Hip-hop for Jesus

Local talent resurrects Christian rap’s image

Don’t judge Izreal for being Christian. Judge him for being a Yankees fan.

Don’t judge Izreal for being Christian. Judge him for being a Yankees fan.

Catch Izreal and DJ Kool Kutz as they perform with the Grouch, A-Plus and many others at the Auburn Hip-Hop Awareness Festival this Saturday, August 14, from 2 to 10 p.m.; $15 presale, $20 at the door. Gold Country Fairgrounds, 1273 High Street in Auburn. For more information, call (530) 368-4455.

Gold Country Fairgrounds

1273 High St.
Auburn, CA 95604

(530) 823-4533

I’ve been listening to Christian rap for hours, and here’s the diagnosis: It’s god-awful.

But wait, before you run to your local youth pastor and try to send me to hell, Christian rap isn’t entirely horrible. (Plus, I’m already going to hell.)

In fact, I’ve come to enjoy the genre a bit. And for the soundtrack to my unholy descent, I’ve even queued up in my iPod Sacramento’s Izreal and DJ Kool Kutz, a Christian duo who are very serious about being saved by Jesus Christ. This honestly means nothing to me. But what I dig about them is their dedication to making quality music.

Izreal, born Filmore Graham, is a New York transplant whose smooth, linear East Coast flow sets him apart from Sacramento emcees who, more often than not, look toward the Bay Area for rap guidance. And his album Re: Definition is definitely something to be cherished.

Take, for instance, the song “MCLD,” which begins with DJ Kool Kutz scratching a Nas sample: “My mic check is life or death / I leave your brain stimulated.” The perfect hook gives way to an ominous piano loop, while Izreal’s raps—part Buckshot (Black Moon) and a little bit of Guru (Gangstarr)—stay true to his spiritual path without alienating the heathens.

In “Rocking With the Blessed,” a standout track on the album (thanks to the Harry Brown-produced beat), Izreal rhymes, “The metaphor messiah / I bring back the art again / street-level doctrine give the tin man back his heart again.” The song’s momentum mimics the album’s energy as a whole; it’s fast-paced and consistently interesting with a varied melody and structure.

Much of the album’s success is due to DJ Kool Kutz, a.k.a. Kellen Greathouse, who treats his turntables like another member of the band rather than sound-effect machines. The presence of a turntablist is especially refreshing, considering that repetitive hooks and lack of a deejay are common pitfalls for most Sacramento emcees.

The truth is, hip-hop fans get sick of emcees babbling all the time and we need to hear a deejay.

“I had a lot of the deejay building the chorus,” Izreal says. “Instead of me just saying something over and over again.”

DJ Kool Kutz, perhaps one of the most underrated deejays in Northern California, also understands the unique dilemma with Christian music. “A lot of it is cornball,” he says. The cheese factor in Christian rap is something he’s trying to change, though.

And it seems like a lot of other Christian rappers feel the same way. Labels like Cross Movement Records have a pretty legitimate thing going on, with artists such as John Wells and K-Drama, who have opened the doors for gospel rappers to get a taste of the mainstream.

But for every John Wells, there’s an artist like Aprentiz, a kid from Delaware who, even though he’s a Christian, manages to be more offensive than Too Short and Lil Wayne combined. His track “Holla Lujah”—Christian rappers love biblical puns—begins with a standard synth intro that gives us little more than a garage band “hip-hop” template.

The hook? “Say Holla Lujah / we’re bringing Christ to ya!”

It’s definitely what DJ Kool Kutz means when he says cornball. Further, it’s a gimmick, like a horrorcore rapper. Or a 5-year-old “emcee.”

Despite their uncanny ability to shake off the Christian hip-hopper stereotype with solid raps and cuts, Izreal and DJ Kool Kutz still face challenges. The biggest one is getting people to understand that they are hip-hop musicians who happen to also be Christians.

Izreal outlines his frustration in a story where he sent his album to a radio deejay. But instead of listening to it, the deejay told him he’d hand the album off to the “Christian music guy.”

Pissed off, Izreal asked: “It’s like, ‘Do you send Mos Def’s records to the Muslim guy?’”