Throwing Down Love
Round Rock Christian Hip-Hop Label Grapetree Records
Thanks to the recent success of P.O.D. and the continuing crossover crusades of God-fearing acts like Kirk Franklin, Sixpence None the Richer, and DC Talk, Christian music seems to be enjoying its best mainstream visibility yet. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, music made specifically by or for Christians represents an $863 million market, accounting for one out of every 15 CD sales.
Traditionally, 90% of the industry's power players call Nashville home. And yet, just like with Austin's country contingent, there's a handful of legitimate players thriving on fringes a lot closer to home. Grapetree's Knolly Williams has been using gangsta rap to deliver a positive Christian message since 1993. Today, his Round Rock-based label accounts for 85% of the Christian rap market.
On the publishing side, Doug Van Pelt has cornered his market too -- next to the Bible, his HM magazine is Christian rock's longest-running must-read. And then there's the up-and-coming Salvador, a young Latin rock outfit whose penchant for praise, worship, and celebration grew out of an Austin church.
All three sets of Austinites create, cover, and market to a niche audience while carefully riding the line between not just art and commerce, but art, commerce, and faith. And while their scene may not be yours, it's hard to deny that it's interesting -- after all, there's three stories here, and not one of them uses the phrase "after their major-label deal imploded."
"Grapetree Records is made up of former dope dealers, gangstas, hustlers, and thugs who have turned away from their lives of crime and now slang the legal dope we all know and love -- rap. No Hype. No Profanity. Just hard street music with phat beats and tight flows."
Those 48 words go a long way toward explaining Grapetree's mission, but what the Billboard ad still only hints at is what truly distinguishes Grapetree: its official ministry statement "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, through various forms of urban art" and the slogan that graces each back cover of the 60 albums released by "The World's #1 Christian Rap Label."
With sales now topping one million albums and a recent deal with EMI Music's Christian distribution operation, Grapetree Records may also be Central Texas' No. 1 label, period. Unlike the dozens of Austin-area indies that have folded, or the handful barely hanging on, Grapetree is not only profitable, but growing rapidly. The label's 1998 reported sales topped $2 million.
While its bestselling releases to date have been the series of Heaven's Hip-Hop and Muzik to Ride compilations -- each selling in the 10,000-30,000-unit range -- Grapetree president and CEO Knolly Williams says EMI's Chordant Distribution arm hopes to quadruple those sales in 2000 by gaining Grapetree access to giant retail accounts like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Camelot, and Target. From an unlikely base of operations off State Highway 79 in Round Rock featuring livestock and a giant two-story house, a set of small offices, and a brand-new recording studio, Grapetree has risen to represent an estimated 85% of the Christian hip-hop market.
Grapetree's success has already encouraged traditional Christian labels like Squint, Essential, and Tooth & Nail to step up their urban efforts, but when Williams -- himself an ex-hustler and drug peddler -- launched Grapetree in 1993, Christian hip-hop didn't even register as a fringe or niche market.
"I didn't do enough homework," says Williams, who's traded in his doo-rags and Nikes for cowboy garb. "If I had, I would have never started. I thought there was a decent infrastructure. I knew there was a Christian market, I just didn't realize there weren't many stores willing to stock the product or any magazines which promoted it."
To that end, Williams' biggest ongoing challenge has been in creating a profile for Christian hip-hop and an infrastructure at retail, radio, and the press to capitalize on it. If that attention brings more competitors, so be it. In fact, he believes owning so much of the marketplace isn't actually healthy. Unlike mainstream rap, where some 200 titles are advertised heavily each month and theoretically pull people into record stores, Grapetree's campaigns must pull people toward Christian record retailers almost single-handedly.
"Since I can't piggyback on anybody else's campaign, it takes a lot of promotion to convince someone to head to a record store and buy my records," says Williams. "Some people say the best thing that happened to Coke was Pepsi in that it brought more people to the cola market. And I'm already finding that the more Christian hip-hop that comes out elsewhere, the better. I'd rather have 50% of a huge market than 85% of a growing market that's not quite there yet."
If Christian rap isn't quite there yet, it's mostly because many record buyers still don't know what to make of the concept itself. As Grapetree's advertising campaigns promise, each of the label's eight rap artists have colorful pasts -- many have had brushes with the law and all rap about both their days as criminals and their new Christian lifestyles. According to Williams, Grapetree's credibility with both hip-hop and Christian markets stems from a simple prerequisite: Grapetree artists must be "true to the streets, true to the Lord."
Musically, Grapetree's artists mirror the general hip-hop market, typically falling into place within the genre's three major movements -- West Coast, Southern, and East Coast. And while sloppy and/or low-budget production originally marred Christian rap's chances at a major breakthrough, Grapetree's releases -- recorded at the label's new Round Rock studio mostly with house producer Blaq Gold -- sound like their major-label mainstream counterparts. Primarily, the differences between Grapetree and Cash Money or No Limit are lyrical and philosophical.
"We make gangsta-style records without the gangsta philosophy," Williams says. "It's not all music about getting saved or preaching the gospel. It's real music from a Christian perspective, without the cursing and hateful themes. We believe it's an uplifiting alternative."
Williams also believes it's no mistake he's become recognized as Christian hip-hop's pioneer and highest-profile crusader. He genuinely believes God himself brought him the idea in 1988 and eventually gave him the tools to make it a reality. Only the first time God spoke to him about Grapetree, says Williams, he wasn't prepared to listen.
"I remember that the very day I fully committed myself to the Lord, I realized I'd have to give up rap," he says. "It was a big decision for me, filled with lots of inner debate. And right when I decided that the Lord was more important, I felt him saying, 'Now I'll give it back to you. But use it for me.'
"I didn't fully receive that message. I thought it couldn't be Him. I had already given hip-hop up and wasn't going to go back."
Williams says his reluctance to accept the message stemmed from the fact that hip-hop ambitions had always served as a major catalyst for his life of crime. Like so many other young rappers, Williams discovered hip-hop at age 13 when he was first introduced to Run-D.M.C. He became a turntablist at 14, and by the time he started rhyming at 16, he was eyeing rap as a way out of the tough projects of his native Los Angeles.
With then-local acts like N.W.A., Eazy-E, and Ice-T as his role models, Williams began moving toward gangsta rap, adopting both the musical stylings and the lifestyle he heard about on album and saw outside his front door. Although he was never affiliated with a gang, Williams was eventually tossed out of high school after dealing drugs on campus. Charged with four felony counts that landed him in juvenile detention for six weeks, the teenager found himself in a place where other detainees convinced him it was more profitable to sell crack than marijuana.
"Inside juvenile hall, you learn all these new methods of making money," explains Williams. "They were supposedly making me a better dealer, but I wasn't smart enough to realize that the guy who's in there teaching you the game is incarcerated too. What could he teach me?"
Once released, Williams began selling crack full time, trading rocks for his rent and pocketing $500-$700 a night. When he wasn't dealing, he was working on demos with local MC crews and driving his '64 Impala -- a car he bought because Eazy-E drove one. After several of his friends were arrested and he found himself outrunning the Los Angeles Police Department's infamous helicopter stings more and more, Williams began having second thoughts.
"I called myself an independent gangsta and made money fast and easy," he recalls. "But there was still a lot of stress -- friends getting arrested, getting shot, and getting hooked on drugs. Little by little, I realized this isn't what I wanted for my life."
Williams says a nagging feeling he was going to die on the streets pushed him toward the Bible. His parents had taken him to church as a child, but the House of God and the hood weren't compatible.
"There was one church me and my homies would go into just to laugh," he says. "We'd get kicked out of their night services for being rowdy and smoking weed. We didn't take it seriously at all."
At 18, Williams decided to commit himself to God; his first baby step was a decision to only sell marijuana, letting his crack business fall by the wayside.
"It was a gradual commitment, but the more I read, the more I knew I needed to commit further," says Williams, who says he found a turning point in the words of James 15:5.
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
"Once I read that, I saw that I wasn't really accomplishing anything," acknowledges Williams. "I felt like I was going to die and was spending more money than I was making. I knew then I had to leave this lifestyle."
In 1989, Williams was anxious enough to avoid the temptations of Los Angeles to accept an offer to spend a summer in Austin working for his uncle. Although he'd given up his dreams of rap stardom as part of his commitment to Christianity, he allowed himself to write verses he deemed "poetry" but suspiciously resembled lyrics. According to Williams, the path toward founding a Christian rap label followed God's giving him the name "Grapetree." Biblically speaking, Williams says the name represents a combination of people that were about to be destroyed (grapes) and the fully restored state of man in Christ (trees).
"It also meant to me that if God is the creator and created millions of different kinds of trees, then perhaps there's also more than one kind of music that could be uplifting," he posits.
At the time, there were but a handful of Christian rap artists. Williams discovered he enjoyed harder-edged groups like P.I.D. (Preachers in Disguise) and S.F.C (Soldiers For Christ), but also knew he didn't want to be anything like the genre's sole superstar, Michael Peace.
"Peace was wack," says Williams. "For a while, he was the only guy out there. And for guys that were used to Eric B & Rakim or Ice-T, a guy like Michael Peace and his corny raps about the Bible weren't cool at all."
After getting his GED, starting college, and working a series of Austin-area graphic design and retail management jobs, Williams decided to launch Grapetree in 1993 with his first release as Rubadub, Reflections of an Ex-Criminal. His second release, Mind of a Gangsta, wound up setting the tone for the upstart company.
"I had a youth pastor tell me, 'Don't deny the past. The same zeal you sold dope with is the same zeal you should use with the Lord,'" remembers Williams. "From there, I realized how important it would be to keep the mind of a gangsta without being a gangsta. It wasn't long before I realized that what I learned about inventory, distribution, and profit margins as a dealer, I could also apply to the label."
By 1995, Williams brought his wife onboard full time and quickly began amassing a staff for not just the label, but also Heaven's Hip-Hop, the magazine he launched two years earlier to promote Christian rap. Although Williams quickly built the magazine's subscription base up to nearly 20,000 readers, he closed its production in 1996 to better concentrate on the label's efforts.
By then, Williams had signed a distribution deal with Diamante Music Group, a mid-size distributor that handled retail accounts for more than 40 Christian indies. Three years later, Grapetree stood as the coalition's bestselling label, with each Grapetree release averaging 10,000-25,000 units. At that point, Grapetree was releasing as many as 30 albums a year. To Williams' surprise, finding the label's talent wasn't difficult; Grapetree artists routinely found other MCs disenfranchised by street life on the road and turned them on to Williams.
"A lot of the mainstream artists in rap today came out of a church background," he says. "Snoop did his first raps in church, and most urban singers have a gospel background. Every day, there are people that came out of a street lifestyle and decide to do exactly what I did -- commit myself to the Lord. I'm not an anomaly; I was just the only one dumb enough to start something like this."
Last year, Williams wasn't exactly looking dumb. Based on his sales record with Diamante, Grapetree inked a deal with EMI's Sonic Fuel -- a small offshoot of EMI Distribution that has fewer reps than EMI proper, but access to larger accounts than Diamante. After exceeding 100% of its Sonic Fuel sales goal, Grapetree's 2000 product line was assigned to EMI/Chordant.
The move came with strings attached, however; in order to better concentrate on what EMI believed were the label's best potential sellers, Grapetree was asked to cut 60% of its roster. Today, the label's roster has eight rap artists, two urban singers, a reggae act, and a pop outfit. Williams says the downsizing was difficult, but necessary.
"It was important that we really focus on the artists EMI believed they could make a difference with," he says. "We're looking to make a much bigger impact on the mainstream market, and that takes making a bigger commitment to each artist."
That Grapetree is looking to break into the mainstream market is in itself the key factor separating the label from most Christian music imprints. With the exception of a handful of artists like Amy Grant, Kirk Franklin, and most recently P.O.D., most Christian labels and artists seem perfectly happy preaching to the converted, primarily playing churches and selling records through Christian bookstores.
But partially because he's found reluctance from many churches to promote what still sounds like gangsta rap, Williams has begun looking for mainstream acceptance. Critics could point to the fact that not every song on every Grapetree record contains an outright reference to Jesus or Christianity as proof he's watering down the message, but Williams says it's mostly because he wouldn't buy preachy rap himself.
"Nobody likes to be preached to," he says. "Basically, to preach is to say, 'You're wrong, I'm right.' And why would I want to spend $18.50 to have somebody tell me I'm wrong? But if I think that an album could be uplifiting or make me feel better about myself, that could be a reason to spend that money."
Figuring out just which fans of mainstream rap might be open to the idea of Christian rap has become Grapetree's highest priority. In addition to being Christian and fans of rap music, potential Grapetree consumers need to be at a point in their life where sexually explicit or violent hardcore rap has lost its punch. They may still enjoy the music themselves, but perhaps they've got children who don't need to be exposed to the lyrics or religious values that they can't make jibe with the unmitigated raunch of Eminem or Lil' Kim.
"It's still going to be a niche market," admits Williams, "but out of the 100 million rap albums sold this year, if I could find the 1% that want something different -- something with clean lyrics, tight beats, and uplifting messages -- then I've sold another million records."
Williams says he's set what he believes to be a conservative goal of eventually interesting 5-10% of hip-hop fans in Grapetree product, but that because that the label's market share is still so large, they have to market to every hip-hop fan anyway. Even if the radio shows they sponsor, the 30,000 monthly hits to grapetreerecords.com, the Source ads they place, the retail listening-booth space they secure, and the money they spend maintaining street-marketing teams don't impact that mainstream, it still puts Grapetree ahead of its Christian hip-hop competition.
"We've been able to survive and thrive off a small, but unbelievably loyal, fanbase," says Williams. "Imagine if we could get to a crowd of 100 DMX fans and ask how many would love it if DMX rapped about more uplifiting themes. How many would buy a clean version? How many are Christians? How many would buy a similar artist with the same beat, same delivery, energy, and packaging? I believe there's five fans there, even after we've asked those hard questions. We could do very, very well with interest from only 5% of the pie."
In the short term, Williams believes he has his best mainstream contender already in place; rapper D.C.P. releases his third album, Our Time to Shine, later this month. In a cross-promotional effort, the album features cameos from two of the label's other biggest stars, L.G. Wise and Lil' Raskull.
Better yet, the latter artist will take live Christian hip-hop a step further later this month when he opens select dates for Snoop Dogg. For Williams, the EMI deal and the prospects of a national breakthrough mean he's ready to look for investors. He'll need more capital to go ahead with plans to open urban soul and Latin divisions, and already he's finding potential players far more interested in the idea of a Christian rap indie than the banks that laughed at him just seven or eight years ago.
"We need somebody to come in and fuel the growth," explains Williams. "In 1998, Cash Money and Grapetree had the same sales. Now, with major distribution and some $30 million dollars from Universal, they've been able to do the kind of marketing and promotion that's led to multiplatinum records. We could be there too.
"I'm raising up an army of soldiers that can come in and go toe-to-toe with whatever's out there, in the studio and onstage. It's going to take somebody that saddles up, puts on the war gear, and throws down love, not hate.
"That's us, and the potential is just tremendous."