With new music and an upcoming major tour, Role Model Rocords’ Julien, DJ Lagit and Spoken are taking North America by storm.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Julien, DJ Lagit and Spoken of Role Model Records to talk about the state of Christian hip-hop in Canada, hip-hop’s relationship with the local church, and their upcoming North American tour. After conducting this interview, one thing is for sure– these guys are some of Canada’s most promising musical exports, secular or sacred.
Kevin: So what’s behind the name Role Model Records? If anyone can speak to what is Role Model Records about?
Spoken: 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Paul says be ye followers or imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ. So really that’s our MO. That’s our whole heart. We know that our culture and society is not suffering from a lack of role models but suffering from a lack of good role models. Everybody, regardless of who you are, or what sphere of society you’re in, you are both a role model and you have a role model. A role model is a person who you are seeking out and fashioning your life after them. Everyone has one; whether good or bad, whether it’s a rapper, politician or your parent or whoever it is. Paul calls Christians to live in such a way that they can say listen I may not have it all together, I may not be perfect at least follow me and how I’m striving to live more like Jesus. So we took these things and realized that this is a very important message and the type of message that people need.
Kevin: Perhaps, each of you could speak to who are your role models? Who are those people that inspire you professionally or personally?
Lagit: Being a DJ, coming from Toronto, I would say Starting from Scratch, definitely inspired me. Coming from Toronto and going to his jams and stuff like that. DJ Jazzy Jeff, turntablism and those aspects and musically, growing up I listened to a lot of Bob Marley but now, since coming to the faith and stuff I still listen to a little Bob Marley here and there but honestly, these two guys right here. I’ve had the pleasure to record with them on the big album we did called Glasshouse which was a label project and man we had sleepovers, the fellowship, the creative process- going to bed at four o’clock in the morning and having to go to work the next day, recording in the summer time and I had no A/C in the studio and just from being a part of it and witnessing how these guys work and seeing their heart is my inspiration and they’re spiritual. It’s not just music for these guys, you know they really live it so being a witness to that and I’m not just saying that cause they’re part of my team, I’m really inspired by these guys musically.
Julien: My inspiration really comes from a lot of eccentric sounds. When it comes to music and production, I listen to sounds that you don’t normally hear in a rap song. So in order to find those sounds, I’ll find myself listening to a lot of alternative rock and Indie rock. Main artists that inspired me as I grew up, a lot of Biggie Smalls and Tupac- I was listening to all of that. Really for me, when I look back on it, I was not into the lifestyle they were talking about but as I’ve become an adult, I look back on it and I think what influenced me was the way they delivered their lyrical scheme, so the way they delivered their rhymes- the versatility in it. There’s always something you can take away from music you just have to make sure that as a grown man you filter it as much as possible. Not necessarily just as a grown man but as a child of God. You know I want to stay creative, I want to stay in the stream of making good music, so I try to be open to what’s new, what’s hot. There’s always an intention to why we listen to what we listen to. So now you’ll catch me listening to a lot of bands and composers. Bands such as Tokyo Police Club and Arkellz, like all these guys like Hans Zimmer or a good motion picture sound track like Gladiator. Like a lot of that stuff inspires me, it’s real cool, it’s real dope.
Spoken: Cher…naw I’m playing. When it comes to life and manhood, I get inspiration from my dudes so Julien, Lagit, Sola, you know these are men who surround me. I’m challenged by different aspects of their lives, being a loyal brother, a father or being a responsible man. Fortunately I have a great role model in my life, a man who I’ve seen persevere through all types of stuff but never wavered in his love for Jesus is my dad- huge, huge influence to me. Musically, I listen to both Christian and mainstream. In the Christian arena, obviously you’ve got some main hip hop artists- Da Truth was one of my major influences when I first started, Crae [Lecrae]of course is a big influence, in terms of his performance chops and how to put it together. In the mainstream, I’m happy that I think lyricism is back in the mainstream. Much of what Julien said, you reject a lot of the world’s views but I still appreciate the skill that a lot of these guys have. I get a lot of how to write and craft stories from Kendrick. I learn how to be a tactician in terms of just cutting up a verse from J Cole and I learn a lot how to write really good songs that capture the human emotion from someone like Drake. Kanye’s amazing on the production tip and then also there’s non hip hop sources, like I’m a huge Sade fan…(laughter and over talk from crew) and I listen to Coldplay.
Kevin: You guys are mentioning a lot of Christian and main stream artists that your influenced by. Right now in Christian music there’s this trend of Christian artists getting into the main stream. Looking at like Lecrae is on BET and MTV and even looking at someone like a Mali Music who’s starting to venture a little bit towards a more of a main stream secular audience. You guys within your art form, do you want to kind of venture into that arena the mainstream?
Julien: The thing is, is it’s not really a challenge, if we look at the market right now, we can tell that there’s an actual need for music that we make. People are craving for that kind of music because you almost can find that a lot of music that is put out there, the topics can be repetitive just done in a different format and done by a different name. There are artists out there that are doing music in the way they do music but when you have like the names that you said like the Lecrae and the Mali Music and you listen to some of Mali Music’s recent songs, he has a very peaceful, hopeful message that when you do listen to it he does point to the truth which he stands by, if I’m not mistaken. I can see that the music industry on a whole, that there’s a pocket market that’s growing right now, well it’s not quite small cause you have artists doing very well, selling out shows but there’s a market that’s growing where they want a different style of music that we are presenting and it’s our responsibility, so I wouldn’t call it a challenge but a responsibility to make sure we stay true to our content.
Kevin: To go in a different direction: A few of you guys have had the opportunity to be at South by Southwest , one of the biggest music festivals in the world. What was the experience? I know Julien you were there. What was the experience like being at South by Southwest? Who were you able to interact with?
Julien: The experience was amazing. It was my first time there and just given the work we’ve been putting in as a label, and Spoken as the first artist on the label, he went to South by Southwest the year before I went, and we were beginning to write on the label which is the reason they chose us to go down, they chose Spoken to go down as an official artist. Spoken wasn’t able to go and so I went and was an official artist. The access you get and the way they take care of you as an artist down there. I was able to meet a lot of artists and I was able to connect with the guys from Collision Records, Christon Gray, and I got to conversate with Da Truth and hear his heart. We performed in a venue full of main stream people that don’t listen to our music but by the end of the night were rocking to what we had to offer so it was nice to see that being accepted. We really had a good time. Definitely I won’t forget it.
Kevin: My next question, some of the work that you guys have come out with lately, Julien you had the Session and Spoken you had Smoke and DJ Lagit, you had is it Back to School? What’s the creative process you go through to put out something like this?
Lagit: Me personally it all starts with prayer. Cliché or not, it starts with prayer. The production is basically trust not in your own understanding but to acknowledge the Lord and he’ll direct your path, Proverbs 3:5-6, but I live by that and I see the fruit of it and from there I love to dance and I think as a DJ what can I play that can make people dance, have a good time, in their car, on the way to school, whatever the case may be and of course it has to be hot! It has to be. I hear the stigma that Christ centered music is “wack” and my whole thing is I like to tell people like for example, people at my work “go online I got a mix tape” I don’t say my name, I’m a Christian or “Christian DJ” I just let people know I’m a DJ and they go on line they listen to it and they say “I didn’t know you were spiritual, I didn’t know you were into that kind of music” and then they’re shocked because it’s quality. It’s quality. Quality, quality, quality because it is a witnessing tool being used to be able to print the cds. For example summertime, my desire is to print a whole bunch of CDs and go down to Caribana and hand it out. Have a nice cover design, make sure the package is right and at the end of the day it’s planting seeds in these people’s lives and it’s opening them up to this type of music that we do that glorifies Jesus Christ. Definitely quality.
Kevin: My next question is about the state of Christian Hip-Hop in Canada. We’ve had the opportunity to interview a few other Christian artists here in Canada, what’s it like when it comes to being able to do your art especially as a Christian artist. We know that in the States there’s a bit more of a market, what is it like being a Christian artist in Canada?
Spoken: It’s a challenge to be honest. Let’s put it this way. The market is not that big, there is some breadth to it but it’s not that big. I don’t want to sound bitter but there is still very much a caste system. It can be argued that the same caste system exists in the U.S. where rappers are still seen as the outsiders as the in significants at the table. And an argument can be made that that is still the case in the US as well but that said there’s still more of an embrace for what we do in the U.S. market so more people embrace it. Yes it’s still a bit of an uphill battle in the U.S. but there’s still more acceptance than here in the broader Christian music scene and it’s also a bigger market. In Canada, we find that we’re still marginalized and not taken seriously even though the music is good and palatable for a lot of the people, it seems that the powers that be still don’t take us seriously so to give an example they’ll invite us over in church culture and they’ll have a bunch of worship singers, they’ll have singers but they’ll invite the rappers for the youth because the youth in church like the rappers. So in order to engage with the youth, the younger ones, they’ll invite us but they won’t give us the same respect or the same benefits they’ll give other singers. They have no problem paying for the singers but when it comes to the rappers, oh it’s an opportunity for you. It’s a marketing thing but in my head I’m like you called me, I don’t need exposure, I have that. There’s still a bit of a disconnect between a lot of the churches. I don’t know if it’s a mentality thing but it’s challenging. I think there are people who are getting to a high level who are opening doors for us. It’s just the reality that once Uncle Sam gives you the stamp of approval, saying he’s one of us. It’s interesting. We’re getting a lot more respect because we’re politicking with certain individuals but it’s still an up hill battle but you begin to see that change in the long run even if we’re the ones who the Lord uses to sort of help change that mindset. It’s challenging but it’s not totally discouraging cause it’s good to see that progress is being made. Kevin: Is there a stigma at all with you guys being Canadian? Do people think automatically “you’re wack”. Do you have to work twice as hard because you’re from Canada? Spoken: In a sense it is. Today we still feel like the outsiders because out of sight, out of mind. The US is where it’s popping. If you live in the U.S., everything is in the U.S.- there’s a conference here, there’s a conference there. It’s much easier to move when you’re in the U.S. but being in Canada not only are you physically separated, it’s also more expensive to travel to the U.S. Not to mention going through the right channels wanting to do things legally so it’s a little more cumbersome. I think it’s a double edged sword. On one hand, oh there’s a Canadian kid- Drake is Canadian and he’s doing good music and there’s a mystery and curiosity that people will have about us just because we’re not American but at the same time, there’s also been a negative stigma so it’s something we sort of play to our advantage. So there is a question of Canadians “Oh I didn’t even know they did hip hop” and then we melt their face off with a good song and good performance and they’re like wow, this is good this is unique cause we don’t sound like Americans to a degree. Now we do feel like the outsiders still and slowly our name is percolating and you’re knowing us more and all the major guys they know who we are, that’s the truth of the matter but in many ways we’re still the outsiders because you’re not hitting us up on a BET. It is more challenging being an outsider but hey the Lord is being faithful so we just continue to melt faces.
Kevin: Now for the tour, there’s a bit of a youth component. You’re inviting at-risk youth to somehow participate in the tour. Can you explain what that part is about?
Spoken: That’s really Sola’s baby, he’s the head of the label. From day one, when the label first started, he’s always been intentional want about reaching at-risk youth cause that’s what he was. He has a passion for helping juveniles cause fortunately God forgives but the system doesn’t. That’s just the reality of the matter. So he has a heart to really rehabilitate inner city youth so what that is getting them out of the environment, provided that they can go across the border, getting them out of the immediate environment; having them experience something else. And really just open up their minds because a lot of the people in the inner city, the problem is exposure: all you know is what you know so the role models are the gang banger or who ever so it’s just a matter of getting them out the environment and not just putting them in an after school program or basketball- those are all great things but he’s trying to revolutionize somebody’s life who came from a similar background. Having them live it and talk to us and see what it’s like. Seeing what an individual who loves Jesus is doing, what they love for the glory of His name and so they can also see we’re humans as well we laugh, joke and some of us snore and all these other things. Having them see a robust perspective that helps them realize there is life outside their hood and there is something more I can strive for.