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Intersection of Life and Faith

Is Hip-Hop Still Hip?

  • Andy Argyrakis Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 4 Jun
Is Hip-Hop Still Hip?
Though Christian hip-hop has gradually gained acceptance over the last ten years, it's a challenge for artists to sustain a career in it. KJ-52 is one of the few who have managed to endure while continuing to evolve artistically, with five albums and various side projects since his 2000 debut. Such longevity hasn't come easy, however—especially with mainstream coverage like VH1, which named his song "Dear Slim," a prayerful response to Eminem, as one of the "Top 40 Worst Moments in Hip-Hop." In this frank interview with Christian Music Today, KJ explains some of his artistic decisions in recent years, and why he's more fearful of the music industry than ever.What was your inspiration behind The Yearbook?KJ-52 I'd gone through like four different titles, but toward the end of the record, I started flipping through all my high school yearbooks to get inspiration. I noticed I ripped a picture out of a girl that I was really mad at. I also looked at my senior year—back when the mullet was really cool—and thought about how it was like a time capsule. Then I thought about how so much of the past year going into the record was like a yearbook, and that was basically it.You've been very open over the years about sharing fan mail stories on your albums. What issues have you been hearing about lately?KJ-52 I've never thrown out a single piece of fan mail. I have boxes and boxes shoved under my couch and I usually get anywhere from two to ten a week. It adds up to about 5,000 or 10,000 altogether. I've seen all these letters, but space was really limited on the record and there were so many issues I wanted to hit. How do I make one song hit such a broad group of people? I've got such a cross section of listeners, from the non-Christian kid who's a cutter, to the semi-Christian kid with a porn addiction, to the perfect church girl who goes on mission trips. So I decided to take that cross section and put a twist on it. There's this church girl—her dad died, so what is it like for any of us when faith doesn't make sense? I get letters all the time that say, "I don't pray anymore because I'm mad at God, but I love your music."Does it ever get to a point where you feel like you've exhausted topics?KJ-52 It's been an eight-year ride for me, but for all intents and purposes I feel like I'm starting over. If I locked in with kids when they were 13, today they're 20 and they're in a totally different mindset. I guess at some point it can get a bit repetitive, but the letters never stop and it leads me to the question, "How do I reach out without going back?" The kid who's hearing The Yearbook is not the same as the kid who heard [2003's hit] "Number One Fan."It's a catch-22, but what's more important? Do I reach a kid or do I just go for artistic integrity and not address it? I weigh the two at the end and continue to stay current with every record. The fan base is a revolving door, and people come up to me all the time that have never heard of me before.You still seem like someone who pursues artistry though, so I wonder if that mentality conflicts with your sense of mission. Do you ever wish you could put those letters away and just write about what you want to?KJ-52 To some degree I did because this is a much more serious record overall. There are no interludes or skits or "Cheeseburger" songs. There may be three semi-goofy ones, but the sound is different and more current. My older music is much more poppier, back when dcTalk was the standard in the Christian market. Now 50 Cent and Eminem are the standard, which is great for me because I can finally do some semi-real rap without scaring away the moms!The artistic side is a balance and it's a thing I struggle with always. I'll be the first to tell you I have songs I regret. I'll be the first to say that I've dumbed [my music] down to sell some records, but I didn't do it with the idea for money. It was to reach more people. I could've made some better, but hindsight is 20/20.Would it help to separate your records and make one that's more funny and then a separate one that's more serious?KJ-52 My self-consciousness won't let me do it. Plus you have to understand the state of music business. I came in with the class of 2000 when there was a lot of hunger for Christian hip-hop from the industry: John Reuben, L.A. Symphony, and a lot of the Gotee artists. It was a really great time, but now what the heck happened? Where did all my friends go? [Note: Reuben is still making music.] Some of it I understand, but all to say that when you make a full-out silly record, the audience won't take you serious anymore, and then you're really stuck.So are you worried about the state of Christian hip-hop right now?KJ-52 All the time! Sales are down and everyone is scared. Budgets are slashed big time on albums that would've had no problem a few years ago. On top of that, I'm on my fifth record and everyone's running for their lives. Nobody makes it to five because a whole generation's passed!Have you had to compromise over the years to stay in the game for so long?KJ-52 Definitely, but you have to, to survive as an artist. It's not about compromise, but it's about common sense. Obviously there has to be a balance to it. My fan base is incredibly diverse—from five-year-old kids to forty-year-old parents. How do you keep that many people happy? The son likes the bouncy and catchy song, but the mom likes the song about the parent, and the hip-hop crowd sees me as an emcee. How do I reach all of them? I also have an incredibly diverse ethnic base: white, black, and Hispanic. Part of it is compromise, but honestly, I've never done anything I didn't want to do.With the music industry situation so delicate these days, how long do you see yourself wanting to continue as an artist, or would you consider transitioning to youth ministry?KJ-52 I used to think [my audience] was all kids, but in the last few years it's literally become a family thing. The youth is one part, but my generation was the first with hip-hop. Now that they're hitting their thirties, their kids are also into it. It's the first generation where adults and their kids can play Xbox and not think twice. If tobyMac's in his mid-40s and killing it, do I really have to retire? I'm almost 32 and I feel like I'm in the best position of my life. I've self-produced my first record and am proud of how it turned out.I'm curious why your songs continue to spend time addressing "Dear Slim" after five years and all the negative attention that MTV and VH1 heaped on you?KJ-52 I wanted to stop addressing that situation years ago and I tried to do a few shows where we didn't do it, but people were like, "Why didn't you do that song?" and asking me, "So have you talked to him?" Five years later people still want to know the story. It's almost become [my signature song]—my "Jesus Freak." Part of the story is still relevant—not even the Eminem angle, but the idea that God can use little things and take them further.It almost seems like it's becoming antagonistic—like a tennis match going back and forth.KJ-52 I really did want [to end it], but VH1 brought it back up by re-running the show and kids are still watching it. So it was like, "If you stop, I'll stop, and if you start, I will too." It forced me into a corner that you have to explain. In fact, when I was writing this record, I was feeling burnt out and exhausted. So I sat down on my couch, flipped on the TV, and [that VH1 special] was on. It was during the writing of "You'll Never Take Me Down," which I wasn't even writing as a response to all that, but it shows that I've learned to [rise about it].How are you able to balance the challenge of that situation with finding your identity in Christ?KJ-52 I'm still trying to figure that out. How do I? How do I make this record really transparent and let people see what's going on in my head without talking about the conflicts and contradictions that go off in your head on a daily basis? But I've resolved that God is in control, and that's what I have to go with. In fact the original title for the record was going to be Honest.Why did you change it?KJ-52 I just didn't feel like explaining the whole "honest" concept. I felt The Yearbook had more meat and it got deep into the heart of me, and because I worked on the record for a year.You're pretty prolific as a songwriter, initially recording 75 songs for The Yearbook. How do you know when it's the right time to release a record?KJ-52 The problem with Christian hip-hop is if you release albums too close together, it kills you. If you're putting one out every eight months or a year, [fans] are just finding out about the last one when you're buying a new one. I've seen other guys who released records really quick back to back and it destroyed their career. If you wait two years, it's actually slightly better, but then there's pressure from your label to keep the music coming so you have something to support on tour. If you come back to the same town, you have to have a new record to be able to capitalize on the tour.I'm not whining about it, it's just a hardcore reality of what I do in this very weird state of the industry. People see the label as an enemy, but it's not. It's a partnership and you've got to give them stuff to work with. But that's the reality. It makes you ask, "Should I be artistic or keep the lights on? How do I find balance?" I know I can continue to be artistic if I can keep the lights on.For more about KJ-52, visit our site's artist page. You can read our review of The Yearbook by clicking here. Visit to listen to song clips and buy his music.© Andy Argyrakis, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.