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Joey’s Journey: Why the L.A. Symphony Co-Founder Left (and Returned To) Christian Rap

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“Christian hip hop is dumb!”

That was what L.A. Symphony co-founder Joey the Jerk told himself in 2006.

For the second time in six years his rap group had been confounded by business decisions that executives at record labels, distribution companies, and corporate conglomerates were making on their behalf.

Like a ferret with a 401k – the gatekeepers simply didn’t know how to cash in.

“I was heartbroken and said, ‘You know what? I can’t do this anymore.’”

Joey said the choice that pushed him toward self-preservation was one by their distributor – EMI Christian Music Group.

At the time, L.A. Symphony’s Disappear Here album, released on tobyMac’s Gotee Records label, was receiving airplay and support from college radio. The project included features from De La Soul’s Posdnuos, beats from Madlib and Evidence (Dilated Peoples), and cuts by DJ Rhettmatic (of the Beat Junkies). The secular underground superheroes drew the attention of Fat Beats who sought permission to press and release a vinyl version to their considerable, international customer base.

“That would have been huge but EMI said no,” Joey explained. “And I still don’t get it. It’s not like EMI ever put out vinyl. They [Fat Beats] are not taking your market! If anything, they were going to promote the album for you and you’re just stopping me from succeeding from a business perspective.”

This was not the first time L.A. Symphony had been frustrated by Christian hip hop’s gatekeepers. After being signed to Squint Entertainment in 2000, the group had high hopes that the label would guide them to the mainstream crossover success of fellow roster artists Sixpence None the Richer.

On Squint, the group recorded the Call It What You Want album that included tracks from Beastie Boys producer Mario C, the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, and Prince Paul. But alas, the label folded before the album could be officially released and the project was left in legal limbo.

With that history and growing sense that Christian businessmen would never fully understand how to sell hip hop, Joey decided to pursue a different format for his art.

Friends who had worked with various Christian Contemporary Music groups like dc talk, Superchic[k], and BarlowGirl encouraged Joey’s efforts toward crafting pop songs. He said he felt insecure with his vocal talents but still had a desire to create music that glorified God and helped its listeners better follow the path of Jesus.

The result was the Mold Me album released on Illect Recordings in 2011 under the name Joey’s Dream.

“I was really anti-Christian rap at that time because I felt like ‘Where can this go?’”

But a few years after the Joey’s Dream project was released, a conversation about the Coachella Music Festival with a co-worker gave him an idea. What about an L.A. Symphony reunion album? The crew had essentially disbanded after their final Gotee Records release and it was approaching the 15th anniversary of their debut album Composition No. 1.

Joey said that once he started texting some of his former bandmates they eventually all wanted in on the new project. They came together in 2014 and began to write and record the album that would be known as You Still On Earth?

Looking back, Joey describes the experience as “not awesome because we’re all in different places now in terms of Christianity or believing at all.”

“I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but we’re just not all on the same page.”

He said he was discouraged because the process of that project wasn’t fun and the end result did not yield a product aligned with his artistic purpose.

“The whole time I’ve been making music I’ve been a Christian and committed to Jesus. And through my travels with L.A. Symphony that deepened as I went on stage in people’s churches and felt the responsibility to be about that,” Joey said.

He calls You Still On Earth? a “catalyst” toward his current direction – definitively Christian music that “speaks Jesus.”

With a renewed passion for hip hop, Joey recorded Catch Me If You Can. It’s an independent release, but one that sounds and feels like a better fit for the “Jerk.” The songs retain the cheerfulness of early L.A. Symphony records, but with a clearer Christian message one might expect from a rapper who spends his Friday nights at church helping children memorize Scriptures via an Awana Club program (which was where Joey was headed while conducting this interview).

The sound is definitively West Coast underground and often showcases Joey’s penchant for complex cadences that employ internal rhyme schemes. It features artists like Propaganda, DJ Maj, Playdough, and Soup the Chemist – longtime friends from his career in the Christian hip hop industry.

It was released as a free download via Noisetrade and his Bandcamp page, and is an effort he is proud to let his kids listen to – something that wasn’t the case with You Still On Earth?

“I just felt like maybe I had to make an album that they can hear – that’s not too deep, that’s not talking about crazy things going on in the hood or weird escapades with people and whatever. But just a good rap album that points to Christ and says, ‘This is who we are and this is what we represent,’” Joey said.

Mission accomplished.

Joey the Jerk’s Catch Me If You Can be downloaded for free at Noisetrade or Bandcamp.com

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Sketch the Journalist is a freelance hiphop writer living in the thriving country metropolis of Cut-N-Shoot, Texas. Down with gospel rap since Stephen Wiley’s “Bible Break” in 1986, he has chewed, reviewed, and interviewed most of Christian hiphop’s major players. Sketch holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Sam Houston State University and was once an intern at the New York Times Houston Bureau. You can follow Sketch on Twitter @Sketchthej or log-on to sketchthejournalist.com.

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