While mainstream hip hop is celebrating its 30-something birthday, its Christian counterpart is roughly ten years younger.
Although the terms “”Christian Hip Hop” and “Christian Rap”” can still raise some eyebrows, the hip hop culture has always had a social conscious and flirted with all religious beliefs from Buddhism to Islam. Adding Christianity to the mix wasn’t really a surprise given its largely African-American participants’ spiritual backgrounds. If nothing else, Christ has withstood grandly within hip hop.
So where did Christian Hip Hop and Christian Rap get its start? And where is it now? The following is a (very) brief rundown at how the hip hop community is using this music to entertain and enlighten.
IN THE BEGINNING:
Because it was an emerging subculture with very little historical documentation there is actually some debate as to how and where holy hip hop got its start. At the very least, we know it first became public in the early to mid 80’s, mainly in Nashville, TN (Christian music’s capital) and through the Los Angeles underground.
Some of the first recordings were limited to singles and include M.C. Sweet’s Jesus Christ (The Gospel Beat) [Lection/Polygram, 1982] and Stephen Wiley’s Bible Break [Brentwood Records, 1985]. Both selections were heavy on the Sunday School lesson lyrics and extremely dated, Kurtis Blow-influenced beats and delivery.
In the west, groups like L.P.G. claim to have been rapping in the church since 1984. Houston’s Apocalypse put the Word on wax around the same time.
Others, like Michael Peace, S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ), Dynamic Twins, and J.C. Crew, found a home too, with national distribution through Nashville-based companies such as Broken Records, Brainstorm Artists International, and Word Records Limited. Their musical style made some progression, but even its fans had to admit it didn’t quite match what moved crowds at the skating rink or over the airwaves.
During this time many Christian Hip Hop an Christian Rap MCs felt somewhat betwixt. They were dealing with an outside world that wouldn’t accept them and a church community that was slow to embrace. It was this mix of faith and secular music that challenged, if not vexed, many throughout the 80’s period.
Unsurprisingly, it was not until groups like Nashville’s white-break dc Talk mixed pop and rap in the early 1990’s that acceptance grew and holy hip hop started to feel at home with its brethren.
TEXAS TAKES THE CHALLENGE:
The Lone Star State also placed a key role in Christian Hip Hop and Christian Rap’s development. Aside from the aforementioned Apocalypse crew, it became home to an independent Christian gangsta rap record label and launched the genre’s first attempts at critical and editorial journalism.
Cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Knolly “Rubadub” Williams started his own music career from the small town of Round Rock as Grapetree Records’s first act in 1992. The label-owned, but industry-focused Heaven’s Hip-Hop Magazine published its first issue not long after. Grapetree had a street sensibility and put its money into recent converts with rap sheets and skills.
Houston’s Lil Raskull and Nuwine (now known as Wine-O) quickly became GT’s most popular and best-selling acts. They gave Gulf Coast rap fans with a heart for Christ, music that fed their spiritual and musical appetites and helped the label gross an estimated $2 million in 1998.
H-town was also treated to visuals of the national scene through Ministerz of the Underground, a holy hip hop television show produced by Apocalypse’s Eleazar, and given airtime in the wee hours of Saturday night on the public access Christian station. Mainly recorded at CRUvention (Christian Rappers United) gatherings in Orlando and L.A., the half hour showcased performances and freestyle sessions by the community’s talented and undiscovered up and comers.
While the South established its stake, the West Coast continued to make an argument that it could not be denied some shine also. Groups like Gospel Gangstas showed California could be home to both former Crips and Bloods and coffee shop backpackers like LA Symphony and the Tunnel Rats. Further north, guys like MG! the Visionary, Braille, and Illtrip (Labklik) demonstrated their faith through lyrically artistic battle raps and ballads.
Not long after, groups like the Cross Movement reminded Christians that hip hop’s origins were rooted on the East Coast. Collective projects like the Mark of the East compilation (featuring Corey Red, Precise, ADF and others) continued to have a platform at large, hip-hop focused urban ministry outings such as RapFest in the Boogie Down Bronx.
During this same time and coast (just a little further south) people like Urban D (pastor of HHH’s premier Crossover Church and founder of the Flavor Fest event) held it down in Florida with KJ-52, Pettidee and the Shabach Entertainment fam – helping pave the way for Atlanta’s burgeoning Holy Hip Hop, Inc. scene.
However, it was the late 90’s birth of the World Wide Web that accelerated the genre and made communication among a small, but scattered, community so much easier. Now, cross-bearing MCs from all over the country (and globe) could connect via e-mail and message boards on info sites like Godzhouse.com and Hiphopzone.com. Later, news sites like om95.com and the Sphereofhiphop.com would take up this mantle.
The ease of digital music downloads also expanded the genre’s audience via legal (mp3.com) and illegal (Napster) avenues. As several veteran and newer artists built a following on the Net, they were often snatched up by larger labels anxious to tap into this growing market. BEC/Tooth & Nail Records launched an entire hip hop imprint (Uprok) that signed and released projects from acts like Sup the Chemist, Peace 586, New Breed, Sev Statik, Playdough, and Ill Harmonics. After a handful of releases, some also found second homes at Nashville’s Gotee Records where they shared resources with established acts like Grits, DJ Maj and John Reuben.
Elsewhere, labels like Syntax Records decided to remain independent and launch or aid the careers of artists like Tonex, Pigeon John, Dirt, and RedCloud.
Today’s Christian Hip Hop and Christian Rap MC’s enjoy technological advances that can exponentially expand their audiences.
Web 2.0 sites like MySpace.com, YouTube.com and Twitter.com offer instant access to your youth group’s favorite MC. Electronic press kits canvas multitudes so that bloggers are chatting up the info in minutes. iTunes, The Bus Shop, and Holy Culture Download make music delivery both economical and instantaneous. And podcasts like Holy Culture Radio, HeadzUpFM and The Wade-O Show provide a pipeline playlist to a target audience ignored by traditional airwave media. Modern day favorites S.O.M., Kaboose, Lecrae, FLAME, R-Swift, shai linne, Trip Lee, Brinson, and others all reap the benefit.
Christian Hip Hop and Christian Rap has come a long way. The dated, corny rhymes have given way to hot, creative MCs who simply want to share their faith using one of today’s most popular forms of music. Its recordings and messages are moving out of Christian bookstores and church pews and into mainstream America.
How the Creator uses it from here is anyone’s guess. But as is usually the case, it’ll no doubt be amazing to watch.
– written by: Sketch the Journalist (used by permission)