Rapping on Heaven's Door
In the beginning, Juan James is just a kid. A seven-year-old latchkey kid in his hometown of Philadelphia with a couple of hours to kill after school one day. Instead of watching cartoons, he wanders into his parents' bedroom.
It's a yellow crate, maybe orange, that he finds in the stand on his father's side of the bed. There are magazines in it, the kind of magazines he's never seen before, and he looks at them.
Something stirs from within -- a foreign feeling that, years later, Juan James, a recovering sex addict, will describe as his innocence dying. As a Genesis story, it's fitting: His tree of knowledge was a stack of dirty magazines.
The "crazy dreams" arrived shortly thereafter. Nothing especially explicit at this point, just, say, a woman walking down the street without a shirt on.
He loses his virginity at age 14 to a prostitute in a warehouse where he stocks sodas. Three years later he knocks up his girlfriend and drops out of high school. The two never marry.
Scratch forward a decade to 2000. Juan James is an MC with the Christian hip-hop supergroup the Cross Movement, and he goes by the stage name Enock. His name refers to Enoch, a character in the book of Genesis who lived for 365 years before God took him away.
He explains: "One of the questions that I asked myself was what kind of relationship with God did this man have for God to say, 'You know what, you don't even have to worry about a funeral. I'm just going to take you.' And so that's the kind of relationship with God that I want."
But here at the stroke of the millennium, it isn't the kind of relationship with God that he's had. Juan James has a secret, an addiction that makes his righteousness ring hollow. If anyone finds out, he'll go down as a hypocrite. At best.
James is 30 now and has moved down to Houston at a friend's invitation to get a fresh start. On a summery Saturday afternoon, he's sitting in a prayer room at a large church called Fishers of Men on the west side of town, waiting to perform. The light falls on him from a side window, its blinds drawn but aglow with the warm late-afternoon sun.
An imposing figure, James carries his weight up top on a muscular upper-body frame. His broad shoulders and thick biceps are like barbells, his shaved head is almost bald, and his eyes narrow sharply at the corners. He has on a Phat Farm T-shirt, jean shorts and slick blue sneaks. On one arm his name is tattooed in pointy letters; on the other, near his hand, he has a tattoo of a Jesus fish.
Juan James went to church with his mom when he was a little boy and started getting serious about faith in his mid-teens. But being "saved" didn't save him from a struggle with sexual addiction. Just because he'd accepted Jesus as his savior didn't mean the urges went away. Christianity, he discovered, was not the Band-Aid Christians sometimes bill it as -- or even the force James would rap about with his Christian hip-hop group. Porn, though, was a force -- a magnetic, corrosive force that was affecting his mind and pretty soon would start rippling through his life as well.
This didn't jibe with the person he played on stage.
Back in the day (around 1995) in the Philadelphia area, a large collective of MCs joined up to create what would become one of the most popular "underground" holy hip-hop crews anywhere, the Cross Movement. They toured and performed almost exclusively at religious venues, churches, outreaches and the like.
In 1997 they released Heaven's Mentality, following that up with House of Representatives the next year. Compared to secular hip-hop hits, these albums really didn't make a lot of noise; 29,000 and 46,000 units moved, respectively. At any rate, James wasn't counting on that cheddar to get by; he made his living doing construction, church maintenance and auto repair and has yet to bank his living on a rap career.
Lyrically the Cross Movement approach couldn't get much more Christian short of hanging beats behind a Bible-study class.
Take "Introducin'," a track off House of Representatives that James himself penned: "Hearts are altered to the altar / He died for all walks of life / He's the Lord of all cultures / Perfector, resurrector, all life is His / Sin-disconnector."
Yet there was no sin-disconnecting for James. Instead, he learned how to compartmentalize.
"It was up to the point where I masked. I began to manage it well," he says. "You sort of become a good manager instead of being out of control with it. Knowing that, okay, I got a responsibility, I got an image to maintain, okay -- uh, since I know I gotta minister this week, I'm not going to do anything of a sexual perversion or nature this week. I'll wait till after I get home. See? You start to manage it; you start to, uh, you know, find ways to still not feel guilty when you're on stage telling people what they shouldn't do.
"But when it's all said and done, you're waiting to do it," he continues. "You're so much of a good manager that nobody can really tell what's really going on with you."
There was never a point at which James could affix the cliché "That's when I knew I had a problem." He'd always known he had a problem. And he'd always wanted to beat it. The itch would be faint at first, an urge welling up from the depth of his body, and he would give in. The moment would be sweet and fleeting, sometimes even including an actual human being rather than a tape or a magazine. In the time it took for the urge to exit his body, a wave of emptiness would rush in, and he would start kicking himself again for not being able to resist, wondering, What's wrong with me, dude?
He says he tried to open up some dialogue about accountability with others in the group, but it fizzled out after one or two meetings. (The Cross Movement did not respond to several interview requests for this story.)
One day James discovered that he'd maxed out his cable bill from pay-per-view orders. It was yet another small sign that he had a big problem. He resigned from the Cross Movement in 2000 in the midst of marital difficulties with his wife, whom he'd married in Philadelphia two years earlier. When he tried to get straight with a few friends about his sexual addiction, asking for prayer or help, they freaked.
"I don't think they were strong enough to pretty much handle the information and the content that like, 'Man, this dude's going through that?' " he says.
At 26 James had some issues to work through, including a revelation that left him questioning his entire identity. His mother's stepbrother called him one day out of the blue after seeing a Cross Movement video on cable. He congratulated James on his work and his ministry.
"And he said, 'You know, I've been meaning to tell you this for a long time but just didn't know how to tell you,' " says James, trying to reconstruct the conversation. "Then he got quiet. I said, 'Wassup?' He said, 'I guess I should tell you, huh?' I said, 'Yeah, wassup?' He said, 'Juan, I think I'm your dad.' "
There's a pause, then and now, as he lets it soak in. The man he thought was his biological father had left the family when James was ten.
"My jaw hit the floor, dude. I was like, I didn't really know how to feel, but I told him, I said, 'Yo, man, if this is a joke, I don't ever want to hear from you again.' And he said, 'Juan, I'm 99.9 percent sure.' And then I began to look at some old pictures, and I look like his kids."
Reeling from the news, from his crumbling marriage and from his absolute inability to hold down the Seventh Commandment, Juan James hit rock bottom in the summer of 2002. "In my darkest hour, the sun rose in the south," he writes in his CD liner notes.
And an old friend in Houston invited him for a visit.
When Juan James tells his story, it's rife with contradictions. Oddly, that makes him the perfect face for holy hip-hop, which also has had to outgrow its own oxymoronic overtones. It's rap: You expect bitches and blunts, not Bibles.
At its most basic, Christian hip-hop simply borrows the MC-plus-DJ musical aesthetic -- beats, rhymes and samples -- and uses it to deliver a Christian message. Unlike secular hip-hop, which leans aggressive in its party posture, holy hip-hop often takes the same swagger and hoists the cross instead, advocating a Gospel lifestyle.
Some date the subgenre back to the mid-'80s, crediting Stephen Wiley's "Bible Break" as one of the first distinctively Christian tracks to emerge. The ensuing decade and a half saw the movement largely trying to gain acceptance from church communities that focused on the unholy elements of its secular counterpart.
"I think the attitude was more or less that rap is not something to be respected," says one Christian MC. "It was more or less, 'C'mon why would we want rap in our church? That's like saying we want graffiti in our church. Or we want a DJ in our church. It just don't mean anything to us.' "
One Midwest church, James recalls, went so far as to outlaw rap in its bylaws.
"When you try to tell some established, more conservative folks that you're going to bring rap into the church, that's really what they think of: all the materialism, the sexual, explicit lyrics, that sort of thing," says Jason "Sketch" Bellini, a writer who has followed Christian hip-hop since the mid-'90s. "So that has been a hurdle.
"I think that [artists] felt a burden to really pack their lyrics very tightly with Scripture references and real, very overt Christian references so that it would be accepted in a church."
Christian hip-hop has grown tremendously, especially in the past five years, says Jon Hull, program director at KSBJ/89.3 FM, a contemporary Christian music station. "But, without mass-appeal exposure through radio stations devoted solely to the format 24/7 -- its growth potential is limited by the marginal exposure it receives," he writes in an e-mail.
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.
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.
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."
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?
"How much more shame when you get caught do you have to bear, you know?" he says. Exhaustion had worn him down. "I'm like, Lord, I don't want to get caught and have to deal with the shame of getting caught. Lemme just open myself up, because I really wanna be right in walking with God, so let me just tell on myself, let me just bear the shame of just sharing it, 'cause that's lighter than having my face smashed up on TV."
When he arrived in Houston last January, James marked the new beginning with a renewed effort to get clean. He says he looked at the patterns that often led to his sexual indulgences -- stress, frustration, depression -- and tried to substitute exercise or calling up friends when the devil inside came calling. He went through an abstinence training program in Waco.
"And also, you know what, the biggest thing is looking at women the way that God would look at women," he says, adding that he would reread the Bible to try to regain that innocence he lost at age seven. "Women are not meat, man, and ultimately when you deal with sin, it's basically selfishness, your self-gratification -- it's what you want."
James, who until recently worked during the day distributing medication for a pharmaceutical company, has remarried, and his wife is expecting. He is now attempting to make it on music and ministry alone, and he says it's not as hard to fight the errant thoughts anymore, because by opening up about his problems to anyone who'll listen, he's made his struggle transparent and, strangely, easier.
"Yeah, of course, you always risk something," he says about AWEthentic. "I was risking like just people questioning my motive for doing this, risking families hearing this and being mad at me. Risking being invited to churches and stuff and getting paid for my concerts." Even so, he says he's gained much more with the positive responses from those battling sexual addiction. Much Luvv touts some of those responses on its Web site, including one from a Dallas minister who admits to the same porn dependence and one from an MC from the UK who seeks to emulate that honesty.
James's mother, Rose Davis, says the family was surprised to hear the material but even prouder of his achievement, because she can remember him dreaming about making an album since his younger days. She says even her father, who's 70, likes it.
"That's a historical piece," says Richie "Slave" Douglas, a friend of James's who runs the holy hip-hop network www.dasouth.com. "Juan has definitely made a mark, and a very deep one, in the history of Gospel rap, and it's really pretty extraordinary, you know, what he did to actually come out and address that." Douglas says that James's confession has been received so well in the scene because it was a preemptive strike; because he hadn't gotten caught first, it's easier to view his honesty without cynicism.
"I've actually already dealt with artists who have also come to admittance because they realized that Juan did it first. So to say that what he did is revolutionary is an understatement."
At this year's Houston Holy Hip-Hop Achievement Awards, James won for lyricist of the year, CD of the year and artist of the year. The album obviously has changed his life. Hip-hop, though, doesn't look much different. That landscape of sexuality may never change. But Juan James says he's confident he won't fall back.
"Ultimately this was my changing point right here," he says. "God showed me -- you see who you are, banging these women, messing with this pornography -- you are who I died for. The pervert. The sexual addict. I died for you."
Having made his own sacrifice for others, the penance seems more complete.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.