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Christians on the Edge

Valley artists push mainstream music into hip-hop territory.


With limited resources and few venues, Christian musicians in the San Fernando Valley are creating relatively edgy sounds outside the Nashville mainstream that they say have a better chance of reaching young fans both in and outside the church.

The Valley's artists and executives see themselves expanding boundaries for the genre.

"You look at Nashville--it's more concerned about looking at marketing reports and forecasting how they can piggyback on whatever's going on in the mainstream," said Scott Blackwell, founder of North Hollywood's N-Soul Records, and current owner of MYX Records. "We need to not be afraid to push the envelopes and make good art, period."

Today's Christian music incorporates alternative and hip-hop, movements that have been linked at times to violence and misogyny. Christian performers even hold raves--frenzied techno dance parties--in churches.

Conservative Christian music has moved in more progressive directions in recent years, a practice widely criticized, even within its own ranks, for simply mimicking trends in the secular music world.

The Valley's Christian musicians say they want to make a difference in their culture, yet they are struggling to make a difference in their community. Although living in the entertainment industry's backyard, they are practically invisible to top marketers in the music business.

"In a city that's so entertainment-oriented you would think there would be a strong Christian community for musicians, but there's not," said Lisa Arpino, a Sherman Oaks musician who is half of the alt-pop act Twist of Faith. (Monica Lee is the other half.) "I have yet to see anybody that's thriving," Arpino added.

That may not be entirely true. Andrae Crouch, a gospel music bellwether with six Grammys, is a fixture at Pacoima's Christ Memorial Church. And World Wide Message Tribe, a British techno group that emerged on a Warner Bros. Christian label in 1997, was originally signed through North Hollywood's N-Soul.

But they represent the minority as the community attempts to break out of chains imposed by 818's limited infrastructure. While the area is densely populated with recording studios, Christian artists have few places, outside churches, to play live.

The 180 Cafe at the corner of Vineland Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, affiliated with In His Presence Church, provides one fairly constant outlet, and a number of congregations, including the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, hold raves where kids can dance to techno in a safe environment.

Even fewer possibilities exist for gospel music, said record producer Kenny Harris, who recorded the new Spiritual Pieces album "Soul Food" in North Hollywood.

"On the gospel side, if there were more African American churches in the Valley, you would have a serious scene," he said.


Orange County is the acknowledged leader of the Southern California Christian music scene. Home to successful acts Crystal Lewis and the Supertones, Orange County is also where Diamante, an independent distribution company, provides a vehicle to reach the Christian marketplace for hundreds of struggling artists.

Valley artists, however, said they believe they are on their way up, adding an edge that Nashville misses.

MYX Records' Blackwell is a former New York club deejay who worked at the Palladium in Hollywood and produced successful 1980s re-mixes for Debbie Gibson, ZZ Top and Tommy Page. He was making tons of money but was totally miserable, he said.

"I hated my life, and wasn't feeling fulfilled in anything I was doing," he said.

Micah Records, a small independent label that handles alternative and dance music, is based in Northridge, where the company is surrounded by porn wholesalers, said owner Michael Ross.

Twist of Faith's Lee spent more than five years in publicity at Interscope Records, which required her to represent such controversial music figures as Nine Inch Nails, Dr. Dre and Marilyn Manson.

"My soul felt very suppressed," Lee said. "It got worse the bigger the label got, and they just cared about money and not the content. The language, the disrespect of women was dark, but the guys in charge didn't care."


Not that artists in the Valley are opposed to using the secular industry to distribute their music. The Spiritual Pieces album landed on Tommy Boy, a New York-based dance label that positions the group for nontraditional marketing.

The music "needs to get into those places where normal gospel labels wouldn't normally get," said producer Harris. "Most of them are limited to the church houses. Tommy Boy will get it to urban radio, get it to the clubs."

Certainly there are other examples of Christian and gospel industries making headway in the secular market. Acts such as Kirk Franklin, Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay and Amy Grant are among several who have stepped into the mainstream.

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