I recently caught up with former L.A. Symphony hip hop collective member Sarpong Boateng (aka Joey Lawrence, aka Joey L, aka Joey The Jerk) via e-mail to discuss his new musical direction as Joey’s Dream, whether or not he took a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach to the Christian Contemporary Music scene, and if he thinks he’d ever return to recording rap music.
Sketch: With the new "Joey's Dream" sound, you've also changed up your stage name. When exactly did you quit being a "Jerk?"
Joey: Honestly, I never quit being "Joey The Jerk", I just really wanted my project to sound more like a band and less like a dude. So you have examples like Owl City. That's just one guy, but it sounds like a band.
Joey’s Dream was and is my attempt to make it sound like a band, especially for people who have no concept of who I am. They don't know that Joey The Jerk existed.
And Joey The Jerk is a little harsh for the Christian market, or at least I always thought it was. I was always in fear that someone would scold me at a church event because of it.
Sketch: You mentioned in your Sphereofhiphop.com interview that you felt like there was only room for about two rappers within the CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) industry.
Given that, I find it interesting that your action as a result of that observation was more of a "if you can't beat 'em; join 'em" approach than to simply divorce the scene and keep pursuing hip hop in a more independent way. What drove you stick it out in the CCM arena? Am I even reading your reaction correctly?
Joey: Wow, that’s a big question, maybe not that big of a question, but so many things go on in my head in trying to answer it.
It wasn't “if you can’t beat em...” it was more like, umm... I was looking at it more like I loved doing Christian shows and it was so encouraging to see young Christians across the country. Living in L.A. you don't see a gang of Christians. It’s few and far between. Or you see people at your church and maybe you are too close to them, so you see all of them, their flaws, and their great character traits as well.
The culture here is far from Christian. This is not the “Bible Belt” so you have so many people who go to church and are not even halfway getting it because all of the concepts are new to them, they’re in “seeker-friendly” churches with watered down sermons, and they aren't reading theology and doctrine books. So you gotta understand that real Christianity is in the minority here. And to go on the road and see so many Christians my age or younger, that was like wow! So fresh! It was super encouraging for me.
There were the club/bar shows we would do and the underground hip hop shows we would do in L.A. and out and about, so when we were on the road there were like in two totally, completely different worlds. One night we’d be in front of a youth group with happy Christian kids putting on their best Christian face and the next night we’d be at a club show with drugs and drunk people.
I made [my solo hip hop album called] Average Joe and liked the way it came about and we as L.A. Symphony were making new music. And probably from 2003 until we stopped making songs there was an ongoing question or underlying conversation about our reinvention. We let some dudes go, so that probably had a little bit to do with it. On The End Is Now [group member] Flynn Adam Atkins did most of the production and that was a new look for us.
We were always trying to make the best albums we could collectively make, but in that context, you have to look at your capacity and say "Well, how much can we change or switch up?" And in the context of L.A.S. there wasn't much we could have done to reinvent what we did for a lot of reasons. But I knew I could as an individual. I wanted to do different things musically, but I couldn't do them in the L.A.S. machine because it looked like what it was going to look like.
I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and New Edition as well as tons of R&B, rap, and Christian music – artists like Russ Taff, Michael W. Smith, and DC Talk. So I always loved singing, particularly extra loud in the car extra, but I wouldn't say I was a singer because I'm black and grew up listening to R&B dudes who could really sing like Luther and them. But I could maybe carry a tune so I always thought in my mind I would end up writing songs for some reason.
I remember having a conversation with Flynn in his apartment in Sherman Oaks in like 1999 about doing more than just rapping, in the long run, in the big picture, in the context of my artistry. So as a CCM fan, or an eclectic music fan, I felt like I could do this and it was time to switch it up. I had been joking since 2003 when I put out Average Joe, that my next record was going to be called Joey Sings, then [former L.A.S. group member Pigeon] John put out Pigeon John Sings the Blues and stole part of my title. So that took the wind out of my sails a little because I didn’t want to look like a John biter.
So time goes by and you get married and have kids, and you’re looking at both of these worlds saying to yourself, “Where do I want to live?” It’s funny because I think musically I still have a lot of experiments in me and you make what you make. I feel like if I am honest with myself in the process of making music and I keep honest people around me the music will never get wack.
So in saying that, I loved Disappear Here, and felt like it was a good record, but the kind of rap music I want to make, or that I make, I feel like there is no potential home for it. The CCM market doesn’t want it and can’t do anything with it. That was my take away from doing that album. And the college hip-hop or underground market was and is full of ills and lifestyles that I don’t want to be around, and take my wife around, and raise my kids around.
So taking all of that into consideration, I’m not motivated to want to make another rap album. I write raps randomly and what not, but I don’t think those worlds want what I have to offer. And it wouldn't be me doing something new, in my eyes at least, it would be me doing L.A.S. but by myself. That’s not appealing to me.
For me music has always been fun, because of the relationships and what not. So I saw this [Joey’s Dream] as a new adventure and a great opportunity to grow as an artist and work with dudes who were cool but weren’t L.A.S. dudes. This music is something I guess would have been a natural progression for L.A.S. had we had the capacity to do more than rap music.
Look at Flynn and the stuff he's done. It is what it is, but it’s not "rap" music, you know? To me this isn’t and wasn’t a new idea in my head, it was more something that I had been playing with in my mind for some time.
Sketch: When people ask you what type of music you do what do you tell them?
Joey: Honestly, I say something like, "I used to make rap music and now I do this kind of singy, rappy, I don't know, you know, rappy singy, it is what it is, I don’t know." That is literally how I answer the question.
Sketch: Who are some of the influences for "Joey's Dream?" I'm hearing a little bit of Weezer and maybe Owl City as well as your former LA Symphony bandmates Flynn Adam Atkins and Pigeon John.
Joey: I don’t know how to answer this, umm... I am not really into Weezer or Owl City. Not like a diss, just you know, I know some Weezer, and only know the “Fireflies” song from Owl City.
As far as Flynn, and John, nah, I was honestly writing singing songs before either one of them went in that direction. They just have put out more music than me and they got their stuff out before I did. And that’s not a diss or saying they bit my styles or anything, I think it was a natural progression. We all are eclectic dudes with wide ranges of influences. We all listen to different styles of music. No one would call myself, Flynn, or John a “rap head.” So when you write songs, raps, whatever, you write what you write and go where it’s going.
It's hard to say where your influence is coming from musically. I listen to all kinds of stuff from Micheal Franks to Mute Math, from Eric B and Rakim to Jennifer Knapp, from Bell Biv Devoe to Oasis, from Kanye West to Kendall Payne, from Chris Rice to Jodeci. You know the list goes on and on.
I once saw Amos Lee in an interview and he was talking about how he loved KRS One. I still think that’s weird, but you know, how can you tell? You write what you write.
I think depending on the song and the writer, most of the stuff [on this album] I wrote with Matt Dally from Superchik. So while we came out of different music scenes, we joined together in the same direction for the sake of writing songs we liked and were totally happy with. Because if we didn’t like it we were real honest with each other about that.
Joey The Jerk’s previous hip hop sound
Sketch: Do you think you'll ever return to writing and performing hip hop music - especially from a faith-based perspective? Why or why not?
Joey: I don’t know. I love rap music. Anything I do I want to do it from a faith-based perspective, so yes and no.
I still write raps, and eventually I will have enough material for an album, but that could be 6-7 years down the line at this rate. I don’t know that I will have time for an expensive, time-consuming hobby like that in the future. Part of me is convinced that I could make the best rap record that I could make and I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
I think the climate has changed a little also. In the Christian arenas the rappers are becoming more like teaching-rapper-evangelists and that’s not how I write or what I make and I would be a phony if I tried to make music that isn’t genuinely from me. I think my rap style is more braggadocios, silly, introspective, lifestyle kind of rap. I don’t know how to put it words exactly.
With a singy song I can write lyrics first. Where with a rap, I won’t write raps without a beat and the beat leads me to a topic. That’s probably why I won’t make another rap album anytime soon - I don’t get beat CDs anymore.
The Mold Me EP by Joey’s Dream can be downloaded from Illect Recordings at the following online retailers: $ 6.99 at iTunes / $6.23 at Amazon / $6.00 at Bandcamp