A conversation about craft and content with one of the best underground hip-hop collectives around.
The strongest indicator of how a refugee will respond to war, relocation and finally settling into a new culture is simply age. It’s difficult for adults to learn a new language, new ways of doing things. But children tend to absorb everything about their new setting, almost seamlessly blending in with the natives.
Fortunately for Ruslan, frontman of San Diego hip-hop collective The Breax, he arrived in America at a young age. His family was forced to flee Azerbaijan, a small Eastern European nation near Turkey, when the Muslim majority began violently persecuting Christians. Dropped into southern California, the young Ruslan absorbed the local culture, heavily steeped in hip-hop, like a sponge. He eventually went too far into the culture, briefly selling weed, before returning to his faith and founding The Breax with Baltimore transplants BELEAF (DJ, vocals) and MicB (drums/production).
If it were possible to return to the Bronx in the early 1970s and ask the original founders of hip-hop what they hoped the genre would grow into, they would probably be happier with two black college kids and an Eastern European immigrant coming together to rap over beats from Russia than with the mainstream persona of hip-hop, in which self-proclaiming former thugs use their celebrity status to sell flavored water.
Oh, and one more thing about these guys: Their faith is the center of their music. But they don’t see themselves breaking into the Christian music industry. Instead, they labor on in Southern California, touring with up-and-coming mainstream hip-hop acts, and opening for the legendary Arrested Development (calm down, Bluth lovers … before it was a TV show, A.D. was the name of a groundbreaking hip-hop crew). Their career is built one relationship, and one fan, at a time. Along the way, The Breax released the first ever “hybrid DVD,” a combination of a documentary on the group, two music videos and the band’s first three albums in mp3 format.
Ruslan shared his thoughts on standing between the Christian and mainstream music worlds, on how The Breax function as outsiders in both.
On being innovative.
First of all, I do want to have a platform to reach the world and the general market. A lot of times, the Christian market doesn’t quite understand what that means and how that looks. A lot of Christian music is just the faith version of whatever the latest secular fad is. We want to be the head, and not the tail. That being said, I don’t really know where we fit in the general market. Often, it’s a catch-22: we’re too churchy for the secular market, and too relevant for the Church. The awesome part is that technology allows us to connect directly with our fans. Most people aren’t concerned with labels, they just want to hear good music. What we do probably doesn’t make a lot of business sense, but we’ve seen God use what we do to reach people in the church and out of the church, overseas and in colleges. That’s why we do it.
On finding a way into the general market.
Working in entertainment is all about who you know, not about how good you are. We do our best to get to know people, and try and understand where people are coming from. I’ve had a relationship with Speech from Arrested Development for a while, which is why they put us on the bill when they’re in San Diego. We do a lot of local stuff in our city with the hip-hop community, and that’s how we’ve built a presence in the general market.
On the declining state of hip-hop.
The commercial version of hip-hop has become very watered down, very formulaic. People aren’t buying as much hip hop as they once did. There’s very few big-budget hip-hop albums that I get excited about, apart from the new Jay-Z (due out in September). There’s a lot of really fresh, innovative music being made, but the platform isn’t there for it to be heard by a broad audience. As the divide between commercial hip-hop and independent music shrinks with the progression of technology, the playing field will become level. That’s how we see our music spreading.
I purge myself of hip-hop for a time before I record, to make sure I don’t copy anyone’s style. I listen to a lot of U2 and a lot of Fred Hammond. I just got the new Derek Webb album, and it hasn’t left my car’s CD player for this whole week. I love that you can listen to the album five times, and get something new each time. Rap music tends to be very straightforward. It’s either “I sell drugs!” or if it’s Christian, its “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I want to create music with layers.
On the church vs. the club.
The mainstream market is actually more responsive. I think people have a hunger for God, for spiritual things. I think often times, because of the sin battle, we suppress it. When we go into bars and clubs, the response is better than in church. With church folks, we have to really break it down for fundamentals for them to understand. We have to spell out what we do, and back it up with specific scriptural references. Which is fine. As Paul writes, we’re trying to be “all things to all men” so that some may be saved. We are supposed to be all things to the world, but also to the folks in the church. But we tend to get more love in the general market.
Seth Tower Hurd serves as Marketing Director at Parkview Christian Church in the Chicago Suburbs, one of the fasts growing churches in America. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.