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POP MUSIC

Finding the Soul of Music

Innovative Kirk Franklin may sing gospel, but after several crossover successes he's not just preaching to the choir.

July 07, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker is a Times staff writer

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, a young man steps from a limousine and heads for the building in Hollywood where he'll spread the word of the Lord to an eager gathering.

But Kirk Franklin isn't going to church. The gospel music sensation is standing outside a Paramount Studios sound stage where he'll soon make his first appearance on "Soul Train."

To church elders, it might look like enemy territory. The syndicated show, the "American Bandstand" of R&B music for a quarter-century, is as well known for its sexy dancers as it is for its star-making power.

Franklin, however, says he feels at home in the secular music world, where his gospel recordings get airplay on the same radio stations that play R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige.

"Kirk Franklin and the Family," his 1994 debut album on Gospo Centric Records, has sold nearly 1.3 million copies. It's the first formal gospel record to crack Billboard magazine's R&B Top 10 since Aretha Franklin's "Amazing Grace" in 1972. His follow-up, "Whatcha Lookin' 4," entered the pop charts in May at No. 23.

Franklin, 26, is so hot that Interscope Records, the home of such successful and controversial acts as Nine Inch Nails and Dr. Dre, recently signed a production deal with B-Rite Records, a new label started by Gospo Centric founder Vicki Mack-Lataillade and her husband, Claude. Franklin, who will continue to record for EMI-distributed Gospo Centric, has a production deal through the new company.

"We think [Franklin] is an innovative artist with a long career ahead of him," says Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine. "He's going to create a lot of avenues for artists in the genre that they don't have right now. I think the spirit of gospel will expand and be an even more important factor in the pop world."

"Soul Train's" creator and executive producer, Don Cornelius, agrees that Franklin is a genre-crossing artist with the potential for creative longevity. "Kirk has a special quality and is definitely a star," he says. "He will be for '90s gospel what the Winans Family was for the 80s."

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Amid such praise, Franklin tries to keep his sudden emergence in perspective.

"I'm not getting caught up in what the [people] are saying," the Fort Worth native says with a slight Southern drawl. "If you believe your own hype, that's the first step toward failure.

"My message is simple and plain. I'm trying to change the way people look at gospel music. It's not corny, and it's not hokey. We're not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It's not about that anymore, kid."

Dressed in a bright Tommy Hilfiger sailing jacket, sparkling new Nikes and designer jeans, Franklin could easily be mistaken for a member of one of the hip-hop crews that frequent the show. But his idea of what "keeping it real" means differs greatly from the viewpoints of hard-core rappers, with their gritty tales laced with marijuana and gun smoke.

"For all the hustlers and pimps, 'reality' means expressing the street life," says Franklin, speaking softly as he sits on a bench and toys with the brim of his baseball hat.

"My 'real' is Jesus Christ," he says with the stern demeanor many urban artists use when expressing allegiance to their neighborhoods. "I mean that with all my heart and soul, and that's not changing for anything."

Moments later, while selecting a suit for his performance, Franklin talks about singing before thousands of young fans at a New Jersey theme park the night before. To capture the attention of the skeptics, he and the band will do versions of current hits--adding their own Christian interpretations.

Thus, the chorus of Busta Rhymes' popular "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" became "When the Holy Spirit comes, you know it comes correct. . . . Woo hah!! It gots you all in check!"

"They were caught off guard and started going crazy when we did that," he says with a laugh. Franklin, who sometimes gets mobbed by his fans, joked that he was tempted to do a stage dive and be carried over the crowd.

"The girls scream, 'We love you,' but I say, 'Jesus loves you more, baby,' " Franklin says with a wink.

Label CEO Vicki Mack-Lataillade says she doesn't feel that reaching out to a secular audience compromises the integrity of gospel music.

"We're on a mission, and I can't think of too many shows we wouldn't appear on," she says. "We want to show people that there's another way to go with the music. When Kirk's music stops, people don't feel violent, and today that's worth something."

Franklin finds that mixing the sound of his energetic live performances with the music of contemporary pop hits helps him dissuade his audience from the idea that being religious is "soft" or "passive."

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