There are few questions that you can ask a band that will yield less interesting answers than asking them what their name means. In most cases, it will usually end up being an inside joke that’s funny to no one else on the planet, something they randomly found in a Google search, or a phrase the singer ripped out of a Burroughs book they got halfway through before tapping out. The last thing you expect to hear is a story about fucking Satan in the ass.
When we asked the born-again rap duo 20 Ft. Neon Jesus where their name came from, microphone fiend Brother Ignatius says it came to him from a long night of divine visions, bathroom revelations, and sodomizing the devil. Alone in his room one night, Ignatius beheld an unearthly light shining under a door. “I thought I left the light on in the bathroom,” Ignatius says. Instead, the future crunk rapper beheld the Alpha and Omega in his bathroom. “The Lord was bright as fuck,” he says. Filled with the neon light of God, inspired by the holiest of holies, Ignatius claims it gave him the strength he needed to “fuck the devil right up the butt.”
Of course, the band could also have based their name off of rapper/experimental musician MC 900 Ft. Jesus, as well as the fact that they wield a tall, neon cross in their performances (the cross doubles as a Communion wafer-firing cannon). But frankly, seeing God on the toilet and doing unspeakable things to the Prince of Darkness is a much better origin story.
The duo of Brother Ignatius and DJ Brother John the Revelator came together in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1999 before relocating to the Valley of the Sun. Fort Wayne is well-known for having an excessive amount of both churches and strip clubs; it’s only fitting it would give birth to an act that would feel right at home in either.
For the Neon crunksters, they don’t see any contradiction between their devout Christian beliefs and their Fuck-Money-Get-Bitches lifestyle. “The Lord used to hang out with prostitutes and drug dealers,” Ignatius exclaims as he makes margaritas at 1 p.m. on a Sunday in his lavish South Mountain pimp pad. “He wasn’t all ‘y’all going to Hell’ with ’em, he would hang out and drink.”
Brother Ignatius does most of the talking. The ever-faithful hypeman, Brother John punctuates Brother Ig’s points, shooting “Amen-amen-amens” out like a blunted Matthew McConaughey.
Even when they’re off-duty, the duo still show up in their ministry finery. Brother Ignatius wears shades and a white fur vest over a chest gleaming with ecumenical bling while Brother John dons a black du-rag and resplendent purple robes. Their fashion sense, equal parts Catholic Mass and Hype Williams music video, turns heads whenever Neon Jesus plays local shows.
“We dress unusual; we dress flamboyant,” Ignatius says while holding up a pimp chalice filled to the brim with Communion wafers. “People judge us, but they come to love us when they see what we up to.”
The duo are familiar faces to anyone who attends DIY shows in the Valley. They’ve played at noise shows, all-ages Trunk Space bills, hip-hop nights, variety shows at Lawn Gnome, arcade bars — they aren’t too picky with when and where they spread the good word about their Church of Crunkinology.
And while Neon Jesus might seem like a joke to nonbelievers, the music on their full-length LP Full Frontal Conversion is dead serious about jamming hard. Songs like “Those Hoes Knows (Where the Jesus Hose Goes),” “Finna Do Some Savin,’” and “All Up in My Tabernacle” fuse together nod-your-head productions with Brother Ig’s scabrously funny lyrics (“All up in your ass like a horse on Cialis” is a particularly hilarious bit of street ministry). Like fellow “joke-rapper” HotRock SupaJoint, they don’t forget to write actual songs to go with their punchlines.
That goofy, absurdist sense of humor is why Neon Jesus is a better fit in Phoenix than they ever were in Fort Wayne.
Musically, Phoenix has always been a diverse city; both the Gin Blossoms and the Sun City Girls sprouted from its soil. There aren’t many sonic elements that can be pinpointed as being part of a “Phoenix sound” in the way that a certain beat pattern or guitar riff can be identified with Detroit or New York. But one of the few constants that separates our scene from others is that Phoenix bands know how to be funny.
Whether it’s Treasure Mammal using Shake Weights at his shows or AJJ coming up with song titles that are funnier than most comedians’ tight five, Arizona bands aren’t afraid to be a little goofy. It’s hard to imagine a musician like Dinosaur Love (who sings beautiful, Brian Wilson-esque songs about dinosaurs while wearing a T-rex head) being as warmly embraced in another city. And part of the reason why “gimmick” bands work so well here is that damn near everyone has taken Andy Kaufman’s number-one rule to heart: Always commit to the bit.
It’s what makes groups like Father’s Day work: They commit to their shitty-and-angry-fathers gimmick so intensely that it elevates their material, much in the same way that the “Alpha Bro Mega Dudes” in BroLoaf wouldn’t be as interesting if they weren’t so fully committed to playing total douchebags onstage. 20 Ft. Neon Jesus’s music is all the more compelling and interesting because they don’t ever wink at the audience. The fact that they also refuse to break character in interviews is another sign of devotion to their routine.
And while their stage shows are fun, the band shines brightest during their monthly ministry on First Friday.
Any veteran of First Friday knows what it’s like to walk down Roosevelt Street and face the gauntlet of street preachers howling condemnations through tinny speakers mounted on wheelbarrows. After drifting through the noise pollution of youth group pastors shouting about sin and Satan, stumbling onto the Neon brothers can be a breath of heavenly air.
The two wander through First Fridays, carrying their neon cross and performing “booty blessings.” Witnessing Brothers John and Ignatius shout “Hallelujah!” and “Blessed be that ass!” at twerking strangers is a refreshing change of pace from all the other more “orthodox” preachers in downtown.
“They are unorthodox ministries too,” Ignatius says about the other street ministers. “They out there preaching hate. We out here showing love.”
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Brother John explains that the booty blessings began as a happy accident.
“The Lord told us to go out onto the street,” Brother John says. “And these bitches start shaking their asses and telling us we got to bless that booty,” Ignatius cuts in.
When asked if they thought the Lord was an ass-man, Ignatius flashed a knowing grin. “Let me ask you something, brother: Who made that booty?”
20 Ft. Neon Jesus will be performing street ministrations and booty blessings on Friday, August 3, at First Friday in downtown Phoenix.