Wednesday, April 23, 2014

O.H.N. The Original Hipster Nerds of Hip Hop (Pigeon John & LA Symphony) | An Autobiographical History of Christian Rap Music

Most people loathe weekly office meetings regardless of their profession. This is not so at the WhatUpWally? office. Here at WUW? headquarters in College Station, Texas, our staff meets every Tuesday, first discussing any pertinent new album releases, then moving onto any new hot remixes on the internets, and we end our meetings with a discussion on emerging music scenes and undiscovered indies. 

Today, we started as usual but derailed quickly when we started to discuss the new album from Pigeon John, Encino Man. Before we could even start discussing the musical direction if the album we broke into an all out civil war concerning the origins of post 2000s hipster nerd hip hop. 

The main debate centered on who is primarily responsible for hip hop's 180 degree turn, from the 90s street and gangster sound, towards the backpack, college themed, thick rimmed, bow tie and vest wearing sound of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Half the office was divided between crediting Kanye West or Pharell (lets call them the hip hop republicans - because even though they don't agree they are unified in their one dimensional world view) while the other half failed to come to any consensus - split between the the Rawkus conscious movement; Pacific Northwest white, emo, hipster movement; the Chicago Nerds; and the acoustic hip-hop trend (let's call them the hip hop democrats - because they agree but can't agree on anything).

Each of these arguments is valid but they all miss two important movements: the first is the emergence of Christian rap and second, is the underground Los Angeles movement. It is at this intersection that we find the O.H.N. The Original Hipster Nerd (see what we did there... like O.G. but instead O.H.N.... get it?). This is a peculiar hip hop style that preceded Pharell's quirky skater style and Kanye's nerdy college kid sound. 

So where do we find the Adam of hipster nerd hip hop? We must excavate the underground LA scene where Christian rap married the live instrumentation, nerdy hipster themed lyrics, dance pop anthems of the strange skater/punk/dancing/vegetarian/inner city kids. But first, in order for you to fully understand my arguments, you must join me on an Autobiographical history of Christian Rap!

You are probably thinking, "What the fuck does Christian rap have to do with anything?" This is a very good question and the answer is not obvious unless you are one of those people that took the advice of idiotic church youth leaders that told you that the devil resided in secular music and in order to purify your soul, you should only listen to Christian music. Further, this is only obvious to those few individuals, so easily blinded by the desire to be holy, that took the even more idiotic advice of church leaders to get rid of all secular music and replace it with Christian music. Yes, I was one of those kids that wasted most of the 90s picking through the shelves of Christian book stores for any hip hop music that would help purify my christian faith instead of digging in crates for hip hop music that would actually satisfy my soul.

The Early Years

The upside to this time of life was that my fragile little teenage mind had to break my radio trained ears away from the popular trends of music in general and actually pay attention to the lyrics, message, and ingenuity of artists fighting for exposure outside of the main stream. At first, I went on a quest for hip hop that sounded like what was popular on the radio. 

Like many 90s Christian kids, the first tape that was recommended was DC Talk - Free at Last (1992). Although DC (Decent Christian) Talk is not the original Christian rap group, they were the first popular group and so we may consider them the grandfathers of the genre. I was a little obsessive, even in 8th grade, so I had to purchase their first two albums DC Talk (1989) and Nu Thang (1990).

However, the first tape I really bumped was the Compton based, ex gang bangin, gospel slangin crew - "Gospel Gangstas." No, I am not kidding... that was really their name and they weren't too bad for being way ahead of the christian rap game. 

The album was Gang Affiliated and it sounded like a cross between N.W.A. and The Gheto Boys but the lyrics were, let's just say, a little bit cleaner.

(Now that I go back and listen to the GG'z, shit wasn't that bad)

I tried to turn my non christian and christian friends onto my new favorite group but both groups made fun of me equally. I spent the next decade trying to find Christian hip hop that would appease either group... you could say I was part Christian envangelist and part Christian hip hop evangelist. This means that from 1992 until I stopped following the Christian religion in 2006, I purchased almost every Christian rap album ever released.

The other popular Christian west coast gangster rapper was T-Bone. The first two tapes purchased were: The Hoodlums Testimony (1993) and The Life of a Hoodlum (1995).

Other tapes purchased at this time were:
PID (Preachers in Disguise) - Back to Back (1989)
SFC (Soldiers for Christ) - Phase III (1992)
ETW (End Time Warriors) - Lets Stay Together (1993)
Disciples of Christ - Righteous Funk (1994)
DJ Dove - The Devils Worst Nightmare (1996)

The Grapetree Records Dark Ages

Most of the 90s was populated by rappers emulating the West Coast or the New Orleans sound. While the Gospel Gangstas and T-Bone were holding down the West Coast, the south (mainly Texas and Louisiana) came to dominate the Christian rap game in a very mediocre way. In 1993, Knolly Williams (aka DJ Rubadub) founded Grapetree Records in Austin, Texas. Grapetree, through its distribution deal with Diamante Music Group (no longer in existence) went on to release what seemed like 5 million albums and most of them had covers that even Master P would have been ashamed of.

Again, in high school, I was on a quest to find some sort of rap music that my friends could get into which meant I would by the worst music and find anyway to convince myself that it was good. I was still in Cincinnati when I came across Rubadub's and Grapetree's first release, Reflections of an Ex-Criminal (1993). The good thing about Christian bookstore's at this time was that you could listen to CDs before you purchased them. I probably listened to this a hundred time because it was the only CD at the store that I didn't have. It was horrible when I previewed it and it was horrible when I purchased it and I continued to persevere, even after a long list of horrible releases such as:

True 2 Society - Bow Down (1997)
God's Original Gangstas - True 2 Tha Game (1996), Resurrected Gangstaz (1997)
Faze - Just Trying Ta Stay Up (1996)
Geno V - Take Me 2 Tha Homies (1997)
Preachas in tha Hood - Gangstaz Pain (1997)
Eventually the tide began to turn in Christian rap and even Grapetree dropped a few albums that were bearable - I purchased them all. This is the beginning of the transformative years.

Grits & Gotee Records:
The Transformative Years

In 1999, Grits released their third album, Grammatical Revolution, and all of us Christian kids finally had an album to be proud of. Part of the late 90s East Coast turn in hip hop, Grits had become well respected in both the Christian and the secular world. Although Gotee Records had been established in 1994 (coincidentally by TobyMac of DC Talk) and Grits had released two pretty dope albums (Mental Releases (1995) and Factors of the Seven (1999), it wasn't until Grammatical Revolution, and specifically the single "They All Fall Down," that we Christian hip hop heads could a CD in that wouldn't get us laughed at. This marked a turn in both the way Christian rap was produced as well as the way Christian kids reacted to the music - it was no longer thought of as cheesy. 

Although Grits changed the game, it would take a while until the rest of the participants would catch up. This meant that I still had to purchase 20 CDs to find 1 that was really good. Technology and the East Coast turn came at a crucial time in my life and in the history of music in general. I was living in the dorm at A&M when CD burners became affordable and when the computer network on campus allowed everyone to share files - naturally, we all stole each others music and started burning mix CDs.

I quickly became the go to person for all things Christian rap and was bombarded with requests to burn CDs with only the best songs from the 200 plus CDs I had purchased. This was also a time when Christian music labels began to accept rap as a Christian expression (there had been a heated debate within Christianity about whether or not rap music in general was of the devil - Christians always know how to "turn down"). A shit ton of rappers emerged, some good and some not, but I still had to buy about 30 CDs to compile a decent mixtape of 12-15 songs. This was also the time that I started DJing - I may have been the first true Christian DJ, performing at any Christian party within a hundred miles and distributin mixtapes like I was some kind of Christian Kay Slay.

Between 1998 and 2002, my mixtapes included variations of these tracks:

Grits - They All Fall Down, Ooh Aah, Ima Showem, Make Room, Runnin, Tennessee Boys
F.T.F. - Jump 4 Jehova, Burning, Ryda, Bout That, Fire Proof
Lil Raskul - Down South, Guns in tha Air
L.G. Wise - Ra Ra, Ghetto Fables, West Coast Ridaz
Antonius - Drop Down, Slippin, Oh Yeah, Throwed, There's No Way
Prime Minister - Inside Out, All Riders, Raise the Roof, Sanctified Slide (Ft. MC Hammer LOL),
Gospel Gangstas - Gangstas Don't Dance, A-O, Bounce Wth Us, Mobbin, Gospel Gangsta Voyage, Demon Killa, Do or Die, Gospel Gansta Thing, West Coast Roc
Rhymes Monumental - The Battle, Big Ups, Original War Child, Headstrong, Invasion Crooklyn, 
D.C.P. - Last Dayz, Our Time to Shine, DCP, Woe Stories, On the Ball
Mr. Real - It's Going Down
Mars Ill - Sphere of Hip Hop
Deepspace5 - Stick This in Your Ear, Murder Creek
Tunnel Rats - TRz, Bow Down, Motivate, For the Headz
Cross Movement - House of Representatives, I Am That I Am, The Light, Hold it Down, C to the R, Know Me? (Huh What?)
Campquest - Campout, Get Ya Tents Up
Raphi - It Goes Down (Ft. Wordsworth)
Sev Statik - MIC
New Breed - What's My Name, Verse of the City, Stand, Stop the Music, Live This, Headlock, Dry Bones
The Ambassador - One Two, Thug Joint, Hands in the Air, Girl Named World
KJ-52 - Keep it Movin, 1 2 3, The Hardaway, We Rock the Mic, Know Not, Rise Up, Dear Slim, Revenge of the Nerds (Ft. Pigeon John), ABCs and 123s, All Around the World (Ft. Pigeon John)

UpRock Records:
The Underground Hip Hop Transition

Ok, by now you are wondering how all of this relates to the WUW? office debate about the O.H.N. We had to walk along this long journey together to understand the culture in which hip hop artists navigated their position outside of the mainstream and Christian music worlds. Recognizing that Christian themes will never be popular outside of the Christian culture and that the Christian culture would only accept what sounds like is on the radio, artists began to explore styles outside of the mainstream sound. The east coast sound of Cross Movement and Grits helped to move Christian hip hop past the Dre, Snoop, and No limit Records era and introduced kids like me to the gritty street anthem styles of groups like Blackstar, Mobb Deep, and M.O.P. Groups like Sackcloth Fashion began to experiment with different sounds and styles, and UpRock records gave a platform for the Tunnel Rats, Deepspace5, Playdough, Ill Harmonics, and Mars Ill to expand the genre of Christian hip hop in a direction that appealed to even those in the secular hip hop world.

Christian rap had made the transition to hip hop and was now entering into the realm of other secular hip hop artists that rejected the mainstream radio and embraced a more pure hip hop culture.

Pigeon John & the Los Angeles Underground:
The Original Hipster Nerd of Hip Hop

In 2003 I had grown tired of Christian hip hop and of Christianity in general (even thought I didn't realize it at the time). I decided to abandon my crusade for Christian hip hop and began to recover my last decade of hip hop music... maybe the best decision of my life. What is interesting is that at the same time, Christian hip hop artists were becoming tired of Christian music as well. The artists that emerged at this time had learned to negotiate their subject position. They began to embrace the fact that they were not gangster and that most of them were nerdy little youth group kids. Collectives like LA Symphony, The Tunnel Rats, The Visionaries, The Living Legends, Freestyle Fellowship emerged in LA as part of a hip hop movement that was neither underground like the East Coast nor G Funk like the West Coast. LA Symphony members met in church while Living Legends members came together in their neighborhoods but what unified the scene was their unique perspective towards hip hop and their identities based not in a street ethos but in a nerdy hipster ethos. 

No one personified this identity more than Pigeon John. Before Pharell and Lupe rapped about skateboarding and before Kanye rapped about Jesus, the Christian rap world had already begun to negotiate its identity in between the nerd world, the street, and the church. The LA Symphony collective (Pigeon John, B Twice, UNO Mass, Flynn Adam Atkins, Sharlock Poems, Joey the Jerk) formed in 1997 and may be the first hip hop group to fully embrace their nerdiness and never come close to attempting any sort of street or gangster rap and never forced Christianity on its fan base. 

Instead LA Symphony as a collective, and Pigeon John (solo and as a member of the Brainwash Project w/ BTwice) released songs with titles like Little Shirts, Want For Nada, Seabreeze, Mr. What D. Heck, Day Dreamers, and Broken Tape Decks

Since the release of Brainwash Project in 1998 and a number of albums with LA Symphony, Pigeon has gone on to release pop, indie, rock, alternative, and hip hop influenced albums that defy any simple categorization. 

From the humble beginnings of a nerdy youth group kid and Christian rapper, Pigeon John can be identified as the O.H.N. of hip hop and should be celebrated for his bravery on pushing the boundaries of what had been acceptable in hip hop music opening a space for the new school of nerdy hipster hip hopers like The Cool Kids, Kids in the Hall, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, etc. etc. etc.

Basically this whole blog was a self-indulgent trip down memory lane for me and I used Pigeon John's new album release as an excuse to explore a little bit of my past. For those of you who have traveled this same path, I hope you enjoyed the journey, and for those of you who haven't, I hope you go purchase the new Pigeon John album. Hollar.

Blogging through music history,

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