Get to know Houston Christian rapper Ill Phil, whose album Soul Food releases today.
Sketch: You're originally from New Orleans and evacuated to Houston during Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, how do you remember that time and how would you describe the transition from the Crescent City to the Bayou City?
Ill Phil: Well, I think it was obviously a devastating moment in my life like it was for so many others. But to be honest, it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
When I first moved to Houston I was still into clubbing and alcoholism. In that sense I missed New Orleans. But when I came to know the Lord in 2006 I was glad to be where I was.
New Orleans has a lot of issues from violence to the corrupt judicial and police departments. The wild partying only scratches the surface. I believe Houston is a better place for me not only to avoid the temptation to sin, but also to raise a family.
Sketch: You attended the same school as Lil Wayne in New Orleans. Has his popularity in the mainstream rap world hurt or helped your own music ministry?
Ill Phil: It definitely hasn’t hurt my music ministry. I used to really admire him back in the late 90's, especially when we shared the same class. And being such a big Ca$h Money [Records] fan when I was younger has probably played a part in my rap style today.
But in 2006 I stopped listening to secular rap all together. I guess you can say I traded in my Lil Wayne CD in exchange for my new favorite artist - Da’ T.R.U.T.H.
Sketch: I've read that you were rapping before you became a Christian and stopped afterward because your church didn't accept the art form - even in its redeemed state. How did you overcome that adversity and what would you say to members of the hip hop culture who find themselves in similar situations?
Ill Phil: Well, I continued to study The Word and eventually I just came to the conclusion that the reasons they were giving me to refrain from listening to some of the music I wanted to was not supported by Scripture.
I had cut out rap and R&B, but when I was told I shouldn’t listen to jazz I knew that I couldn’t overlook the legalism in the church anymore. I know they meant well, but they were missing the big picture.
I would advise anyone going through the same circumstance to continue to study their Bible. God will reveal to you what is His will and what is just a man-made rule.
Sketch: How would you rate Houston's Christian rap community?
Ill Phil: Honestly, I haven’t seen enough to really give a fair report. I had planned to attend a few concerts before, but for one reason or another I wasn’t able to make it. Amazingly, I’ve only been to one Christian rap event and that was recently. I really enjoyed it and of course I plan to start attending events much more often. But at the moment, I can’t say that I have seen enough in person to have a strong opinion.
Sketch: Your song "I Don't Hate Him" on the Soul Food album addresses the forgiveness you extended to your absent father. How difficult was that song to write and why did you feel like it needed to be shared on this project?
Ill Phil: The forgiveness God has granted to all who believe in Him is a wonderful thing. There is so much wrong that I have done in my past that all I can do is admire the Lord for his mercy.
I wanted to create a song that I felt a lot of people could relate to and that demonstrates heartfelt forgiveness. I wanted people to get a glimpse of what it means to be merciful. I thought that pouring out my heart with details of my own life just might inspire others to see how important it is to forgive regardless of the situation.
Soul Food by Ill Phil can be purchased at all digital download outlets such as iTunes, Amazon MP3, and more beginning Oct. 26. You can contact Ill Phil via his website www.theofficialillphil.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Jesus Loves Juggalos Too - A Christian Response to the Insane Clown Posse's claims that their music has always pointed people to God
When I read the guys from Insane Clown Posse were telling people their horrorcore brand of hip hop music had always contained an underlying Christian message, I thought it was a joke.
I also believed it could be just another outrageous celebrity statement designed for maximum pub.
It might be both.
But what if they were being serious?
What if, after nearly 20 years of embodying the darkness, they’re actually seeking the Light?
That’s the tact I recently took with a post called “Jesus Loves Juggalos Too” for a mainstream hip hop blog.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of my thoughts, along with the original story that sparked the brief essay, head over to The Rap Up.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Normally I take pride in breaking news stories. October 17, 2009 was not one of those days.
That was when I had to tell the world my friend died unexpectedly.
You may know him as Enock - a member of Christian hip hop’s flagship group The Cross Movement. He helped found and, in fact, gave them that title.
That seems like a lifetime ago. Another name, another city.
On this day, he was simply Juan James – husband to Natalie and father to then 4-year-old Jana.
The word I received was that, despite his youthful 35 years, Juan had an apparent heart attack at his overnight job. I was on the road at the time – traveling through the winding mountain roads of Arkansas to visit family.
Well, Enock was my family, too.
With spotty cell reception, Twitter seemed the best way to let the largest number of people know about our loss in the quickest way possible. One hundred forty characters and 30 tear-shedding seconds later, the word was spreading as well as prayers for his surviving family.
How I wished it were a mistake; a terrible, gossipy rumor that we are known for all too often.
When I arrived at my destination I was finally able to muster up the courage to call his wife. Unfortunately, Natalie’s sobs told me I had been a faithful journalist.
Houston got to know Enock at the turn of the millennium. In 1999 my man s/ave was running ONEMIND Magazine out of his apartment. When he found Enock through an instant messenger search they became kindred friends, chatting freely, sharing stories, and talking about the sacredness of music and life.
At this time Enock had been asked to/decided to step away from the mic after dealing with sexual addiction and divorce – two seemingly “Scarlet Letter” sins for anyone involved in gospel music ministry.
A year later OM’s operations were moved to the offices of Much Luvv Records, where s/ave worked closely with Tre9. There, he established long distance ties between Nock and Tre and the trio built with one another through several late-night phone conversations. Seeking friendship, accountability, and a fresh start - Enock then decided to move from Philadelphia to Houston.
To me, as Sketch, I saw Enock as a rock star during our first face-to-face meeting. After all, this was THE Enock from THE Cross Movement. He deflected the admiration. Even though we knew him as the booming voice from “Introducin’” his own self introduction was always just “Juan” and usually not even audible. A man of considerable size and build, (CM members remember calling him “Cell Block ‘Nock”) he still seemed shy, contrite, and gentle.
Part of Enock’s healing process came through the helping of others. Here in Houston, he started what were called R.A.M. Sessions – monthly Bible study and accountability meetings designed to “Restore All Men.”
Approximately a dozen guys devoted themselves to this group – praying for one another, asking tough questions, and allowing themselves to be vulnerable.
At Enock’s memorial service, these gatherings garnered nearly as many mentions as his song titles. Years later the legacy and impact of those studies survive its founder.
Imagine if Trip Lee, the talented young bol from Reach Records’ 116 Clique, decided to switch camps, move to Florida, and make music for the independent, less lyrical theology-driven GodChaserz Entertainment label.
That’s akin to what took place when it was announced that Enock’s next project would be released on Much Luvv Records.
And it was bound to happen. Several months of living with and working for Tre9 had surely stoked his creative fires. With a renewed confidence, Enock expressed a desire to “take off the mask” of a professional Christian and share his story. His next album would honestly discuss his failures as well as the battle and temptations that plague full time music ministers.
The result was AWEthentic – a meaningful collection of tracks some deemed too raw for release. Enough that, a few short weeks before the project was scheduled to be the first title submitted to a new distributor, a key studio technician decided it best to pull his music off of the unconventional record.
Thankfully, the selfless Stephan “Stikk” Oran came to the artist’s aid, producing the perfect backdrop for Enock’s truth tales. The deadline was met and the Christian hip hop community got a peek behind the curtain they thought they’d never see.
AWEthentic illuminated imperfections, challenged co-laborers, and shouted warnings of similar, sin-inviting situations. Too bad not everyone took notice.
In the wake of last year’s public admissions of “moral failings” by Ambassador and Da’ T.R.U.T.H. (two artists at the heart of The Cross Movement collective and its associated record label), the album seems eerily prophetic.
If true art always retains its relevance, the AWEthentic album is looking ready for the Louvre.
The more I hung out with Enock the more he just became Juan. And the more I just became Jason.
He always asked about things that many do not. About my family. How was the wife? How were things at home? He became a person, not a persona.
We related on several levels. Aside from a love of hip hop and Jesus, we also had our frustrations with His bride. He introduced me to The Message paraphrase translation of Scripture. I turned him on to Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and singer/songwriter Derek Webb. He told me several times that I needed to read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna.
Our deconstructions of traditional church were not mean spirited or ill founded. We were simply two guys trying to reconcile the Christian life we read about in the Bible with what we saw under steeples each Sunday. It was community. It was friendship. Something I miss now.
The most unforgettable part of Enock’s memorial service was indeed when Natalie James took the stage. With a strength that shielded her pain, she opened Juan’s prayer journal and began to read aloud its entries.
She shared moments of hope and joy: His 30th birthday. The birth of his new daughter. A recent job promotion.
But she also gave a voice to his frustrations and fears: How he couldn’t seem to leave hip hop alone despite the toll it took on his family. How he prayed to better manage his finances. How he questioned the quality of spiritual leadership he offered his wife and child.
It was a bit jarring. Who in their right mind would discuss such intimate details in such a public setting – especially when they might be the last words spoken or remembered about this soul?
But in hindsight, there was no better way to honor one of the realest people to ever approach a microphone.
May he rest in eternal bliss with his Father. We will see you soon my friend.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Houston’s Kingdom Media Group Partners With Swishahouse to Distribute Gritty, Christian Hip Hop Flavored Films
If a mainstream rap label like Swishahouse is distributing Christian movies, it’s a pretty safe bet that those films will be a little more “street” than Left Behind or Facing the Giants.
The first title to be released through their new partnership with Kingdom Media Group (also a Houston-based company) is PAIN: The Movie. Its story centers on a street hustler whose days are filled with drugs, guns, money, and threats of brutal violence. And increasingly, they begin and end with stress-filled smoke sessions that attempt to numb his inner turmoil.
As you might surmise, PAIN: The Movie is not your average church flick.
PAIN’s co-writer/co-director/producer/supporting actor is Terrance Levi. He said he birthed the vision for this and a multitude of other multi-media projects after praying about his displeasure with programs that were targeted to people of faith.
“I remember standing at the sink washing dishes and saying ‘God, why do Christians have to have the cheesiest shows on TV?” Levi recalls. “And not to be negative about Christian programming, but I look at things through the eyes of the unchurched quite a bit and I just really felt a tug on my spirit to do something about it.”
Soon after, Levi said he believed God was bringing specific people into his life with talent sets and passions that could help him fulfill this dream. From there, he developed a script and plan for PAIN along with a case-study drama called Tales from the Player’s Manual Volume 1.
Although there is no cursing, nudity, or sex scenes in the straight-to-DVD films, Levi is hesitant to call them “family friendly.” Neither title has been through the official Motion Picture Association of America process, but he believes that if his movies were to be graded, they would earn between a PG-13 and R rating due to the amount of gunplay and illegal drug content in their narratives.
“If I have a definite point and target that I’m aiming at, I’ll smoke a cigar or two on a movie set and take a whiskey glass and pour some Diet Dr. Pepper in it to make it look like I’m drinking alcohol,” Levi said.
He said such steps were necessary to illustrate his character’s hypocrisy which plays a critical role in the story.
The Swishahouse connection came as a result of a relationship that began because of misdelivered mail – something Kingdom Media Group members believe was more “divine appointment” than “happy accident.”
Levi said that Swishahouse (who helped give Paul Wall and Mike Jones nationwide exposure) is launching their independent movie venture with his films and had absolutely no issues with the content or message. The same couldn’t be said for all of the Christian businesses he spoke to about similar distribution options.
Houston’s Delbert Harris (known by his stage name of Lil Raskull) has known Levi since high school and acts in PAIN along side Yung Ro, Beau Williams, and Baby Bash who were able to bring their audiences to the project from the worlds of mainstream hip hop and traditional gospel music.
“Levi has always been a street evangelist and to do this type of movie certainly takes a certain level of maturity,” Harris said. “I see this as The Cross and the Switchblade of our time.”
PAIN: The Movie will be available through Swishahouse in U.S. stores on October 12 and through Integrity Distribution to Christian bookstores in South Africa later this November. For more information, visit www.painthemovie.com
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Rappin’ Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Posse?
Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean the high-profile pastor of California’s Saddleback Church doesn’t see the validity of using that genre of music to spread the Gospel to members of the hip hop culture. In fact, this weekend he’ll be a keynote speaker at an event called Flavor Fest designed to educate, train, and provide resources to ministers and “urban missionaries” dedicated to that specific community.
It started over ten years ago when Pastor Tommy Kyllonen aka Urban D included a photograph and couple of paragraphs about his Tampa Bay youth group in the liner notes of his first nationally distributed CD. Shortly after The Missin’ Element was released, Kyllonen said he began to receive an influx of calls, e-mails, and on-site visit requests from people around the country who wanted to replicate the success of his hip hop-saturated Crossover Church.
“Eventually it just became overwhelming,” Kyllonen said. “So we sat down with our leadership team and said ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great to just have everyone here at one time where we could provide training and they could see a youth service, a Sunday service, and several all-out Christian hip hop concerts with lights and media done in excellence so they could go back and do that themselves?’ Flavor Fest really just emerged out of that need.”
The conference boasts five separate workshop tracks geared toward church planters, youth workers, outreach coordinators, and artists. Presenters will include the likes of the aforementioned Rick Warren, Efrem Smith, and DC Curry (a Houston-native and former NFL star who is now the Director of Student Ministry at Granger Community Church in Indiana.) Hip hop artists such as Lecrae, KJ-52, and Houston’s Tre-9 will also be conducting panel discussions and training sessions related to their craft and areas of expertise. Kyllonen said he has approximately 400 pre-registrants and expects over 1,500 people at each of the evening’s multi-artist, festival-like concerts.
An added stress to this year’s Flavor Fest planning and organizing was Crossover Church’s move to a new, larger location. There were the expected headaches of construction and decoration and unplanned complications like uninstalled Internet service and minor car accidents involving Kyllonen’s wife Lucy.
“Thankfully she’s is fine and our communication lines appear like they’ll be up and running and allow us to stream everything online at DaSouth.com. We also have over 200 volunteers from our church that are willing to serve and carry much of the burden,” Kyllonen said. “Our God always protects and provides.”
Flavor Fest is taking advantage of their “Decade of Purpose” anniversary theme and holding the event over the weekend of 10/10/10 at Crossover Community Church in Tampa, Florida. Details can be found online at www.flavorfest.org.
Friday, October 1, 2010
On Friday, October 1 Canton Jones leaked an intriguing new track titled “In Da Club” to various online Christian music media outlets.
Its chorus goes “They done let them ______ in the club! Oh my God! They done let them ______ in the club!” As the song continues, several other words are muted in the same way that TV and radio stations offer “clean” versions of explicit mainstream rap records.
The effect is jarring. And just three days later, the Internet world is promised an explanation by Jones via DJ Will from Jacksonville’s radio show.
This will be a mistake.
1. It’s highly doubtful CaJo is covering up curse words.
If you hear this song and mentally fill in the blanks with that type of verbiage it says more about you than it does Canton Jones.
Didn’t Luke record Jesus telling us “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks”?
Are those negative words a part of your daily vocabulary or regular media diet? If so, then maybe it’s time to consider a change.
Also, it’s not like Canton has ever held his tongue before. Just months ago he dropped the God the Father mixtape that contained un-bleeped verses with the words “nigga” and “faggot” in the lyrics. (Two word choices I considered a mistake.) Has he just recently taken up the practice of self-censorship?
2. Good art can speak for itself.
Too often, exhaustive and detailed explanations by artists do a disservice to their work. Christians are especially guilty of this - perhaps out of a fear they’ll be misinterpreted or not seen as being holy enough for their peers.
One of this summer’s biggest movies was Inception. A large part of what made it great was that it didn’t give its viewers a neatly wrapped, tidy ending. Instead, it was left up to them to decide what the closing scene meant to the story as a whole.
The same goes for the highly-regarded TV drama LOST. Before May’s series finale the creators specifically stated that they would go on “radio silence” for six months after the last episode aired to allow time for fans to digest, discuss, and debate the episode’s contribution to the show’s overall canon.
Instead of talking about what Canton intended “In Da Club” and its missing lyrics to mean, why don’t we start conversations about how they resonated with each one of us?
• Was he trying to hide his faith with the goal of securing mainstream airplay?
• Was he making a statement about how his music would be edited on a secular station?
• Did he really say something like “nigga,” remember how people reacted to it on God the Father, and change his mind about including that word here?
• Is he trying to get us to consider what words we would use to fill in those blanks?
• Will he release an un-edited version of the song in the future?
All of those questions and their subsequent answers by listeners of all walks of life are infinitely more interesting than hearing Jones explain what he wanted us to hear.
Mystery often adds beauty and a deeper layer of interest to a narrative. Jesus didn’t spell out all of his parables to his disciples. It’s part of the reason why they’re some of the most interesting and thought-provoking sections of Scripture. Why can’t we follow a similar example in Christian hip hop?
And from a sheer marketing perspective, leaving a bit of ambiguity on the table can also drive interest. You didn’t see Lecrae tossing out an easy explanation for that Rehab symbol two days after it appeared online did you?
No, the anticipation for that announcement built and added to the intrigue of his album (which subsequently took the third overall chart position on iTunes the day it dropped.)
I’m not saying “In Da Club” doesn’t ever deserve an explanation. I’m simply advocating for a little more space.
Let it breathe Canton. Let it breathe. I think we’ll all be better off for it.