In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. In this part, I introduce you to some of the main characters in this story through one unforgettable night in Chicago.
“Have you heard of Lecrae?”
No. I hadn’t.
“He’s supposed to be the best Christian rapper.”
So, as a CHH noob, I searched him on YouTube, and found a song called “Don’t Waste Your Life.” That was a title I was familiar with, but as the name of a book by John Piper, and the shorthand title for one of his most famous sermons.
Piper requires a sidebar. For those of you who don’t know Pastor John, he’s like the Steven Spielberg of American Protestant pastors – long career with a staggering output of work. Can captivate the masses but leave the thinking person with more than enough to ponder. A force of nature who couldn’t possibly have ever done anything else with their life. Wild hair. A pillar of their industry with legions of students and imitators. Personally, Piper has had a major influence on my own theology, though we have some significant disagreements, and I find some of his beliefs extremely problematic. But find me one single thought leader in any school of thought who doesn’t have any problematic beliefs. I’ll save you the time and let you know there isn’t one, except Jesus, but that’s a little unfair what with being God and everything. Point is, Piper is a big deal, and a name almost beyond reproach in the Christian circles I ran in.
This included my father, a Baptist minister who is personal friends with John Piper. Put a pin in that.
I wondered if the title of the song was a coincidence, and, if it was on purpose, whether this was a token nod to the theological school with which I rocked or the music was truly steeped in it. I kept exploring Lecrae’s discography, especially the recently released Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose as well as the instant-classic, Rebel. And what I found in banger after banger was that Lecrae was weaving theology that spoke to the head and heart in his music. “Don’t Waste Your Life,” was, indeed, named after Piper’s book, and, as I would find, Lecrae was not the only artist influenced by Piper. It turned out he was, in a sense, the patron saint of CHH, and the respect went both ways. This was an unbelievable discovery.
So, who else was there? Who were these other artists that were appearing on the recommended albums on iTunes? The names that kept coming up were Trip Lee, Tedashii, Sho Baraka, and Pro. I made my way into their discographies, too, and again, I was thrilled to find more artists making quality music and preaching the Gospel. If that wasn’t enough, their connection was not arbitrary – they were all signed to Lecrae’s record label, Reach Records, making them a part of the collective the 1-1-Six Clique, which is a reference to Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe.”
Understand – rap was my favorite genre of music, John Piper was my second-favorite preacher, and here are these guys making rap music I loved giving Glory to the God I loved. I don’t even know what the comp is. Like, imagine your favorite team in your favorite sport signed the best player and hired the best coach.1 Or, you favorite director made a movie written by your favorite screenwriter in your favorite genre with your favorite actor.2
My dad also took note of this remarkable alignment, and he started – for the first time – to check out the music I was into. I grew up taking after my dad in many of my interests. I read The Lord of the Rings because he read it. He introduced me to sports. I loved U2 because he was a serious fan.3 As I got older and started to develop some of my own interests, the roles would sometimes reverse, which is why he’s a fan of Everton Football Club and enjoys Wes Anderson films. The first notable example is CHH. He started listening a little, intrigued (and relieved) that his son was listening to music that was for our good and God’s glory. And he, to my great surprise, rather liked a lot of what he found. He also encouraged my listening, buying me CDs and t-shirts if ever I hinted about one (and even when I wouldn’t).
I wasn’t the kind of teenager who wanted to like things precisely because my parents didn’t, so this new bond was exciting for me. I like having someone in my family to share it with, especially because my younger brother, who was a fan of Kanye like me, hated CHH. To this day I don’t know if it was a legitimate dislike of the music, a desire to be different from, a jealousy of the thing I had with my dad, or revenge for the fact that I hated the music he loved – country. But, that rivalry aside, I was in an ideal place, with a bevy of talented artists all making music that I enjoyed and made me feel spiritually nourished, music that my dad liked but I could also blast on the way to baseball practice without feeling like a dork. And the music these artists were making was such that they weren’t just my favorite rappers – they were people I could look up to. They were my heroes. They were cool, and they were good people who loved God.
The logical next step in this head-over-heels fandom was, of course, to go to a concert.
The 1-1-Six Clique would sometimes go on tour together, calling it the Unashamed Tour. In the fall of 2012, my first year of college, they were on one such tour, and they would be coming to Chicago in October on a long weekend not too far from my birthday. My dad took no convincing – he even bought the tickets that would give us early entrance and a chance to meet the artists.
So here we were – a skinny white kid and his gray-haired father going to the Congress Theatre (which isn’t exactly on the Gold Coast) for our first rap concert. I was very excited, but also nervous. I’m introverted, and I was a stand-still-and-listen type of concert goer, so going meeting my favorite rappers and going to a concert that I assumed looked like the final scene in 8 Mile was intimidating. I don’t know precisely what my dad was feeling, but I know he was self-conscious about probably being the oldest one there. And I know he brought ear plugs in case it was too loud.
The meet-and-greet with the artists involved those who had bought the special tickets filing through a line where they could say hello and get an autograph.
First in line was Lecrae. I don’t remember much of that moment, except that I horribly botched the dap, a moment which has made me self-conscious about doing this to this day (this will come up again). After that, I just said hello to each artist and handed them my ticket to sign. As I handed my ticket to Tedashii, Lecrae pointed at my dad, who was wearing a Don’t Waste Your Life shirt – not a Lecrae shirt, but a Piper shirt – and said “I like your shirt,” and my dad, without missing a beat, said “I know you do,” meaning “I know you know this is a John Piper shirt and that’s why I like you.” And I thought I have that shirt too – why didn’t I wear that! My dad said something else complimentary, and Lecrae steepled his hands and bowed. I went on down the line and greeted Trip Lee, Derek Minor, and KB. Andy Mineo was wearing a fake mustache, and he asked me, “Hey man, would you like a beer or something?” and being in the flustered state I was, I said, in total seriousness, “Oh, no, no thank you.” He laughed and said he was just kidding. Of course he was just kidding.
I was star-struck. I was absolutely buzzing, embarrassing as it all was.
Since we got early access, we could get about as close to the stage as we wanted, but my dad thought we should head up for the balcony, in those seats that extend down around the sides until they’re almost right above the stage. He wanted to do that in part because there were chairs where he could sit down (there were no chairs on the floor), and since I, like him, was a little uncertain about the mosh pit aspect, agreed to go to the balcony.
Before the six Reach Records artists did their sets, there would be two opening acts.
First up, Propaganda.
Prop is the human incarnation of the West Coast. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he had done a spoken word piece called “The Gospel in Four Minutes / G.O.S.P.E.L.” that had recently gone viral. What I didn’t know as he rapped a couple songs while waving his dreadlocks, was that he was on the ground level of a record label called Humble Beast, a collective who will, in time, play a major part in this story.
Next up, I was introduced to Thi’sl, a big man with a gritty St. Louis accent. He walked from one end of the stage to the other with small, purposeful steps, and used basic hand gestures to accompany his driving, snarling, methodical flow. And he had the crowd on a string. He debuted, at that very concert, a song called “Snap Off,” which I would later see him perform many times. I’ve actually lost track now how many times I’ve seen Thi’sl perform.
The Reach artists performed in an order somewhat equivalent to their notoriety, which meant the first artist would be Andy Mineo, now using his real name instead of his previous stage name, C-Lite. I knew him best for singing the hook on Lecrae’s soaring “Background,” and not at all as a rapper. I wasn’t alone, as he had to that point only released one mixtape. Andy was the one white artist performing, and he seemed a little goofy to me, not just because he offered me a beer when I met him, but because he hopped around and rapped in a nasally voice very different from the first two performers. At one point he rode a skateboard around. He made too many shout-outs to Chi-Town. But then he rapped a song called “In My City,” and the crowd – nearing capacity – was roaring the hook.
Within a few years, Andy Mineo would be – arguably – the face of Christian rap.
KB followed, the other young up-and-comer on the Reach team. His debut album had just released a few months prior, and one of the songs he performed was “Zone Out,” a livewire that would go on to be one of his signature concert songs, one that allows him to perform in his energetic style. KB is as physically active on stage as anyone, and he pours sweat. He treats rapping more like boxing than singing.
The artist formerly known as Pro performed next. Realizing that it’s impossible for someone to find him through Google by searching “Pro,” he changed his name to Derek Minor. At this stage in his career, Derek was still mainly producing big, bold tracks and utilizing his growling drawl. But big things were on the way for Derek. In a few years, he would leave Reach Records, having grown to the place as an artist, businessman, and leader to start his own record label. His sound and style would evolve too, until he became one of the most consistent and versatile artists in CHH.
This left Lecrae and his two deadliest lieutenants – Tedashii and Trip Lee.
Tedashii is a big Samoan man with a deep, deep voice. He entered the dark stage wearing a custom jacket with neon lettering after the style of the cover of his most recent album, Blacklight. The crowd roared, and that was just the beginning. His hype music is as fierce as any, with his anthem “Make War,” about taking the roof off and his frenzied “Riot,” just about starting an actual riot in the middle of the floor. His Houston-influenced “26’s” started, but he stopped the song and signaled for the DJ to spin the remix version.
This drew my attention to Nelson Chu, aka DJ Official, an unassuming figure at the back of the stage on an elevated turntable. DJ Official is the DJ of CHH. Or was. Nelson passed away in 2016 due to complications with a double lung transplant. He was just 39.
Working with DJ Official on the other side of the stage was Nate Robinson, the BeatBreaker, operating a drum set where he drummed all the beats for all the artists. I didn’t know that was something someone could do. One could be forgiven for thinking that music was being made by a machine.
Tedashii’s set perfectly encapsulated who he was as an artist in so many ways, and was a testament to his ascension in the industry. His next album would be a very different thing, a project born out of the pain of losing his only son to SIDS just a couple years later. His career, like his life, would not be the same.
Trip Lee was next, the opposite of Tedashii in so many ways – short, slender, with a nasally Dallas drawl. Trip was, more or less, Lecrae’s first disciple and protégé, and at the time he was the undisputed Westbrook to Lecrae’s Durant (that analogy worked at the time). As much as any performer, Trip makes rapping look so effortless while also maintaining high levels of energy. Slight as he was, he stood tall on stage.
Not long after this concert, Trip would enter semi-retirement to pursue other ministry opportunities, and his touring days were all but over due to chronic fatigue.
And then there was Lecrae.
Lecrae was introduced through a video on the big screen – worth mentioning that the production of this concert was fairly impressive – and the audience screamed when he first appeared on the video.
Oh, I thought to myself. This is something else entirely.
From where we were sitting, we were able to see the area where the artists would stand just before coming out on stage. As the video played, I could see the silhouette of Lecrae, and he was shadowboxing. Not like a light, playful thing, but like he was actually exchanging blows with the champ. He knew what was coming. I didn’t.
Lecrae is a physically imposing person. He’s at least 6’3, with broad shoulders, chiseled arms, and an elegant swagger. He’s handsome, with big eyes and a mouth as ready to smile as it is to mean mug. His voice ranges from a deep drawl to whinier inflections in the way that some of the most dynamic rappers are able to manipulate their voice as an instrument. He’s lived all over, and so it’s tough to pin down his dirty south accent.
Lecrae’s set was a rapturous run of hit after hit after hit. Everyone knew all the words to all his songs, including all the songs from his new album, Gravity, which would go on to win a Grammy a few months later. Other artists joined him on stage for some of his notable collabs, and it just went on and on. This wasn’t just a concert. This was something spiritual, something holy. It was the height of live music.
The concert ended with all the artists returning to the stage to do a few more songs together, including Derek Minor’s “116,” the de facto anthem of the entire collective. It slaps. And it features a refrain of “Ooooone, ooooone six,” that is absolutely perfect for a call and response with the audience. They could have probably done that for an hour without anyone getting bored.
When my dad and I left the concert and returned to the car, we looked at each other and both said something to the extent of “That was awesome.” It was more than either of us could have imagined. I had had the most validating experience for my fandom, and – if there was any doubt left – my dad was now fully in on CHH.
We drove home from Chicago late that night, reliving some of our favorite moments from the concert, neither of knowing that this would be the first of many such adventures. And, though we didn’t know it, we had caught this group of artists at a major inflection point. All of their careers were about to go in major new directions, and a coming together like this was going to be exceedingly rare in the future.
I was The Christian Rap Guy, and I had just been to a concert with a few thousand other major fans. This was no longer just the music I loved. This was me. And it was still only the beginning.
In Part III: The Legacy Concerts expand my horizons, and I become The Christian Rap Guy in campus ministry.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
Notes1. I experienced some version of this over the past year when Everton hired Carlo Ancelotti and signed James Rodriguez. It’s pretty great.↩ 2. I spent way too long thinking about what this would be for me. Maybe a family drama written by Hirokazu Kore-eda, directed by Wes Anderson, starring Oscar Isaac and Kiera Knightley, or a societal parable written by the Coens, directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, starring Tsao Tao and Adam Driver↩ 3. I haven’t held onto all the things my father taught me, but he did teach me to enjoy my coffee black, chocolate dark, and whiskey neat, and that’s pretty important.↩