Hip-hop and its cousin, rap, is stuff I won’t let my kid listen to on the car radio because I never know what weird thing is going to come out of the speakers. Which is why I was interested to see the Tennessean announce that Christian hip hop has arrived.
When it comes to this kind of music, I’m beyond clueless. But I do know that Nashville is as close as you can get to not only being the go-to place for country music but is also the national capital for contemporary Christian music. There’s a reason why CCM Magazine is based there.
So I appreciate it when a secular publication tries to explain the genre to us great unwashed in the peanut gallery. Here's what ran Tuesday:
The audacious Christian hip-hop movement, which to this point has been spearheaded mostly by independent artists and record labels, has made its way to Music Row with Word Music’s launch of a hip-hop imprint called 4 Against 5.
The new imprint is headed by Joseph Prielozny, the producer and artist development executive who helped guide the career of Christian hip-hop’s flag bearer, Lecrae.
Prielozny likens the rising popularity, word-of-mouth marketing and do-it-yourself ethos of the Christian hip-hop movement to rap music’s emergence into the mainstream in the 1990s. Obviously, the message of Christian rappers like Lecrae is different than Easy E, but the ethos is the same. Something fresh, something resonating is happening with Christian hip-hop and now Word, the genre’s oldest label, is buying in.
I kept wondering what 4 Against 5 meant, but the article never said. Thank goodness for online searches and YouTube. The story continues:
“Did you see ‘Straight Outta Compton'? ” Prielozny asked, referring to the 2015 movie about the rise of N.W.A to the top of the music industry. “Radio wouldn’t mess with them back in the day. Radio won’t mess with us now. The Christian world can’t understand that the youth listen to hip-hop.”
One question: What is N.W.A.?
Many readers would know, of course, but many would not. The article does need a little bit of information to provide context, every now and then. It would also help to know that Christian takes on hip hop and rap are not exactly a new development, but first broke into view back in the early 1990s, a mere quarter of a century ago (laugh at video memories of Dc "Rap Rock and Soul" Talk, but that trio sold a lot of what used to be called "records.")
The writer goes on to tell a short history of this particular outbreak of Christian hip hop, including:
Prielozny described those early days as invigorating -- a bare-bones team working in humble office space in a poor neighborhood in Memphis.
“We didn’t set out to be something big, or change the Christian music industry, but the Christian music bought in,” he said, adding that the marketing strategy was largely word of mouth.
So yes, when Word wants your music, you’ve hit the jackpot -- in a niche, Christian-culture market.
For its first artist, 4 Against 5 has signed Grand Rapids, Mich., artist Steven Malcolm, who is the worship leader at a hip-hop church. Malcolm was a basketball player in high school and college who didn’t decide to pursue music professionally until four years ago.
In addition to signing with Word, Malcolm licensed a song for ESPN to use during broadcasts and landed a crucial slot on the influential Winter Jam tour, which is the gold jewel of Christian music concert tours.
“Before church, I was just playing basketball in college and wanted to be a basketball player,” Malcolm said. “But then in 2010 I gave my life to Jesus. It was at this hip-hop church called the Edge and right then I wanted to serve people and serve the church.
The piece includes a Malcolm video “Hot Boy” (at the top of this post). I didn’t understand a word of it but maybe that’s just me.
I hope the Tennessean continues with more reporting on the Christian music industry, as it needs a knowledgeable person on the beat. Nate Rau, the writer of this piece, has previously reported on sports and politics, then switched to covering Nashville’s $9.8 billion music industry last year.
Other recent pieces by the same writer includes this piece on the Christian music label Centricity which is backed by secretive investors in my neck of the woods (suburban Seattle –- who knew?); how Christian bands (i.e. the Newsboys) are tapping into a boom in faith-based films and a 2015 article on two new Christian record labels.
Truly, Rau has the beat to himself, as there’s nowhere else in the country, other than possibly Los Angeles, where one can report so thoroughly on the Christian music genre. He tells a little bit more about himself in this Facebook profile, mentioning that faith is important to him.
It’s obvious that he loves the beat and it shows. I’m no expert on archives at the Tennessean, but it’s been many moons since I’ve seen incisive reporting on the Christian music industry in its pages. Let’s hope the higher-ups at that paper see value in this sub-beat and keep this writer on it.