I first discovered Pigeon John in my church’s bookstore bargain bin. His 2001 debut album, Pigeon John Is Clueless, was just sitting there, undervalued and alone. I was a kid with no money trying to enjoy some semblance of hip-hop while my mom banned secular rap music. I bought the album without thinking.
Even though he was a Christian rapper, I found that Pigeon John lived through his music with a greater freedom than I could imagine. His melodic raps were effervescent, as if no one had ever told him he was going to hell, or at least he never believed it. Clueless lacked the battle-rap fervor of my beloved Tunnel Rats and the didactic evangelism of Cross Movement. In his music, Pigeon John showed me how to live a life that I would enjoy.
I didn’t realize until I interviewed Pigeon John ahead of his Feb. 3 show at Complex in Glendale that growing up, I was a misfit in the bargain bin, too. And maybe, when I bought Pigeon John’s CD, I was searching for a spirituality that went further than labels.
I thought Pigeon John was giving Christian hip-hop the middle finger in his later work by cursing in songs, taking a drag on his cigarette in the video for “Gangster,” and being unafraid to share his drunken tour escapades. But on his latest album, Good Sinner, there is an additional layer of spiritual meaning to his high-energy songs rooted in classic pop-rock.
“My backstory from coming from the church at 15 affected me. It played a huge role in my life,” Pigeon John says. In his teens, growing up in Hawthorne, he was told rap music was demonic; he dropped rapping for a year. The title Good Sinner refers both to needing salvation and knowing the good news that salvation is already given. “I’m sure people when they listen are not going to go, like, ‘He’s dropping that science.’ But just the title and the feeling alone, I kind of make peace with myself and how I came up.”
Pigeon John’s spirituality is a lot more Cali chill than the religious atmosphere I grew up in. “Music is the hand of God because it belongs to everyone. It’s so personal, and no one can describe it.” He believes everyone has a role in life, or a song to sing. And when everyone sings their song, that’s where God comes in. God isn’t what people would expect, he jokes. “When that song comes on, God shows up in a dashiki, with some ice cubes, and a cigarette … [God] surprises us. It’s a beautiful thing, you know?”
He lives at the intersections of life, as an open-mic alum of the Good Life Cafe, as well as a former Christian hip-hop star and an MC who sings more than he raps. Even at a young age, his self-identity blurred the lines. “I lived in L.A. when I was a youngun, I thought OK, I’m Mexican, because I’m brown and got straight hair. You know, I didn’t know. Then in Nebraska [where he was born] ... and being the only black people in the neighborhood, experiencing that. And then back to Inglewood being [seen by others as] the only white people in the neighborhood. White? What are you talking about?”
Pigeon John, who is biracial (black father, German/Dutch mother) describes himself as being “everyone on accident.” A lot of his humor can be traced to the confusion around his racial identity as a child. He is known as the jester of the groups he’s been in, including Brainwash Projects and Christian hip-hop darlings L.A. Symphony, who were ubiquitous on the genre’s biggest website, Rapzilla, in the 2000s.
While Christian hip-hop was infighting about theology, evangelism and whether you needed a certain number of JPMs ("Jesuses per minute") to be considered a Christian MC, Pigeon John was “too busy trying to shop at the mall and get phone numbers from Christian girls.
“Being from the West Coast had something to do with it. And [being] around the forefathers of that scene, meaning SFC, Freedom of Soul, Dynamic Twins, they’re the ones that put us on,” Pigeon John explains. “[Soup the Chemist of SFC] put us on, and the way he lived there was no judgment. If you brought it up, you would get clowned.”
By the time Christian hip-hop entered the mainstream market, with Lecrae performing on Jimmy Fallon and topping album sales, Pigeon John began to fashion himself as “a modern-day Chuck Berry” on 2014’s Encino Man and 2016’s Good Sinner. But the artist who traces his roots back to the soulful alternative hip-hop of late-’80s artists like De La Soul never took the typical route.
“I remember when we did Brainwash Projects and we did 'Want for Nada' with my friend Tapwater in Long Beach.” It was 1998 and Pigeon John had just lost his job and learned that the other half of Brainwash, bTwice, had decided to leave the group. He sang the song's hook and remembers getting pushback from Tapwater. “Yo, cuz Wu-Tang just came out. You know what I’m saying? This is not the time to plot your daisies, homeboy.”
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He did it anyway, and now artists like Chance the Rapper normalize both singing and overt Christian themes in hip-hop. Pigeon John finds himself in the role of elder statesman, watching his childhood repeat itself. “It’s like the generation is like Kanye’s kids ... that one whole scene in my opinion, was spawned by 808s,” he says, referring to Kanye West's groundbreaking 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak. “If you’re 15 listening to 808s, you’re going to view the whole world differently. Just like when I was young listening to De La Soul. I viewed everything differently. [There] were De La girls. Girls in the Fox Hills mall wearing daisy shirts.”
For the fans who miss Pigeon John’s flow, there’s good news. He just released an album called Rap Record on Bandcamp, a more rap-focused companion piece to Good Sinner, written while that album was being made. Rap Record features DJ Nobody, Souls of Mischief and DJ Hydro, as well as some up-and-coming producers. The album was pretty much Pigeon John’s night job. “I come home and write these raps, these songs that are just for me. And it gives me the strength to know my voice to be able to stretch.
“All the artists that we grew up loving, even Biz Markie, when he sung that hook, no one had done it like he did, or will ever, but he had to take that silly chance to make that hit," he says. "Even when LL Cool J made the first rap love song, it was like, hey, hey, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa. It was never done before but that’s where music and hip-hop lives. If it feels weird, record it.”
Pigeon John plays Complex tonight, Friday, Feb. 3, with Open Mike Eagle, Luckyiam, Born Allah and Ric Scales. Tickets and more info.