KJ-52: The Man Behind the Musik
- Gregory Rumburg CCM Magazine
- 2006 23 May
Two years ago, he won the first Dove Award in Tooth & Nail Records' history. Then this year CCM readers crowned him their "Favorite Hip-Hop Artist." Popular? Indeed, but how well do we really know Jonah Sorrentino?
Safe to say, no right-thinking record company dreamed up this plan for a PowerPoint presentation: Seeking white male from the Southeastern region of the United States for a national, Christian hip-hop career. Still, KJ-52 got a shot.
“When I tell strangers what I do, I might as well have told them I train pygmy rattlesnakes for the circus,” the rapper admits. “My whole life has pretty much been an uphill battle trying to explain what I do or where I’m from or what happened. It’s definitely been a challenge.”
KJ’s a scrapper, fully aware he didn’t start out as the most talented kid in the class. But his drive and character pushed him to hone his skills — toil that’s paying off today. His lauded 2005 autobiographical effort, "Behind the Musik (A Boy Named Jonah)" (BEC), helped push the former youth minister’s career totals to more than a half-million records sold. The tally adds credence to his 2004 Dove Award for “Rap/Hip-hop Album of the Year” ("It’s Pronounced Five Two") and to his pair of recent Gospel Music Award nominations. With some 400,000 Delta Skymiles over the last couple of years under his three-cell-phone-a-day belt, the avid podcaster works more touring options than ever before.
With a new project that dropped last month, "KJ-52 Remixed," KJ fans are up to their dickies in his celebratory beats — forcing proverbial naysayers to take a second look. Case in point: KJ-52 will celebrate six years in the biz next month, yet this is his first real CCM Magazine feature.
So what gives? Studio whiz Aaron Sprinkle, who co-produced "Behind the Musik," points to the fact that KJ “works so hard to connect with fans.
“It’s good to see him start to be recognized for that,” he adds.
Logically, it is indeed the hard work. Where reason is defied, KJ offers this perspective: “It proves that God takes the foolish things of the world and does something with it.”
“Beating the Odds” headlines the narrative behind KJ-52’s music, driven by unique, personal storylines.
After Essential Records rolled the dice on KJ with 2000’s "7th Avenue," reviews were mixed; and fans were slow to warm up to the debut. Because of resulting poor record sales, KJ was amicably dropped from the label. Determined, he shopped for a new deal. Only the avant-garde Tooth & Nail Records would open its doors, via BEC/Uprok Records. But it was just the kind of foolishness that was necessary for "Collaborations," a turning point that gave the rapper a new start and illustrated what KJ does best: fight for what he believes in.
It’s a spirit of living he garnered during an unconventional childhood as Jonah Sorrentino, KJ’s given name. Growing up, he was permitted to call his parents by their first names, Richard and Lana, centerpieces of "Behind the Musik." The two met as art students in Brooklyn during the height of the ’70s downtown pop art movement. Adoring Soho culture yet pining for Florida, the hippies trekked to the unlikely Ebor City, Fla. — “pretty much the ghetto of Tampa,” says KJ — to open an art studio.
Ebor City’s 7th Avenue neighborhood fashioned a blend of gritty urban and artistic living; and though the couple split after their first year there, KJ remembers his parents created a nurturing, creative environment. Among mostly black and Cuban neighbors, and to sonic wallpaper at home formed by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Top 40 ’80s music such as The Police, KJ pursued drawing, modeling and acting as expressions of his artistic nature. But what KJ embraced most there was an appreciation for culture.
“I learned a lot from my dad, from his ability to relate to so many different types of people. And even though I was the only white kid, I never stopped to think [about it],” he says.
Around the age of 12, KJ, like most middle-school-aged youth, longed to fit into a crowd, something that had eluded him as he shuttled between Ebor City, where his dad still lived, and Tampa’s suburbs, where his mom had started a new life. And like some youth, that grasping for acceptance drove the pre-teen toward unhealthy habits. He went from being an A student to fielding D’s and F’s. Spiraling out of control, KJ got into the party scene, getting drunk and chasing girls, and ran away from home twice. Two influences helped propel him out of the chaos.
First, KJ latched onto hip-hop, from the more positive work of Kid ‘N Play and Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock to the more militant tracks of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. “So much of it was about empowerment,” he explains, “and I think maybe there was a part of me that really wanted that.” Inspired, KJ tackled "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" for a school book report — not exactly light reading.
At 15, empowerment came from a different angle, thanks, in part, to a summertime conversation KJ had about God with his cousin. Christianity was largely foreign to the teen; the circumstances of his life wooed him to flirt with atheism. But later that summer, after KJ moved with his mom and stepfather to Cape Coral in southwest Florida, KJ’s mind eased into the idea that God wasn’t as capricious as He had seemed. Soon, KJ found a local Top 40 radio station playing hip-hop and another airing a slate of broadcast ministries such as Focus on the Family, Charles Stanley and Adrian Rogers of “Love Worth Finding” notoriety.
One night, listening to Rogers, KJ’s heart responded. “I got down on my knees in my bedroom and asked Christ into my life,” he says. He soon joined a local church, and, “Once I got a Bible, I read through it in six months. I was that hungry.” Eventually KJ swapped mainstream hip-hop for the work of pioneering Christian acts such as Dynamic Twins, SFC and PID — a legacy he’s proud to continue today.
So, with the long winter of his music career behind him and spring’s new beginnings rooted and thriving in "Behind the Musik," the cusp of summer presents a good time to take stock, consider the ground covered — but never slow down. "KJ-52 Remixed" released last month with 14 songs from the artist’s four previous projects, including “Are You Real” and “Dear Slim Part 2,” an epistle to Eminem and a chapter of the widely reported, but largely misunderstood, squabble between the rappers. Two other songs, “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Washed Up,” were previously only available on a limited-edition project. For the first time, KJ worked as his own producer on the preponderance of the record.
“I think I’m at the best point I’ve ever been at. It’s funny because sometimes I think, I turn 30 this year, so what am I doing still rapping?” he laughs. “But I really feel like I’ve hit my stride. I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in.”
There’s an Oscar-winning song popular today … can’t quite remember the hook, but it’s something like, “It’s hard out here eatin’ shrimp.” And if anyone can relate to how hard it is to eat shrimp in a meat-and-potatoes kind of world, it’s a white rapper from Florida.
“I know all my criticisms,” KJ says. “At the end of the day, I make music for my God and my fans, and that’s it. The more I read the Word, the more I realize God has the habit of picking some very unusual people to work with.” A battle the soul’s determined to win.
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