Rapping on Heaven's Door

Can Christian hip-hop save Enock from his demons?

Conventional wisdom had dictated that Christian hip-hop never could succeed in the mainstream, and for quite some time that seemed to be the case. The genre's first challenge was winning over skeptical Christians. Ironically, now, in order to reach mainstream hip-hop audiences and break out of the church circuit, MCs may have to thin out that heavy preaching.

At this point the ceiling on sales stands at around 150,000 units for an album -- which is a rarity, but one that a Christian rap group such as Grits, on the Nashville-based Gotee Records, has achieved. It's an understatement to say that the genre has a long way to go before even approaching the multi-multi-multiplatinum plateaus of The Marshall Mathers LP and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

Madd Hatta, the morning show host on the Box (97.9 FM), says that although it's true that Christian MCs have to attenuate their message for the mainstream, crossover success ultimately comes down to catchy hits, plain and simple.

Juan James, holy hip-hop star, tells a tale of contradictions.
Daniel Kramer
Juan James, holy hip-hop star, tells a tale of contradictions.
Lil' J Xavier lights it up at a Houston holy hip-hop awards show.
Daniel Kramer
Lil' J Xavier lights it up at a Houston holy hip-hop awards show.

The radio personality seems to be on to something, because this spring, a curious thing happened: Jesus walked. He walked right out of the lips of a nascent hip-hop über-producer rhyming on his debut work. He walked right across the previously held divide between explicitly Christian material and just plain old explicit material. He walked right into radio play, right up the Billboard Top 20 and right onto MTV.

Part of that is simply because of sound. As an instrumental track, "Jesus Walks" murders it with its hot blend of military drum rolls, ominous beats and Little Orphan Annie chants simmering underneath Kanye West's hissing delivery. The tale spun is one that Juan James would appreciate: It's about a confessed sinner looking up to the heavens, rather than a sanctimonious saint looking down. And West brings these rhymes of God to a musical genre otherwise known for its Sodom-and-Gomorrah ways -- by being part and parcel of that moral wasteland, by being human. Ultimately "Jesus Walks" culminates in paradox: Destroy an artistic barrier by bringing it up.

"So here go my single dawg, radio needs this / They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God, my record won't get played."

In a pure sense, Kanye West isn't Christian hip-hop the way the Cross Movement is Christian hip-hop. Sure, he's Christian and a hip-hop star, and he made a hit song called "Jesus Walks," but most would skip over the religious handle that's been used to tag like-minded, less lucrative artists. Probably the quickest way to explain that is in the little print on the side of the CD case that says Roc-A-Fella, which is the current gold standard for mainstream hip-hop. Some in the Christian hip-hop community protested against West's CD being nominated recently for a Gospel Rap award. (The entire CD is hardly straight gospel.)

"You have to make it a way where they don't feel like something's being shoved down their throat," says Madd Hatta, referring to "Jesus Walks" as a turning point, what with its troubled narrator and stinging beats. As for a barrier against Christian artists on commercial radio, that may be more imagined than real, he says.

"They have to make hits, that's the bottom line," he says. "Now, what that is exactly, I don't know, but when it comes out, if it's a hit, radio'll want it." The unstated chicken-or-the-egg catch-22 is that if radio wants it, it has the power to make it a hit, anyway.

Still, Jason Bellini says that some Christian rappers are too quick to "play the Jesus card" -- that is, to blame slow success on discrimination rather than the fact that their music just isn't slick enough.

With all their talk about doing the right thing, Christian rappers are, obviously, expected to uphold Christian values in their work: to respect women, praise God and keep it clean. Beyond that, some debate how much an artist should address sin and fallibility. That's why Juan James decided it was finally time to keep it real.

It's ten minutes to nine on a Saturday morning, and most would figure this to be an ungodly hour for a hip-hop meeting, but presumably the 20 or so Christian MCs and producers who are gathered here weren't out getting crunk on booze and weed last night.

The Houston Holy Hip-Hop Achievement Awards' first workshop of the day is led by the Reverend Samuel Harris Jr., head of Pure Platinum Music Group and manager of his 12-year-old son, rapper Lil' J Xavier. Juan James settles in at the back of the meeting room at Liberty Revival Church, near Bobby Herring, the awards' organizer.

Herring, a.k.a. Tre9, is tall enough to sport a Pelle Pelle shirt that would fit most people like a gown, and he has a trim goatee and a narrow face that pokes out from under a ball cap. In his office, Herring has a bookshelf with two titles appropriately stacked next to each other near some Run-DMC vinyls: Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Marketing Basics.

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