A breakdown & insight of one of the most important projects in Christian Hip-Hop history.
One of the biggest gripes with Christian hip-hop is its’ lack of creativity. Either there’s a barrage of Reach/Lampmode clones or a desperate attempt to latch onto trends secular hip-hop threw out the window several years prior (*glares at auto-tune/screwed up hooks & trap beats*). For there to be such an assortment of rappers that are certain God called them to preach the Gospel, it seems a large part have fallen into the trap of saying the same thing in the exact same way.
Recently I watched a vlog of Rick Ross & Pharrell (of the Neptunes) working together in the studio, & when asked about maintaining consistency & relevancy, Pharrell answered “getting ‘hot’ doesn’t come to you by saying to yourself ‘I wanna be hot’. Concentrate on being a vessel for good music & originality & everything else will fall into place.”
I’m sure when Wit & Dre Murray were exchanging Facebook messages back in 2009, they had no intentions on “getting hot.” We would be ignorant & even foolish to believe that when we commit to something, there isn’t some level of success that we would like to achieve (the definition of success varies anyway, but we’ll save that for another time). In this case, Wit & Dre probably weren’t thinking of Hell’s Paradise possibly evolving into their “big break”. However, the music reflects that theory; as at its core, it is completely anti-everything else we are used to hearing; not just in the CHH genre, but from Wit & Dre themselves. Wit was a member of Frontlynaz; a Stellar Award nominated trio whose hits include tempo friendly records such as “Guns Down”, “Can’t Break Us” & “Pump Up the Bass”, however Hell’s Paradise sounds nothing like any of those songs. Dre Murray’s “Manumit” album dropped in 2008, and although “My Lane” & “More Than Life” are without question definitive pieces of his catalog, THAT Dre Murray & THIS Dre Murray are night & day.
So when you get two artists who are obedient to God, honest with themselves, & submissive to each other, you get Hell’s Paradise. Volume One hit out of nowhere; & if we were honest, most of us were admittedly taken aback. Although the idea of samples & hard drums have largely been apart of hip-hop since its inception, this felt fresh. It felt new, intriguing & captivating. Best of all, it felt organic. The decision to go left while everyone else went right may have been intentional, but it didn’t come across as defiant. It’s very easy to be “anti”, with the sole purpose of saying “we didn’t do this, we did THAT”. That, my friends, is pride, no matter how you slice it. Both projects’ impact on the genre lingers on today. (I won’t even speak on numbers, because numbers do not always gauge success. We all know of fruitless churches with thousands of members but, again, different conversation),
Hell’s Paradise reminds me of the surge of east coast hip-hop in 1994. At the time, “gangsta rap” ruled the airwaves. Death Row Records had its foot on the neck of the entire world. Everyone claimed they were from Long Beach or Compton & wore flannels, locs, Dickies, & chucks. MTV, who largely rejected urban music for years (& to appease the growing hip-hop audience, regulated their videos to a 2-hour slot on late Saturday nights), was forced to showcase Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, & Ice Cube to the impressionable eyes of America 24/7. New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, still had their artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr, & KRS-One, but couldn’t breathe on the success of their west coast counterparts. Two albums changed all of that. Notorious B.I.G.’s 'Ready To Die' & Nas’ 'Illmatic'.
Nas & Biggie would tell you themselves that their only intention with those albums was to shine light on the only life they had known how to live. And they easily accomplished that. Both albums felt like a cold winter day on a New York City block. You could even feel the drugs & knots of money in your socks. The police on your heels. Their struggles of the day. And I can tell you that Hell’s Paradise is the beginning of Christian Hip-Hop’s “mid-90s hip-hop resurgence”. Those albums, along with Wu Tang Clan’s '36 Chambers', crossed over into mainstream hip hop & both sides were again even playing fields. Because of Hell’s Paradise, CHH is now hearing & is even more accepting of projects from Hi-Societies, Beautiful Eulogy, Sevin, Swoope, theBreax etc etc that are completely different from what anyone is used to hearing on a large scale from CHH.
When Dre speaks on a domestic dispute gone awry in “Spazz Out”, you become a voyeur in his house- sitting on his couch, uncertain if you should intervene, or sit back & let the issue play out. When Wit declares “if you play it safe, everybody thinks you’re fearful//take a step of faith, now nobody wanna feel you“ on “Komplicated”, you become a note taker in his self therapy session. The soundscape & lyrical content feel like a Real World confessional; a small room, with a camera & two stools. Every once in a while, Jito, Bro. Wize, Sean C. Johnson or Alex Faith may come into the room and inject their own perspective. There is a willingness from Wit & Dre to wholeheartedly tackle ironically & unnecessarily taboo subjects such as domestic violence, depression, suicide, manipulation & lust with a level of honesty & grace not normally seen & heard. The issue is being discussed with the listener & not preached at them. With that, other artists have stepped out & released projects with the same or an even larger level of honesty & vulnerability. I’m not at all saying Hell’s Paradise is the first project to do such a thing, but it has definitely succeeded in leading the revolution.
There are some take aways from Hell’s Paradise that are imperative for CHH to grasp, digest & incorporate into its daily mode of operation.
Collaborations – it seems that some Christian hip-hop fans would do very well in fantasy sports, because all they do is conjure up “dream collabs” that in their eyes could shake up the world as we know it. But let me let you in on a little secret about collabs. They’re not all “We Are the World”. Hearing two or more artists on a song together does not necessarily mean they would lay their lives down for each other. It does not mean that they wave the blood stained flag of Jesus in unison. It could mean that Artist A is hot & Artist B wants to capitalize off of the flame of Artist A. It could mean that Artist A & Artist B don’t like each other, but a collaboration would generate some sort of mutual benefit, such as income or favor amongst their peers & the general public . History has shown us that two artists on the same track is completely irrelevant to true unity. Canibus & LL Cool J, Keith Murray & Prodigy, Nas & Jay- Z; all examples of artists who wrote verses about each other while collaborating on the same song. If we want to be completely honest, when two or more artists collaborate, often the discussion isn’t “did the artists work together to ensure the intent of the song was accomplished” but “who had the better verse”. Whether intentional or not, collabs have the ability to create competition which can lead to a whole heap of additional issues. Now, having said that, the right collaboration is almost always a guaranteed homerun, and Hell’s Paradise is chock full of them. Instead of reaching for the obvious “relevant” artists of the time, Wit & Dre worked with people they were already in fellowship with, whether we knew who they were or not. Having that comradery outside of the booth makes working inside of one a breeze. From Jito’s incredible verse on “Don’t Do It”, to Eshon Burgundy’s narration of each episode, you see glaring examples of people accompanying & playing their role for the good of the mission & not competing for an invisible spotlight. When you work with someone that you have a relationship with, you tend to take on the burden of the mission a lot easier. You want your friend to move into their new house so you volunteer to help pack & ensure their transition is as seamless as possible. You help your kids with that science project because you want them to get an A+. If you don’t know the person & they ask you for assistance, & there’s no attempt to forge a relationship, it’s very easy for the help to “phone it in”. They could come to the table with selfish intentions, show up late, give a half-hearted effort, & not be tuned in to the focus of the overall goal. They become a drop of oil in the swimming pool.
Slow & Steady Wins the Race – Back in 2007, as a part of his “Best Rapper Alive” campaign, Lil Wayne released well over 100 songs on mixtapes. Suddenly, not only was he the best ever, he was the considered to be the hardest working man in showbiz. In true hip-hop fashion, every other artist followed suit. Prior to that, it was standard for an artist to release maybe one album a year, a few freestyles, or even a mixtape if we were lucky. Now we’re getting freestyles from rappers every other week, a mixtape a month, and two albums on the same day. “Grinding” suddenly became equivalent to “oversaturation” which also became equivalent to “quality of work”. Again, Wit & Dre go against the grain. Volume One was released in November of 2009. Episode One of Volume Two wasn’t released until July 2011, and we didn’t get all four episodes until May 2012. This move proved that when you march to the beat of God’s drum & not your own (and definitely not man’s) everything that is supposed to happen, happens at the time it’s supposed to. I think that it’s necessary that we study the moves & motives of those secular artists we so defiantly claim to stand against, with full knowledge & joy of knowing that we work with a different set of rules. Working hard, diligence, quality & good character are necessary, but “getting hot”, & “poppin’” isn’t at all relevant to what we do & should never be the intended goal. God promotes who He wants, when He wants & how He wants; & you releasing 5 albums, 10 mixtapes, 20 vlogs, 30 videos, & 40 freestyles in a year isn’t going to change His mind. Work within your resources & allow God to work within His & “watch the magic happen”.
In closing, do we consider Wit & Dre Murray trailblazers? Will we put Hell’s Paradise in a time machine to be opened in 100 years as a testament to the ways of our present day? Maybe. Should we? Absolutely.
Download the free album 'Hell's Paradise II: The Mask Parade' here