For more than three decades, hip-hop has evolved beyond a genre of music to a lifestyle that has sex appeal and worldwide influence on everything from movies and fashion to houses and vehicles. A formidable genre for conservative music lovers, hip-hop is both influential and highly controversial. While many of the industry’s critics speak against its lyrics, lewdness, loudness, and lack of values in video themes, industry advocates embrace the diversity hip-hop brings.
“Undeniably, hip-hop is one of the strongest tools by which we can reach a segment of our youth and demonstrate the ideals stated in our mission,” said James Ammons, chancellor of North Carolina Central University (NCCU). In addition to co-sponsoring the Hip Hop Music Summit with Atlantic Records, the school offers a Hip-Hop 101 course taught by rap pioneer, Christopher “Play” Martin. Speaking to the initiative, Sharon Saunders, assistant to the chancellor for public relations at NCCU advised, “We wanted to have a discussion about rap, and whether it’s going in the right direction. Are there other ways to express ourselves in rap besides exploiting women and romanticizing crime?”
Fearing the repercussions of changing their method and/or their message (a decrease in fan base, which ultimately equates to a decrease in sales) artists fail to see that hip-hop’s mass appeal is simply a launching pad for something greater. In sync with Ammons and Saunders, one hip-hop fan asserts, “For the most part, people just want to hear good music that gets them through the day. So it’s OK to keep the method–just change the message.”
Holy Hip-Hop 101
Maintaining the method while conveying a different message is holy hip-hop. Akin to holy hip-hop music is freeing words wrapped in pulsating beats. Artists skillfully combine hip-hop’s lyrical and social conscious rap origins with gospel and urban themes. Some even combine hip-hop with crunk, R&P (rhythm and praise is dubbed as an alternate to rhythm and blues), pop, and/or soul. Along with being diverse in their approach and taking on the social responsibility that comes with being in the public eye, holy hip-hop artists set standards where young people especially are encouraged to have fun and be themselves without compromising good values.
News for most hip-hop aficionados, holy hip-hop emerged alongside rap in the late 1980′s. While percolating in a variety of circles stateside and internationally, last year, the genre gained media attention via Newsweek, Jet, Geraldo at Large, Reuters, The Source’s blog, CNN, and the Associated Press. Momentum was so great that the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences, added a Grammy category titled, Best Rock or Best Gospel Rap. * According to the Gospel Music Association, sales growth for rock and gospel rap is largely due to churches embracing diversity in music to appeal to youth and adults.
One of the most notable pioneers of holy hip-hop is a group called, Gospel Gangstaz. Founded in 1989 by South Central Los Angeles native and former gang member, Mr. Solo, group members include Chille’ Baby and Tik Tokk. From a life of “selling crack, drive-by shootings, car-jacking, and illicit sex,” the “gangstaz” managed to become a part of a growing body of holy hip-hop artists, who speak to life themes and challenges outside of traditional gospel music. Key influencers of Atlanta’s movement, Canton Jones, Big Ran, and eDDie Velez, help uncover hip-hop’s newest regime.
Canton Jones for Platinum Two-time Grammy nominee and aspiring platinum artist, Canton Jones is the epitome of versatility. With songs ranging from hip-hop, R&P, to soul, CJ, as he is known, is better described as a total package artist. His ability to generate music that crosses virtually all age groups and several genres is uncanny.
Jones is a singer, songwriter, producer, and vocal coach from Deerfield Beach, Florida. The Morehouse College alum is best known for creating “situational lyrics that relate to every day life.” His tour credentials include concerts in the U.S. and abroad: Africa, Denmark, Poland, Russia, etc. Besides being engaging, Jones’ music is exciting, thought provoking, and absolutely fun.
The multi-gifted artist began producing music at age 16. Like many of his peers, it was a challenge to enjoy the hip-hop lifestyle without compromising his core values. After being introduced to holy hip-hop in 2001, Jones’ life made an abrupt turn.
Like having your cake and eating it too, Jones found that he could use his talent to deliver a clean message, entertain, and encourage his audience. While it is a challenge to produce music that is both entertaining and clean, from Jones’ perspective, holy hip-hop music is the best fit. “A person has to be more creative in order not to curse. They’ve got to be more creative to keep [your attention] without using sexual content [etc.]. It’s challenging to do [holy hip hop] and still be ‘hot’ but we accept the challenge.”
In his second album, The Password: Access Granted, the “Cute” single “encourages dating without compromise or indiscretion. Jones’ third album, Love Jones ranked #23 on Billboard’s Top Gospel Chart in the first few weeks following its release. According to Jones, the album was named for his daughter Love Angel Jones and the expression of God’s love.
The message Jones delivers is about love because he says, “It’s real”. “When you genuinely feel the love–that you are there to help, people will receive and relate to your message better. That’s one thing that always gets people–the fact that you love on them.”
The A&A Way Redefining holy hip-hop’s image is Big Ran’s goal. “Our style of relating through music is differentfrom others aswe take a morepersonal approach to life in general,” Ran advised.
Best known for his role in producing various Mr. Del (of Three 6 Mafia fame), Lil iROCC, and Canton Jones projects, Ran is looking to do holy hip-hop, the A&A (his record company) way.”We want to build a relationship with our listeners by encouraging them instead of preaching to them. We want our listeners to know that we are real people that lead real lives just like they do. We also love God just like they do.”
A native of San Francisco, California, prior to becoming a holy hip-hop artist, Ran participated in the mainstays of street life including smoking, drugs, alcohol, pornography, violence, theft, and eventually, jail. The events of 911 led Ran to turn his life around as well as the music he listened to. “The music I listened to at that time was extremely influential in the decisions I made…I believe that my purpose is to influence people to do good through music the same way music influenced me to do bad early on.”
Ran’s debut compilation album, The A&A Way, features a host of holy hip-hop artists including Canton Jones, Mouthpiece, Kay Bizzy, Mr. Del, Da Fam, and Adrien the Rock Star. With song subjects that vary, Ran says the album is, “motivational and aggressive at times”. He also describes the album as “mellow, soothing, danceable, catchy, and thought provoking”. Uniquely packaged, the album combines elements of Southern bounce, R&P, and East and West coast hip-hop into one.
Also known for his nu-life-soul music projects, Ran’s pattern as a holy hip-hop artist is promoting a first class standard of living as well as a positive reality. “Music should be relevant to currentsituations, [environments], andlife issues without being negative,” he advised.
New Testament eDDie Velez is a TV and radio personality and host of the Holy Hip-Hop syndicate program. He is also the founder of The Fellowship of Holy Hip-Hop an organization that has promoted the advancement of holy hip-hop for 11 years.
Velez’s industry experience dates back 26 years ago when hip-hop was known as rap and was only played on Mr. Magic’s Friday night radio show. According to Velez, that was when a good time was nothing more than a “DJ, two turntables, records, and a rapper to keep the party movin’.”
A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, Velez is a new testament to the holy hip-hop movement. Even though he began rapping in 1981, Velez did not start on the holy hip-hop circuit until 1998 when he debuted on Hot 97.5′s holy hip-hop radio pilot in Atlanta. Prior to the program, Velez spent much of his time on the streets where he was promised everything short of peace and good health. In 1993, Velez’s life turned around completely and he made a commitment to live for God.
In addition to his media role, Velez is currently the senior director of Youth Development at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, under the direction of Bishop Eddie Long. Weekly, his ministry reaches approximately 1, 200 youth and young adults. True to his music roots and vibrant personality, Velez incorporates the elements of hip-hop in everything he does including graffiti fonts in his PowerPoint presentations. His natural ability to spit rhymes is so fluid it even comes across in his responses. Often, he surprises his young listeners who soon realize that neither his age and experience nor his status as a youth pastor has anything to do with his ability to vibe.
Velez, who has talked with many prominent artists throughout his career, encourages the diverse approaches that holy hip-hop artists have. From being crunk to giving encouragement, what matters most to Velez is the impact made on society. “At the end of the day, I have to ask, is my service bettering or worsening society?” he remarked. Equal to the music, beats, and flow is the message. According to Velez, the motive of holy hip-hop is to “pick up the mic and encourage people in Christ.” Since his life is now Christ, Velez attests, “This is it. This where it’s at.”
Subliminal in nature, and like pictures in a photo album, holy hip-hop artists leave a lasting impression in the minds of listeners. Collectively, artists are proving that hip-hop is a genre of music that easily adapts itself across cultures. As hip-hop continues to evolve, most assuredly, it will expand to encompass the holy regime whose artists, lyrics, beats, flava, and flow have already made an impact, worldwide.