Editor’s Note: This entry launches the first of what will be monthly postings from Sketch the Journalist about the history of Christian hip hop. Additional resources (including an excellent overview mixtape) are listed at the end of this article for your benefit.
While mainstream hip hop is hitting its late-30’s, its Christian counterpart is roughly ten years younger.
Although the term “gospel rap” can still raise some eyebrows, the hip hop culture has always had a social conscious and flirted with all religious beliefs from Buddhism to Islam. Adding Christianity to the mix wasn’t really a surprise given its largely African-American participants’ spiritual backgrounds. If nothing else, Christ has withstood grandly within hip hop.
So where did gospel rap get its start? And where is it now? The following is a (very) brief rundown at how the hip hop community is using this music to entertain and enlighten.
In the Beginning
Because it was an emerging subculture with very little historical documentation there is actually some debate as to how and where holy hip hop got its start. At the very least, we know it first became public in the early to mid 80’s, mainly in Nashville, TN (Christian music’s capital) and through the Los Angeles underground.
Some of the first recordings were limited to singles and include M.C. Sweet’s Jesus Christ (The Gospel Beat) [Lection/Polygram, 1982] and Stephen Wiley’s Bible Break [Brentwood Records, 1985]. Both selections were heavy on the Sunday School lesson lyrics and extremely dated, Kurtis Blow-influenced beats and delivery.
Freedom of Soul “This is Love”
In the west, groups like L.P.G. claim to have been rapping in the church since 1984. Houston’s Apocalypse put the Word on wax around the same time.
Others, like Michael Peace, S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ), Dynamic Twins, and J.C. Crew, found a home too, with national distribution through Nashville-based companies such as Broken Records, Brainstorm Artists International, and Word Records Limited. Their musical style made some progression, but even its fans had to admit it didn’t quite match what moved crowds at the skating rink or over the airwaves.
During this time many Christian MCs felt somewhat betwixt. They were dealing with an outside world that wouldn’t accept them and a church community that was slow to embrace. It was this mix of faith and secular music that challenged, if not vexed, many throughout the 80’s period.
Unsurprisingly, it was not until groups like Nashville’s white-bread dc Talk mixed pop and rap in the early 1990’s that acceptance grew and Christian hip hop started to feel at home with its brethren.