The Renaissance of Holy Hip Hop

Currently listening to: “It Is Not Death To Die” by Sovereign Grace Music
Total disconnect from the content of the post you’re about to read, but SGM makes some amazing worship music (better yet, they write thick, deeply theological lyrics for that music). Definitely a go-to group of musicians in the Bolton residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m white. I’m middle class. Suburban. Only gun I’ve ever shot was my dad’s hunting rifle at target practice out in the woods at grandma’s. I draw graffiti on paper, not illegally on walls. I’m anything but “rough rugged”. Certainly not a “Playa” of any significant Game. I have soft spots in my heart for indie rock and uptempo metal (not that I should call any metal “uptempo”, doing that’s not very metal of me). Oh, and for folk, electronic, and (recently) jazz.

Apparently, that makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. And I do. Boy do I love me some deep bass, a sharp snare, and clever instrumentation all slathered together into tasty beats. I have no affection for a lot of the ‘culture’ that usually gets packaged with it (after all, hip hop is not on the radio) – the bling and sexploitation and violence and whatnot. But I have a great deal of affection for the sounds of hip hop.

Let’s make matters worse: I’m an English and Philosophy major with a background in Biblical Studies. I LOVE words. My brain plays with words. Sentences are like playgrounds to me – places to frolic and laugh exuberantly and enjoy life. I’ve always been enamored with communication and the means by which we accomplish it. Most of all, I’m dumbfounded by how God has chosen to communicate Himself to me (and the rest of you humans) through words – recorded in text, preserved through aeons of history, study-able, deep deep depths of words. As I’ve been reminded much lately – God wrote a book. It is written – “it” being the communication of God to man, the holy Scriptures. Inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, complete… profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, exhortation… all of it communication from God, put in human words for humans to read, know, and understand. We serve a God who communicated his Word with perfection – we should strive for excellence in our communication. It should be our goal to grow in clarity, conciseness, robustness, ‘copiousness’ (depth and breadth), and total self-control.

A love for words makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. See, rap is the music of words in a way unparalleled by other forms. Hip hop is the modern theater for poetry – it really is. I don’t read modern poets, I listen to them “spit rhymes” (read: recite) over beats. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy such (otherwise neglected) vocal magicks as cadence, flow, rhythm, meter – all the hallmarks of performed poetry. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy sonnets and rhyme schemes and rhyme forms of all kinds – polysyllabic, internal, complex, couplets – the list goes on. In terms of structure alone, rap is responsible for so much remarkable innovation in poetry. Besting that, hip hop provides the ideal theatre to showcase thoughts and treatises on subjects far more detailed and technical than most other forms of music. Long words aren’t frowned upon, but indeed are often celebrated (this is significant when we consider the potential for proper theological, philosophical, scientific, or linguistic use).

I love hip hop. Particularly, I am drawn to hip hop that honours and glorifies Christ Jesus the King of Kings. I was first introduced to what is sometimes called “Holy Hip Hop” back in the late 90’s when my bimonthly copy of now-defunct music mag 7ball arrived in the mail, sporting its usual compilation CD filled with usually unheard-of artists. Although the mag focused primarily on rock and alternative music, it sometimes ventured into the then-risque territory of hip hop. This particular issue featured a song on the pack-in compilation called “Cypha The Next Day” by The Cross Movement. I was hooked – great old-school beat, clever and talented emcees busting out wonderful God-honouring rhymes, and to top it off, theological depth. This wasn’t some campfire “sing-songs to Jesus” deal, this was a bunch of Pastor-Rappers roughing me up with biblical insight and not only dropping poetry, but sermonettes, expositions, and commentaries on biblical passages in their verses. Average people like me started calling it “holy hip-hop” (hereafter “HHH”) and the name stuck.

Here’s something that excites me greatly – there’s been a real renaissance of HHH over the course of the last decade. What began with artists like P.I.D., SFC, and Dynamic Twins in the 80’s and continued in the 90s with artists like The Cross Movement, Urban D, and Corey Red & Precise… has experienced a renewed fervency and urgency in the last five years in particular. Artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, 116 Clique, Shai Linne, Sho Baraka, Flame, and Tedashii (not to mention solo efforts by Cross Movement members Ambassador, Phanatik, and Tonic) are quite literally tearing things up. The beats are amazing, the rhymes are full of bounty, and the biblio-theological depth, missional focus, and Christocentric emphasis is both refreshing and disarmingly confrontative.

So, this post (which has been on the backburner for two months) is just a simple expression of my thankfulness for how God is using men (and women) that he has greatly gifted in wordplay and music to glorify Himself through hip hop; to glorify Himself through the proclamation of his word and his Gospel through skillfully crafted poetry put to the kick and the snare.

Thank you, Lord:

  • for the gift of living at such a time as this
  • for the gift of ears to hear the kick, the snare, and the wordsmithery
  • for the gift of a mind to follow and comprehend what’s being said
  • for the gift of faith to believe in the biblical truths being expressed through your servants
  • for the gift of hip hop music, the gift of rap

James 1:16-17 ESV
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

I’ll close with a personal favourite. There’s this one guy named Shai Linne, and you won’t have to watch for long to see that God has given him a remarkable gift for compacting complex biblical truth into memorable, remarkable, mind-blowing rhyme schemes.

Check it.

Shai Linne with The Greatest Story Ever Told (live) from Grace EV Free on Vimeo.

Top Albums 2009

Without much ado, here are my best beloved musical albums of the year 2009. In descending order, building up to an apex of musical happiness.

In Shallow Seas We Sail
10. Emery – “In Shallow Seas We Sail”
Although this record doesn’t really jump forward on Emery’s generally uncomplicated lyrical themes, it is a wonderful example of a band returning to their roots while incorporating everything they’ve learned in the meantime. Even though this won’t win awards, it’s a gutsy rocker with just the right amount of tenderness to make it all come together. Definitely a great record to throw on.

Hope Rising
9. Fee – “Hope Rising”
I first heard of Fee this past spring after we began singing one of their (then unreleased) songs “Glory to God Forever” at Harvest York Region. By the time “Hope Rising” came out in the fall, I was stoked to hear it. The more I listened to it, the more stoked I became. My only critique is that it comes off a little overdone (particularly the production), but otherwise this is an anthemic, thoughtful, and lyrically excellent collection of original worship songs. As a plus, they work great when sung by a big crowd of people.

III
8. Maylene & the Sons of Disaster – “III”
Maylene is just all kinds of fun. Take former Underoath vocalist Dallas Taylor, mix his insane gutteral vocals with a whole truckload of southern twang and smash-you-in-the-eye guitars, and you have Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. This year’s “III” continues their pattern of putting out stuff that just ‘southern rocks your world’.

Identity Crisis
7. Tedashii – “Identity Crisis”
With the Cross Movement focusing on solo projects primarily now, it’s been interesting to see successors to the Holy Hip Hop legacy rise up in their wake. Other than those on their own Cross Movement Records, cats like Lecrae, Shai Lynne, and Tedashii have really impressed me with deep, theologically informed yet immediately accessible lyrics. “Identity Crisis” isn’t the best example of this new wave of HHH (that goes to Lecrae’s 2008 disc “Rebel”), but it’s this year’s finest.

Picket Fence Cartel
6. Project 86 – “Picket Fence Cartel”
Hard to believe this year brought Project 86 all the way to album number seven. “Picket Fence Cartel” wins points for bringing back a lot of the heavy that was missing on 2007’s “Rival Factions”. It also wins points for some great apocalyptic and devotional lyrics. Songs like “The Black Brigade” mean that this one will see repeated plays for quite some time.

Son of the Morning
5. Oh, Sleeper – “Son of the Morning”
Metal record predominantly ‘voiced’ by Satan but made by Christians. Nine tracks on this record are written from the perspective of the Devil himself, with the final track being from that of the risen and living one – Jesus Christ. Conceptually this pushes the envelope (if that idiom even means anything anymore), but trust me when I say that it’s full of Bible and theology, full of great moments, and full of excellence. Closing track “The Finisher” is a blistering, potent reminder of the all-consuming power of the Almighty One.

Vancouver
4. Matthew Good – “Vancouver”
Ah, Matty Good. He’s kinda the odd one out on this list, and not just because he’s Canadian. “Vancouver” does a lot of what 2007’s “Hospital Music” did, only better. The only thing it’s really missing is a blow-your-face-off rocker like “I’m A Window” was for that record.

5print Mixtape
3. Deepspace5 – “5print Mixtape”
What happens when an unknown but skilled producer has a whole whack of beats NOT used for Jay Z’s “The Blueprint 3”? He, Alex Goose, puts it out for free online as “The Blueprint Outtakes”. What happens when rap supercrew Deepspace5 gets ahold of those beats? Magic. This mixtape is freely available at Deepspace5 dot Com.

Church Music
2. David Crowder Band – “Church Music”
After the letdown that was 2007’s “Remedy”, it was great to hear the return of the sprawling, almost experimental David Crowder Band ala 2005’s “A Collision”. Unlike that watershed record, though, there’s no bluegrass or Americana to be found on “Church Music”, just delicious electronics, top-of-your-lungs stuck-in-your-head choruses and a whole lot of heart and soul.

Beggars
1. Thrice – “Beggars”
It’s no secret that I’m an avid, blathering, emphatic fan of Dustin Kensrue and his band Thrice. Between Dustin’s biblically-conscious, thoughtful, high-grade, genuinely epic lyrics and the band’s brand of toe-tapping groove-infested rock… it’s all win. “Beggars” is my Album of the Year with a vengeance. It’s also, in this fan’s opinion, Thrice’s best offering yet.