The last time you saw Mason Betha, he was probably in a shiny suit, holding a handful of money, with Puff Daddy dancing behind him. That was 10 years ago, when Mason was Ma$e, Puffy's protégé following the assassination of The Notorious B.I.G. Back then, Mason was bemoaning the adverse effect mo' money could have — namely, the emergence of mo' problems — while simultaneously discussing what made him "Feel So Good." (Partial list: ladies, Mercedes, hits from the '80s.)
But if Betha (pronounced Beth-ay) had his way, the next time you'd see him would be at a seamy central Phoenix high school, where his upstart church meets on Thursday nights.
In the world of late-'90s hip-hop, dominated by New York's post-Biggie sound, Ma$e was, perhaps, the perfect rapper. Bad Boy Records was making a highly polished brand of hip-hop, and Ma$e was Puffy's go-to guy, his indistinct, calorie-free flow pairing perfectly with the retread '80s hooks. Shortly before his second album, Double Up, came out, Ma$e made that most cliché of rap moves: the big retirement. He told a New York radio jock he had found the Lord and was giving up the game for good.
Want to know what other musicians gave up the life for the way? Check out this slide show of the Top Ten Musicians Turned to Religion.
Then, the weird part: He stuck with it. There were a few small hiccups, sure, but a decade later, Betha is out of rap and shepherding an Atlanta church that's making its first expansion to, of all places, Phoenix.
At 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Betha — dressed simply in a long-sleeve blue polo and jeans — is saying a prayer before eating a turkey sandwich at a downtown Quiznos. His valet is outside, having driven the former rapper to the restaurant then returning to the Escalade to do whatever it is valets do while former rappers talk to music writers.
Betha, whose main gig is at El Elyon International Church in Atlanta, flies to town once a week to host a Thursday-night service. He has no real connection to Phoenix, beyond an affinity for the palm trees that remind him of his native Florida — but he sees potential. Later that night, onstage at the high school auditorium, he talks about taking the spiritual temperature of Phoenix. It's not hot or cold, he says, but lukewarm. As the Bible says, that's the worst of all, and that's why he's here.
"I look at Phoenix as being a place where people are very reserved — reserved and laid back," he says. "When I saw that, that's good, and that can be bad, because when you're laid back and there's something that needs to change, it never happens and then you just become accustomed to what you don't want."
Betha says he was called to change that. And if anyone can talk about change, it's him. As he wrote in his book, Revelations: There's a Light After the Lime, he was smoking his morning joint on April 4, 1999, when the girl he'd spent the night with asked if he wanted to go to church. He didn't, but, for some reason, he went anyway. Midway through the service he felt called to the altar, where he fell to the ground and saw a vision of himself leading people to Hell. The pastor said a prayer over him, prophesying that he'd never again rap for the devil. He gave up hip-hop the next day.
Even for a rapper, Ma$e was an unlikely man of God. It's not as if he was introspective or conflicted like Kanye West, who gets baptized at least once every album. He was a party guy: Nelly without the Band-Aid or country grammar. That makes his message all the more effective, says Betha.
"I think people look at me like I've taken the step that people are most fearful of taking," he says. "It's not just the giving it up; it's the sticking with it. Like most people have seen a lot of entertainers entertain the thought, but we haven't seen many stick with it."
Musicians finding God is not a new story, of course. MC Hammer did it. Cat Stevens did it. Even Bob Dylan made two albums as a born-again Christian. But no one's come as far as Ma$e and stayed there. Sure, he's rapped a little, but nothing meaningful. There was a squeaky-clean comeback in 2004, the profanity-free Welcome Back and an ill-fated 2006 project with G-Unit in which he tried to assume a thug persona to take the world through his conversion to Christianity, but ended up calling Brandy a ho, confusing pretty much everyone outside his church. Betha says it was a mistake, but not in the way people might think.
"In order for people to understand, you have to take them from where you were, to where you are," he says. "So in taking people from where I was, it would require you to do music that exemplified where you were, then if I would have stayed in it, I was going to musically bring them to where I am. But then I started seeing that what I'm thinking and what they're thinking is totally two different things."
Now, Betha tries to keep his message direct. As a preacher, Betha is upbeat, preaching a Good News gospel of health and wealth, like a black Joel Osteen. "You don't need to hear more bad news; you can get bad news anywhere. Where do you go when you want good news?" he asks. "Tell me something about me I didn't know. That's what a preacher is supposed to do: come to you and tell you something that widens your comprehension of Christ."
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For now, Betha's church in Phoenix is small. About 40 people packed into the first five rows of Carl Hayden High School's auditorium on a recent Thursday as a four-piece rock band warmed them up for Betha's sermon. He took the stage wearing the same clothes he wore at Quiznos, Bible in hand. He delivered the Good News in a calm, steady drawl, not unlike the way he delivered his rhymes. His words, though, were all about renouncing the comforts he once celebrated, comforts aplenty here in Phoenix, a city with problems, but a city that's seen back east as a giant resort, built around sunshine and shopping. It's the people here, not the people in Atlanta, Florida, or Harlem (the other places he's called home) he wants to reach.
"When you're dealing with people who are comfortable, they're sometimes the hardest people to talk to because they're comfortable where they are, even if where they are is not where the Lord wants them," he tells the parishioners. "Every time I fly into a city, I like to feel the spiritual temperature of that place, and when I was landing in Phoenix, that was the word I heard: comfortable. And what that means is that even though you might not be where you want to be, there is not a fire to get out of where you are."
For that mission, Betha makes a lot of sense. Here's a man who gave up his life as a rapper at the height of his popularity — just as he was about to release the follow-up to his debut, an album that hit number one on the Billboard 200 — to share the word of the Lord. Whatever you think about his goal, that gives Betha some street cred. Much more than Ma$e ever had, anyway.