30 Years of Hip Hop

 

The Background

What up, y’all… can you believe it? Thirty years of Christian men and women rockin’ mics and reppin’ the name of Christ.

Thirty.

Years.

I keep having to say that to myself and to others, not only to remind myself that this particular segment of what we call the Christian music industry has come a long way, but also to inform other people that it didn’t start with Lecrae. Seriously, few of the mainstream music journalistic outlets that cover Lecrae and/or the Reach Records / 116 Clique movement ever take the time to dig into the scene. It may be new to certain people, or certain places, or it may have made new gains that haven’t been made before, but Christian rap is not a new thing. I know this because I’ve been listening to Christian rap since I was ten, and I’m about to turn 40.

So this is a collection of 30 rap songs by Christian artists that I consider to be significant or meaningful. They’re all good, in their own way… some of them I still bump on a regular basis. Some of them may sound a little dated now, but back when they came out, they were bangin’ (or, def, the bomb, or the hotness, whatever slang was big at the time).

Note that I’m not claiming that these are the best Christian rap songs from the last 30 years, because that’s an argument that can’t be proved. I’m just going with the songs that I feel are or were notable, special, or interesting. To hedge my bets a little, I’m also including a bunch of “honorable mention” titles, which are songs that are just as good and worthy of exposure, but which I just couldn’t write about since I’m only doing one song per year.

Also, I’ve included YouTube links for ease of playing, but when possible, I’ve also included links to purchase the music. If you really want to support Christian hip-hop, support the artists who’ve helped lay the groundwork for the plethora of great hip-hop we have to listen to today.

So without any further ado, take a ride with me into the wayback machine as we celebrate 30 years of Christians in hip-hop…

 

Stephen Wiley,  Bible Break, “Bible Break

1986

This is the joint that got the whole thing started. A lot of people don’t realize this, but Stephen Wiley was no slouch, musically speaking. He started off as a jazz drummer, and one of the first raps that he ever wrote was a song about basketball, which later got picked up by Kurtis Blow and became a huge hit two years prior.

I remember the first time I heard this on tape; at the time, I was less impressed than I was mystified. It was like, “hey, this is a real thing that exists?” You can even see it in the way the record artwork was designed. It wasn’t like, “yo, check out this hit from Stephen Wiley!” but more like, “yo, there’s this thing called Christian rap!”

What has continued to crack me up over the years is how so many people tend to have that same reaction whenever they encounter Christians doing hip-hop, as if they’re pleasantly shocked or surprised by the concept as a whole.

This one time in college, I’ll never forget it, I was working at the front desk of a resident hall that was being rented out to an outside group, and this sweet old lady walks up to me. Now, while working at this desk, I was actually working on some of the lyrics for a rap song, and so as the beat played in the background, I was spittin’ bars about my passion for integrity, representing Christ in public, etc. But I guess I was talking too fast for her to understand, because after I finished my impromptu desk rehearsal, this adorable elderly woman walked up to me, smiled, and said, “you know, they have CHRISTIAN rap now.”

I facepalmed SO HARD.

Stephen Wiley is now pastor of Praise Center Family Church, in Tulsa, OK. But for many he was the first in a long lineage of artists that introduced people to the idea of doing … get this… CHRISTIAN rap.


Michael Peace, Rrrock it right, “Rrrrock it right.”

1987

So okay, literally everything about this just screams 80s, from the extra R’s in “rrrrock it right” to the pastel accents on the cover art, to the cheesy orch hits, synth stabs, and pre-TR-808 drum sounds. But there’s a reason why Michael Peace name drops Run DMC in the beginning… it may be hard for millennials to get this, but this is what rap sounded like back then. The digital (or, let’s be honest, analog) repeating effect on rock-rock-rock-it-right is just the same way Grandmaster Melle Mel opened up the pop/R&B classic “I Feel For You” by saying chaka-khan, chaka-khan, chaka-khan.

So FWIW, if anyone is tempted to snark away and say something like, “yeah, I wish he would’ve rocked it right,” this is what rockin’ it right sounded like in 1987.

PID, Here We Are, “Let Me See Your Fruit

1988

Again, the rap flows and the look are crazy dated, but in this context, that is a compliment. The gold chains, Kangols, and sixteenth-note snare fills are straight out the 80s rap playbook. If you close your eyes and squint, you could swear this was a lost Def Jam B-side from an LL or Beastie Boys maxi-single.

I guess what I’m saying is that PID, aka “Preachers In Disguise,” was the first Christian rap group that I ever heard that I felt looked and sounded really authentic. I have no way of proving this, of course, but it makes me wonder of Fred Lynch and Barry Hogan had heard some of the criticism of the earlier work of Stephen Wiley and Michael Peace and thought, we better make sure nobody ever accuses us of being too churchy.

I only wonder if that’s true because the issue of being too worldly is one that has dominated the conversations surrounding Christian hip-hop for going on twenty years now, so it’s possible this was the first instance of that. Ironic, since the point of this song is that the fruit of your Christianity is not found in your clothing, but in your words and actions.

D-Boy Rodriguez, Lyrical Strength of One Street Poet, “The Boy Don’t Play”

1989

It’s because my older sister and her semi-infatuation with the blue-eyed soul of Tim Miner that I discovered D-Boy, because T-Mines had produced his debut album a year or two prior. But several things stuck out to me.

One – this album was one of the first to adhere to what I call the Bomb Squad Doctrine of hip-hop production, where instead of rhymes, the hook is composed of a series of interesting audio snippets and samples (named after the famed Public Enemy production team). This was one of the first Christian rap records I ever heard do that, and it was in many ways, ahead of its time.

Two – this song in particular was the first song I ever heard where a rapper went after Satan directly. Much like the PID worldly-vs-churchy debate, this is another trend that would endure throughout much of the 90s. In a way, it was almost inevitable that Christian rappers would start aiming their bravado against Satan, because the prince of the air was the safest target to attack without being accused of sowing division. Again, this another way in which D-Boy was a pioneer.

It makes sense, then, that of the many future Christian rappers that would list D-Boy as a mentor and/or inspiration, one of the more notable would be Rene Sotomayor, a.k.a. T-Bone – one of the main brokers of militant gang-style bravado aimed at Satan (see: 1995’s entry, “Throwin’ Out Tha Wicked”).

Sadly, D-Boy never really got a chance to see just how far his art would reverberate. He was shot and killed in his hometown of Dallas, just one week after this album was completed. The inner-city ministry his parents founded, Street Church Academy, was later renamed in his honor. And in 2015, he was posthumously offered the first ever Legacy Lifetime Award at the pre-eminent space for hip-hop and urban ministry, the Legacy Conference in Chicago, IL.

SFC, A Saved Man In the Jungle, “2 Much Chemistry”

1990

This song embodies what I have always appreciated the most about Chris Cooper, aka Super C, the main creative voice behind the group known as SFC. (The abbreviation, incidentally, was never fully explained. It stood for either Soldiers For Christ or Spirit-Filled Christians, depending on which lyrics you went by.)

First, Cooper never hit you over the head with the gospel. If you listened to enough of his music, you found signs of it, and a few songs were more testimonial style, but for the most part, he talked about living for Christ in the same way he talked about where he lived or what he ate or who he hung out with. It just seemed like a very grounded part of his reality.

But second, Chris Cooper, whether it was as frontman for SFC or later as solo act Sup the Chemist (later changed to “Soup” the Chemist, because people kept mispronouncing his moniker) always made his hip-hop that was balanced. His music never defaulted to either extreme of being simply about ideas or being simply about having fun. Some songs made you think, some songs made you laugh, some songs gripped you emotionally, some songs incited your anger or stoked your competitive fires… Soup was a consummate professional of a hip-hop lyricist and emcee, and I still consider it a virtual crime that anyone could say they are a fan of Christian rap and not know who he is.

(By the way, Lecrae, it’s not too late to fix this! Get Soup the Chemist on your next project, brah.)

That said, this song is mostly just about the joy of gettin’ down in the studio and crankin’ out fun rhymes over a basic funk groove. It was somewhat ahead of its time, because in 1990 there weren’t a lot of people making rap songs with live bands – matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the story behind this song was Soup hanging out in a studio session for another band and they messed around for ten minutes and this is what came out. It’s real, and hot, and, oh yeah – fresh.

When it comes to chemistry between musicians, it’s fair to say that Sup lived by the classic 80s MTV slogan – too much is never enough.

Dynamic Twins, Word 2 The Wise, “The Judge”

1991

I had a test, during my growing up years, of whether or not a new acquaintance knew anything about Christian rap. I would casually mention “DII” in their presence, and if they mentioned that Mighty Ducks sequel, then I would cross them off of my mental list.

That’s because DII in this case stood for Dynamic Twins – Robbie and Noel Arthurton, transplanted to Cali from NYC. Dynamic Twins were part of the burgeoning Christian hip-hop scene in southern California, along with SFC, Freedom of Soul, IDOL King, Alliance of Light (which then later on formed the crew Gospel Gangstaz) and LPG (which founded the Tunnel Rats crew). This sense of Cali-unity would later be exemplified in the rap collective LA Symphony (but I’m getting way ahead of myself).

The first thing that jumps out at me when I listen again to this song is the loop. It’s got a very Herbie-Hancock-esque quality to it. It evokes a sense of curiosity and tension, with a hint of wonder and an outline of foreboding. When you see the title and hear the loop, it sort of plants a sense of expectation in your mind, like, these dudes are about to drop some bars about God that will blow your brain.

Of course, the content of the song itself now seems pretty standard as end-times speculation goes, but back then, it felt spooky and mysterious. My appreciation for all things Public Enemy and/or Digable Planets probably started with me and this song, because of its aural connotation of secret knowledge.

And after I first heard it, for a solid month, any time someone did something annoying and I wanted them to feel guilty, I’d just murmur the hook under my voice, real menacing-like.

“Hey Jelani, sorry, but I ate the last waffle.”

“Here comes the judge… this is a word to the wiiiiiise…”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Nothing.”

Honorable mentions:

Fantasy” from the same album

12 Tribe, “White Lies,” Knowledge Is the Tree of Life

SFC, Phase III, “Kill The Spirit”

1992

This song was one of the first times I ever heard the N-word in the context of Christian rap, and for that reason, it was fairly controversial. Even though the song was prefaced by an interlude called “The Setting” which contained an excerpt of preaching on the topic, it was clear as day how incendiary the song could be when I heard the final words of the prelude: “the spirit of the nigga.”

Being that this was 1992 and this record was on a Christian record label there was no way they could’ve put “nigga” in the title of the song, but that’s what it was about, all the dysfunction and pathology and history and pain and struggle and brokenness associated with that word.

Besides the significance of the subject matter, this song is also notable for a few other reasons – it features guest verses from Mr. Solo and Chille Chill (later known as Chille’ Baby) from Alliance of Light who later formed the crew Gospel Gangstaz, as well as scratching from DJ Cartoon of Freedom of Soul.

Also, astute listeners will recognize the final looped sample from The Brothers Johnson’s “Tomorrow,” which Quincy Jones converted into R&B hit “Tomorrow (Better You, Better Me),” which injects a patina of hope into the proceedings.

Honorable mention: “113.3” from the same album.

Honorable mentions:

Fantasy” from the same album

12 Tribe, “White Lies,” Knowledge Is the Tree of Life

Freedom of Soul, The 2nd Comin “Sonshyne” (featuring LPG)

1993

There’s not a whole lot to say about this song, except wow… it still really holds up. This is the epitome of classic 90s hip-hop. Nice scratching, a nice bass loop, framed well with nice piano chords, and a clearly understood concept expanded in various ways. Who said hip-hop always has to be dark and ominous to be poetic?

Also, one of the best things about this track is the way the vocals continually fade from one emcee to the next, as if they’re all completely on the same page, all rapping the same lyrics simultaneously. Dope concept, great execution.

—-

Honorable mention: “Sooner or Later” from the same album (for appearances from Sup from SFC and T-Bone, fresh off his debut album).

SFC, Illumination, “Illumination.”

1994

Now some will shrink the mind hiding behind misinformation / but when you think you find a kind which leads to elevation / I tweak a spine through casting rhymes around the hip-hop nation / for we to climb the holy vine to reach illumination

This song is vintage Sup, in part because it’s collaborative (he’s got Jurny Big from LPG doing the hook) in part because it’s intellectual sounding, but also because it talks about faith without beating you over the head with it. The first verse is an extended metaphor that takes the image of trees and streams from Psalm 1:3 and weaves a tale of spiritual deliverance from the enemy who wants to poison the water.

My other favorite thing about this album is the album cover. This might be my favorite album cover of all time. Because it works thematically… the room is being illuminated with light, but the broken windows also spell out the name of the group, SFC. (I had owned the CD for months without realizing that last part.)

Honorable mention: “The Vibe,” which is one of the best play-it-in-your-bangin’-system cuts ever, and “How I Cope,” a chill R&B-inflected tune featuring the blue-eyed soul of Jon Gibson.

T-Bone, Tha Life of a Hoodlum, “Throwin’ Out the Wicked”

1995

Finally, the southern-Cali scene is interrupted by an interloper from the north. For T-Bone, SFC mostly meant San Francisco County, and his emergence reppin’ the Bay area gave Christian rap a much-needed jolt of new blood.

In his second album Tha Life of a Hoodlum, T-Bone follows up on a form that other Christian rappers had dabbled on but which he perfects – the spiritual diss track aimed at the devil and his minions. This song is the absolute epitome of that approach, of using violent imagery and braggadocious rhyming as metaphorical declaration of spiritual warfare.

As a young man fresh out of high school, I loved it. I thought it was the best thing ever. You have to remember, this was right when Snoop Dogg was on the fast track to becoming megastars by combining violent imagery with charismatic storytelling, and T-Bone had both in spades.

I mean, check out these 4 bars (starting at 0:21):

They’re always trying to do something that’ll hold me back / from servin’ Christ, so I hit ‘em with a spiked bat / SPLAT, the devil’s on the ground, so I kick ‘em / ‘cause this is one Christian that ain’t gonna be another one of the devil’s victims

 Did you hear the way he rattled off those triplets in that last line? I thought that was the illest thing EVER.

In that way, T-Bone became somewhat of a polarizing figure, partially because there were others that thought his approach (and others who followed) were kind of immature and silly. (When Future Shock’s Redbonez interjected in the middle of a verse, “who can really stab a demon?” it seemed like a clear reference to T-Bone.)

Also, T-Bone’s ascendance ignited another round of controversy surrounding the line of demarcation between being evolving as an artist and biting people’s styles, as he was compared by fans to a variety of other mainstream hip-hop artists, including (but not limited to): Cypress Hill, Tupac, Big Pun, and Bone Thugs N Harmony.

Nowadays, I don’t so much get into all the violent talk, but I think it has its place. And back in 1995, that place was this song (and many more like it).

Honorable mention:

King Shon & The S.S. M.O.B., Papa Didn’t Raize No Punkz, “Anotha Phunky Song

 

Gospel Gangstaz, Do or Die, “O Double G’z Go On”

1996

Back to southern Cali we go, with the group formerly known as Alliance of Light, which with the help of producer DJ Dove, became known as Gospel Gangstaz. And this song lands cleanly into the G-funk era, not only because the instrumentation has moved past simple loops and samples, but because the thick bass and clavinova keyboard riffs are all in service of a classic R&B remake – the groove and the melody is an interpolation of The Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On.”

One of the things that always struck me as interesting as a holy hip-hop fan was listening to the thematic differences between a group’s first and second album. Living way out in the Pacific Northwest where few groups would tour (and this was before most music groups had social media accounts or blogs to communicate directly to fans), I had to learn how to analyze the lyrics in order to get an idea of what the groups were going through or dealing with.

That said, it struck me as somewhat sad how defensive this song is. Like, the groove is happy dance music, but under the surface are a lot of hurt and ministry scars, probably a result of the huge backlash the OGGz received from trying to minister in places where people couldn’t reconcile their gangsta image with their gospel message. “Who but an ex-Blood to reach a Piru? / You won’t leave your pew, but you criticize what I do?”

Lest anyone think it’s just a gimmick to sell records, the OGG’z come by their name honestly. Former member Tik Tokk was convicted on a murder charge related to a shooting in 2006, and is currently serving a life sentence. And yet somehow, he’s still encouraging people to soldier on in Christ.

If that’s not gangsta, I don’t know what is.

—–

Honorable mention:

Tunnel Rats, Experience, “Broken Life

Future Shock, Remember the Future, “What I Feel”

 

Grits, Factors of the Seven, “Alcoholic Plagiarism”

1997

Now, for something totally different.

One of my other all-time favorite crews, Grits hailed from Nashville, hailing mostly of emcees Bonafied and Coffee, with special appearances from Arizona native Knowdaverbs, who eventually shortened his moniker to just “Verbs.” They landed on the scene courtesy of their proximity to Toby McKeehan, who knew them from their time serving as dancers for DC Talk circa early 90s, and put them on his newly-christened label, Gotee Records.

By this point, however, the crew was really coming into its own. I remember this song getting traction on BET’s Rap City and several other mainstream hip-hop video shows, and for good reason – it was classic hip-hop. The title was a reference to both their penchant for creativity – needing it like a drunk needs the bottle – and their source material, the Bible, off which they proudly “plagiarized” material (ironic, since their style and flow were both quite original).

The looped boom-bip beat break set the stage for some serious jewel-droppin’; these dudes, could flow, all three of them. Rhyming wordplay interspersed with equal parts bravado and intellect, these guys didn’t put their faith in God on their sleeve, but rather challenged you to engage the topic on their terms. Early criticisms of their work as being too political were off-base (just because a person talks about Black issues doesn’t make them “political”) but at the same time you could forgive anyone who mistook Grits for an amalgamation of Goodie Mob, Outkast and Public Enemy, because they offered neither shortcuts nor apologies.

Matter of fact, I liked Grits so much, I could forgive just about anything except calling them “The Grits.” I would hear that from time to time. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Grits!” Uhhh… no. It’s just Grits.

 Honorable mention:

IDOL King, Hell? No!,”Christsyde”

Boogiemonsters, God Sound, “Sodom & Gomorrah”

 

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The Cross Movement, House of Representatives, “House of Representatives.”

1998

Bam… it’s not even really hyperbole to pronounce that this one changed the game.

House of Representatives was the second release from Philly megacrew The Cross Movement, who earned comparisons to the Wu-Tang Clan for both their sound and swagger. Everything from the album art to the look of the video helped the CM to stake a claim at the top of the Christian hip-hop soundscape, not just because they were good at it, but because it was clear that they took their music seriously.

 It started with the look. The juxtaposition of baggy-shorts-and-sneakers with conservative suits and ties was not only sartorially daring, but theologically astute, illustrating the tension of having to relate to both the street and the church. The titular house not only gave each member of the crew a place and a way to showcase their individual style and flow, but served as a great metaphor for what it means to serve the kingdom of God while being stationed in a particular cultural context.

And the hook showed off their synergy, as each member of the crew dropped alternating phrases:

“Mics, we blaze ‘em / the lost, God’ll save ‘em / hands, y’all raise ‘em / Christ, all praise Him

No pretendin’ / only Savior we’re recommendin’ / indeed / now let’s proceed with the representin’”

Filled with classic east coast hip-hop flavor, House of Representatives propelled the CM into front-runner status as the pre-eminent crew of Christ-focused mic rockers. From this album forward, if anyone claimed to be into Christian rap, but hadn’t listened to or at least heard of The Cross Movement, that person was sadly mistaken and not to be trusted.

Honorable mention:

Shadowless (aka Raiderz of the Lost), Calling of the Camps [COMP], “Boom Bip”

;

MC Precise, Mark of the East [COMP], “Milk It.”

1999

So with this one I gotta give a shout out to my man Arthur, because all throughout college and beyond (so, like, for the last fifteen years) anytime we would talk to each other on the phone or text, one of us would end the conversation with “easy now,” and the other one would go, “milk it.”

That’s how much we loved the hook to this song.

“Solid food for the mature, so we just came in here to milk it / Easy now, milk it / Easy now, milk it

If milk it does a body good, then milk you gettin’ filled with / Filled with the milk, kid / easy now, milk it”

Courtesy of MC Precise and dropped as track four of the epic Severe Entertainment compilation Mark of the East, “Milk It” was one of those great underground jewels to drop for heads who thought they’d heard everything, and then made them double-take, like ayo son, what is this???

 Mark of the East was a great compilation of NYC-based emcees reppin’ Christ, the most notable and prolific of which was Corey Red, who often teamed up with Precise, aka Bobby Young. Though Corey Red isn’t featured on this song, it’s still one of my favorites.

The Cross Movement, Human Emergency, “Know Me (Huh What)”

2000

If House of Reps changed the game, this song was a game-breaker.

Two things about Human Emergency pushed it over the line from good to excellent.

First, the theme — for the year 2000, it was a fitting choice, given all the paranoia over the impending Y2K doomsday scenario. With cover art depicting the CM as ER doctors and an opening vignette with a reverse-911 scenario (“Wait, I didn’t call 911!” “I know, we’re calling YOU!”) the emergency theme lent a sense of street-level urgency to the proceedings.

But also, in their third album, the CM began to operate within a broader sonic palette, moving between various styles that fell outside of their typical east coast boilerplate sound. And nowhere was that departure more obvious than in this song, the first big hit in Christian rap that fell into that heavily subdivided rhythmic sound that eventually became associated with the dirty south. Now, it’s got its own subgenre classification (people call it “trap”) but back then it was just a new form of hip-hop.

The message of the song was also on-point because by 2000 it had become fashionable for rappers and musicians across the spectrum of knowledge and experience to make claims about God or knowing God without giving any weight to the Bible or Christian thought or teaching. This joint was the CM laying waste to that fallacy.

Also, that hook…

Huh, what, huh huh huh, what what?!?!? Whatchuknowboutthis!?!

So much fun.

Honorable mention: 4th Avenue Jones, “RESPECT