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
"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
"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
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"
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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."