Jesus Christ Rap Superstar

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

Jesus raps a bit like Tupac.

Not in the content of his lyrics, of course -- he devotes his rhymes to condemning the vices of thug life, unlike 'Pac, who lived and died by them. But his delivery is definitely West Coast, his meter precise and masculine like a gangster rapper's. In his first rap on Earth, he paces back and forth and holds the mike firmly, declaring:

I'm the one with the hammer

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).
Top: As the show ends, Stewart morphs from Satan into preacher and makes his altar call. His first two takers come forward to accept Jesus. Above: In the parking lot at the River of Life after the show, kids assemble to caravan to Mill Avenue for freestyle witnessing.
Top: As the show ends, Stewart morphs from Satan into preacher and makes his altar call. His first two takers come forward to accept Jesus. Above: In the parking lot at the River of Life after the show, kids assemble to caravan to Mill Avenue for freestyle witnessing.
Top: On opening night of "The One," Christ's resurrection and Satan's defeat prompt a standing ovation. Above: The world's first holy hip-hopera drew young Christians of all stripes, from hip-hoppers to punk rockers.
Top: On opening night of "The One," Christ's resurrection and Satan's defeat prompt a standing ovation. Above: The world's first holy hip-hopera drew young Christians of all stripes, from hip-hoppers to punk rockers.
Top: In the Urban Artists United freestyle circle on Mill Avenue, MC Quest (center) testifies off the top of the dome while God Chaser (far left) looks on. Above: UAU mastermind Vocab Malone, wearing his boombox backpack, and his wife Nicole Rieser (center) peruse Mill after opening night of "The One."
Top: In the Urban Artists United freestyle circle on Mill Avenue, MC Quest (center) testifies off the top of the dome while God Chaser (far left) looks on. Above: UAU mastermind Vocab Malone, wearing his boombox backpack, and his wife Nicole Rieser (center) peruse Mill after opening night of "The One."
Pastor Jason (standing, left) puts his sermon on pause at his Fifth Element Fellowship while his Inner Gate partner in rhyme Ves (standing, right) drops a verse.
Pastor Jason (standing, left) puts his sermon on pause at his Fifth Element Fellowship while his Inner Gate partner in rhyme Ves (standing, right) drops a verse.
Pastor Jason Perez sitting in front of the graf-covered walls of the Fifth Element Fellowship, after his Sunday service.
Pastor Jason Perez sitting in front of the graf-covered walls of the Fifth Element Fellowship, after his Sunday service.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti.

crushing all sin

I'm the one

Keep your eyes on God's son k

determined to pursue

I keep the devil on the run.

No, this is not a meek Jesus. He sports a tan velour sweat suit with the hood pulled low over his face, cutting the figure of a boxer before a title fight. And he isn't wack, either. He can go flow for flow with Satan, which is no small feat considering Lucifer was in charge of music in heaven before God cast him out. Jesus' rhymes are so strong and his message so pure that Satan, unable to defeat him in a lyrical battle, must resort to treachery. He tempts one of Jesus' crew with a lucrative recording contract, in exchange for taking the messiah out.

Jesus dies not on the cross but by the bullet of a gun, like all rappers slain too early in life.

At the funeral, Jesus' camo-clad disciples mill about his casket, dejected. But what's this? One of his followers opens the coffin and it's empty. There's a flash of light, a puff of smoke-machine fog, and Jesus bursts back onstage again, only now his sweat suit is gleaming white. He's returned, and the gospel he spits over a G-funk beat is for all the other rappers on Earth:

Every day remember you're equipped, anointed to spit rhymes

every day you should be preaching, touching lives when you spit game.

And thus God created evangelical MCs, a disproportionate number of whom have apparently wound up in metropolitan Phoenix. The Valley is home to at least 20 serious Christian rappers, five DJs, four record labels, and a dozen or so Jesus-freak graffiti writers and break-dancers. They have their own support group. They promote their own shows. They have radio programs. They have their own form of battling. They even have a church.

What's more, they're multiplying. Phoenix is held in such high regard on Christian hip-hop Web sites that holy hip-hoppers in other cities make connections with locals via chat rooms, move here, soak up the scene for a few months, and then either stay or spread the gospel back home.

Why here? Phoenix, with a nondenominational church on just about every block and more than a few mega-churches (those with congregations of 20,000 or more), boasts a huge population of born-agains, and born-agains have a ministry for everything. There are food ministries, married couples' ministries, old people's ministries, and often most active of all, youth ministries. The fundamentalist revival movement -- and that's the type of Christians we're talking about here -- has used contemporary music in its youth ministries since the '70s. A growing number of local youth ministers, eager to connect with kids in new ways, have been amiable to local hip-hoppers looking for support. Church bookstores carry their CDs.

The result of this unlikely coupling of conservative churches and slang-speaking rappers is a local Christian hip-hop scene that is resourceful beyond its still meager sales, able to launch projects like this ambitious retelling of the resurrection of Christ in the form of the "hip-hopera" described above. Written and performed by four of the most notable Christian MCs in town -- Gabriel Manjarrez (playing Jesus), Warren Stewart (Satan), Vocab Malone (Luke), and Bryan Kilgore (John the Baptist and Judas), the show featured more than 50 actors and an impressive multimedia presentation. They only had a tiny budget for their beats-and-rhymes Jesus pageant, but they had at their disposal the Home Depot-size River of Life church in southeast Phoenix, complete with video cameras on cranes and a concert-grade sound system. They called it "The One," although "Jesus Christ Rap Superstar" would have fit, too. Manjarrez says that the three performances in February, put on free at the church, were so well received that he and his disciples are planning a run at a proper theater and even considering touring outside the state.

"The One" is heavy-handed in its message and a tad kooky in its premise -- qualities it shares with Christian hip-hop as a whole -- but the performances by the four leads were remarkable, and their rendering of the Jesus saga in rap vernacular breathed a welcome humor and freshness into it. As in many fundamentalist versions of scripture, the devil occupies a more prominent role in "The One" than he does in the New Testament. Here he exerts total control over the populace through a one-world media. His Hellbound record label (run by a lackey named Py-Diddy) tempts all rappers to sign away their souls in exchange for the earthly delights of bling, malt liquor and loose women. Friction begins when Jesus, a rising underground star, refuses to sign a deal and instead assembles 12 disciples to do battle with the rappers of darkness.

But what sounds like apocalyptic hyperbole actually plays out as a fairly pertinent criticism of today's mainstream hip-hop industry. When Py-Diddy's artists wax poetic over "Benz, endz, rims and Tims," they could be on any No Limit track, and the business model followed by Hellbound -- getting rich by spreading messages of depravity -- is common practice for real labels.

You don't have to be Christian to endorse "The One's" satire of rap music 2004.

The show's creators don't just intend to lambaste secular hip-hop, though. They're in it to save souls, to bring people to Christ through rap music. As the musical program ends and the applause fades at the February show at the River of Life, Stewart, who played Satan and has a burgeoning real-life rap career as Big Wo, segues into preacher mode to deliver the night's real hook.

"If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, you can accept him tonight," he says. "If you have been unsure about being saved in the past, run down to the front right now."

This is the altar call, something each of the four recording artists who performed in "The One" also asks for at the end of their own shows. Tonight, 20 or so young teens and parent-age types come to the foot of the stage. A church worker explains that Usher Phil is available in an adjacent room for anyone who would like further counseling.

"They just made the best decision of their life!" Stewart proclaims as the applause rises.


After the Friday night showing, the actors mingle with the audience in the River of Life's capacious foyer, exchanging hugs with well-wishers and taking turns manning the merchandise table.

In addition to "The One" tee shirts and CDs available, each of the four musicians has music for sale. Potential customers have a broad array of styles to choose from -- Stewart's Big Wo debut single "What's Your Desire?" sounds like one of P. Diddy's rap/R&B hybrids; the live CD-R Bryan Kilgore Saved offers acoustic neo-soul in the mode of a male Lauryn Hill; Manjarrez's album I Still Hold On, released under the name Reborn Disciple, is in the aforementioned West Coast vein; and Malone's Notebook Nomad is shaped by the playful underground vibe that peaked in the early '90s. Business for their stuff isn't jumping tonight, probably because all four artists are fixtures at the church and the hip-hop fans in the congregation have had ample opportunity to purchase already.

As the crowd dissipates, Malone gathers a group of about a dozen twentysomethings, among them his wife, Nicole, who also had a part in "The One," and DJ Cre, who produced many of the beats for both the musical and Malone's album. Everyone accounted for, they caravan to the Exchange, a Tempe church that allows them to park in its lot. After waiting until a little after 9 for another dozen or so hip-hoppers to arrive, some with their young wives and children in tow, Malone circles them up and says a brief opening prayer. Then he explains the night's ministry work, which he calls freestyle witnessing.

"We're not here to battle anyone or diss anyone," he says. "That's not what we do. We're here to tell people about Jesus and have a good time. If someone you meet wants one, I do have Bibles in my backpack."

The talk is mostly ceremonial since Malone's been doing these evangelical hip-hop sessions for three years and everyone in attendance has participated before. Malone founded his hip-hop ministry, Urban Artists United (UAU), in 2001 as a "para-church, semi-official thing" that he wanted to be "more like a movement than an organization, almost like how being a Minuteman was." The UAU's action plan is threefold -- education, which it does through Bible studies; expression, manifested in offerings like "The One" and a compilation CD of area hip-hop; and evangelizing, which the ministry does once a month on Mill Avenue.

After Malone's directive, the crew walks the two blocks to Mill and then snakes through the weekend foot traffic to the open brick area in front of Borders. Once reassembled, one of the kids pushes play on the backpack boom box he's wearing and the rappers in the group trade improv verses over the continuous instrumentals. Tonight MC Quest, who had a career as a secular artist before being born again two years ago, is the most animated, bobbing his whole top torso up and down to the beat and excitedly exclaiming the glories of Jesus. Besides the conspicuous lack of cuss words, the many references to Christ, and the fact that none of the MCs were challenging each other, this freestyle cipher is just like any other.

The early February night is unusually cold, so the flow of collegiate passers-by is intermittent and the gathering attracts only a few curious onlookers. But on a good outing, the rapping will draw scores of kids straining their necks to get a view and a queue of freestylers nudging to get their turn to rap. One such evening, captured on a UAU DVD, Malone and company engage numerous MCs in what he calls "rhyme conversations." An unsuspecting rapper enters the circle and begins a flow peppered with curses and the typical hip-hop topics of girls and guns. UAU members counter each rhyme with a positive, Jesus-praising one. In an odd reversal of the Christian versus lions Colosseum matches, the secular rapper slowly realizes he's surrounded by Bible-thumping MCs, ready to pounce on his every lyrical transgression.

"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."

Indeed, many Christian rappers make their names by counterfeiting the innovations of their secular counterparts, which is a major breach of hip-hop etiquette. KJ-52, one of the more prominent Godly rappers on the national scene, climbed from obscurity by calling out Eminem as a bad role model in a spoof he made of Em's "Stan" hit. But in so doing, KJ unintentionally proved that Eminem served as his guidance, too, since he rapped exactly like him. Malone groans as he recounts all the groups he's heard who steal the entire instrumental from a currently hot secular track and change the lyrics just enough to "sanctify" them.

"It's like a Weird Al parody, but they're not trying to be funny," he says.

The third dark cloud looming over Christian hip-hop is the ambivalence the evangelical church movement still has to it. The River of Life, which boasts a full recording studio available to area rappers, and Arizona's largest mega-church, Phoenix First Assembly of God, which will be hosting monthly UAU open mikes soon, are oases. There are just as many heavyweight churches that don't feature rap in their youth ministries at all. Some maintain that Christian hip-hop is an oxymoron or condemn it altogether.

"Can God use anything? Absolutely, he's God," says Pastor Tom Lonas of First Indian Baptist in north Phoenix, a church he describes as born again and evangelical, although denominational. "But I'd rather think that when God does something, that He's big enough to start it. So we don't have to get some fad like hip-hop from the world and bring it into the church. Frankly, I'd love to be a member of a church where Jesus is enough."

His church doesn't host any of the many local hip-hop ministries that go from church to church putting on performances, and he advises parents not to buy the albums. Some reactions have been more forceful. Will Robinson runs a 24-hour all-gospel-rap Internet radio station from his Phoenix home called the Slam Radio Network, but he started out on the airwaves. After his debut show on the pay-to-play Christian station KBIE (since bought by Christian goliath K-Love), he came back to the station to find the doors locked.

"Overnight, they took us off the air, tore up our contract, and the next thing I know their corporate lawyers are calling me saying that they don't play that kind of music." What had happened, he says, was that the American Family Council, a major donor, had threatened to pull its funding if the station played any more rap -- even of the Christian variety.

Pastor Mike Boyer, of In His Service Ministries, who is an ardent supporter of Christian hip-hop, and Verbs' father, says his son received a similar reception when he started his career. "When Verbs wanted to put on his first concert, he went around to different churches and told them God had given him the vision to do hip-hop. They laughed at him. They said hip-hop's a pit of hell. Nobody would open up their doors."

Without broad support from the church or much in the way of promotional infrastructure, Christian hip-hop is an orphan scene, "a minority within a minority," as Malone puts it, adding, "A lot of Christian hip-hop artists view it as their cross to bear."

As a result, the Christian rap scene in Phoenix is especially tight-knit and self-reliant, motivated by a circle-the-wagons instinct that produced things like Urban Artists United. "What I like to say is that if you're a Christian rapper in Phoenix," remarks Malone, "you're in the UAU whether you like it or not. We have no choice but to be unified."


Evangelicalism so often comes down to a numbers game. And while the 10 local rappers interviewed for this article admit that their projects -- or "ministries," in their vernacular -- haven't achieved anything financially, all are adamant that their music is effective for bringing in converts. This is why church resistance to Christian hip-hop is slowly waning.

The second half to Pastor Boyer's story is that after his son searched in vain for a venue, he got him a room in Phoenix First Assembly through a pastor friend he had there. "Forty gang members came to the Lord in that concert. After that, every church in town wanted us to play there."

Putting butts in the seats of God's house is the ultimate objective, which is why these artists put on shows for free or a small honorarium from a church. Quest even gives away his 16-song CD. "I've given out 300 right now; if I'd been selling them, it might have only been half of that," he explains. "So look at all the 150 that are blessed now."

God is the final accountant, and often the numbers he uses aren't always so clear in human terms. "You can't apply normal Keynesian economic theory to what we do," says Terrance Froysland, CEO and co-founder of Soul Flava Musik, the largest Christian rap label in Phoenix. His artists -- The Rep, Aarman, 1-80, and Vision, who are rappers, and Dunamis and BloodBaught, which are rock bands -- are constantly on shoestring-budget outreach tours, sleeping in the basements of churches and eating Whoppers every day. "I've been at shows where the church gave us 13 bucks but we saved 300 kids. We can't see the difference we're making because it's a spiritual reward."

To make his point, he tells the story of a preacher who put on an old-time tent revival, ministered for two hours, and when he made the altar call, only one kid came forward.

"That kid was Billy Graham," Froysland says. "God used that one kid to save tens of millions of people. Now, in the kingdom of heaven, that pastor is credited with all those tens of millions of people being saved. That's why I tell all the artists in my ministry, ÔIf you aren't willing to give the same show to seven people that you would to 700, get out.'"

Froysland is a serious, blunt-speaking 30-year-old with a red goatee. He grew up Methodist in Philadelphia and was saved two years ago. At the time, he was the youngest general manager in Marriott history, enjoying the comforts of an upper-middle-class life. "I had rides on Lear jets, Rolexes, and money in my pocket," he recounts. "You know what I found? Emptiness, being alone."

After being born again, Froysland wanted to find a career path that better fit his new commitment to faith. Knowing he was a lifelong hip-hop fan, his friend Aarman Prieto suggested they start a Christian hip-hop label together. Everything Froysland heard, though, was "lollipop, Mickey Mouse rap that could never compete with the secular stuff," until he played a demo from The Rep, an undeniably talented rapper who rhymed about his gritty pre-conversion days on the streets.

Froysland was impressed enough to partner with Prieto and start Soul Flava.

It's impossible to confirm the numbers of kids saved quoted by Froysland and different rappers, since no formal record is kept when someone decides to convert. Froysland does have a binder he leafs through with a dozen or so letters from pastors thanking him for a concert and noting the number of souls saved at each. "This one says 75 kids, this one says 30, this one says 100," Froysland reads with pride. He uses these letters to convince pastors dubious of rap to allow Soul Flava to perform at their youth ministries.

All the weight put on tallies, however, begs the question: How long do these kids stay Christian? What's the depth of their understanding of what it means to be Christian? In other words, what's the quality behind all the quantities?

Froysland concedes that he can't be sure how many stay on the path, although his ministry does take a new convert's phone number and then follows up with a call offering additional support. But even if the change is temporary, he argues, the benefit can still be profound.

"Maybe one of these kids that God touched at our concert doesn't show up in your house to rob you and shoot your mother," he says. "We had 100 gangbangers get saved in one night -- how many kids didn't die that night in drive-bys? If they all turned back to their old lifestyle in three weeks, how many people didn't get robbed or raped because of it?"

Of course, gangsters change their lifestyles all the time -- without the aid of Jesus. One can make Froysland's same argument about the conscious movement within secular hip-hop, which serves as a sort of progressive alternative to hard-core rap. In the lyrics of Talib Kweli, Common, and the Roots, thugs can also find encouragement to lay down their guns and treat women with respect. And such transformations may be easier to make and last longer, since the positive messages of secular rap don't require a spiritual conversion to put into action.

Perhaps there are various paths to the truth -- a notion fundamentalist Christians won't endorse -- with Bible-based hip-hop leading one kind of person to a healthier life, and the life-affirming secular subgenre serving another. Taken together, Christian and conscious hip-hop provide a welcome sanctuary from the increasingly jaded and solipsistic worldview of most commercial rap. Both strains share a similar critique of the materialism, violence and misogyny rampant in hip-hop, which, as Froysland states, "is pretty hard to defend, whether you're Christian or not. Really what we're doing is offering an alternative to 'Move, bitch, get out the way, get out the way,'" quoting the chorus from a recent Ludacris hit.


A Christian hip-hop show is a family affair. At MC Sacred's monthly open mike night, which on this Saturday in early February is doubling as a CD release party for a 20-year-old rapper called the Chancellor, young moms with infants sit in the front row. Six girls in their early teens stand in a circle practicing dance routines as the DJ, Fidel Castro, spins warm-up beats before the evening's performances.

The Chancellor's mother, a middle-aged black woman with a warm smile, is selling copies of his CD, Captain Save a Hood, the title of which spoofs E-40's radio hit "Captain Save-a-Ho." There isn't a drop of alcohol visible on premises, and not one of the 50 or so attendants is acting hard. For a rap show, the vibe is unbelievably wholesome.

Out in front of the charter school multipurpose room that Sacred borrows for his events, he and various Urban Artists United affiliates are still finalizing the evening's schedule. What they really want to add to the program is a reverse battle, a Christian hip-hop innovation that was born in Phoenix and has since spread to other cities through the Internet. But there aren't enough MCs on hand to fill the slots, since a simultaneous showing of "The One" is splitting the audience.

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!"

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.

"For everything I couldn't achieve as an artist," he adds, "I look at him and think, 'He could really do it.'"


Jason Perez still raps and records music, but after more than a decade as a member of Inner Gate, which for years was the Christian group considered most likely to break out of Phoenix but never did, he's shifted focus. Content now to remain a local artist, he says he found his true calling only a year ago, or rather he was dragged to it. He had been going to an unorthodox church called the Youth Athletic Club, which blended activities like basketball with Bible study, until one day the congregation decided to go separate directions.

"I was going around to different churches with this group of young people, looking for a place to worship," he remembers. "They didn't feel comfortable anywhere we went, so they said, 'How about next Sunday you preach?'

"'Preach? Preach what?'" he asked, a bit bewildered. He hadn't studied the Bible formally and his only public speaking experience had been as a rapper.

"'You preach at your apartment and we'll all come,' they said.

"I told them, 'Ain't no way, sorry, I ain't a preacher.' But they came anyway, I gave a little sermon, and then that night I had a dream. Call it a vision or whatever, but I saw a church, called Fifth Element, and it used hip-hop in service. I woke up and said, 'This is what we have to do.'"

Pastor Mike Boyer, whose son Verbs had been in Inner Gate briefly, found Perez a converted barn on 51st Avenue and Greenway Road. The professional sound system made up for the cow pies in the parking lot, Perez figured, and thus the Fifth Element Fellowship, one of maybe four or five hip-hop churches in America, had found its home.

On Sunday afternoon at 1, the day after the Chancellor's CD release party, Pastor Jason is welcoming his flock back to church. He's wearing crisp khaki slacks, an untucked bottom-down shirt, and a baseball cap turned backward. He's all chuckles and smiles as his congregants, mostly Latinos and African Americans in their 20s, leisurely find places on the metal benches that serve as pews. Everyone seated, Perez calls to a last straggler, "Football season must be over! Praise Jesus! Either that or you're on parole." The couple dozen churchgoers laugh along with him.

Inside the barn, graffiti covers one of the walls, programmable lasers mounted on scaffolding hover over the makeshift pews, and there's a DJ coffin set up on the side. "I call the turntable the church's new tambourine," Perez says later. "This is our instrument for the new generation. I don't have a DJ yet, but I'd love to have him throw me a scratch whenever I made a point."

After the congregation sings along to 10 or so contemporary praise and worship songs, the lyrics of which are projected onto a large screen behind the pulpit, Perez quizzes the attendees on the Bible passage they were supposed to memorize from last week. He comes off like a jovial big brother, cracking jokes and chiding the kids who hadn't done their homework, until the lights dim and the light show begins. His rhyme partner Ves hops up from a pew and they rumble their way through a boom-bapping Inner Gate track. Another quick, punchy rap spit by a congregant -- James Chris, Ves' younger brother -- makes it clear that no one will be nodding off at this service.

Just as suddenly as it began, the rapping portion of the program finishes and Perez begins his sermon.

"Our first reading is Romans five, verse one -- say, 'What! What!' when you find it," he instructs. Today's topic is the need for unity amongst Christians and how if church people pulled together, they could set the agenda on this plane, not just the next. "It's more acceptable to be homosexual in America today than it is to be Christian," he begins after his congregants locate the passage. "If anyone steps to them, they'll be out picketing in a heartbeat. We need to stand up for our rights just like that."

Later in his sermon, Perez references some of The Rep's lyrics, which he read in the service last week, to illustrate a point. "There's too much ego in the church," he continues, "too much competing over who's got the bigger youth group."

As Perez preaches, kids call out "Word!" in place of "Amen."

At the end of his hourlong sermon, the congregants rise, approach the altar, and join hands. The casually dressed young Christians repeat a sinner's prayer projected overhead while Pastor Mike walks among them performing healings. He holds an earlier service in the barn for an older congregation and sticks around to support Perez, who is still a greenhorn preacher. Boyer stops in front of a black teenager and tells him, "God is telling me that you're in a very dangerous position. Someone is planning to kill you. You need to be very careful and get right with Jesus." The kid doesn't seem taken aback by this information.

For his last announcements, Perez coordinates rides over to the River of Life to see "The One" and mentions that they'll also be buying advance tickets for The Passion of the Christ. "I have a core of about 15 kids who are together four days a week," he says afterward. "They go to the mall together and share music. The number one thing I want is for the church to be nonthreatening. Hip-hop is a great tool for doing that, for bringing us together. It's the language we speak."

Mustaffa, who's been coming to Fifth Element for three weeks and who also produced most of the beats on The Rep's album, concurs. "I like the teachings, because they're more for our age group," he says, chatting with a friend on the gravel driveway after the service. "[Perez] can relate to what we've gone through much more than somebody who's gone to a traditional church most of their life. It's more aimed at people who have been on the streets."

Perez couches the charter for his church in traditional hip-hop ideology. "The four elements of hip-hop culture are rapping, break-dancing, the graffiti, and the DJ," he says. This is the hip-hop purist's creed, and one of the longest-running debates is what constitutes the fifth -- is it producing beats, fashion, politics, attitude? Perez trumps hip-hopper orthodoxy when he suggests that "all of the four elements can be used to touch the streets, only if they have the covering of the fifth, which is Jesus."

Of course, if many churches deny the legitimacy of Christian rap in the abstract alone, the prospect of it being actually used in service would warrant something like a relaunching of the Inquisition. And Perez has met resistance already, most adamantly from members of his own family, who are fire-and-brimstone Baptists. They attended his services for three weeks, "and immediately they began to nit-pick everything," he recounts, "the way the girls dressed, the lack of structure, the fact that I didn't have a ministerial degree -- nothing was right.

"Finally, I said, 'You know what, Mom? I don't think that's what the world needs right now. The church is in shambles -- pastors being found in porn shops, priests molesting children. The world is not trusting us right now, so how are you going to come at them saying they can't listen to this or dress like that?'

"So I'm looking to start what I call a revival in the land of love and acceptance. I think my job right now is to let people know that they have options and that God's not pushy. Hip-hop in church is a big step along that path."

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