Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

Phoenix is the unlikely capital of Christian hip-hop – leading to the not-so-immortal question, Who Would Jesus Diss?

Malone came up with the idea when he was honing his skills as a rapper. "To get better, my friends and I would battle, always tearing each other down, and it'd get personal," he remembers. "One day I just said, 'Why are we doing this? This isn't Christian.' So I started complimenting them instead of dissing them." He began staging open competitions in which the goal was to uplift one's opponent, a flattery version of the lyrical cockfights shown in 8 Mile. He admits the idea sounds goofy to the average hip-hopper. "But you know what? I'd rather be corny than carnal." Indeed, Who Would Jesus Diss?

As a rapper who calls himself God Chaser arrives with a Bible under his arm, the organizers ask him if he'll enter the reverse battle. "I don't reverse battle," he tells them, "because a lot of what I rap is from Scripture, and if I get up there and mess up some of the words . . . well, you don't get to take that back."

Back inside, the multigenerational crowd members take their seats and a strait-laced white pastor gives an opening prayer, after which he proceeds to clap off-beat throughout the performance. God Chaser goes on first, and as the instrumental to his first song begins, he says, "This song reminds me of when I was locked up. Yeah, my life was pretty bad -- I was shot twice and stabbed several times. But one day, I knew I had to look in the mirror . . ." He launches into his rhyme, which is wandering and difficult to make out. A purple banner over the stage reads: "Get ready! Jesus is coming!"

In the hip-hopera "The One," Vocab Malone plays a gospel-writing, rhyme-spitting Luke.
In the hip-hopera "The One," Vocab Malone plays a gospel-writing, rhyme-spitting Luke.
Top: At the climax of "The One," Jesus (Gabriel Manjarrez), in fresh white velour, rallies his crew, while Dr. Luke (Vocab Malone), to his immediate right, confirms that he lives again. Above: Holy merch table, Batman! Showgoers on opening night could choose the soundtrack to the musical, a Big Wo (a.k.a. Warren Stewart) single, or the debut album from the Reborn Disciple (Manjarrez).
Top: At the climax of "The One," Jesus (Gabriel Manjarrez), in fresh white velour, rallies his crew, while Dr. Luke (Vocab Malone), to his immediate right, confirms that he lives again. Above: Holy merch table, Batman! Showgoers on opening night could choose the soundtrack to the musical, a Big Wo (a.k.a. Warren Stewart) single, or the debut album from the Reborn Disciple (Manjarrez).

The show's itinerary is casual, so as rappers show up, Sacred makes ad hoc additions to the lineup. An unremarkable MC identifying himself as AKG is followed by a showcase by a break-dance crew called Soul Squad, the leader of which explains that some of their members had recently "left" -- the group and presumably Jesus, too -- "so we're praying for them." MC Quest takes the stage later with his wife, who sings an R&B-style chorus about longing for Jesus between his fervent verses. By the end, she's dabbing her eyes with a tissue and his voice is breaking over the lines, "The road is rough/When I fall He picks me up."

The Chancellor, the night's headliner, looks comfortable on the mike for a young MC and shows a flair for showmanship, waiting in a back room while a beat plays and the crowd chants his name. His rhymes are less densely packed with Jesus references than his predecessors', and if a regular hip-hopper happened to walk in during his performance, he might think he was at a regular show, until the Chancellor's 2-year-old son joins him onstage.

The subtlety of his content is intentional, as he explained in an earlier interview: "I don't want to preach, because then the unsaved listeners are gonna go the other way. I wanted to give them something that looks like them, but when they listen to it, they'll wonder where the negativity went. They'll look and they won't find it. I want to disguise it like that."

He also differs from most of his colleagues in that he doesn't describe what he does as Christian hip-hop. "I'm not a Christian rapper, I'm a hip-hop head," the Chancellor says. "Obviously, whatever my spiritual beliefs are will come out in my lyrics."

He does, though, interrupt one of his songs and asks if anyone hasn't yet accepted Jesus. After a brief silence and no one comes forward, he says, "Praise Jesus anyway."

The Chancellor and Quest are capable rappers who would not be considered wack by the secular hip-hop gauge of talent, but the only artist at the open mike who could conceivably share a stage with professional MCs is the skinny white kid who calls himself The Rep. Sporting an oversize tough-guy black leather jacket and peach fuzz goatee, he walks slowly across the stage, spitting precisely paced, crisply enunciated raps with Old Testament severity. He's got stage presence. His rhymes are complex but decipherable. He's the sole performer on the bill who doesn't seem like a boy in a man's arena (although he looks like one).

His lyrics also refuse to turn the other cheek. With scene stalwart Jason Perez of Inner Gate standing in the front row, rapping along with every line, The Rep croaks in his gravelly baritone:

You'd rather see me doped up, drugged at a party

on an Ecstasy pill like I love everybody

but I left that back a long time ago

when I used to smoke up all kinds of drugs.

Like Paul, he's got a past and he doesn't feel the need to candy-coat it.

"I'm The Rep's number one fan," Perez, who at 30 is nine years his senior, says after the show. "As far as Christian hip-hop right now, we lack the grime of the secular scene. When you listen to The Rep, he hits you hard with it. He broke the Christian code of what can and can't be said; he killed it, actually. If I had to pick an artist that can blow the whole Christian industry wide open, it would be him.

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