Christian hip-hop has had an important presence on the West coast for many years now, although the genre continues to bleed into the secular industry. Even its biggest star, Lecrae, seems to be poising himself for a mainstream invasion. Hey, everyone wants to stay culturally relevant; after all, one suspects there are plenty of youth pastors out there with The Chronic and Doggystyle on their iPods.
So even though it's not always exactly clear what Christian rap is, here are the four artists we feel are the genre's strongest artists, in West Coast history.
4. Braille of Beautiful Eulogy
Braille started out as a pensive loner who wore his heart on his sleeve. His first album, 1999's Lifefirst: Half The Battle, was a lo-fi boom bap diary of a Portland, Oregon man wrestling with his new Christian identity. Fourteen years later, Braille's voice matured and his songs developed more conviction and complexity. His voluminous seven album catalog (not including his work with folksy hip-hop crew Beautiful Eulogy) showcases Braille's writing ability. He can put the listener in a state of heartbreaking sadness (Weapon Aid) or defiant optimism (Shades Of Grey). Our recommendation? Cloud Nineteen, which showcases everything that makes Braille a stunning lyricist.
3. Mr. Solo of Gospel Gangstas
After surviving a near death experience, ex-Crip Mr. Solo formed a gangsta rap group in 1989, Gospel Gangstas. Originally comprised of Mr. Solo, Chille' Baby, Tik Tokk, and DJ Dove, Gospel Gangstas released Gang Affiliated in 1994. Gun poses, rumbling G-funk basslines, and slang such as “I never stop bangin', just changed my gang'n” became available in Christian bookstores. Their 1999 Grammy nominated album, I Can See Clearly Now, featured soul remakes and even Kirk Franklin's choir. All of this would have been unremarkable without Mr. Solo's South Central twang and machine gun flow. Though this trend has long passed, Mr. Solo remains a key figure who popularized music that is authentically gangsta and Christian.
2. Pigeon John of Brainwash Projects and LA Symphony
Pigeon John's bouncy, live wire flow covers a multitude of sins. The Hawthorne emcee pissed off his first supporters by tweeting “fuck Christian Hip Hop” in 2011. Somehow, none of this has tainted his legacy. Pigeon John started as a fearless Christian emcee at South Central's Good Life Cafe. He was a relative unknown in the national Christian rap scene until debuting The Rise And Fall of Brainwash Projects with group member bTwice in 1998. Pigeon John later worked with the super crew LA Symphony, but he cemented his qwerky, self-deprecating persona on Pigeon John Is Clueless (2002) and Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister (2003). His music didn't always made sense, but it always felt good.
1. Jurny Big of Tunnel Rats, LPG and The Battery
Jurny Big is a surprisingly small man. In 1993, the pop locker (turned battle rapper) became a part of a Whittier collective named after a group of Vietnam soldiers called Tunnel Rats, a diminutive group who cleared underground tunnels. Jurny Big's high nasal tone, rapid spoken cadence, and vicious metaphors (see a raw performance of “Pen Playa” at 2:03) served to “clean” the underground rap scene when aggressive Christian hip-hop was taboo. His best work was with his cousin Dax as LPG, and their 1995 Earthworm debut is considered one of the first real rap albums in Christian music. Songs like “A Place Called Hip Hop” served to reclaim a culture mired by talentless Christian artists and self-absorbed commercial rappers. After an eight year hiatus, Jurny Big emerged as a member of The Battery in 2011 with veteran producer, Peace 586.