums as they do spiritual titles. Indeed, the new double-CD by hard-core rappers Wu-Tang Clan, distributed by Bertelsmann-owned RCA Records, is expected to triple sales of “God’s Property” and debut next week at No. 1 on the pop chart.

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Spiritual Crossover

The astounding success of God’s Property could help usher in a new era of gospel crossovers. Total revenues in the Christian music business have more than tripled over the last decade--from an estimated $160 million in 1987 to $550 million in 1996.

A Rising Gospel Market

Gospel music’s share of the recording industry, based on manufacturers’ shipments:

1996: 4.3%

Source: Recording Industry Assn. of America


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