The Awkward Story Of Christian Hip Hop
Christian Rock has been finger gunning its way into the charts for a long time and in a lot of different guises. Some rockstar runs out of blow and has a religious experience or a pastor thinks that his guitar is the way to reach the kids. Either way the results tend to be difficult to watch.
The rap game has its fair share of acts trying the same thing. There’s a lot of artists in the game who speak about religion but there’s only so much you can say about God and still talk about trapping. For those who take it seriously it means sacrificing a certain amount of rap credibility. Here’s a brief history of Christian Hip Hop.
In The Beginning There Was Nothing
In the early Eighties rap began finding its feet and Christian hip hop wasn’t too far behind. It would be pretty harsh to pick apart early Christian rap songs given how bad hip hop was in general. We’re gonna do it anyway, starting with the first Christian hip hop album ‘Bible Break’. Stephen Wiley’s 1985 release is predated by the Mc Sweet release The Gospel Beat by three years. The Gospel Beat doesn’t really qualify as a rap song though. It’s more of a funk track run through the filter of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
‘Bible Break’ can be considered the first true Christian rap release. The album compounds the goofiness of early rap with the complete lack of shame only religious aping of pop culture can bring. We won’t go too hard on anything that existed pre ‘Straight Outta Compton’ so ‘Bible Break’ can slide.
The 90s: God Goes Gangsta
The 90s was the heyday of gangsta rap. Christian hip hop followed the wave and developed into a similar sound to what Tupac and Biggie were doing. This wasn’t just in the production. The lyrics heavily reflected Gangsta rap too. Groups like Gospel Gangstaz came up in the 90s to try and appeal to the believer in every Snoop Dogg fan. There’s an irony in styling yourself after the thing you’re trying to take people away from. That didn’t deter any religious gangsta rappers from giving it a go though. Credit where it’s due, a lot of these guys were ex-gang members trying to use their experience to save others from going down the same paths.
There are some decent productions in Christian hip hop from the 90s but even at its best it’s hard to marry it to the lyrics.
Some acts decided to avoid touching on typical rap elements at all which immediately sounds weird. The other side isn’t much better. The Gospel Gangstaz track Mobbin’ spends more time on Tik Tokk and Mr. Solo assuring that they’re still hard than actually delivering a message. The ‘Jesus is just like a rapper’ schtick isn’t doing much for anyone. Claiming that you Bible is like your gun isn’t too convincing either.
Most of the impact Christian hip hop had back in the day was in outreach to communities. Rap festivals organized through churches might not seem like something that would get a lot of traction but Rap Fest, Fire Fest and more have been around long enough to prove the impact they’re having.
Christian Hip Hop Today
It’s always easier to criticize things with hindsight. The classic have already stood the test of time and the failures have already failed. Looking at today’s Christian hip hop it’s easy to see that it’s grown since the 90s. The rap game has developed enough that it’s been able to find itself a market. It’s not looking like it’ll take over hip hop any time soon but there’s a respectable amount of artists working in Christian hip hop to validate the genre.
No Malice, one half of Clipse along with his brother Pusha T, released his first solo album in 2013. Hear Ye Him was a religion focused album with features from his brother and other artists. King T himself is no stranger to bringing religion to his music but never to the extent No Malice did.
Considering how much christian hip hop bases itself on helping people there’s a weirdly condescending vein running through it. The 90s comparisons of your audience being your congregation get a pass. What doesn’t is people like No Malice talking up a positive message while calling people whores, that’s a harder one to make sense of. Even worse, Gospel Gangstaz member Tik Tokk going down for his role in a murder doesn’t help with the good guy image.
Aside from the artists there are enough publications specifically for Christian hip hop to show that the market exists distinct from the general Christian Music audience. Rapzilla and Rap Remnant cover enough about Christian hip hop that there’s a clear audience.