Most of us have guilty pleasures. I am going to come clean with one of mine: Christian Rap. I have this insane affection for that subgenre. Early Christian rap was inspired by popular acts like Grandmaster Flash, Fat Boys, and Doug E. Fresh. Most of the rap I am covering here were what Howard and Streck coined as “Separational CCM,” mainly concerned with evangelism and exhortation. (Check out chapter 2 of the book Apostles of Rock for a more detailed account.)
Rap got its mainstream start with The Sugarhill Gang, which placed in the Top 40 in 1979. However, Pete McSweet will tell you it began in the Garden of Eden, quite a bit earlier! McSweet is the man behind the first faith-based rap song, which came to us in 1982 with The Gospel Beat 12.” This one set the bar high: it had a lively choir, melodious keys, funky bass, a smooth jazz trumpet, and spectacular drumming/percussion. This 12” is worth obtaining, and can still be found on Discogs.
Before going any further, let me introduce to you the Cheese Factor number system, which I use to rate the cheesiness of these releases. I will rate them on a scale between 1 and 5, with 1 = the lowest on the cheese factor and 5 = the highest or the cheesiest. So McSweet’s 12” gets a 2, only due to the reissue cover featuring a half-naked McSweet being tempted by a lady with an apple. A pure cheese cover.
A couple years later Mr. T from The A-Team TV sitcom released a rap/electro funk album for kids, Mr. T’s Commandments. This one was a fun album to give kids a moral compass rather than being a proselytizing tool. Mr. T has been outspoken about his faith and this album reminds kids it is cool to live a straight ‘n’ narrow lifestyle. Pity tha fool who can not enjoy this one! Cheese Factor: 5 (A true classic in the cheese rap category)
In 1985 Stephen Wiley put out Bible Break, the first full-length Christian rap album on a Christian label. What you may not know is that Wiley was a jazz drummer in 1979 and wrote a song called Basketball that rapper Kurtis Blow recorded. Wiley began writing Christian rap in 1982 but did not release Bible Break for another three years. Bible Break was about as cheesy as it gets. The first track names off all the books of the bible in chronological order to help the listener remember them. Wiley broke ground for Christian rap and released five albums after this debut. Cheese Factor: 5
In the same year Terry Taylor, Doug Doyle and Rob Watson (aka Daniel Amos and Frontline Records) formed a Christian rap group called The Rap’Sures. Gospel Rap was the first Christian rap geared specifically for young kids. Terry Taylor explains it like this: “Well, there wasn’t any (rap) on the Christian labels. We do a kids thing, we see it as appealing to 7 and 9 year olds. No one was doing it. We just brainstormed a little bit, Rob Watson and Doug Doyle and I, we were just looking for something to do, something to work on, we did it and then didn’t think that much about it, and it was successful. Don’t ask me why. We thought, no one will take this seriously, we’re just doing it for kids, a little Bible story kind of thing. Megamouth was kind of the same thing. We looked at it that way.” So here we have the first Christian rap albums that owns up to their own chessy-ness. They also put out O.T. Rap and Loud Proud Born Again. Cheese Factor: 5 (and fully deserved)
Megamouth was the other Terry Taylor-Rob Watson kids project, also featuring Dan Rupple of comedy act Isaac Air Freight. Distributed by the Frontline Kids label, both Rap Battle In The Big City (1987) and The Great Skateboard Adventure (1988) were one part spoken word and one part rap. Both of these albums are also extremely hard to find but worth the search. Cheese Factor: 4
In 1986 the mainstream group Crew Devastation released four 12” records with gospel influence, the most popular one entitled No Time To Lose. During the same time Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew released a rap 12” entitled All The Way To Heaven (Fresh is now a member of the Church of Scientology, by the way). Crew Devastation thought Doug E. Fresh’s 12” sounded too much like their gospel rap so they dissed Doug E. Fresh with a another 12” called We`re All Going To Heaven. The whole thing sounds silly, but that is what happened. These were quite legit rap releases with gospel content, so no Cheese Factor rating for these.
Also in 1986 The Rappin’ Reverend aka Dr. C. Dexter Wise III released an excellent 12” entitled I Ain’t Into That. The Rappin’ Rev. was actually a child preacher at age 12. While making this record, he was finishing up a Harvard Graduate Degree. The rhyming on this one is simplistic. Still, I find this release charming by the fact he played all the keys and wrote/sang the songs himself. Cheese Factor: 3
A year later Rev. Rhyme came out with a full length album called According To Rap. If ever there was a dude who could rap in polyester, this was your guy. You can definitely tell Rev. Rhyme was a preacher by the way he fit so many bible stories and theological observations into these eight songs. Musically, it was keyboard and a drum machine. Fun stuff. Cheese Factor: 5
Another contender in 1987 was Michael Peace with RRRock It Right. Wikepedia acknowledges Michael Peace as the grandfather of Christian rap, though I beg to differ. Peace may have been early but righteous rap grand daddy he was not. Peace did give Christian rap more accessibility and was picked up by Reunion Records. His music was edgy and had cultural awareness. Before Peace did rap, he was a black student activist in Upstate New York. Cheese Factor: 3
Another early one is Roy Southard’s Plain White Rapper tape from 1987. This one featured keyboard with programmed drums. It also had an authentic monster bass sound. But the dude is hopelessly white, as the title implies. Interesting to note is that in 2005, Christopher ‘Razorsharp’ Shick contemplated using the name Plain White Wrapper for his MC project, but decided to scrap it. Later on, Christian rapper KJ-52 did a song called “Plain White Rapper” featuring cowbell, but not related to this act at all. Cheese Factor: 3
The year 1988 was quintessential for Christian rap. DC Talk (aka Descent Christian Talk) from Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University came in with a crazy awful tape. The opening keyboard notes on the first song “Heavenbound” are so bad that they are cringe-worthy! It was a bit pop and a bit rap. The Christian market needed a group to make rap more accessible, and DC Talk were there with bells on. It became the best selling Christian debut album, which says a lot about the market considering what a disaster this album was. This would be humble beginnings for what would become an extraordinarily talented group, selling two million records with Jesus Freak six years later. Nonetheless, “Heavenbound” was miles from being good. The tape was charming in a juvenile way. Cheese Factor: 5
Then PID (aka Preachers In Disguise) launched Here We Are, which changed Christian rap forever. PID was the first Christian rap act to hit the Christian bookstores and get major recognition. Their rhymes were scandalously trite. Surprisingly, kids ate it up and parents were happy their kids were not listening to the secular crap. Check out this song if you need a reminder of how silly it was. Cheese Factor: 5
J.C. & The Boyz were a good example of a group so emboldened in their faith that they come across as faith pushers. Style-wise, they were current with the rap scene. Lyrically, they suffer from the same foot-in-mouth disease as PID and DC Talk. Never Give Up came out in 1989 on Broken Records. Cheese Factor: 4
Also back in 1989 or so, Ty Dowdy put out a lesser known indie tape, The Spiritual Rapper. This one was excellent musically, but lyrically, not so much. Three songs of righteous rap, short but sweet. If we are talking cheese, this one is like fondue, dipping into the cheese lightly. Cheese Factor: 2
Then there is a tape from Rappin Rabbit from 1989. A white dude named Rhett Parrish is responsible for this piece of musical torture. Listen to it for yourself if you do not believe me: “Books of the Bible Rap” and “Rappin’ Rabbit’s Christian Habits.” Cheese Factor: 6 (I know, it only goes up to 5…)
In 1990 MC Hammer released his second album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Them. Hammer would object to being classified as a Christian artist, though gospel music played a large part in his career. He was active in church, singing in a group called The Holy Ghost Boys. The song “Pray” became a hit in the pop industry, going #2 on the charts. I do not consider MC Hammer cheesy, though he was over-the-top pretentious in his early career.
Say What?, an electro-pop/rap group consisting of two white guys, Tricky Downbeat and Mix Master Mighty White, hit the market with a couple Star Song Records albums. Say What? sounded similar to Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and they wore their cheese very proudly. The album Fresh Fish came out in 1990 and featured a comedy song about Sandi Patty entitled “I Can Sing Higher.” Their hidden-identity career went downhill from there. Cheese Factor: 4
Carman, CCM’s answer to Gino Vannelli, entered the rap arena with gloves on, appealing to kids who needed some fresh bible rap. Yo Kidz (1992), Yo Kidz 2 (1994), and Lawrence And The B-Attitudes (1994) were hot items with Word distribution. Video was also available so you could see the Italian stallion on screen. Hanson even sang on the David & Goliath track. Check it out. Cheese factor is an overwhelming 5.
If you think cheesy Christian rap is a thing of the past, here is one from 2006. It’s Rev. DeWayne GoLightly aka Rev. Rap’s Rappin 4 Jesus: “Books of the Bible.” This featured track is a time-travel back to the days of the books of the bible memorization songs. Does the world really need one more of these? Cheese Factor: 5 (once again)
In the “What do ya do with this?” category I share with you a fake bad Christian rap piece. Here is the story. Pastor Jim Colerrick apparently put out “Rappin’ For Jesus” around 2003 as a rap tool for the youth of his church, the West Dubuque 2nd Church of Christ. The church was said to have shut down in 2004. The rap that was made it to video featured the following line: Jesus is my n*gg*r. The entire video is made of tongue-in-cheek phrases, silly clichés, and hokey moves. It is a train wreck of a song that even the most sheltered church could not overlook. The other aspect that identified this video as a fake is that it used the word “swag.” The word as used in current popular culture was not popularized until 2010. This one does not deserve my cheese award.
This immersion into the land of cheesy Christian rap also speaks to the fact that there were many talented and legit rap/hip hop acts as well. Some of the early rap stuff I thought were the real deal were D-Boy, SFC, ETW, DDC, Mike E & The G Rap Crew, Grits, and Gospel Gangstas. This, however, is not a fanfare to the good Christian rap that came out in the late 80s/early 90s. This is a celebration of the cheese that drivelled its way towards making Christian rap grate again. The cheese grater that gave us Christian rap also gave us a Sunday School message long after we left Sunday School. Maybe that is not the best comparison, and I do not want to belittle it all to simpleton Evangelicalism 101. But let’s call it for what it was. A part of us might love it. A part of us might cringe. And you are like me, you will enjoy it for all the wrong reasons. Christian rap is a part of the larger story, how we came to understand our own narrative amidst this pastureland of culture and curdling. For this, we stand proud, turn the boom box up to 11 and rap it up for the J-Man!