Changing Their Tune
Gansta Rappers Lead the Bay Area's Christian Hip-Hop Movement
On Sunday mornings, Anthony Nelson, 33, wakes up at about 6 a.m., before anyone else in his household. He stretches and yawns out the kinks before making his way downstairs to his home office, walking past his desk and into the closet where he retreats into prayer and meditation. About 30 minutes later, he wakes up his wife, Stephanie, 34, and they proceed to feed and dress their four children.
The goal is to leave the house by 9 a.m. Devotion at the Civic Center Church of Christ in Richmond starts at 9:30 a.m., followed by Sunday school. Nelson teaches the new convert class. Hard to believe this is the routine of a guy who once said on an album: I’m just a menace off the Hennessy
Plottin’ on young [girls’] virginity
And any enemy in my vicinity
Get shot in the head like John Kennedy
“Usually, I’m waking up at 6 a.m. on Sunday now,” says Nelson, an Oakland native. “Back then, I would still be up. At six o’clock in the morning, we’d just be winding down.”
Nelson has changed his life, and his lyrics. He became a Christian in 2000 and is now one of the leaders at his congregation, where he preaches once a month. Once known as Ant Didley Dog, half of a rap duet called Bad-N-Fluenz with friend Rappin’ Ron (Ronnie Royster), Nelson now goes by the moniker Ant Doulos—doulos
(pronounced doo-los, means “servant” in Greek)—and his goal is to be a good influence. Now he uses his lyrical skills as a method of evangelism and community enhancement.
He is part of a growing trend of former Oakland gangsta rappers changing their tune. Agerman from 3xKrazy (Three Times Crazy) was part of a legendary underground gangsta rap group. Suga T was formerly the first lady of the Vallejo-based group Tha Click, started by her brother, renowned rapper E-40. B-Fade used to recorded songs with just about every notable gangsta rapper from the Bay Area. Now they lead a new movement.
Yup, several of the hardest lyricists reigning from the heyday of Oakland rap have now gone soft. Happily.
“I still haven’t got over what the Lord has done for me,” Nelson says. “My life in so many aspects has had such a drastic change that I cannot get over what has happened to me in my life. … Sometimes I just stop in my tracks, I just freeze and I look around. I see my family, my wife. I see my job. I see me influencing the lives of people and preaching, and all that stuff. This is like a dream.”
In the ’90s, Oakland’s music scene was on fire, especially from a hip-hop perspective. Tony! Toni! Toné! and En Vogue provided an R&B presence. Tupac and MC Hammer headlined mainstream rap, while the Hieroglyphics represented Oakland in the backpack grassroots hip-hop genre.
When it came to gangsta rap, Too $hort was king in what was known as the “City of Dope.” The likes of The Luniz, 3xKrazy and The Delinquents gave Oakland a presence in the gangsta rap genre, which was a national phenomenon thanks to N.W.A. Bad-N-Fluenz, the protégés in Too $hort’s stable of rappers known as the Dangerous Crew, was set to take Oakland to another level.
“As far as I’m concerned, during that period, Ant and Rappin’ Ron were right up there,” says Oakland native Branden Peters, lifestyle editor for the hip-hop magazine XXL
. “They were free-styling and battling people and making music that was different from what people were used to. Even though what they were saying was the same as everybody else, they brought to the table a different style that was lyrical and intellectual.”
But that era was taking a toll. Nelson, like the rest, lived the lifestyle you might expect from a gangsta rapper: Drugs. Sex. Violence.
So did Andre Woods, known as B-Fade. He was heavy in the streets—selling drugs, doing drugs, chasing women. He was incarcerated for two years, including eight months in Santa Rita, for administering a serious beat down to a would-be robber.
“I go to work and see somebody standing on the corner,” Woods says, “and come home and still see him standing on the corner, selling drugs and drinking. And I’m like, ‘Man, that used to be me.’ I look now and see how silly that looked. … I hear and see the things people talk about nowadays, and I used to talk about those things, and those things now turn my stomach. I just realize how silly I was. And the music I did had an effect on people.”
Woods says his stint in prison brought him to the conclusion he needed to change his lifestyle. He ceased his involvement with drugs and alcohol, focusing on his gangsta rap music. He didn’t start rappin’ for Jesus until he came across Ramone Curtis in 2002. Both were pedaling their CDs at the gas station on 106th and MacArthur, but Curtis, better known as Agerman of 3xKrazy, wasn’t selling gangsta rap. Agerman, a pioneer in Oakland’s Christian rap movement, opened Woods’ eyes to something much more positive. Woods has since put out a CD, Tales of a Baby Saint
, with Cõz, his former cohort in gangsta rap. Woods is working on his solo album, Man on Fire
. The single “Wisdom Bounce” is already out.
Nelson has three songs done for his long-awaited debut album: “Victorious,” “Rich Man” and “Why Not (Try God)?” He refuses to put music over his family, so he’s expecting the project to take a while.
Like Woods, Nelson was shaken into re-evaluating his life. On Dec. 14, 1996, Royster died in a car accident at 22. Devastated, Nelson embarked on a journey for soul salvation. He studied the Bible regularly and tested out various religions. In the process, his music toned down, naturally. Before long, his lyrical makeover was complete.He took me out of the pit, out of
And put me down on His list,
now I’ve got riches
I can’t wait to be among the
I pray patiently, humbly following
And give it up, to the Deliverer
The Red Sea splitter, the fig tree witherer
Who sits above and His blood is
a gift of love
That can get you out the suction cup
clutches of Beelzebub
—By Marcus W. Thompson II
—Photography by Jan Stürmann