Monthly Archives: March 2004

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Purpose-driven hip-hop? About time.

I never thought I would ever say this, but it’s true:

There are too many Christian emcees.

Already, some of you are trippin’. You’re thinking, “too many wack emcees, maybe.” No, I mean too many Christian emcees, period.

Ten years ago, I would’ve never dreamed it would be this way. Most groups back in ’94 were still behind the times. During my senior year of high school, the four Christian rap acts that I loved the most were SFC (before Soup the Chemist went solo), T-Bone, Gospel Gangstas, and Grits. Three of those four had just made their major label debut the year prior. And you know what? Things were lookin’ up. I would soon be college-bound, and I dreamed of the future. I dreamed of getting out of Portland and living in far-away places like Atlanta, D.C., or Chicago. Most of all, I anxiously awaited the day when quality hip-hop tracks would be just as readily accessible in Christian retailers as cheesy outreach tracts.

Ten years later, that future is now.

On many levels, I’m tremendously happy about it. I watched the video for The Cross Movement’s “When I Flow,” and was blown away by how good it was. That video could easily hold its own on any video show. If I was 16 again, and my friends from school and I saw that video together, I’d be proud to call CM my favorite group. And I’d have no fear of being mocked silly. That’s an advantage that young saved folk have today that we didn’t necessarily have back in the day.

[Wow… I’m not even 30 and I’m already getting crotchety.]

Nowadays, the problem is reversed: instead of not enough good projects, now there are too many. Think about it. It used to be that when a project dropped that was good, I’d listen to it nonstop for a few weeks. By the end of the month, I’d have half of it memorized. But now, there are so many dope projects comin’ out every other month, I don’t have either the cash or the brain cells to listen to them all. And that’s just signed artists – not even counting all of the dope underground artists droppin’ jewels left and right. It seems like rappers are puttin’ out records like it’s goin’ out of style. And now, maybe it is.

Advances in technology have made it cheaper and easier to get into audio production and recording. This is especially true in hip-hop; for the most part, you’re not dealing with live instruments. You don’t have to spend three hours in a studio somewhere trying to figure out how you want to mic the guitars. As a result, everyone wants to get in the game. Being a recording artist doesn’t have the same mystique and appeal that it used to, precisely because everybody and their cousin Pookie is in a group. It’s a good thing they don’t include hip-hop on “American Idol,” or they would need a whole new network just to televise it all.

[Though it would be pretty funny to hear Simon Cowell say stuff like: “I think we’d all be better off if you traded that microphone for a resumé, because you need a day job.”]

And it’s not just hip-hop that’s affected; the media landscape as a whole is getting way too crowded. Media conglomerates are cutting back across the board. For every success story like The Cross Movement or Grits, there are ten other crews of cats who are just as talented, and whose motives are just as pure. But the market can’t sustain everybody. Not everyone can experience that level of financial success.

Those of you currently involved in a group, I can hear you echoing a familiar refrain: “We’re not in this for the money.” Well of course not. I’m not accusing anyone of venal motives. But as hip-hop ministers, we need to undergo a paradigm shift in how we define success.

Conventional wisdom dictates that if you’re talented enough to “make it big,” the next logical steps are making a demo, shopping it to A&R reps, hiring a manager, doing local shows, etc. Under this paradigm, the end goal is to become a full-time recording artist, where the money you make from record sales, touring, and merchandizing is enough to support the pursuit of your ministry / artistry.

This is the scenario most people have in mind when they talk about pursuing their music ministry, hip-hop or otherwise. In 2000, I helped form a hip-hop crew called The Iccsters. Because our group was birthed out of a need for hip-hop ministry in my dad’s church, that was our only ministry venue. In the years that followed, as we continued to write and perform original hip-hop tracks, everybody wanted to know when we were going to put a demo together and shop for a record deal.

Me and my partner Sir-1 couldn’t take the normal path, because he was still in Portland and I had since moved to Chicago. But in retrospect, I’m sorta glad that we spent all that time in separate time zones. That logistical barrier probably prevented us from burning out in our attempts to make it big. Because make no mistake: being talented, anointed and available is not a guarantee for commercial success. If you don’t believe me, ask anybody connected with L.A. Symphony or 4th Avenue Jones.

So what does this mean?

Fledgling hip-hop ministries need to be, with apologies to Rick Warren, purpose-driven. Hip-hop is a multifaceted cultural organism, capable of transmitting images and messages to a variety of audiences in a variety of contexts. To maximize your impact, you must figure out how, what, and to whom you’re supposed to say what you have to say. If you do that, the where and when will take care of themselves.

For example, my ministry is geared for the church. Specifically, toward teens and young adults in the church. That fits within my overall gifting as a musician and worship-leader. But fundamentally, since hip-hop music was my first love, it extends into hip-hop as well. Most people within the church only see hip-hop as a tool for evangelism, but that’s not where our music fits. We try to make it accessible enough that nonbelievers can still get into it, but it’s not really aimed in their direction. It’s for people in the church.

Consequently, I don’t do any gigs in clubs. I don’t frequent MC battles. And I’m not looking to enter any secular talent competitions. Those things would be counterproductive in the general scheme of my ministry. Most of the gigs that I’ve done have been church conferences, Christian music festivals, youth group nights, etc. And you know what? I’m perfectly content with that.

Not saying I wouldn’t like more opportunities, or a bigger budget. But I’m content with the fact that I can, in the short term at least, fulfill my mission without blowin’ up and going full time. If my ministry stays on this level for the duration of my lifetime, then I’ll be happy. Does this mean I automatically turn down any record deal on the table? Of course not. I’m not stupid. But I’m not going out of my way to find one, either.

The reality is this. In order to be commercially successful on a large scale, quite a few factors have to converge at just the right time. This is where purpose becomes critical. In order to stand out from the crowd, you must do what you do in a manner distinctly different from everybody else. Identifying the purpose of your ministry can help you to discover the ways that you can break out from the pack.

This is especially true when it comes to lyrics. The hooks you write, the song structures, the rhyme schemes… they all require originality. Sure, everyone has influences. But some of these Christian rap clichés need to be laid to rest. How many times do we have to hear average emcees rhyming “Christ” and “nice,” “Jesus” and “please us,” or “lyrical,” “miracle” and “spiritual”?

If all what you do is just like what everybody else does, then why should anybody be interested in you? If you’re involved in hip-hop ministry, that’s the question that begs an answer.

Because the last thing we need is just another Christian emcee.