Fat Beats is a hip hop institution. For those who don’t know that, first go punch yourself in the face, then come back to read this interview. I initially met Joseph Abajian through our mutual partnership at the time, Koch Entertainment (now known as E1). Fat Beats had a distribution deal as a record label with Koch, but also did account purchasing on behalf of both their brick and mortar retail stores as well as their one-stop distribution network which supplied several niche retailers around the world. Beyond that, we did some business together on various levels, and eventually connected on LinkedIn, the social network for professionals. At that time, I noticed on his profile he had a seminary listed under education. But, to be honest I run into religious affiliations all of the time in the mainstream where I do a large part of my business, and it usually means nothing (sadly that applies to the Christian market too, but that’s an article for another time). Nonetheless my interest was piqued and I reached out to ask about his time at seminary. I ended up finding out that we had a lot more in common than just a love for Hip Hop, but I will let him tell you about that himself.
TT: Please introduce yourself.
JA: My name is Joseph Abajian, or DJ Jab; I'm the founder and owner of Fat Beats.
TT: Before I launch into my full blown, no holds barred, comprehensive interrogation, was there anything specific you want the Rapzilla readers to know?
JA: Being that your audience is my audience too, I wanted it to compare the hip hop community to what it is today, how rap and gangster life and all things that aren't hip hop have kind of taken over hip hop, and call it hip hop. And to me it’s very similar to the faith. Like if you ask the bulk of America, they say they’re Christian, but they don't practice any Christian beliefs or follow really any Christian ways. And just like with hip hop everyone says they are hip hop, but don't really do anything to participate in the hip hop community, and they are really just kind of high-jacking the name, like what most of America has done to the faith.
TT: So, specifically to Christian hip hop, you're thinking there's a lot of people out there that call themselves hip hop in order to reach people, but outside of that they're not really hip hop and it was never a part of their life?
JA: They claim the name, they say “I'm hip hop,” but they don't do a history on what hip hop really is. Hip hop isn't thugged-out life or a ridiculous amount of tattoos or wearing your pants looking like a fool. That's not hip hop. That's a rap persona that people put on, and they say “I'm hip hop, I'm hip hop.” Then you say ok, let’s see what your history is in hip hop... Give us some history. Most of the kids don't know the history of the Rock Steady Crew; they don't know The Cold Crush Brothers and Fantastic 5, plus the true foundation of hip hop. Do they know Kool Herc? And, Grandmaster Flash? Do they know Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation and how it all came about?
I think if a Christian artist does something really good, it should be put on all music levels. If you do something really good, everyone will get into it. It won't be just Christians.
TT: So, even more specifically, hip hop itself is a lot of people saying “I'm this, I'm hip hop, this is a part of my life, but when you peel all the layers away that's not them at all. You said the bulk of America claims to be Christian, attends Church on Sunday, but there is a good chance they aren’t.
JA: You know, they might attend church occasionally, but ask them what their favorite Scripture is. They know what the general stories of the Bible because they watch the shows and the movies.
TT: Like Veggie Tales?
JA: Yeah, every so often the Ten Commandments come on and they watch that and a lot of people went to see Passion of the Christ. We know the Bible is just kind of a skeleton of the stories, but I mean to get the real story and to get what God was trying to get through, you have to study. I mean you can study one book for years to get the full messages out of it, so most people never mind studying like that, never even read the book. In hip hop it's just the same way when you talk to people, My generation we grew up on Wild Style and Style Wars and we're advocates for graffiti and for art, the whole scene of it. But we saw a changing in the late 90s and this decade has just really embraced rap and the money that rap makes is more than DJ'ing, B-boys, and graff writers combined. But then when I see a rap video, or when I see a rap show, for instance, they'll say it's a hip hop event, but all I see is a rapper, looking kind of strange because his pants are all crazy looking, cupping the mic, no DJ, and he's just standing there and he's saying that's a hip hop show, I'm like well, when I go to a hip hop show here I got the MC, he's interacting with his DJ, they're going back and forth during the show, or throughout the show there's b-boys coming out dancing, doing their thing and I'm wonder how that's a hip hop show, that's just a guy up there rapping, that's a rap show.
TT: Nice! So, how did you get your start in hip hop? After that, we can launch into how Fat Beats was started.
JA: In 92-93, as a DJ in New York, it was difficult to find records. And I wanted to open a business; initially I was looking towards the restaurant industry. But as I looked deeper I found how difficult that could be with all the licenses and food restrictions and laws on food. So, as I was shopping one day I came to the conclusion that it is very difficult to buy hip hop records in New York, the mecca of hip hop. And when I look back now I have to say the Lord gave me a sign to open up a record store. You can't really buy records in New York, and I really had a strong feeling that if I went into that business, like opened a hip-hop/vinyl record store, that people would come. As I was going around the music industry, everyone was sort of against my concept. They were like “we'll give you all these records, but no one is trying to buy records anymore” because at that time Sony had cut out their vinyl and was specifically focusing on CDs because Sony also had a big market share on CD players. On the business end you can kind of see what Sony was doing. Well they can force people into CDs, to buy CD players, because they're cutting out their vinyl because vinyl was still pretty available in 92, 1993, even in 94 when they really started cutting them out. So, I don't really call it luck because that's just what it was at the time but when we opened up this first store there was a big retro movement, and people really were into vinyl. They really started buying vinyl and I just happened to be right there opening an all vinyl shop, and it initially took off.
JA: The whole scene was golden at the time. The scene wasn't as split as it is now and the independent scene was kind of just starting and there was a time when it was really cool to be independent. And we had a really good balance of artists coming down. When the independent scene was taking off, the artists involved were really good and in New York because it's small and everyone would sort of hang out. A lot of artists would come to the store and hang out there and then you had a lot of up and coming artists and DJ's and people coming up, and the store seemed to be kind of a meeting ground. We were always like literally a hip hop shop. If there was MCs in the house, I would always pull out the mic's; whenever DJ’s came down I always asked them to do a little demo and it was very open. People were definitely down to rhyme, they were down to DJ. When Redman came down, in 94 I think, they just got on the mics doing their thing. I don't know if word got out there because I wasn't a part of the MC community, but rappers would come down wanting to get on the mic. They would even come down with their managers and the manager would ask if it is ok if they get on for a little while.
So it became a little thing. And, the first store, all the walls were all tagged up with graffiti on them. Between the record bins, you could see the walls. And by putting all the posters on the ceiling, it was very colorful. It created this sort of like little scene. When you came to the store, you felt the hip hop energy in there. And the first store people remember when you first walked in, the first record I had on the wall was actually the Rock Steady Crew. It was “Hey You Rock Steady Crew” and it was signed by them. And so you could automatically see that there was a hip hop connection here. It’s not just a store carrying your local current rap artists. I am a B-boy first, so I connected with the B-boys and when we first started we were located at east village, close to the lower east side. The lower east side is very hip hop influenced area and a lot of the lower east side kids came to the store. That was a balance of the music industry because the music industry gave us a lot of love when we first opened up. I guess because we’re a record store. And, we had a good combination of crowds in the store. El-P from Company Flow now he’s Def Jux, He used to hang out in the store. J-Live used to always be down there. You would see L-swift and A-butta all the time. And DJs, I saw DJs all the time. And the fact I was hanging out with Rock Raider (may he rest in peace) and Rok Swift and Mister Sinister so much that I started managing them. And we did a little event.
So the people involved in the scene at the time now are kind of like legends. Like Cash Money would come down “Oh cash money you got to get on.” And DJ Rizz who’s like an amazing DJ and J-Rock, you know, these guys would just come in “hey, hey guys what’s going on, man, can I get on?” And they would just get on, they would start DJ'ing. And, um, I think that still goes on. We did sell graffiti magazines and some books and I used to sell graffiti tips for a while, so a lot of graffiti kids would come down with their black books and compare stuff and go back and forth. That was the store and it was hard to explain. Anyone that’s sort of in an environment that’s real hard hip hop you feel it. And everyone just like chilling out, they’re talking, and before you know it we got branded the hip hop spot.
TT: Very cool. It’s nice hearing about it straight from you. So, that’s the store, now let’s talk about the Distribution and Record Label portion.
JA: We were always a distribution company. We would do press and distribution deals. And things were going well, so I never thought about starting a label. Only because there was so much going on already. But people were coming down to us. When Eminem was shopping his deal back in 97, 98 time, he actually or his manager at the time, came to us and sold us his EP. And we bought his EP. It was doing well for us so we actually took in all the units he had. I think they pressed 5000 and by the time we got them, there was 3000 left, so we took all 3000 and we sold them. And we were selling other records like the DITC Records Digging in the Crates, The Big L Records, ShowBiz and AG, and a lot of artists. There were some that did very well for us and we’re not signing them to any label deal, we’re just kind of getting our cut for the vinyl distribution. Well, the business got a little tight in 2001; the distribution started to feel the effect of the internet. So that’s when it was time to start the label. And, we had an act that we were working with that was doing very well for us through distribution, so we knew that they wanted to put an album out and they were talking to us about that so we stepped to them. That group was called Atmosphere and that was the first record we partnered up with as a label. They were great to work with, because it was kind of a joint deal. The label was Fat Beats Records. But we did it with Atmosphere and Rhymes Sayers. And Atmosphere- Slug- really worked; he played the game right, he did everything great and that record went out to sell phenomenal numbers. It was called “God Love’s Ugly,” of all names, and The Sound Scan recorded 185,000 units. So it was the great launch to the label, unfortunately, as we tried to use that model for all the artists it didn’t necessarily follow it too well.
TT: Yeah, unfortunately, once you find your formula and you think you’ve got it, you try it again on the next artist and all of a sudden, it doesn’t work. That’s one of the huge challenges of running a record label. It’s not scalable. Do you have any advice you want to share with up and coming artists or record labels on where to spend their energy?
JA: Well, yeah, learn how to perform. So many artists are stuck in the studio so much. And you can make money as a studio artist, and come out. But you’re never going to succeed big time and make any of the real money. The music industry was created to create awareness for artists’ shows. And, it was in the 80’s and 90’s when the industry started to get bigger and started realizing that like you could make a lot of money off the sales, the actual sales. When the industry actually started, there were shows, and now, at least for rap, when you go to a rap show it stinks. I’m the first to say that most of the guys I’ve seen and the artists I work with, it’s better if they put a poster of you on stage and play your record because you’re supposed to sound better at a show than your albums. And people say “wow, I really like this guy’s music, I’m going to go buy his album so I can listen to it privately. And you go to a rap show and I’m yelling false advertisements because that’s not how your record sounds. Your record sounds way better than that but you sound horrible. And they got these rappers that are like gold and platinum artists doing very small venues who can barely pack in a 300-seater or 400-seater and I tell them, like, it’s your show, you know. A great show and a decent album will get great sales. A horrible show and a decent album will kill, will get no sales. So, yeah, I’m always like show, show, show, it’s always about your show and rap, I have to say, not all rapper because KRS-One still has one of the greatest shows but yeah, most of these guy’s shows really stink.
TT: Awesome… I categorically concur! Now let’s spend some time talking about our Creator, the creator of the universe… Who personally, decisively, and graciously selects individuals to grant with a gift of faith for the purpose of glorifying Himself. Tell us how He drew you closer to Himself.
JA: In 2001, times were just changing; things were changing, in the economy and in the music business. The internet was flowing and things were shifting in the music business. And for me personally I was reaching. Fat Beats had reached its high in like 1998-1999 and, then in 2000 I started searching. I was like; I got to do something, something different. I had to do financing downsize, something. So I was really calling out, trying to figure out which way to go, and I got sort of hit. Hit with the Holy Spirit, I would have to say. And the Bible was weighing heavy on me, to really get into it and read it. And so I started reading it slowly. And, it was the beginning of 2001 that I had a friend out in California tell me that I should just read the Bible, front to back. And you know, by that time, I was very interested. I was really looking to the Lord and questioning what we all do, what is the truth. You know, are you really the truth because you hear all these crazy stories, you watch history channel and National Geographic and they kind of leave it an option you know, they don't tell you Jesus is the only way, they just want to leave it an option. Whenever they talk about Christianity they always mention all the other faiths and, I got a direct message right from the Lord that He's the truth the way the life. It was a scripture right out of John and it really moved me at the time. And right after that is when I met one of my friends that told me just read the Bible front to back and I started reading it. It was early 2001 and I haven't put it down since. And, it was funny because of anyone that's into the Bible and is reading it you know September 11th the attacks really was kind of a wake-up call. Especially if you're in the Old Testament gets you riled up a little bit. Like, wow things are really happening to see that much life taken at one time you know only God can command something like that.
Yeah so going down the path reading and reading and hearing and learning about what God set up for us and how he set it up through the nation of Israel and everything that was going on. And then you know I had to wrestle with the idea of the business so I'm here I am I got this business, by the time things were going pretty good where I wasn't involved as much. I kind of took myself out. I had a GM named Jim Mahoney who was running the company and he was running it very well.
TT: He's at A2IM now right?
JA: Yeah, he ran the distribution company for like 9 years. And, the way the company was set up at the time, Eclipse was running the retail and we hired Fred Feldman who was running the label. These were all like powerhouse guys that could make some big moves. I didn't really have to be involved so it gave me a chance to read and study, and I was also searching for a church home too. I didn't have a church home at the time. So I just kept reading and learning and studying and questioning too. In the New Testament, there was a scripture from, I think, Matthew...was it seven? No six? There's a Scripture that talks about letting the weeds and the tares grow together. Matthew 13:30 talks about the parable of the wheat and the tares. It says let both grow together until harvest. And at the end of the time of harvest, I will say to the reapers first gather together the tares to bind them in bundles to burn them and then gather the wheat into my barn. And so I would always keep that Scripture. And there's other scriptures where it says that the rain falls on all of us. I think I didn't feel a weight to dissolve the company or just get completely get out. Because reality hits too, you know, I have bills and I was newly married and I had a family now to take care of. I always kept Fat Beats pretty clean. If you ever go to our website or ever went in the stores, you never really saw like nudity. I always tried to cover it up whenever record covers would have any nudity on the site. I always told them not to curse, not to show any curses or anything and on our radio show I try to tell the guys to keep it clean. I always had that in me because as a business person. We have a lot of children shopping who come with their parents. And if the parents see these kinds of images they may not want to bring them again.
So, I rode with that and I was trying to sell the company. So I figured I'd just keep riding that wave of trying to sell the company. But in doing that I went down a lot of different paths I shouldn't have gone down trying to sell the company. I kind of got blinded by money, I would hook up with some people and I would see that they had access to money. I would say I don't care I'm going to roll with these guys and see if I can get some investors in the company. So I kind of did that for a little while, and really was going down the wrong path. I mean I wasn't praying on it, I wasn't really looking to the Lord to direct and guide me, and I got burned too. I spent a lot of money and I got burned with wrong investors and wrong people promising me things that ultimately they couldn't come through with. But, I laid off it for a while and that's when Mahoney gave his notice and the whole company shifted. And again during this time retail is getting slammed, people are buying less and less and it's harder to get people to the stores. So, I took over the company again. I'm still in the process of working with investors to come in. I have a whole new plan for the company and right now I'm waiting to see which way I'm led. I do feel that I'm going to be doing music, Gospel music to this community that I know. So I was sent to a certain church that can put out music or put out music with me that will cater to the crowd that I'm currently in business with. So, this scene that we're involved, I look at the scene as a self-righteous, educated scene that is looking for the truth and they've concocted, they've come up with their own sort of hip hop god which includes all faiths and every sort of teaching out of all the faiths. The hip hop god is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, he's Buddhist also and he just believes in whichever way works for you as long as you're semi-righteous, you know you can be part of that religion. Marriage isn't really necessary. You can have children out of wedlock in the hip hop religion… it's accepted. You can mark yourself up; you can completely destroy your flesh… that's all accepted. And I feel that this crowd just really hasn't been educated and the Christianity that was taught to them usually wasn't Christianity of the Bible. It either came from a Catholic point of view or just some bad preachers, so they're very turned off. They don't want to hear anyone with a collar; if you're a preacher, if you're a minister, then they don't even acknowledge you as a man of God. But through music you can tell them things. And, that's the path I think I'm going to be going down. We're going to be putting out music to talk to this crowd that I've been working with for the last 16 years.
TT: So would you say if you look at your life from here and you're looking all the way back, it's pretty clear that you can see God's hand providentially taking you down various paths of business and hip hop so that you would have a special platform to reach a crowd that otherwise would be fairly unreached?
JA: Yeah, exactly. The word platform is an excellent way to describe it. Like the platform I have now is just beyond what any minister can do and none of the mega-ministers, mega-churches can reach those crowds the way I could. They can't even come close. And I do feel that the Lord has definitely guided me to this point right now. I'm actually doing an album, a secular album, but I do have a girl from my church singing on it. It's just really opening up the doors for projects with her that's going to talk to the same crowd. So, yeah we have a huge platform, this scene is so big. I'm just waiting for the right time.
most lukewarm Christians ... (they think) the Bible is open for interpretation
It's a praise and worship CD. If you were to categorize the music outside those words, the music itself is dance music. It's house music. Actually, underground house. And, she can reach crowds that she can never reach on the pulpit. I'm using that CD as an example. You know, these people would never hear her, and they would never have a chance. As Christians we're all ministers and we're all supposed to evangelize and spread the Word and use our talents to get it out there. I, personally, was trying to actually get out of the music business. I was like I'm saved now, I got some money saved, I can just go and open up a little bakery or something, maybe have some bagels, a little lunch thing, but, that wasn't the calling. I learned you got to use your talents to basically spread the Word.
TT: I'm glad you brought that up. The idea that once you were saved you could no longer own or run Fat Beats because it was not a “Christian Company”. That's kind of a thing that our scene struggles with… the concept of there being sacred and secular and drawing a thick line between the two and never crossing it. A lot of people in our scene are very legalistic and even worse judgmental. They're going to read your interview and they're going to try to find ways to poke holes just so they can run away from the thought that you are genuinely saved and run a “Secular” company. That's just the nature of this market, it's full of Pharisees. So I apologize in advance for subjecting you to that. Who are some of your favorite Pastors that you enjoy listening to, or favorite authors that you enjoy reading?
JA: Yeah, I have a few that I get my word from. Not too many, but my pastor is Bishop Caesar, from Bethel Gospel Tabernacle. He has a radio show and it's on 570 AM every morning. I actually found the church through the radio show, so it's ironic that I found him through a music platform. So I follow him and I also listen to James McDonald who is on the same station. And Bishop Bonner, he's from Refuge Temple up in Harlem, I follow him. And then I have the former dean of the Bible school I go to, Dr. Torez.
TT: Talk about that Bible school real quick…
TT: Actually, yeah I’m currently reading Romans chapter 9 and I have to read it over and over every morning. There is just too much to digest. It’s rich… things keep popping off the pages!
I think as a church we're failing...
JA: I've gotten so many different Bibles and translations, and I have a Strong's Concordance. It's like it just gets opened up and you think oh my goodness and start learning about words. One of the problems I think that most lukewarm Christians and confused people have is that (they think) the Bible is open for interpretation, and you can interpret it differently. I always say send me the Scripture you think you're having a problem with because when the words in Hebrew translated to English you can use a lot of different English words. And we need Bible schools. I have to say that the Christian body of Christ is failing. Look at our economy, at our society. The general society is going to the left. They're going the wrong way. I think as a church we're failing because we're not able to impact them the way the rulers of darkness are. They impact them hard. But the school has opened up the Word so much. And being Armenian I feel ultimately like I'll be preaching and trying to save Armenians, because Armenians have their own version of Christianity. The Orthodox way is very different than the Protestant way. I do see myself eventually going down that road. I'm going on 10 years soon (since I’ve been saved). When I was first sent to Bethel, it took some time. I met with the Bishop a few times and he talked about what my purpose is. We came to the conclusion right off the bat that I'm not here to preach or put out music for the saints. And I'm not here to produce music that's preaching to the choir. For the people that are already in the church and saved, we want them to buy music that we produce so they'll be fans of it, but it's not for them; they're already saved. They have tons of praise and worship music that they can listen to, and it's constantly coming out. What I'm going to be doing is for the unsaved. It's for the people that aren’t in the kingdom. It's using people in the kingdom to speak to them. But it's for folks. Because if you and I are saved, what good are we doing to the kingdom if we just fellowship together all the time and don't invite anyone in. But we know that God is, He's exclusive to everyone that chooses Him, or He chooses, vice versa. But I know he wants us to at least try to spread the Word and get people interested. We all know the enemy is just running unchecked basically.
TT: Absolutely. It's spiritually arrogant to think that God is unable to get glory through hip hop. So… obviously your worldview has transformed since you become a Christian. The way you view and process things becomes quite different. Are you at all concerned with the general Fat Beats consumers jumping ship, or the Christian consumers looking at this as a MC Hammer, move? Meaning, that as the retail market falls apart and you look for ways to make a living, you explore the Gospel market. A lot of guys turn to the Gospel market after they become tapped out elsewhere.
JA: No, because the reality is I've been saved since 2001. So, I know as long as you keep feeding the crowd. I can't say all our music is positive, but the music we put out is not your typical big booty bouncing rap style. We do try to go towards more conscience, and positive music. I put it out there that I'm Christian, but most people as long as we keep putting out music they like, they don't really say anything. Now the retail stores, the scene in the stores died like 3 or 4 years ago. I was just kind of keeping them going hoping for something. And most of the scene admits they love Fat Beats and the scene of hip hop but for this reason and that reason can't get out anymore and can't do this. A lot of our scene, the body of Fat Beats has really left. I think a lot of them left the hip hop scene and went to Hollywood; they went wherever. It seemed like a lot of rappers and just a lot of people in general started dressing like Lenny Kravitz who dressed like Jimmi Hendrix and everything just kind of went. I still wear my Pumas and Adidas, but a lot of my t-shirts have changed now; I do love clothing with Christian art. But the scene kind of changed… or where I changed, the scene itself changed, you know? It kind of happened simultaneously. But we're still putting stuff. In fact, the releases that the company is putting out and the distribution company are stronger now than they've ever been. So, while the stores are closing, I have more releases and bigger, bigger names now than we've ever had.
Rakim? You know, I was a big fan of Rakim but he probably converted more people to Islam than Islam itself. So I really have to factor in what kind of a message is involved.
TT: Are you guys still with Koch?
JA: Is that a trick question? Yeah we are. They've just been giving me like step child treatments. We have our biggest schedule ever, and they're just giving us step child treatments for some reason.
TT: I hear you. That's crazy hearing from someone who's based in New York. I was with them for 3 years. Being in San Diego, all the way on the opposite side of the continent caused us to feel so disconnected at times. Besides that I have nothing but good things to say about them. They seem to be a great company, and I believe they will be one of the last companies standing as the market violently shifts. I was just asking because you had a more strategic partnership where you guys were handling a lot of one stop stuff for them that they couldn't do. Is that arrangement still intact?
JA: Yeah, we still sell their product. If you were around when Koch decided to go into the rap business and do urban, we were their first label. We did a record with them in 2000 or 2001. It was a Fat Beats compilation that we did. We worked with them on a KRS-One record a few other things. Then they started going in their own direction and signed Fredro Starr from Onyx. And then, they told us what they were doing and threw us off. We thought we were going to do a label deal and thought “look, you know the hip hop we do is very specific. And like nothing against Fredro Starr but we wouldn't have done that project.” I think they had a RZA record too. The RZA record we did, we'll do that one, but you know, we're choosey. At least in those days we were very picky and had an image to maintain and we couldn’t put out that kind of stuff out, it doesn't go with our image. In those days our image was like Mos Def and Talib Kweli you know?
TT: Speaking of those guys, who are your top 5 MC’s of all time?
JA: Chuck D definitely. I'd have to say Kool G Rap. I really want to say Redman but after his first three and a half albums, he changed up a lot. MC Lyte, big fan of her. It’s funny because I'm trying to pick the crème of the crop. I have a lot of like B MCs, who are like the second wave, like GZA, most of the Wu-Tang guys. I would say BDP KRS-One and Jive KRS-One, everything he did on Jive. This is so hard because there is so many good MC’s and they all have different styles. I'm a big fan of Big Daddy Kane. I guess I would leave it at that because I was a big fan of a lot of other artists, but they're all on kind of the same level.
TT: No I like that. Your list looks different because you didn't have Rakim in it. So that's nice…
JA: Rakim? You know, I was a big fan of Rakim but he probably converted more people to Islam than Islam itself. So I really have to factor in what kind of a message is involved. But, no Rakim is up there, too.
TT: (laughs) Yeah. Actually, is there any Christian hip hop you've heard, enjoyed or worked with?
JA: Unfortunately, no. I've haven’t heard much. I don't really know them too well because I haven't had a chance to dive into that market. I am looking forward to getting into that and working with some more Christian artists. A lot of it doesn’t sound really breakthrough or ground breaking. I think if a Christian artist does something really good, it should be put on all music levels. If you do something really good, everyone will get into it. It won't be just Christians.
TT: There are only a handful of Christian Hip Hop artists that are given love by the mainstream.
JA: Yeah. You know Bushwick Bill is saved too?
TT: I’ve heard that. I actually met him down in Houston at the “All Eyes on Me” Awards. He came down and performed some songs and I understand he even did a Gospel album.
We have to be very cautious as evangelicals since we seem to jump at any hint of “celebrity” as if they validate our faith, or can do so much more for God than a lay person. We treat a Z-list celebrity like an A-list celebrity. We tend to be an easy target for people who have run out of money. They run over to the Christian side and milk any celebrity equity they may have had left.
As far as Christian hip hop, there is a healthy thriving underground scene that remains unscathed. Like mainstream, the stuff that makes the headlines is generally the worst Christian Hip Hop has to offer. I’d love the opportunity to share some audio delicatessens with you and your headphones. We are still in our Golden Era… Which means you got to dig! There's a whole slew of talent that keeps popping up out of the crevices. It's been exciting because I've been into Christian hip hop for 25 years and been able to see a lot. That’s why when we first started talking about our common faith; I was talking to you about Flavor Fest. I think it would just blow your mind and open up a whole new world. With your platform being as large as it is, and seeing our scene grow, I’d love to see you and the scene clash. It would be interesting to see the outcome.
JA: Oh, they are going to clash soon. The church I was sent to, it's very different. I was actually going to the Armenian church before I went there. I went through a phase trying to find a church, going through all these different churches and different denominations and finally I sort of gave up. I thought I just really couldn't find something that I could equate with. Then I just went to my own people’s church, the Armenian church which is Orthodox which has older practice than the Catholic church. So it was only a matter of time where I was clashing with the priest and just the church ways. I started searching because I didn't want to become a thorn in the churches shoe. God is ultimately in charge of everything so I wasn't going to be the one telling them “you know you have idols everywhere, you have images and paintings everywhere. I mean you guys don't teach about Christ and this is not what I believe.” I still have relations with the church and I'm friends with them, but I don't attend. So, I ended up going to another church, but it's a church that is not my demographic, in fact, I'm probably the only Armenian that ever attended that church. But, we do have something in common. I was saying earlier when I met with the Bishop; he told me that he was interested in putting out music. Then I found out his daughter sings and she's trying to put out a record. I said “look, that's what I do” and after a while, two and two came together. So, it’s a young church and a very Caribbean church. And the music the church plays, and music we can do together, can really work in the crowds that I have access to. We've been talking about that. It’s taken some time but I do plan on putting out music through the church to cater to this crowd that I'm in.
TT: Will it be under the Fat Beats imprint?
JA: I’m working on that now, I'm not too sure, but most likely. It's not a Christian record, it's a clean record. We did one song on it about religion. Like I was saying earlier, it's just breaking me in because I haven't done anything or been in the market for years.
We have to at least try to reach the crowd buying her (Lady Gaga) stuff because she's poisoning them and we're just sitting back and watching it. That's what I'm going to really try to do.
TT: Right. Wow, I think we could do this for a long time. Is there anything else that you have on your mind that you'd like to get to probably primarily a Christian audience?
JA: Personally, because I'm into business, I still make it my business to watch award shows. I look at the charts and I listen to music, especially the stuff that's selling really well to see what people are into. As believers and Christians, God's music has been hijacked. It says in Psalms 24, the Earth is the Lord's and everything there in… so everything on this Earth belongs to God. But, on the music end of it, He's not. The bulk of the music that's being pushed out there and sold and making money is not glorifying Him. And so it's been hijacked basically and we have to take it back.
I think as Christians we have to take God's music scene back from the secular world, back from the powers of darkness and start getting some music that preaches the Gospel on the charts. Not for the Christian crowd. You know the Christian crowd, they're the ones that are supposed to be doing it; they'll be the initial fan base. But when I look at the charts and see Lady Gaga, who is the complete opposite of what God wants, I think that we have got to counter that, you know? If she's selling 3 million records, then we have to do something that could possibly sell that many. We have to at least try to reach the crowd buying her stuff because she's poisoning them and we're just sitting back and watching it. That's what I'm going to really try to do. The artist's that I'm working with, especially if I get into this Gospel project with pastor McCullough, have to do bigger and better things then what the secular world is doing. A lot of times in the church, at least here in New York, stuff always looks jacked up. If their CD cases are embossed, and have like really nice glassy packaging on it that's really eye attracting, ours have to be better than that. You know what I mean?
We have to understand the whole world is our ministry. It's not just when I get together with my Christian brothers at my meetings and when I get together with my church. I mean, that's our fun time, that's our enjoyment, that's where we confess our sins and our fellowship, but our real work is to reach out to this lost crowd. And here in New York, just go outside and see about 98% of the people with tattoos all over the place and they're not getting the Word.
TT: Do you have any specific events or anything in mind right now outside of the albums that you're talking about where the vision of that would be to reach the hip hop community?
JA: No. We're doing a lot of events in the stores, but we don't have anything specifically planned. I'm just really trying to get the two stores closed and secure the distribution company and the label. Once that's secure, then I’ll move into whichever way I get directed.
TT: So, after the stores close, you're going to see where you're directed? Do you have any ideas on what you're thinking that business model will look like for Fat Beats?
JA: Yeah, we'll continue to put out more music and there will be some music that will be preaching the Gospel. I can't really say. I've learned that I do make plans but I don't make extreme detail plans anymore because they always get changed.
TT: Since you're in touch with a lot of people in the hip hop community do you make it a point to share the Gospel with them?
Fat Beats Amsterdam
JA: More so… talk and debate. A lot of people I've talked to are very educated and actually a lot people have read the Bible. You know, they read the Quran and read whatever other stuff and they kind of come up with their own ways. A lot of times I've heard them say that's good if it works for you, but for me, I'm doing this. I can read them scripture. I can read them what Joshua said “as for me and my house we're going to follow the Lord.” But, most people, and I have to say most Christians too, don't take the Bible as a final authority. I've learned, when I speak to people, most people are stuck on Genesis 1:1. They can't agree and fathom the idea that God created the heavens and the Earth in six days. They'll take that and say “well God created it but it wasn't actually a 24 hour day, it's because a day wasn't formed yet so it's not”... and they kind of come up with their own way. I don't know how it happened but I believe that in six days God created the heaven and the Earth for us.
Joseph with Gangstarr (Guru & DJ Premier)
TT: That's great to hear. Like you said, even in the Christian community, I have been made to feel like an outsider for the simple fact that I don’t believe we evolved, or more specifically believe what Genesis says. So that’s very refreshing. Have you heard of The Truth Project?
JA: I heard of that, yeah.
TT: Dude, it's amazing. It's just a real simple DVD series in which you watch with no more than 12 people in a house, not a church. It's about 50 minutes per session, and you do 1 session a week for 13 weeks. It helps you build a comprehensive worldview. It's amazing. I went through it with my whole church, Jamul Community Church, and then took the guys at Syntax Records through it. I find myself recommending it to many Christians no matter where they are at in the sanctification process… It’s a great way to hit the reset button.
JA: We have to be educated in the faith; we know who the enemy is. He’s in church with us. Satan knows the Bible better than any of us. So, he twists people all up thinking all these crazy thoughts. The enemy has people dreading how the earth can be formed in 6 days. If I was to scientifically try to figure that out, I'll be just as lost and confused as most people are. Certain things you know as Christians or we just have to look past. How God created the earth in 6 days, I have no idea. It would take hundreds of lifetimes to figure it out, so we think let's just pass on that one. If you have all these questions, I would think, that one would be a pass. The answer for that one comes in another lifetime, it doesn't come now. Most of us have to get past certain things in the Bible because the Creator of the universe influenced the Bible so I'm not going to question it. Worry more about living right and doing the right thing. Especially here in New York, I got to worry about all the big boys and women in my face everywhere I go. So, I'm not going to question things in the Bible that logically don't make sense. And I think, “He saved me, He saved a wretch like me, so I'm not going to question Him”... Genesis 1:1 says “God created the heavens and the Earth.” I'm going to say that's how He did it, you know He did it, it says it right there.
JA: Get back to the basics. We keep it real basic and simple.
TT: People are fearful because they think having faith in something you can't touch, taste, or see is a weakness. Truth is true whether or not we understand it to be true. Even crazier, is the extremes people will go to try to prove the opposite of truth. In other words, the opposite of what the Bible says. They’ll spend millions upon millions doing research on space travel and aliens to look for our origin. The entire time the story is right under their nose, and doesn’t cost anything other than perhaps the cost of a book. A book that’s been written, translated, and shared for thousands of years and more over constantly corroborated. Every time veracity is attacked, it comes out victorious. That is just too easy. God just spoke the universe into existence… and that was it? People, especially Americas, have really made God small. They’ve made him out to be this surprised, reactionary, decrepit old man with a long gray beard who is up in heaven hoping, wishing, waiting and saying “oh please make the right decisions so my will can be accomplished!” Instead of being infinitely holy and holding the whole universe in the palm of His hand. If we saw him at even a fraction of what He is, sovereignly in control of everything, I think it wouldn't be nearly as hard for us to read Genesis literally. Where there are mysteries, faith kicks in and thankfully God is the one that graciously supplies that faith.
JA: We got taught at our church, God is not in the world, but the world is in God. He’s omniscient, He’s everywhere. He doesn’t manifest Himself everywhere, but He’s everywhere at all times so like we’re in Him. There are a lot of things that I think the church and so-called Christian’s history have deterred people. Especially when I talk to some the conscious people… you can imagine I’ve had religious conversations with Immortal Technique and Common and A.G., people that are, you know, educated and strong-minded. I remember the first thing Immortal Technique started barked on. It was the Templars and you know all the crusades because, you know, a lot of the Crusades were for good reasons but some of them weren’t. And there were some Crusades where there were just a bunch of thugs and robbers. So you have a lot of people that know that history and they’ll question you and they’ll go “How can you believe in this God?” And I’ll try to explain to them that Christian history and faith are two different things. You know, the reality is, God dealt with the Christians and they lost Jerusalem. They lost Jerusalem in what was it the year 1000 all the way up to 1960 when they decided to give it to the Israelis. So, especially in our world, you got to know your Word and ultimately like with all the rappers that I deal with we agree to disagree. I know that my mission is not to just stop right there, I am going to be doing music to go at them. Look at Kanye West, one song he’s praising Jesus and you hear him all the time thanking God this and that. Then another night he’s like all drunk on Hennessey acting a fool.
TT: Well I think he’s praising God because he thinks he is God.
JA: (laughs) That’s only hip hop. I was trying to tell people we’re the only music genre where people call themselves gods.
TT: (laughs) Well, man, this has been very insightful. I’m excited that I have another person I can talk to in the music business who is also a believer. I’m less lonely. I like when you got saved you didn’t run as far away from who you were as you could because that’s what most people do. They have those extreme scenarios where they get saved at the lowest point of their life and they undo everything that their life was about. They throw away all their music and several other extreme things. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for them to do that, but if they do that they think everyone around them should too. Then unsaved people miss out on the most amazing benefit of all, which is to be a spectator while someone is transformed. I know of nothing else more compelling to people than to watch someone transform right in front of their face.
JA: Well, we also get very emotional. When Jacob was at the well and had his first dream he got very emotional; he was promising God all kinds of stuff and he didn’t come through. God had to break him. When you promise something to God, he holds you for it. So, some people will get very emotional at that time and they think “I’m going to do this and this.” It’s like, look , slow down. Analyze your life, read the Scriptures, more. You know, my business is secular, a lot of the music I sell has cursing in it, I could’ve easily thought I should just walk away from it. But, God gave me wise judgment because if I had walked away, most likely there wasn’t going to be a big bag of money falling into my lap at my house to pay my bills, you know (laughs). So, you have to use wise judgment. And, I’m in the fire right now, but I’m going through it because things are changing. But to just completely walk away from whatever you’re in that defeats the purpose. You work at a company, you’re in a band or you’re part of a community and you get saved, and you just run from them. Well, God can’t use you now for that crowd, they don’t know you.
TT: Excellent insight! I could probably spend a few more hours talking to you about all of this, but I think at that point we may need to just write a book. Thanks so much for your time, and I look forward to sharing your story with the masses!
Joseph "DJ Jab" Abajian is the founder and owner of Fat Beats and can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FBdjjab. For more information on Fat Beats, please visit: www.fatbeats.com.