30 Years of Hip Hop
What up, y’all… can you believe it? Thirty years of Christian men and women rockin’ mics and reppin’ the name of Christ.
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…
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 residence 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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”
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?”
“Fantasy” from the same album
12 Tribe, “White Lies,” Knowledge Is the Tree of Life
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.
“Fantasy” from the same album
12 Tribe, “White Lies,” Knowledge Is the Tree of Life
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).
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.)
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).
King Shon & The S.S. M.O.B., Papa Didn’t Raize No Punkz, “Anotha Phunky Song”
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.
Future Shock, Remember the Future, “What I Feel”
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.
IDOL King, Hell? No!,”Christsyde”
Boogiemonsters, God Sound, “Sodom & Gomorrah”
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.
Shadowless (aka Raiderz of the Lost), Calling of the Camps [COMP], “Boom Bip”
MC Precise, Mark of the East [COMP], “Milk It.”
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.
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”
Another year, another LA super-group. By 2001, Southern Cali emcees who repped Christ on the mic did so under one of two collective banners – LA Symphony or the Tunnel Rats. They were both deep and rotated members in and out quite frequently, and they both landed pretty hard left in the “Christian-rappers-versus-rappers-who-are-Christians” debate, preferring to display first their strong mic skills and let their witness develop in person.
I gave the nod to Tunnel Rats, in part because I loved how militant and unapologetic they were. (The LA Symph guys could rock it, but in my opinion they trended more toward playful than passionate.) You can see in this video how seriously they take their craft, and how much they resent the idea of Christian art as being somehow subpar or watered down. People sometimes complained that the Tunnel Rats weren’t spiritual enough, but that always struck me as a short-sight complaint. For these dudes and ladies, mic rockin’ is an essential way to reflect all of the pain, struggle, and valor of life itself.
LA Symphony, Call It What You Want [unreleased], “Broken Tape Decks”
One of the unfortunate coincidences in the urban Christian music scene of the early aughts was the fact that this crew, New Breed, the brother/sister duo that spit lyrical fire, hailed from Boston, and got with the Tunnel Rats crew, shared a similar name as another burgeoning juggernaut with a superstar lead – Israel and New Breed. Now, it’s not like anyone would hear one of either one of their songs and confuse one group for the other, but I always felt a little melancholy about the idea about people not knowing about this crew because of their name’s similarity to another group (and I’m a huge fan of Israel and New Breed to boot).
Especially because now as I look back at it, this song was a little ahead of its time in the way that it called attention to the archetype of the city as being a vessel of theological import. For New Breed, the city was not just a few words in an address field, but a calling, a rallying cry toward urban living and incarnational ministry (and this long before the words “incarnational” or “missional” became evangelical buzzwords).
What I also love about it is that while it doesn’t excuse poor decision-making or poor morality, the song also challenges the listener’s sense of identity as Macho Ortega, the lead emcee, goes through his litany of identities:
You thought you did, but you don’t know me / I’m all cities inside your Sony
the realest heads, ain’t no man phony / I’m every man, from every land, in every jam
I intend to drop bombs, I succeed at every plan
I’m the heavy-handed hood, up to no good / the smart, quiet type of brotha to start a riot
I’m a loverboy playin’ R&B in his car / thugged out cellar dweller while I’m touchin’ the stars
I’m the rich kid, my dad’s a doctor, mom’s a lawyer / I’m the broked soul brotha that’s ready to die for ya
I’m from the nines, worldwide always up in your cipher / hardcore hustler, 25-to-lifer
One who never once stepped foot in the church / then met God and that was the end of my search
I’m the kid with the black hoodie when walkin’ to class / spittin’ lyrics in the air like I’m ready to blast
and I’m the verse of the city, the song of the hood / I spoke the truth when nobody else would
I rocked the shows when nobody else could / the Breed ran spots most crews had never stood
It’s militant but at its heart it’s a plea for recognition and validation. It’s the heart and soul of the Black Lives Matter debate, but coming from a brown brother-and-sister duo with a dedication to Christ and a heart for the unreached.
Grits, The Art of Translation, “Here We Go”
Pettidee, Street Music, “No Wed, No Bed (Remix)”
Souljahz, The Fault Is History, “Same Old Game”
Deeper Than Most, Marinatin’ “Doin Big Thangs”
This song, for me, was the pinnacle. There were other CM songs, other CM albums after this, but none of them were as slick or engaging as this song, especially the ones that featured the whole crew.
I think a good part of what I loved about this song is that it’s still strong and uncompromising, but it’s still a bit more accessible because it’s not directly attacking or calling out anyone else for having errant beliefs. Like for me, one of the more embarrassing things about being an evangelical over the years is having to endure the perception of being known for being against rather than being for, being reactionary instead of being focused and intentional.
In this song, the CM emphatically declares what they’re for… the gospel of Jesus Christ. In it, they exhort their fans and other Christ followers to be bold and forthcoming, without being super judgy.
And that video, though! The hats cocked to the side, the matching b-ball jerseys, the visual effects — back in 2003, the idea of having your music on your phone was, like, whoa that’s crazy. Good stuff all around.
Also, halfway through there’s a prelude of one of the other hit singles from that album, Phanatik’s “Start Something.” It’s the one with the dope cipher of dancers in all white rockin’ around the CM logo on the basketball court, with Phanatik sitting on the hoop (just like Michael Bivins in BBD’s “Above the Rim”). Also, did you catch the first words that drop before the hook? That’s one of NYC’s finest emcees Todd Bangz, on production.
Bang Theory, baby! Aw yeah.
The Procussions, As Iron Sharpens Iron, “Water’s Edge”
Another year, another southern Cali super-group.
Well, super-group is a bit of a stretch. 4th Avenue Jones was one of Christian rap’s best kept secrets for years, having amassed a cult following from years of rocking live shows around the LA area. Their founder was Ahmad, a former one-hit wonder from “Back In the Day” who, along with co-emcees Tena Jones (Ahmad’s wife) and Jabu, founded one of the first true hip-hop bands, with an actual rhythms section of electric guitar, drums and bass, along with a turntablist and violinist. Their groundbreaking style mixed hip-hop with elements of aggressive rock, sultry R&B (courtesy of Tena, who both rapped and sang) and pop.
They resisted the “Christian rap” label, despite having lyrics that reflected a gritty faith in God amidst the injustices of postmodern urban life, mostly because they wanted to make their music accessible to fans in the general market. And from about 1999 to around 2004, they seemed perpetually on the verge of breaking out into mainstream success, but never got the chance to prove themselves because of record label shakeups and other things outside of their control. Through it all, they stayed true to their name – referencing the expression “keeping up with the Joneses,” they were a band that helped set the tone for others to follow.
I loved, loved, loved their music. It was fiery, it was sometimes political, but always messy, always personal, always interesting. I picked this song, “Monumental Continental,” in part because I really dug the beat, because it had a cameo appearance by Grits (also big favs), and because it was refreshing to hear a rapper brag about wanting to own real estate instead of spinning rims because that was a smarter investment. But I just as easily could’ve picked “Rush,” “Why,” “Sorry” or “Stereo,” because they were all excellent songs with interesting, provocative messages.
A few years later, Ahmad and Tena divorced and the band broke up. You were gone too soon, Joneses. But we’ll always have this excellent album, a bunch of local releases, and a ton of memories.
So you might think from my inclusion of 4th Avenue Jones that I have pretty lenient standards for how I classify Christian rap. That’s somewhat true; I generally include anyone who claims to have faith in Christ and has lyrical content that isn’t particularly profane or sexually explicit. I’m not out to police anyone’s theology, which is why sometimes the line between Christian and secular can get awfully blurry.
But not here. Anytime you listen to Shai Linne, you’re guaranteed to hear a message that is unabashedly Christian, densely theological, and full of interesting wordplay arranged over old-school, chunky beats. It’s for that reason that, given a year particularly rich with quality Christian hip-hop recordings (check my honorable mentions for 2005 and you’ll see what I’m talking about) I had to give my man Shai the nod here.
Most of what I love about this song is the way that the hook accomplishes two crucial tasks – it introduces each rapper, and rhymes it with a short theological phrase that sets the tone for the rest of the song to follow:
Yo he’s the SH, the AI, the LI – double-N-E / rep the Son of Man who gave His life as a ransom for many
Yo he’s the PH, the A-N-A, the T, the I, the K / spittin’ the Word with the purpose of putting Christ on display
Yo it’s the ST, the E, the PH, the E, the N / tellin’ people they need to repent before they see the end
So uh, microphone check, 1-2, 1-2 … ayo [insert name] … it’s on you.
Da TRUTH, The Faith, “On Duty”
Todd Bangz, Think It’s A Game, “When Will U Learn”
Phanatik, The Incredible Walk, “Shot Clock (Brand New Day)”
T-Bone, Bone-A-Fied, “Let That Thang Go”
DJ Maj, Boogiroot, “Let’s Go,”
Shai Linne, The Solus Christus Project, “Justified”
Phanatik, The Incredible Walk, “The AmazinGrace”
Ohmega Watts, The Find, “The Find,”
Watching this video now almost feels like watching a superhero origin story. Because no one has done more to make the concept of Christian rap more visible than Lecrae. Over the last decade, he’s become the leading name for Christian rap, with various appearances on award shows, late-night television, and even a cameo in a feature film. He’s also the only Christian emcee I know of to ever have a shoe endorsement deal.
But anyway, “Jesus Muzik” is where Lecrae’s atmospheric ascent began, and it’s no surprise that it popped the same year YouTube was acquired by Google to become the dominant online video platform. Because this video is, despite being charmingly low-budget, excellently shot and edited, and was amassing views in the high six and early seven figures at a time when most Christian rappers couldn’t get more than a few hundred-to-a-thousand views, and that’s even if they had the time and budget to produce a video at all.
“Jesus Muzik” was, in many ways, the perfect storm – a nice beat with a great hook and a simple message, done with pizazz and imagination, at a time when America’s young urban core of mostly-Black hip-hop-loving Christians were primed to engage in the fairly new practice of sharing videos with friends over social media.
Not only did it propel Lecrae to new heights of visibility and name recognition and help spark the “11Six” brand and movement, not only did it help turn not only collaborator Trip Lee but also Sho Baraka, Tedashii, Flame and Andy Mineo into recognized names in the industry, but it eventually became the namesake for the Houston Chronicle’s Christian rap blog, the only in the nation to be bankrolled by a major daily newspaper (shout out to it’s editor, Sketch the Journalist).
Plus, almost a decade later, that extension cord still cracks me up. Good stuff.
Mark J, SOULutions, “Suffer the Little Children”
HeeSun Lee, ReDefined, “Open Your Eyes”
If you’ve been a Christian rap aficionado for as long as I have, there is a shadow side to all the good feelings of encouragement, love and acceptance you may find in the music. That is, there is also a growing sense of disaffected frustration at how few people truly know or understand how good it can be. Sure, you have your mega-stars like Lecrae, but most people who listen to hip-hop, even if they grew up in the church, probably only know of a few songs by a few artists. And if they didn’t grow up in the church, fuhgeddaboutit.
I bring that up only because this song should’ve been a huge radio hit. In 2007, there was a ton of economic and political turmoil in the U.S.; this song could’ve been the breath of fresh air everyone was looking for, just like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was in 1987. It was written broadly enough for the general market to understand and appreciate – I mean, who doesn’t want to just chuck their job and live on the beach every once in awhile?? – but still contained enough references to life and love and faith for Christians to know what he’s talking about. Even some of the darker themes and references, with DJ maj’s relaxed vocals superimposed over drawling slide guitars and a loping beat and bassline… it all just goes down so nice and easy.
DJ Maj came up as an old school turntablist, but eventually became adept at production and talent integration. It’s no surprise he’s toured for years with Tobymac, because just like the former dcTalk frontman, DJ Maj knows his way around a groove and a hook. I mean, seriously. Aside from racism, there’s no reason why even “safe for the whole family” Christian radio audiences wouldn’t love this song. It genuinely irritates me how few people ever got to know and love this song like I have. It’s like running to the office water cooler to talk about your favorite episode of a TV show that no one’s ever heard of on a network no one would watch.
But the good news is, it’s not too late, people! If you find yourself in need of a quick mental vacation, dump this into your mp3 player, and get “So Free.” It’s free, legal, and has no side effects (other than a nice head bob).
Lecrae, Rebel, “Don’t Waste Your Life (feat. Cam & Dwayne Tryumf)”
Several notable things about this song and video.
First, the original audio version featured, as I referenced, not only Cam on the hook, but a verse from London rapper Dwayne Tryumf, who recently went on record to explain his encounters with the 116 clique (and why they were so brief). For the TL:DR crowd, he couldn’t get permission to stay in the U.S., which is why he was able to record the song but not appear in the video. Sad situation, but Dwayne Tryumf continued to record gospel hip-hop jams from his own context anyway.
Secondly, Lecrae is not the only star of the video. The other main participant is none other than Sho Baraka, who was another member of the 116 Clique and has gone on to do a number of interesting, provocative projects, including the critically acclaimed Talented 10th album, based on the essay of African-American scholar/activist W.E.B. Du Bois.
Thirdly, “Don’t Waste Your Life” was inspired by theologian John Piper book of the same name. This song was the beginning of a series of collaborations between Piper and Reach Records, and Piper’s church, Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, helped to sponsor the “Don’t Waste Your Life” tour, one of the first in my memory to ever become immortalized through a hashtag (for those in the know, #DWYL is “don’t waste your life,” not “do what you love”).
One of the great benefits of this tour, besides the obvious ones of providing a bunch of memorable performances and of the gospel being proclaimed in city after city, is the promo videos. In the tradition of the long-running line of ESPN SportsCenter commercials, each one featured a rather banal set of interactions that indicated the need for purpose and redemption in urban America, and concluded with the slogan in titles over the action.
My favorite one also featured Sho Baraka, doing a hilarious, um… freestyle? Classic.
Back in 2002, a brother-brother-sister trio out of San Diego called Souljahz dropped The Fault Is History, a hybrid of R&B, pop, folk, and hip-hop. It was bold, innovative, and I loved it. Unfortunately, because of record-label drama, they never recorded a follow-up album. (What is it about innovative groups and record label drama? First LA Symphony, then Souljahz and 4th Avenue Jones. Is it a Cali thing?)
However, they surfaced seven years later as a duo, and became known as The Washington Projects. (Jekob, the brother of the duo, eventually went solo a few years later.)
This title track of Light Up the Dark represents some of their finest work, and it tracked within the overall trend of hip-hop emcees doing more singing and moving into pop/R&B territory. Now granted, Jekob and Rachael Washington were singers from the very beginning (legendary vocalist Tonex was one of their early producer/mentors) but by 2009, the autotune era was making it possible for emcees to do a little singing on the side. I hesitate to mention autotune only because I think the WPs were the real deal, but this single was still heavy on the vocal effect.
Nowadays, the idea of rap & R&B together is pretty old hat, but give the WPs credit, they were on it before several other groups, and in many ways, helped to pave the way for groups like Group 1 Crew, Level 3:16, and Royal Tailor.
The Washington Projects, Light Up the Dark, “Come Back to Me”
Canton Jones feat. BBJ, Erica Cumbo & Messenja, Kingdom Business, Vol. 2 “You Got Me”
Canton Jones feat. Khul Rhema & Lil iROCC, Love Jones, “Good Time”
Tonex, Circu$$, “Puppets and Rabbits”
One of the clichés of the Christian rapper’s repertoire is the ode to the beautiful wife, usually done to show contrast from worldly hip-hop’s hypersexualized view of relationships that too often descends into outright misogyny.
In this song, Sho Baraka turns the cliché on its head, not by taking a snapshot of a current marriage, but by highlighting the joy, excitement and nervous energy of falling into love and taking the big step.
Sho Baraka eventually left Reach Records in order to more fully pursue his artistic vision, but this song and album represents the best of his work under the Reach umbrella. By taking his typically thoughtful, stylish persona and donning a black-rimmed, quasi-geeky character, he updated all of the rom-com clichés with equal measures of class and swag. I remember watching this on YouTube when it first came out and being impressed, not only with the way that it celebrates marriage but the way that it does so with that Sho-Baraka blend of verve, humor and style. With JR on the hook, and a host of visual references to Hitch, Roxanne, and even The Cosby Show, “We Can Be More” remains a winner for both guys and ladies.
Girl… you make a brotha wanna sing.
(Whatchu mean I can’t sing????)
Lecrae feat. Flame & Jai, Rehab, “God Is Enough”
I could’ve just as easily continued to cover the dominance of Reach Records, as one of their most visible hits from 2011 was “Dum Dum” by Tedashii featuring Lecrae, which was featured FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
But instead I went with another versatile artist who’s comfortable doing bass-heavy hip-hop or acoustic pop – Wisconsin native Brian James Reith, aka B. Reith. I first heard him doing the hook on K-Nine’s track “Bottom of the Ninth” (which B later re-recorded on his EP The Forecast), and I was impressed by his fluid, laconic flow, which contrasted nicely with K-Nine’s gully persona.
Here on “2 Steps Forward,” we see B. Reith coming into his own as an artist and performer, with a style that looks and feels self-assured, even though the lyrics still leak through a healthy amount of frustration and uncertainty. You can always count on a B. Reith track to be equal parts honest and funny, and this one is no exception:
True, can I really get more clear? / Make it boom so loud shake your rearview mirror
Unless you got car speakers like the ones I owned / Had to pan it to left ’cause the right one was blown
You ridin on chrome? I was ridin’ on plastic / Two of ’em were cracked ’cause I hit a curb distracted
Yeah, but it ain’t no big deal / I may not have a nice whip but I still have whip appeal
This song isn’t necessarily gonna change the world, but it’s a fun way to spend four minutes, and sometimes that’s enough.
Tedashii, Blacklight, “Dum Dum (feat. Lecrae)
Much has been written about Lecrae’s 11Six clique, and while there was a good while where they were a little too overexposed, I understand why the brand resonates so well, because there are so many good, talented, humble, Christ-reppin’ emcees that have operated under that banner.
This song only features three of them (Trip Lee, KB and Andy Mineo), and in my more wistful moments of wishful thinking, I’ve longed for a true cipher track where Crae, Tedashii, Sho Baraka, and Flame could all drop quality verses… but that would make the song like ten minutes long, so maybe I should just be happy with what’s there.
For the uninitiated, the hook contains a fun bit of wordplay, because “one sixteen” represents the titular verse at the center of the crew’s identity, Romans 1:16 – a declaration of being unashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But “one sixteen” also refers to a good sixteen-bar verse, which is a standard length for rap verses. (If you were confused by the numbers popping up in the visuals, those are measure numbers.)
Though they’re all dope, my personal favorite was Mineo’s verse, which not only spawned a fun catchphrase at my house (“did you eat my M&Ms?” “Yep, gimme a couple more, I’m-a do the same thing / do the same thing / do the same thing”) but also ends with one of my favorite movie moments, the caaaaaan-you-dig-iiiiiiiit clip from The Warriors.
- Reith, How the Story Continues [MIXTAPE], “Tippy Toe (feat. Theory Hazit)”
Still Trill Christians, “No Sex”
In the last few years, Collision Records has made its mark on the hip-hop scene, first with a series of notable solo projects, but then later, with a stellar group effort from Alex Faith, Swoope, Dre Murray and Christon Gray, a collective known as WLAK, which stood for “We Live As Kings.”
This tune, which features Alex Faith and Swoope, is both a heartfelt reference to Phil. 1:22-26, as well as a witty reference to Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future protagonist. Full of timelines and heart cries, the hook sets the stage for a compelling set of verses:
I wanna leave, but I gotta wait / this world’s asleep, but I’m wide awake
Livin’ here is screwed up, I’m outta my mind / Livin’ in the future, Marty McFly
I’m at home already, already, already / I ain’t gone, but I’m ready, already, already
I’m at home already, already, already / I ain’t gone, but I’m ready, already, already
Part of what I love about this Scripture passage (and the song it inspired) is that it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of living in a fallen world, and honestly wrestles with the tension between wanting to be fully present with God and needing to be fully present in the world to do His work. I think people err when they go to either extreme, either trying to do His work without really knowing Him, or trying to know Him without being about His business. Listening to this song, I get the feeling that the WLAK guys understand that the Christian life demands both.
Andy Mineo, Heroes For Sale, “Uno Uno Seis feat. Lecrae”
Rhema Soul, Dope Beats Good News, Vol. 2, “PYITF”
Living in such a progressive age, it’s kind of a shame that there are still so few female Christian rappers who have been able to gain much of a foothold in the music industry. I don’t think it’s ever been a lack of skill or trying, because as long as I’ve listened to holy hip-hop, there have always been a few lady emcees with mic skills, but they’ve all been relegated to the margins. You can blame sexism and misogyny in hip-hop, or sexism in the church, or in the music industry, or all three.
But this, too, is changing.
One of my favorite emcees period right now is HeeSun Lee, a Korean-American rapper out of NYC, who has been playfully subverting people’s expectations of Korean women since her debut record in 2006. Here, she flexes alongside Kei Landa and Erica Cumbo, as all three affirm their identities as lady lyricists and mic-wreckers. The hook brings a little autotuned R&B flair to the proceedings, during which HeeSun rejects the expectations of others:
I don’t fit into your status quo / watch me flow, I’m-a break your mold…
I love the defiant stance of this song, mostly because I agree that it shouldn’t be front page news that there are young women who “love God and got standards.” And of course, the beat is bangin’ – progressive or not, it’s still hip-hop so a bangin’ beat is still a must.
One thing that’s important to remember is that as sexism in hip-hop eventually wanes, so will the perceptions of the issue. Case in point, I recently played this song for my 12-year-old nephew, and I asked him what he thought “the rules” were that HeeSun Lee was breaking. He wasn’t sure, so I told him, “well some people feel like ladies or Asian people don’t make for good rappers, and so in their minds, the rule is that rappers can only be black or Hispanic men.”
He looked at me, confused.
“But… that’s dumb.”
Exactly, kid. Exactly.
Angie Rose, “Wanna Be”
In this 30 year retrospective of Christians in hip-hop, I’ve done a lot of looking back at the past, but now it’s time to look forward into the future. And this song by Angie Rose represents both the present and future of Christian hip-hop.
First, it starts with the sound. Angie Rose, like many of the top hip-hop acts, seamlessly transitions between singing and rapping, to such an extent that the forms meld together in complementary synergy. Everything about her look and sound exudes feminine style and swag.
Also, the tone of the song is very crossover-friendly. Angie makes clear references to Jesus and salvation, but the hook is purposefully vague (“all I know is where you are is where I wanna be”), and it’s the kind of thing that could easily be played on a mainstream hip-hop countdown show.
As it is, I’d like to hear more from her before I could put her in the upper echelon of hip-hop ministers, mostly because “Wanna Be” is a great introduction to Angie Rose the artist, but it’s just an introduction. I’m hoping to see more emotional depth and Biblical/theological substance from her in the future.
But the biggest reason why this song represents the future is that, as of this writing, it’s only available on YouTube.
It’s not a coincidence that 2015 was the year that Google officially launched several initiatives aimed to helping YouTube to function as an actual musical distribution channel. Ten years ago, views on videos were a great indicator of success, but they weren’t directly trackable in the same ways they are now. Now, YouTube spins function in a similar way as Nielsen ratings for TV shows or spins on terrestrial radio.
So as we wrap up this retrospective, it’s important to remember that God is not limited by conventions, structures or technologies of the present, past or future. My prayer is that as artists continue to encounter the goodness of God and want to express that in a hip-hop context, that God will continue to raise up innovators, merchants, attorneys, technologists and designers who can help create and sustain supportive communities in which these musical artists can continue to grow and flourish.
That kind of world, with that kind of hip-hop, full of people serving that kind of God?
That’s where I wanna be.