Hip-Hop: A Personal History

“Basketball is my favorite sport. I love the way that they dribble up and down the court. Just like I’m the king on the microphone so is Dr. J and Moses Malone.”

Basketball by Kurtis Blow

If my memory serves me correctly Kurtis Blow’s Basketball was the first rap I ever heard in my life. I’ve been hooked ever since. As a side note, the video for this song is perhaps one of the most unintentionally hilarious videos of all-time complete with dudes dunking on 3-foot goals and ninjas doing Gymkata in the middle of some inner city basketball game. I would rap this song in my head while I shot hoops in my neighborhood. There was never any Gymkata.

As I grew up, so did hip-hop. Raps about cars, basketball and food were quickly replaced with songs that centered on having sex, bragging about having sex, wanting to have sex and bragging about wanting to have sex. The Beastie Boys got the ball rolling in this direction with their debut album, License to Ill. Luther Campbell and the 2 Live Crew picked up the ball and ran with it all the way to some bank in Miami. The Beastie Boys would go on to somewhat regret the perversions of their first two albums but the monster had been created and it is still with us today.

Not too long after rap music began its downward spiral into sexual perversion another stream of rap came along that was also headed in the wrong direction. You probably know it as gangsta rap. This is the kind of music that made middle-class white kids all of the sudden hate everything and want to join a gang. When they couldn’t find a gang to join due to the fact that the Bloods and Crips had yet to franchise out to the suburbs, they just made up their own gangs. There’s not a whole lot in this world funnier than seeing relatively rich white dudes with names like Stephan (pronounced Steff-haan), Chandler (first name), and Brooks (also first name) ride around town in Geo Trackers with matching warm up suits that say things on their back like Rock Boys or Spur Posse.

But what was simply an imitation in the suburbs was a reality in the inner city. That’s always been the debate. Does art influence culture or is it simply a product of it? In this case it’s both. NWA and Ice T influenced kids in the suburbs by glamorizing stories about what they saw in their inner city reality. If 2 Live Crew and the Beastie Boys created a monster, NWA was creating a legion of monsters. Hip-hop had now become a talented yet ugly combination of sexual perversion and violence. The members of NWA would feel the full force of this monster several years after their humble beginning when Eazy E died just a short time after finding out that he had full blown AIDS and Dr. Dre found himself in the middle of a violent feud between two different record labels on two different coasts that would end with the death of each label’s biggest star.

The deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. changed rap music. People were tired of the drama and just wanted to dance. Sean Combs was more than happy to give them something to dance to. Around this time, the city of Atlanta seemed to emerge from Miami’s shadow and came into its own as a hip-hop epicenter with home grown talent like Outkast and Goodie Mob that gave the world an original sound without a lot of the gangsta angst but with plenty of misguided sexuality.

Of course, the Christian music industry was along for the ride and, as usual, driving in circles in the cultural cul-de-sac. The first Christian rap to hit stores was called Bible Break and it was performed by a man named Stephen Wiley. You wont find Bible Break on anyone’s top 50 songs of all-time list. The opening line, “Praise the Lord for goodness sake, we’re all gonna take a Bible break” instantly made the guy who wrote Kurtis Blow’s Basketball look like Robert Frost. Wait, Stephen Wiley was the guy who wrote Basketball. Nevermind.

With very few exceptions, Christian hip-hop continued to market unoriginal and poorly produced duplicates of what had already come and gone in the mainstream market. I’m sure that today (July 19, 2011) there’s a guy sitting in some office in Nashville getting ready to market a hot new Christian ska band that sounds a lot like The Deftones. Most early Christian rap music either sounded like something from a CBS Afterschool Special (Middle aged dudes who know the Bible and fight crime and have tons of funky dancers following them around) or a weird combination of science fiction and bad theology (slaying demons with a KJV 66, shoving a microphone down Satan’s windpipe). While mainstream hip-hop was soaring in production quality and talent its message was taking a nose-dive. For the most part, Christian hip-hop was crashing upon take-off.

Last week, our church led a ministry that we call The Three One Nine. The Three One Nine is a summer day camp that we do every year with our local housing authority. We play games, do crafts, eat food and share the gospel with families in this community, in hopes of building a bridge between our two cultures for the glory of Christ and the growth of his kingdom. Hip-hop is a big part of our ministry. We don’t learn raps about Moses Malone or shooting kids from the other neighborhoods but we use a new strand of quality hip-hop to help us present the gospel message. We listen to this guy named PRo rap about how Christ is King and another guy named Lecrae rap about joy in Christ. I smile every year when I see 12-year-old black kids and 60 something year old white ladies dancing together to the same song.

God is using hip-hop for his glory. This is primarily seen through ministries like Reach Records and Lampmode that distribute quality music and even teaching curriculum that is centered around Jesus Christ. As you can imagine, there are some Christians who, when they think of hip-hop, immediately think of NWA and 2 Live Crew and are, therefore, staunchly opposed to something as seemingly contradictory as holy hip-hop. (In case you haven’t been paying attention to the last 2000 years of history, this is nothing new for some Christians. Other easy targets of their disapproval include but are not limited to: guitars, organs, blue jeans, double piercings in one ear, funny stories and Mickey Mouse.) Ironically, these opponents publish their views by using a medium (the Internet) that almost from its birth has been used to distribute pornography. How dare they?! Down with the Internet!

On the last day of our Three One Nine we got to hear from a Christian rapper named Suzy Rock. As I listened to her I couldn’t’ help but think about Stephen Wiley’s Bible Break as well as other rappers like Diddy (Diddy was once known as P. Diddy and before that Puff Daddy and before that Sean Combs. If you are a rapper and you have more than one name you are legit.) I thought about how far this medium has gone in the wrong direction and how God is now using it for the growth of his kingdom. As I listened to Suzy Rock share about growing up with a dad who was hooked on cocaine I thought of all of the kids in our ministry who share the same story. As I listened to her tell about ultimately finding her identity not in cars or men or looks but in Christ I prayed that the girls and young women in our ministry would one day be able to share in that same identity through faith and repentance in Christ.

And I also thought about when I was in the sixth grade, standing on my church’s playground with friends, saying lines from the Beastie Boy’s Paul Revere. Little did I know then that this new thing called rap would stick around for a few more decades and that God would allow me to see him use it to speak his truth into the lives of a whole new generation of kids.