NEW YORK — – It's hard to imagine a church embracing booming rap music, but some pastors are slowly coming around.
That's because Christianity is getting some new blood from some rather unlikely sources.
Rapper M.C. Hammer (best known for turning a sample from funkmaster Rick James into top-selling hit "U Can't Touch This") and baby-faced Puffy Combs cohort Mase, who left the Bad Boy spotlight in April of last year, are among a growing contingent of rappers who have left the pimpin' lifestyle behind to "follow God."
Mase now lives in Atlanta, where he's now known as Minister Mason Betha. He recently told a local newspaper, "I was telling guys things like, 'If you don't have sex with at least five women a day, you're nobody.' Leading millions of people astray. Imagine how much more I can have doing the right thing, and serving God?"
And Joseph "Run" Simmons, of seminal '80s duo Run-D.M.C.? That's Reverend Run to you: He's the author of "spiritual memoir" It's Like That, released by St. Martins Press last August.
House Party's Christopher Martin, the latter half of early '90s rap duo Kid N' Play, has also devoted himself to the gospel. He just finished directing a "Christian docudrama," due in theaters in February called Last Call, and has a Christian entertainment company called HP4. "Everything about being Play was a façade, about being a slave to the opinions and accolades of others," he says now.
Losing Success, Finding God
Until recently, if you were a God-fearing citizen looking for something to groove to, you had to satisfy yourself with Jars of Clay or Kirk Franklin. But some rappers have decided to fight vice with verse.
Fortunately for the spiritual rap lovers out there, a few artists from back in the day fell on hard times — and then fell back on religion, reinventing themselves as preachers for the millennium. Hammer, who became such a huge crossover artist in the early '90s that he had his own cartoon, ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1996 and began focusing on the spiritual side of life.
He now works on projects ranging from acting appearances (he leaves for Las Vegas next month to appear in music industry thriller Deadly Rhapsody) to televangelism on cable's Trinity Broadcast Network to his first album since 1994, the secular, dance-oriented Code of Asia: Two Thirds of the World.
But Hammer points out that even his earlier albums each featured gospel-oriented songs (such as 1991's "Pray"). "I'm on TV every week preaching right now," he tells FOXNews.com. "It's always been more important to me: the letter, the Word itself. Music is secondary to the actual word of God. So I like to deal with issues beyond music from a speaking standpoint."
Hammer appears on and directs the video for the first single ("Runnin'") from Christian rapper Prime Minister, who released the CD Inside Out last month through EMI and Round Rock, Tx.-based Christian music label Grapetree Records.
From Jail to Jesus
Based in Rockford, Ill., Prime Minister performed as Sir Fish in the late '80s, opening for acts including Ice Cube and De La Soul. It wasn't until he was thrown in jail that he started to change his tune. "When I got locked up for attempted murder, I cried like a baby just like everyone else," he laughs. "...It's not nothin' to glorify, it's not nothing to be proud of, it's a bad situation."
After his release from jail, the rapper's wife convinced him to try doing a Christian rap song. His first attempt, "Holy Spirit," got a huge reception at his church and dispelled his reservations about the format. "I was told [before] by older and more traditional people that rap was wrong," he says. "I realized — just by reading the Bible, basically — that God created all things ... including rap."
Since signing with Grapetree in 1997, he's put out six albums. Though Grapetree's new distribution deal with EMI means a wider reach for its artists, Prime Minister knows Christian rap has some hurdles to clear. "I have a huge commercial appeal. It's just, people don't know I exist yet. Radio stations aren't open to playing us because of our beliefs ... when we say that name Jesus, people start to get shaky," he admits.
But Christopher Martin thinks every new music artist suffers the same challenges. "Kid and I went through ... years of trying to make it happen," he points out. "So, like it says in the Bible, it'll rain on the just and the unjust alike."
Gangstaz Preach the Gospel
Interscope Records' Gospel Gangstaz come from a more hardcore background. The group formed when two ex-Bloods, Mr. Solo and Chille' Baby, befriended an ex-Crip, Tik Tokk, in church. "We knew we were mortal enemies, but we didn't want the streets anymore," says Solo. "We ended up being prayer partners."
The L.A.-based trio, which was nominated for a Grammy in the Christian rock category this year, is currently working on an album and just returned from shows in England. Neither the Gospel Gangstaz nor Prime Minister claim to have any beef with rappers like Jay-Z or Dr. Dre and their big pimpin' peers; they just want to offer an alternative.
"I just rap about the real situations that arise," Prime Minister says. "I rap about the actions plus the consequences. ...Of course there are people shooting in my neighborhood. I could rap about that all day long. But that won't solve nothing."