Rapping on Heaven's Door

Can Christian hip-hop save Enock from his demons?

This combination of elements -- marketing, Christianity and Herring's forte, rap -- is central not only to this third annual event he's putting on this weekend. It's also central to Juan James's new solo album, AWEthentic, the soul-bearing project that Herring's Much Luvv label produced after he invited his old friend to move down here and get away from his troubles in Philly.

Herring in many ways has taken the reins of the Houston scene from early MCs like Lil' Raskull and Nuwine, who helped establish it in the '90s. Raskull has performed at many churches but never once a secular club, he says.

"People operate a business, and part of their business is people coming in and drinking and being social, and we can't go into arenas like that to shoot that down," says the 31-year-old, who was born Delbert Harris. "We have to make material that's more subtle. We can't go in and talk about demonic warfare. They ain't goin' like that."

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.

Although a brand name in the Christian hip-hop world, Raskull estimates that his top albums have moved no more than 25,000 copies. It's frustrating -- "hell," he calls it -- considering how dominant the secular market is.

"Hip-hop is one of the top-selling genres of music, but yet the majority of Christian music is bought by middle-aged white women. What do they need for Lil' Raskull?"

The participants at the morning workshop are asking the same questions. The session's theme centers around "evangelizing through music," which is a rosy way of saying "invading secular formats." The twin successes of "Jesus Walks" and The Passion of the Christ are cited frequently throughout the morning and night.

"I'm not saying every verse should have 'Jesus' in it. It depends who you trying to reach. If you trying to reach people in the street, you might just run them off," says the Reverend Harris, who explains that packaging the Word differently does not mean abandoning it.

He cites the millions that Mel Gibson made with his spring gorefest: "Hollywood sees that you can make money off of the Lord." He points to James in the back of the room and adds, "Brother Enock has been out in the mainstream with the Gospel."

James chimes in later: "I've heard it said, 'If you're successful, then you've compromised.' It's like, watch, once you take Jesus out, you'll sell a million copies. How do you do it, being successful without feeling like you've sold out?"

Someone asks how much major groups like Gospel Gangstas or the Cross Movement will pull in for events, and James and Herring toss out estimates of $5,000 or $10,000 at most.

"That's got to change," says Harris. "Not to say we're in it for the money, but we've got the demand." Harris has been exceptionally shrewd in getting his son, Lil' J, booked into mainstream venues like sporting events and even a Ludacris show over spring break at South Padre. He found no apparent contradiction in warming up the stage for Luda, whose recent hits includes such gems as "Baby rub on ya nipples / Some call me Ludacris / Some call me Mr. Wiggles / Far from little / Make ya mammary glands jiggle."

"See, we didn't grace the stage with him, because when he came on, he did his thing, but being able to open up for him, we have a chance to grace his audience with something that's tasteful," says Harris in an earlier interview. "We may not be able to have that opportunity with that large amount of people on the Christian side."

"What we need to do," concludes Harris at the workshop, "and this is what Enock is doing in his latest project -- we as believers need to rise up against this hypocrisy in the church."

That project, AWEthentic, bristles with James's vocal furor from the very first track.

"I refuse to be a patty-cake, patty-cake faker man," he sing-songs 11 seconds in, continuing:

"You ain't real on the mic, this is what you should write down / You should talk about how you struggle with sin right now / I tried telling my story, they said it wasn't cool / Don't you wonder what we do when we ain't in the pew?"

Four songs later, he answers his own question, coming correct on his adult video supplies, his infidelity and the porn crates that started it all. Track six, "Runnin," lets loose on immodest churchgoers who show up on Sunday dressed for a Nelly video:

"In God's house, I don't see any church / All I see is cleavage and miniskirts… / So Sunday service look like a Saturday / Club scene-slash-cabaret… / There's more sex in the church than sex in the city."

By the time the listener arrives at the final jam, "Still Here," a thumbnail sketch of James's upbringing, you can accuse him of many things, but not of holding back.

It's hard not to admire a guy who has the sack to offer up such a public confession, especially in a post-Clinton culture of moral evasion. Then again, if he hadn't gotten caught, why did he need to turn himself in?

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