Harlem Late Night jazz Presents:

Gospel Hip Hop (2000)


Gospel Hip Hop (2000)

In the late 1990s, Gospel Hip Hop was ignited essentially by Kirk Franklin’s chart-topping album God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation in 1997.  At the time of its release, Urban Contemporary Gospel had made inroads in the music industry, helping propel the album to #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and making it the first gospel album to top the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart for five nonconsecutive weeks.

Gospel Hip Hop began in urban communities in the 1980s, primarily in Black churches and underground scenes, with minimal promotion and little mainstream attention. It emphasized using positive and uplifting lyrics/messages to promote faith and belief using Hip Hop. As it was an emerging subculture with very little historical documentation, there is debate about how and where Hip Hop Gospel started. Many of the first recordings were limited to singles and included M.C. Sweet’s Jesus Christ (The Gospel Beat) in 1982.  Stephen Wiley released the First Gospel/Rap album (“Bible Break”) in 1985. After the album’s debut, many other Gospel rappers started to appear, driven predominantly by African American youth ministers. Groups like L.P.G. (Living Proof of Grace) claim to have rapped in the church since 1984. Houston’s Apocalypse was recorded around the same time. Others followed, like Michael Peace, S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ), Dynamic Twins, and J.C. Crew.

In 1990, following the success of his ubiquitous hit U Cant Touch This, MC Hammer fused hip-hop and gospel for the first time. “Pray’s” meditation on success, perseverance, and faith outperformed U Cant Touch This, charting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a precursor of things to come.

The early 1990s saw the continuing trend of Hip Hop artists blending faith and rap, such as D.O.C. (Disciples of Christ), the Gospel Gangstaz, and  T-Bone. Other Gospel Hip Hop artists from that era include Freedom of Soul, IDOL King, 12th Tribe, and Holy Alliance.

However, during this period, the Gospel world wasn’t generally accepting of Hip Hop, which was viewed as glorifying materialism, drugs, sex, and violence. In 1997, Kirk Franklin, arguably the “God Father of Gospel Hip Hop,” changed the sound and culture of Gospel Hip Hop music forever. As the genre’s first true superstar, Franklin embraced rap music; he embraced rap culture and style and was the first gospel artist on the cover of Vibe magazine. Despite the enormous backlash received from the Christian community, the God’s Property hit “Stomp” was a massive crossover success. It was the first “gospel video” to get MTV airplay and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Music Video, marking a pivotal moment in merging Gospel and Hip Hop.

Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was released in May 2004 on his debut album “The College Dropout.” The single received universal acclaim from critics for its open embracement of faith, with many expressing astonishment that such an overtly religious song was embraced by secular music media. It was met by widespread commercial success, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Lecrae is probably the most successful and most visible Gospel rapper over the last 20 years. His career can be traced as real-time evolution of the acceptance and viability of Gospel Hip Hop. The rapper’s 2012 hit “Gravity” was his mainstream breakthrough, earning the highest sales week for a Gospel album with 79,000 units and garnering Lecrae the first Grammy for Best Gospel Album awarded a rapper in 2013. Overcoming resistance, Gospel Hip Hop had produced the best album of gospel music, signaling growing acceptance into the Black church. His 2014 album Anomaly, also a massive mainstream hit, marked the first time a gospel album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and the Gospel Albums charts at the same time.

The melding of Hip Hop in the Gospel world has created a “ministry vs. music” debate. Some Gospel Hip Hop proponents argue that Hip Hop artists put music over the message of Jesus. Lecrae, probably, Gospel Hip Hop’s most influential artist, posits, “your soul and your spirit is the most important aspect of anything.” But Lecrae appears open to the platform, stating, “We all have different paths. Some people make music for the church, some people make music from the church for the world.”

Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” in February 2016 also made a significant cultural impact in Hip Hop Gospel. The song was quickly the most culturally consequential gospel song since Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” 20 years earlier.  More secular Hip Hop artists joined in, and the later 2010s has ushered in a plethora of artists with hot Gospel Hip Hop songs, including the likes of  T.I., Timbaland, Nicki Minaj, and Snoop Dogg. In 2016 Snoop released a whole gospel album Bible of Love featuring 32 tracks, including guest appearances from great gospel artists such as Tye Tribbett, Faith Evans, Rance Allen, Kim Burrell, and others.

The success of Kanye West’s “Jesus is King” project in 2019 ignited a further explosion in the secular world. “Jesus Is King” was released simultaneously with a concert film of the same name. Two tracks charted in the top 20 of the US Billboard Hot 100. “Jesus Is King” also won Top Christian Album and Top Gospel Album awards at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards and Best Contemporary Christian Music Album at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2021. The album was a chart-topper in nine other countries, including Australia and Canada, while attaining top five positions in the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom proving Hip Hop Gospel had arrived.

Other notable Gospel Hip Hop artists include: KB (Kevin Elijah Burgess), Trip Lee, Andy Mineo, Derek Miner (Derek Johnson, Jr), Tedashii, Da’ T.R.U.T.H, Aaron Cole, Bizzle (Mark Julian Felder), Canon, Flame, Tobymac (Toby McKeehan), and Canton Jones.

Kirk Franklin

Kanye West

MC Hammer

Da’ T.R.U.T.H.

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