By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
"What usually happens is the kid will start dissing us right off the bat," Malone says later. "They'll say something like, 'What are y'all doing rapping about God? Rap and God are separate.' We'll come back with, 'He's the creator of hip-hop, how are they separate?' Then they'll say, 'If God's real, why did my daddy leave me?' Or we'll go back and forth with Islamic brothers. Sometimes people leave in disgust, sometimes they stick around. Sometimes they stop cussing."
According to Malone, the UAU will save five or more kids on a fruitful Friday night. Many nights -- such as the one after the show -- they won't have any takers. When all the rapping and preaching is done, the crew picks up sackloads of litter from the street.
Malone, whose buoyant spirit and easy smile make him instantly likable, speaks of his relationship with the "unsaved community" in terms of duty and service.
"You can be a great MC, and people can follow you -- like when people are completely sold on 50 Cent and his image. At the end of the day, they follow him and what happens? It ends. What does he give to them?
"A true Christian artist has people come to you, but ultimately they grow through you to reach a higher place, and that's going to bring them something. Not only in this life, but the next. Not just, 'I got your autograph and your CD,' but something that lasts."
Ask a hip-hopper well-versed in the many permutations of the music -- gangster, Southern, East Coast, underground, conscious -- if he's heard of Christian rap, and you'll almost certainly get a baffled, "Say what?"
Ask your average CCM-listening Christian kid, and he'll probably know dc Talk, the pop rap sensation that debuted in the late '80s and went platinum, and maybe the two kids who rhyme in their church talent shows.
Between these two poles of indifference, there is indeed a national Christian hip-hop market emerging, but by all accounts it's small and very low profile.
"The simple fact is that Christian hip-hop doesn't get a lot of play," says Sheila Dean, a Phoenix-based broadcast publicist and former UAU volunteer who tried to scratch out a living promoting Christian rap songs to radio stations. But it became impossible when the industry chart she was using to gauge her success -- the Christian listing in Progressive Airplay Journal, a trade publication that tracks every micro-movement in alternative radio -- was eliminated.
"They pitched the chart -- that should show you how small it really is. Yeah, the words 'money' and 'Christian hip-hop' don't belong in the same sentence," Dean says.
Getting record sales figures is also difficult. Almost all Christian hip-hop albums are sold through the artists' Web sites and Christian bookstores, transactions that Nielsen SoundScan doesn't track. The most popular national Christian rappers, according to label accounts, sell between 10,000 and 40,000 copies, with California's near-crossover Latino rapper T-Bone setting the genre's absolute high-water mark at around 100,000. To put this in perspective, top-tier secular hip-hop albums regularly surpass 400,000 in their first week alone. The only Phoenix-bred Christian MC to garner national recognition, Verbs (who now lives in Nashville), sold 30,000 units of his 2000 album The Syllabus. But his numbers are an aberration -- he's the only rapper to come out of Phoenix to get a real record deal, and his label, Gotee, is the only Christian rap imprint to speak of with any muscle. The Rep, who is currently the best-selling local gospel rapper, has moved around 3,500 copies of his album Street Prophecy. Other area Christian rappers consider that a success since he didn't have any distribution or promotion behind him.
This gross discrepancy is hard to fathom in light of the recent mainstream success of Christian rock bands like Creed and P.O.D. Consider that hip-hop as a genre consistently outsells rock in the secular industry, add in the 2002 Gallup poll finding that 46 percent of Americans identify themselves as "born again" or "evangelical," and the result should be a multimillion-dollar industry. Imagine alone the number of Christian mothers who chuck their kids' entire CD collections after one listen to Eminem. If just 1 percent of them bought a safe, Bible-based rap album as a replacement -- and Christian music has succeeded over the years primarily by offering alternatives to mainstream trends -- at least one or two gospel rappers would go platinum.
So what gives? First off, most parents simply don't know the alternative exists. At this point, only three Christian rap labels even have national distribution, and of those that do, their promotional budgets are tiny. Second, there is no obvious contender for who the potential superstar would be.
"The title is out there just waiting to be claimed," says Jason Perez, a.k.a. Boogie of the veteran Phoenix Christian rap duo Inner Gate. "The thing is, Christians are really good at hearing something and imitating it. They're not so good at creating something original. In hip-hop, if you're going to compete with the Jay-Zs and Eminems, you gotta come with something new, something hard."