Since Relevant’s slice reporting Cross Movement Records dropping The Ambassador set off a flurry of discussion, it seems high time to address the topic of Christian hip-hop head on.
In my career, I’ve tried to reconcile my love of hip-hop and my job in Christian music. My show can be heard weeknights on FUSE FM in Midland/Bay City/Saginaw Michigan, one of only a handful of radio stations playing Christian hip hop (note: they also play positive secular hits). In order to create a playlist that includes solid urban music from Christians, they scour the internet for great unkowns like Canadian rapper J-CLX.
Other times, my efforts have led to humiliation. In 2004, I was interview for a documentary directed by Christopher “Play” Martin, half of the 90’s rap duo Kid & Play (and star of House Party). The film was distributed by Maverik Entertainment, and was available at Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy. After seeing the film roughly a year after my interview, I was too embarrassed to show it to my friends and family. It was absurdly cheesy, and, to be blunt, featured terrible music. But the movie was a microcosm of what happens all too often in Christian hip-hop. The artists and the die-hard fans don’t realize that everyone else is laughing at them.
For all the success of CCM, and Christian bands who make a living in the mainstream, Christian hip-hop continues to lag behind, wheezing and just barely alive. White Christian youth group kids and college students don’t seem to care for it. This is important because suburban white kids used their purchasing power to make hip-hop huge in the ’90s. And for all the support the traditional black church gives to Gospel music (the genre outsells CCM consistently), African American Christians largely ignore Christian hip-hop.
While I may not have the answers, my seven years in the music industry have helped me see the obstacles facing Christian hip-hop.
Problem #1. Business.
This is a real chicken-or-the-egg issue. Most music directors in Christian music simply won’t consider hip-hop (outside of TobyMac, who can get any kind of song played, because of his massive success). The reason they give for this is pretty straightforward: “people don’t like Christian hip-hop, and the evidence for this is that it doesn’t sell.”
The problem with this thinking is that radio is still what drives individual downloads and album sales. So it can be argued that Christian hip-hop never makes any money because it’s not on the radio. Even in this world of new media, the most surefire way to break a new artist is through radio play. Radio play turns into records sold, which turns into tour dates booked, which is puts all the pieces in place for a new artist to gain national exposure.
This isn’t going to change. Radio stations are so flooded with songs that it takes a radio promoter (someone who pitches songs to radio stations) pushing a song for a station to even consider it. From what I’ve seen working in radio, it costs roughly $4,000 to promote a song to radio. Label execs were only willing to try hip-hop so many times before they said “enough!” With a few exceptions, hip-hop isn’t even sent to radio stations anymore.
This radio-driven process can be circumvented by building a grassroots following through a lot of church concerts and coffeehouse shows. However, the church normally won’t touch hip-hop, and the genre doesn’t lend itself to the chilled out vibe of your local coffee shop. Without radio, the only option left is touring…and no promoter wants to book a Christian rap concert, mainly because no one will show up.
My good friend Matt “CraCajaC” Gaskins, a credible Chicago rapper, has discovered that most people find a guy standing on a stage and rapping to a CD to be … boring. So he put together a 5-piece band to back him. Even after offering free shows to churches (which would require him to pay the band out of pocket), he still couldn’t book any concrts. He now plans on taking his art into Chicago hip-hop bars
Still, this isn’t a viable option for most Christian rappers, as only a few cities nationwide have venues where people will turn out for up-and-coming hip-hop. The bottom line: as hard as it is to make a living in music, Christian rappers have it ten times harder. Most Christian rappers can only pursue music part time.
Problem #2. Beats.
In hip-hop, great beats make money. A lot of money. Recently, the “ringtone rap” phenomenon has proven that rappers don’t even need a great album or song to make money. All that’s needed is that one unforgettable chorus riding an ear candy beat that four million people will download to their cell phones. (See: Souljaboy, MIMS).
Conversely, great songs laced over cheap beats still sound bad. But great beats cost A LOT of money. The hip-hop producers who makes the kind of beats that turn singles into smash hits (Will.I.Am, Cool & Dre, Timbaland, Kanye West) can easily pull $80,000 per song for their talent. And there are ten or twelve songs on an album.
To truly take a Christian rapper’s album “into the mainstream,”a budget of at least $500,000 would be needed. In the history of Christian rap, only one album has had a budget in that ballpark, and the album flopped. So Christian rappers make albums with “budget beats.” Which is why there is such a distinctive “Christian rap sound.”
Put another way, Christian rap, with a few exceptions (Grits, Group 1 Crew) has never sold well. No record exec on a larger label is going to front a lot of money for beats for a rap album, when a much smaller budget will record a rock band that can put the label in the black, as opposed to the rapper, who will probably serve the label as a tax write off.
So, if Christian rappers get signed at all, they’re either on cash-poor boutique labels, or they are on larger Christian labels that give them a tiny budget to work with.
Problem #3. The Rappers.
The Ambassador scandal was a glimpse into is the very odd, and at times dysfunctional world of “holy hip-hop.” A break off from the already tiny Christian hip-hop genre, the Holy Hip-hop movement believes in “rapping the Gospel,” and has even been known to call out other Christian rappers who they see as “ashamed of the Gospel.” (For more on this movement, you can watch the aforementioned film Holy Hip-Hop on Hulu. Please note, I’ve lost 50lbs since that interview).
The holy hip-hop movement is led by rap group/label owners Cross Movement. The paradox of the Holy Hip-Hop movement is that the motto is “reach the lost.” Yet the attempt at street swagger mixed with obscure biblical references is rarely credible, and often comical.
“One day we takin off baby and ever since the Lord saved me
I’ve been waitin for the day we can say, it’s all gravy.”
-Cross Movement, “Cry No More
Outside of the holy hip-hop movement, Christian rappers across the board struggle with finding a musical identity. Hip-hop is built on big personalities, storytelling, and a fun, party vibe. But within those elements, great rappers find a way to build their would through words, to show you a piece of their human existence. Many Christian rappers are trying to create a “clean” version of the secular rappers loved by kids in youth groups.
The problem is that imitation art isn’t art at all, even when it’s made for noble reasons.
Hope For Change
Despite all these problems, there are a few Christians making great hip-hop. Underground legends Mars Ill continue to churn out great music to a largely secular fanbase. J-CLX and Manafest (who’s unapologetic about the fact that he’s a white Canadian skateboarder) show some hope that there’s a developing Christian hip-hop scene north of the border. Former LA Symphony members Flynn Adam and Pigeon John have teamed up for the tremendously catchy project Root Beer and recently shared the stage with N.E.R.D. From the talk I’ve heard within the music industry, underground rapper Playdough is poised to release. Redcloud, the world’s only Native American Christian rapper is on tour with MURS this summer. Portland natives Ohmega Watts and Braille continue to find fans in backpacker circles.
The problems of the Christian hip-hop subgenre are not going away. The church isn’t going to support hip-hop they way it supports Adult contemporary artists like Casting Crowns or youth group bands like Stellar Kart. It’s up to the individual Christian rappers to get their music into the hands of hip-hop fans, who often as not, don’t share their faith. And even when they do that, the odds of them making any “real” money (i.e. enough to pay the rent without the help of a second job at a coffee shop) are pretty slim.
Still, as someone who deeply loves both Jesus and hip-hop, I hope the good ones continue.