Ask Stacy “Coffee” Jones, one half of the dynamic hip-hop duo GRITS, what inspired him and partner Teron “Bonafide” Carter to make the ambitious two-album set "Dichotomy A" and "Dichotomy B," and he gives a somewhat shocking answer: “Gotee approached us midway through the recording with the idea,” he says. “It was our last record with Gotee, and we wanted to go out with a bang.”
Wait a sec: Last record with Gotee, the label at which the group’s seen increasing success for more than 10 years? “Our contract is up, and we’re trying to work out the details to come back,” Coffee reveals. “But for right now, we’re free agents.”
While the future depends on many variables — a few of which Coffee addresses in a free-ranging interview — for now, the present is equally promising and precarious. There’s no denying that the "Dichotomy" records represent artistic daring and have yielded some mighty fine hip-hop in the process.
The twin albums mark a bracing step forward for a duo that is, without a doubt, Christian music’s most successful mainstream rap group. With each of its two previous releases ("The Art of Translation," 2002, and "Grammatical Revolution," 1999), GRITS has managed to make increasingly significant inroads into the general market. These triumphs have spanned from the music charts ("Translation" peaked at No. 11 on CMJ’s hip-hop listing.) to the silver screen and television. (“Here We Go” was featured in the Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton film "Something’s Gotta Give" and became a music bed staple for MTV, while the video landed spins on BET.)
Still, GRITS has dealt with the pressure any act with a previously successful album knows: to deliver a sequel that lives up to, if not surpasses, its predecessor. As much as some folks might’ve wanted or expected something similar to "Translation" — a “Part B,” if you will — Coffee says GRITS was determined to stick to its guns and try something new.
“I felt like a lot more stress was on us with 'Dichotomy A,'” Coffee says, “And with people caught up with "The Art of Translation," a lot were expecting us to make another "Art of Translation," and we went in with the vibe that we’re not going to repeat that. GRITS is constantly changing and constantly evolving, just like our faith in Christ — every day is different. It’s about us, what we’re going through, what we’ve been through and what we’ve got to overcome. Plus, we’ve always been pushing the envelope, going against the grain.”
At press time, GRITS was still putting the finishing touches on the new disc — recorded, as was "A," with the production help of dc talk band alum Otto Price. “People ask, ‘Why 'Dichotomy A' and 'B'? Technically, it’s all the same — the recording, the photos, the packaging. Style-wise it’s connected, though it’s two parts — 26 songs, including interludes,” Coffee says.
Yet, there are differences with the new disc he wants to highlight. “Sonically, it’s more ‘up’ than 'A.' Lyrically, the approach is more aggressive. It’s weird; I think there are more hooks on 'B' and more aggressive songs that the kids are really going to be excited about when we perform them live.”
Do expectations to follow up "A" or even "Translation," which sold more than 130,000 copies, ever weigh on GRITS? “We’ve got nothing to prove to nobody,” Coffee says. “At the end of the day, if [Bonafide] and I are standing there with our thumbs up, then we’re fine with it. And we know that our fans — the people who have been rolling with us from the beginning — they’re going to be fine with it.”
This brings up whether GRITS would want to take the bigger risk of stepping completely outside the Christian music scene for an all-out push in the mainstream. “It’s funny you even mention that,” Coffee says. “It’s been a big discussion for us in the last couple days. There are artists on that side — Kanye West and Mase — who are doing it on a much bigger level, with money and exposure.” (West, for example, has had a huge mainstream hit with his song “Jesus Walks.”)
The way Coffee sees it, growing segments of the Christian music industry are stepping up and supporting artists making an impact outside the church. Meanwhile, he has questions for those who prefer a more insular approach. “Are lives really being affected, or is it just the same old people listening to the radio and going to the concerts?” he wonders. He then contrasts this to the incredible response by mainstream artists in late 2001: “When the world can come together — 9/11, for example — what happens? The mainstream artists come together, and all the proceeds go to the families of the [World Trade Center] victims, the firemen. And what do we do? The world is really showing us how to minister, and that’s crazy to me. We talked [in Nashville] about rallying it up, but we didn’t have the power behind us to do it — it’s just the politics behind it.”
All of this brings Coffee back to the Gotee situation, about which he’s cautiously optimistic. “We’re basically realizing that if we’re going to keep rolling with Gotee, it’s going to take a mainstream partner to take us where we want to go,” he says. “They’ve got the heart to do it, but it’s an investment — and you’ve got to be willing to make that investment.”
That said, it’s worth noting that Gotee invested significant cash, muscle and sweat into making "Translation" a record that would have an impact well beyond the Christian market. Coffee also goes out of his way to affirm that the relationship between GRITS and the label remains amicable.
Still, he makes no apologies for his ambitions. “Let’s do business on a level where it’s an honor to God,” he says. “You read about people like Abraham and Solomon in the Bible, and they were ‘loaded’; they knew how to survive, live off the land and do it well. And I feel like on the Christian side, we’re told, ‘It’s OK to be broke because you’re doing it for God’ — when the reality is that you’re broke, and you and your family are just getting by.”
Asked what it will take to kick the act’s career into the next gear, he frames his answer in terms of the fans: “Keeping them in mind and heart needs to be at the center of everything GRITS does.” This, he notes, includes knowing how to leave the people wanting more. “For us, our fans are our fans,” he says. “We just wanted to do [the "Dichotomy" records] for the fans, to let them know they’re appreciated. We ended up with so much material, we put it into two albums. "Dichotomy" is just the name; if you listen to them they are two very different albums. Plus, a lot of artists are putting 17, 18 songs on a record these days. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that many songs, I’m overwhelmed.”
Coffee also stresses that no matter what changes in the world of GRITS, honest faith will always remain constant. “Our heart is that we know how powerful music is, that a song can change a person’s life,” he says. “We want to sow seeds, not just in the mainstream, but with believers. Because at the end of the day, problems — pride, arrogance, whatever it is — stem from something deeper than just committing the sin or whether you’re saved or not. I talk to castaway believers, and they see that we as Christians are all talk. And that gives them ammo: ‘If that’s the way they are, I want nothing to do with it.’
“So when I start talking to people, I start by telling them how I’ve messed up. We talk about divorces, how we’re products of divorce. A lot of people won’t do that, and we were told at the beginning, ‘Be on guard; watch yourself.’ But God has protected us and sustained us over a decade. And if we can’t see God in that, then we’re crazy.”
As if to sum up what these lessons have taught him, Coffee says, “I believe we’ve been faithful. We’ve slipped up a bunch of times. But God is faithful. We know why we’re here, and we’re not stopping.”
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