Street Smarts

by Anthony DeBarros

The man speaks in cool, even tones, his every inflection a channel into the gritty reality of life and death on the streets of Los Angeles. He talks about the world of a thug, about hustling for money and drug deals gone bad and the sense that gang life in the city of angels has little value beyond momentary gratification.

And then, in those same cool, even tones, he tells you how his life changed.

It started with a shotgun blast.

"I almost died in an alley," says Mr. Solo, co-founder of rap trio Gospel Gangstaz. He recalls the night in 1990 when, on a mission to help a former gang associate, he wound up on the wrong end of a shotgun. In a flash, a hail of buckshot ripped his flesh, the pain like "?getting shot with 100 BB guns."

"It was a scary situation," he says, scary enough to trigger a turning point in his life?a turning point that would lead him first to repentance and faith and now, almost 10 years later, to a successful career as a member of one of gospel music?s best-selling rap groups.

After watching its first two albums?1994?s Gang Affiliated and 1995?s Do or Die, (both on Holy Terra)?sell more than 100,000 copies, the trio recently landed a deal with gospel powerhouse B-Rite Music, home to hit acts God?s Property and Trinitee 5:7.

B-Rite released the latest Gangstaz project, I Can See Clearly Now, in June, and the reception right out of the gate was strong. The first single (the title track) landed on more than 100 gospel radio stations, a feat that helped the album, with its mix of hip-hop, gospel and R&B, debut at No. 5 on The CCM Update?s Top Gospel Album chart. Meanwhile, a video for the single received airplay on BET and The Box. And MTV featured it among 20 videos by top emerging artists on its "Under the Radar: Flying Indie" show.

Hopes are strong that?with help from a distribution agreement with general market label Interscope?the album will break through on a large scale.

"We want to make music that represents our people," says rapper Chille Baby, a boyhood friend of Mr. Solo who, along with Tik Tokk, rounds out the group. "I think that with God?s grace and power, it?s gonna create a whole new world of hip-hop."

To explore the boundaries of rap and R&B, the trio records mainly in California with an assortment of singers musicians and producers, some of whom fit into a collective called The Committee. Among them: singer Alisha Tyler and producer/instrumentalist/singer Twenty/20, who calls himself "the visionary."

"It?s the camp," Mr. Solo says with a chuckle. "The family."

With this conglomeration assisting, the Gangstaz spin tales of faith and perseverance from a viewpoint that?s planted firmly at street level. As with the most successful hip-hop poets, the imagery flows freely: cars, clothes, jail and money all show up here in the slang of the street. And, yet, around every corner in these labyrinthine rhymes, is God.

The scenes can be jarring. Mr. Solo?s own tale of being shot in the alley?a frightened, bleeding thug at the crossroads of salvation?is just one of the painful pictures that defines the world of the Gospel Gangstaz.

Indeed, none of the three will try to paint themselves into an angelic past. Both Mr. Solo and Chille Baby claim former membership in the Crips street gang, while Tik Tokk was a member of rival gang the Bloods with prison time on his resume. Solo himself describes a street life where he hustled to make money "by any means necessary," a practice that led him precariously close to what he says was a federal investigation.

Yet, following Mr. Solo?s conversion, each was drawn to the other as they individually and corporately turned away from the patterns of the street and came to know Christ. And because of that heritage, a spin through I Can See Clearly Now is a walk through life at its most precarious and faith at its most certain.

That dichotomy speaks loudest in the words to the album?s "Let Us Pray": "Hear my cry, cry, I need a quick reply/Ain?t nothin? proper about seeing my homies die/That?s why I keep my faith and my head up/Hoping one day we gone (sic) finally get fed up."

Real? Yes. Very real. But to Mr. Solo?who declines to reveal his given name when asked?it?s all part of a mission to proclaim the gospel in a way that?s as real as the shots that flew at him that night.

The group often makes appearances in jails and at community centers, speaking to youth who are walking the same steps they once did. Recently, officials in Detroit asked the Gangstaz to speak to students as part of a gang violence intervention program.

Given the audience, "We?ve got to speak it real because people have real problems," Mr. Solo says. "They have authentic problems, and they need authentic answers."

The group?s reach for authenticity can remove some barriers. There are those who struggle to understand how rap?an art form widely criticized for its use of violent and misogynist imagery?can be an appropriate vehicle for holy words. And still more simply can?t understand how the words "gospel" and "gangstaz" can sit happily next to each other in the trio?s name.

"We have a ready defense for what God has called us to do," Mr. Solo says. "We are the apostles of today. The message has not changed. The method has changed, and our music is saturated with the word of God. Rap is just a vehicle to transport the gospel of Jesus Christ."

As for the "gangstaz" tag, he fumes, "A gangsta is someone who?s willing to live as well as die for what he believes in. We?re laying our lives down for the gospel. We never forget where we came from. But we understand that our weapons are not Tec-9?s or 9mm Uzis or Ak-47 rifles, but our weapons are ?mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds.?"

He recounts times of ministry when he has seen the group?s background make a real impact, largely because of its authenticity.

"I believe that what?s from the heart reaches the heart," Mr. Solo says. "I speak it how I get it?that?s plain, cut and dry. I can?t count how many people come up to me and say, ?I relate to your testimony.?"

Yet, if there?s a struggle to defend the group?s style to the church, there?s an equal struggle on the other side: convincing the general market that the Gospel Gangstaz has the goods, musically.

"We?re fighting for validity in Christian music," Mr. Solo says. "A lot of people undermine it, consider it secondary. We want to enter this arena not only lifting up the name, but we want? to be sonically correct and updated. We want the best musical form?we?re not gonna come half-way for God?s people."

Adds Chille Baby, "We want to make something for our people to be able to boogie to, so you can go to one of your friends who don?t know Christ and say, ?This represents me right here.?"

"Originally published in the September 1999 issue of CCM magazine, copyright 1999, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643."