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COVER STORY

The Spirit Grooves Them

Hip-hop has infiltrated the ranks of religious music, communicating its message in a new way to a younger crowd. Traditionalists call it a disgrace, but record sales show that gospel's now reaching a wider audience than ever before.

October 04, 1998|Lynell George. | Lynell George is a Times staff writer

GOD AND SUPERMAN

There is one line that stretches far longer than Batman's. Or, for that matter, the Viper. And even, it seems, Magic Mountain's recently erected showpiece, Superman.

Just down the road from the kiddie coasters, people stand waiting for a different kind of thrill ride--for something else that will send their heart into their stomach.

They have come: Congregants with fans and tams in air-conditionless school buses. Church groups and record label brass. The converted and the curious. They've come to the park's 10th annual daylong Gospel Celebration. They have come to have "church." First, a little blues-chasing praise music with singer Fred Hammond. But mostly they have come to see the spry spirit-chaser Kirk Franklin--who, all flip and flash, is now mid-act in his bid to turn the gospel world on its head.

"Wait. Let's do this. . . . Raise your hands if you really love Jesus!" shouts the man of the hour. Franklin stomps out--boxing, swinging, arms wild. In oversized shorts, white T-shirt, black work boots, baseball cap, he is bantam-weight slight, but the voice that soars out of him is heavyweight. This is heart-in-the-throat, stomach-falling-away, joyous praise-and-testimony music.

All of it: Kirk Franklin's flourish of a signature.

Part mega-tour, part soul-winning tent show, Franklin is on a mission: To kick open the doors of the church, even if it means tearing down all the walls and relaying the foundation.

With his first album, 1993's "Kirk Franklin and the Family," selling upward of 1.4 million units, Franklin and his churchified backing group, the Family, upped the ante with its follow-up, "Watcha Lookin' 4." It sold 1.7 million. But it was 1996's "God's Property From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation," the record he made with his teen choir ensemble, that has spiked gospel music into a whole new realm by selling more than 2.5 million units.

The album features the crossover hit "Stomp," which sat on Billboard's Hot R&B Mainstream Airplay chart for 42 weeks (peaking at No. 1 for two weeks) in 1997. It also sat triumphant on Billboard's Hot 100 Airplay chart for 11 weeks in August of that same year. That success, coupled with its showings on the gospel and contemporary Christian charts, have made "God's Property From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation" the biggest-selling gospel album ever.

With heavy R&B radio airplay and MTV rotation, it's been difficult to ignore the weight and wrench of Franklin's words. He has become a crossover superstar. Even Vibe, hip-hop's perfect-bound, high-gloss bible, gave him its imprimatur by splashing him on its cover. All of this is unheard of in the gospel world.

Lines and frenzy have followed Franklin around the country. So have screaming teens. And so has stern whispered reproach from those who demand decorum. Franklin's defanged, playful borrowings--from Parliament to Grandmaster Flash to Puff Daddy--give many pause. The match of gospel with funk and rap seems too worldly, far too incongruous.

Predictably, out of all this has resurfaced that time-worn rift in the church community. Once again the wedge dividing old from young, traditionalists from futurists, has become pronounced. But Franklin appears to be surviving it all, even a freak fall off a stage in Memphis two years ago from which he was never expected to walk or talk again.

Tonight the house jumps wild. Franklin, MC-ing for the One for Eternity, ministers to the boys in the baggies and Kangols and the girls with the maraschino-hued Janet Jackson ringlets.

"Look at me! I'm a witness." Franklin moves to the lip of the stage, cradling his baseball cap in his left arm, bending his voice into a rasp of a whisper. "When you're 27 and black and . . . trying to be a husband and father, it takes a lot. A whoooole lot. You've got to say: 'Devil, get out of my home! Devil, get out of my marriage! Devil, get out of my children!' "

Praise the Lord!

"You can love your husband with a Pinto. You can love him eating government cheese sammiches! Don't trip, don't trip . . . you know what I'm talking about," he giggles, taunting in his best Chris-Rock-by-way-of-Richard-Pryor-ese. "You know . . . big hunk o' cheese, fry the bologna till it bubbles."

Amen!

Praise Jesus!

Then, as the bass rumbles up beneath:. "We gotta get our praise on before we get up on outta here! All young people who are drug-free and with Jesus, headbang for Jesus!"

Young, old, black, white, brown. Lifted. Laughing. Stomping. Shouting. Speaking in tongues.

A sanctified mosh pit.

Indeed, all rise. Let us all headbang.

HOLY GHOST PARTY

Some want to finger Franklin.

But that would be those short on memory. Others would say that the real renovator was John P. Kee, who in the late '80s tinkered with urban contemporary rhythms and then set them against traditional church chordal structure.

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