Gajah's Avant-Garde Rap Started from a Christian Youth Group

Gajah
Gajah
Photo courtesy of Uncommon Records

Today sees the release of Los Angeles underground hip-hop favorite Gajah's new album, Hands of Gold Are Always Cold. Entirely produced by prog-rap innovator Uncommon Nasa, it's the latest in Gajah's two decades' worth of boundary pushing output.

As one-half of seminal West Coast duo Acid Reign and a veteran of Los Angeles hip-hop collective Project Blowed, Gajah’s legacy as an experimental rap trailblazer is unparalleled. But it has a surprising event horizon: a Christian youth group.

“I was getting into trouble in the neighborhood,” Gajah says. “Spray-painting walls, smoking weed, and my uncle invited me to go to this youth group. The pastor would rap during the sermon, talking about the Bible and God and busting freestyles. I was into hip-hop and it blew my mind.”

A few weeks after becoming born-again, Gajah met Beond, with whom he would go on to form Acid Reign. Their early demos had Christian overtones, but they were soon introduced to more secular hip-hop from fellow Christian rappers Future Shock and LPG, who put them on to contemporaries Freestyle Fellowship, Leaders of the New School and Organized Konfusion.

Still too young to get into any clubs, Gajah and Beond would hear tales of rappers like Mos Def, Jeru the Damaja and Common Sense coming to local hip-hop party Unity, and developed a yearning to be a part of the the vibrant hip-hop scene.

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While Gajah’s no longer a practicing Christian, he attributes being a part of that scene to grounding him with a sense of morality. It was a focus he would need for when he and Beond became initiated into Project Blowed via their legendary open-mic nights.

“We signed the list and got a mixed response the first time," Gajah recalls. "But we didn’t get booed off the stage with a ‘please pass the mic’ chant and got pretty much spared.”

Knowing the likes of Aceyalone and Abstract Rude were watching them, they had to keep their skills sharp. “Every time we would go, we would have to battle somebody. We would get attacked outside the door by LA Kool or C.V.E. or any of these guys who didn’t want you to come in their house without proving yourself.” But Acid Reign more than earned their place, once having to battle over 20 people to enter the club.

Gajah’s reputation for innovation on the West Coast makes for a perfect partnership with Staten Island, N.Y., producer Uncommon Nasa. Nasa’s label, Uncommon Records, had previously released Acid Reign’s most recent album in 2011, but Hands of Gold Are Always Cold is Gajah and NASA’s first album-length collaboration.

“Everything’s progressive, everything varies, and that’s how I like to keep my music,” Gajah says.

Interestingly enough, the boundary-pushing of Gajah’s flows and Nasa’s beats have somehow resulted in some of the most conventional and accessible music either has made. While Gajah admits that on this album, he was more interested in getting his hope-in-the-darkness message out there, he maintains that this set is another extension of himself: “I like to be myself while hitting them from different places.”


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