Praiz and the soul of Christian Hip Hop
It all started with a desperate prayer from a desperate man:
Lord deliver me from myself
I’m in trouble, I need your help…
Not too long ago, Vance Watt was caught in a downward spiral of drugs, booze, violence and incarceration and he was bracing for a crash. His desperate plea was also his first step in turning toward God and eventually became the song, “Deliver Me,” a stirring call for redemption from the lifestyle he used to promote. Now, the 29-year-old married, father of three is the voice of the growing Christian hip-hop scene in St. Louis.
St. Louis Sound
Watt walked away from it all just as he was making a name as an up-and-comer in local rap and hip-hop circles, which, at the time, was reaching a crescendo, with the likes of Nelly about to skyrocket into superstardom. Nelly is credited with launching the “St. Louis sound” onto the national hip-hop stage with his chart-topping 2000 debut, Country Grammar which went on to sell more than nine million albums. Watt knew Nelly from the streets, they hung out in the same neighborhoods and partied in the same clubs. As a music producer, Watt was already building an impressive resume. He co-produced music which helped seal the deal for Chingy, another Nelly contemporary, with Capitol Records. Chingy’s national debut, Jackpot, went on to triple-platinum status in 2003.
Hip-hop is the second most-popular music in America and is closing in on rock music in annual sales. The ten-billion-dollar-plus a year industry is making household names of megastars like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. Watt was literally being escorted into this lucrative business, but instead of cutting across the velvet rope, he turned and headed the other way, to ‘work for God.’
“I had to leave (the past) alone and follow what God was telling me” he says. “At the time, I had even produced a song for Nelly but never gave it to them because God was calling me.”
Watt, who goes by “Praiz” when onstage, hopes his music is poised for a revolution of sorts, one that could change people’s perception of Christian music. Watt’s style is as varied as the categories used to define his music: Gospel rap, Christian rap, holy hip-hop, urban contemporary, Christian rock. He’s heard it all.
“People call it different things,” Watt says of his music, “To me, it’s a language. I’m actually a singer, but they label me as a rapper because of the style, the lyrics that I use. As long as they understand what the message is, that’s fine, no problem. Music is really the universal language, that’s what they explain to us in school.”
Watt acknowledges he has an uphill battle. In the mainstream, the “bad boy” image of rap and hip-hop are larger-than-life and much more recognizable than the message he’s trying to send.
“My message is holiness, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In every song, you can really tell we represent Christianity.” Watt believes hip-hop wasn’t created to be negative, angry or violent. “It just depends on the person who’s behind it, what they’re sending out.”
The Message Needs to Change
The same is true, he says, for other music, like rock or country. But he says the problem is beyond music, negative messages also abound on television and on the internet. As the father of three young children, he finds most of the music and images troubling.
“Unfortunately, that’s what hip-hop is known for now, it’s what’s being pushed on our kids. You can’t deny a lot of guys have the talent, but the message just really needs to change” says Watt. “You see, right now, you don’t even have to be a good musician or a good artist to rap about a necklace, or a car, or having sex with somebody. It’s easy to do that, really. If you’re creative, you can come up with something that’s totally different, other than just the ordinary, everyday stuff [which is] really just garbage.”
The song came from my realization that I was my biggest enemy.?I asked Him to wash me, cleanse me, purge me.?That’s how it came about.?’Lord deliver me from myself…’
Watt’s philosophy wasn’t always this way. He’d rather not dwell on the past, which included drinking and drug use and stints in juvenile detention and jail. Even then, Watt believes God had been calling him for some time, urging him to abandon his reckless lifestyle. But it wasn’t until 1999, at a Kirk Franklin concert in Chicago that lightning struck.
“I didn’t go to become a Christian that night, but throughout it, the message just touched me. That’s when everything turned around. God had been dealing with me, breaking me down, getting me to turn and start relying on Him and leave my sinful nature alone.”
Watt calls his transformation a breath of fresh air and he hopes to take his fans along that same journey. “Deliver Me,” the first single from his debut CD, The Take Over, began as a personal prayer. Tired of making the wrong decisions, Watt says he engaged God in conversation, asking Him to take control. A song began to take shape.
“It wasn’t really meant to be recorded. The song came from my realization that I was my biggest enemy. I asked Him to wash me, cleanse me, purge me. That’s how it came about. ‘Lord deliver me from myself… ‘ The melody came, I went to the piano, started playing, called my Uncle Tony (a music promoter), called the musicians in. It turned out to be the song that started this whole movement.”
These days, Watt’s ‘prayer’ is being heard on local gospel stations and on St. Louis’ R&B powerhouse, KMJM-FM. “Deliver Me” is on regular rotation at KMJM — alongside hits by Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross and Mary J. Blige — which is unusual for any local artist. Over the past several months, the song has also ranked among the Top Ten urban contemporary songs, as polled by the station. The Christian rap scene in St. Louis doesn’t have the same clout as those in Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, or Atlanta, where they have prominent churches endorsing the artists. But Watt considers the St. Louis audience the best, because “it’s a younger thing here right now.”
For all his talent, Watt is laid back, accessible, and modest about his blossoming career. Along the way, he had struggled with what’s best for his soul. Perhaps the best piece of advice he received was from Kirk Franklin himself, considered by many to have led the way in the contemporary gospel movement. “(Kirk) told me I’d be making a lot of money with secular music, but he also said I wouldn’t have my peace. I just had to decide which was more important.”
For Watt, it’s having that peace. “The money, the fame, it doesn’t matter, that’s going to pass. When God gives you joy, no one can take that away from you.”
Vance Watt’s determination to make a name for himself not only in St. Louis but on the national scene means he needs to remain relevant. Music and his faith play a dominant role offstage. He plays the piano for Grace Bible Church in St. Louis, where his family attends Sunday services. He and his wife of 4 years, Candace, are in marriage class and Bible Study. The Watts also form small groups with other church members to visit each other’s homes and spend time with their children. Watt also plans to go to Bible college, and maybe, sing in the choir. Problem is, he’ll now have to balance his personal time with the demands of being an artist.
In addition to promoting his music, which has also been featured on MTV, BET, and TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network), Watt prefers up close-and-personal interactions with his fans. It’s no surprise because those familiar with his music feel they truly know him. His lyrics are a mirror into his tortured past, but they also portray a man who’s found peace. Consider the song, “Praiz,” borne out of a horrific car crash in 1997 after what Watt calls a hard night of partying. The accident left him with a concussion and broke parts of his vertebrae and neck. Years later, Watt transformed that ordeal into a catchy refrain for “Praiz”:
If I can’t clap my hands, I’m just gonna wave my hands
If I can’t move my feet, I’m gonna rock in my seat
If I can’t leap for joy, I’m gonna just sing for joy
That’s why they call me ‘Praiz.’
The “Nelly of Gospel”
Watt recently held a CD release concert for The Take Over in University City, St. Louis’ eclectic cultural hotspot that helped propel the careers of Nelly and other artists. Watt has been called the “Nelly of Gospel,” a comparison he doesn’t mind.
“It’s better than being compared to someone not as successful. If they see the same level of success coming from me, as a Christian artist, it’s fine with me.” It’s also the St. Louis connection, he says, “Being from St. Louis,
like Nelly, or Chingy, or J-Kwon, we have a certain style, a certain sound, that comes through with our music; just like Detroit’s Motown sound, New York has a sound, L.A. has a sound.”
Whether the “St. Louis sound” is suited for Christian music fans across the country remains to be seen, but a recent sampling of fans at Vintage Vinyl during this month’s CD release party was impressive: Young, old, black, white, Asian, families, couples, friends, white collar, blue collar and everything in-between. The aisles of Vintage Vinyl, which is about the size of an average Blockbuster video store — though not as clean and organized — quickly filled as the minutes ticked by. Many fans came early, bought their CD and patiently joined the growing line for autographs. Watt, aka Praiz, didn’t disappoint. Shrieks, applause and well -wishes of “Good Luck” and “Congratulations,” accompanied him as he made his way from a back room to the front of the store. He seemed sincerely grateful for the “faithful,” the 200 or so who showed up and crammed the store’s tight quarters. He took his time, talking with and thanking his fans and making sure he had the correct spelling of their names before signing posters and discs.
“Love, love, love what you’re doing,” one woman gushed. Another woman asked Watt to sign a CD addressed to her family. “God bless you. I’m glad you’re here. Continue your work,” says another fan who requested that Watt sign her CD “from Praiz and God” so she could give it to her young daughter, Keisha.
“Is it alright if they have some ice cream?” Watt asked a young mother with her children. He then quickly pulled out of a wad of free Dairy Queen passes from his pocket and handed them out.
The atmosphere builds as the final autograph seekers reach the end of the line. Fans begin to move to the rear of the store, where a makeshift stage is set up — a guitar and keyboard, drums, speakers, all flanked by bins of hard-to-find LP’s.
“Put your hands together for Praiz,” the store’s PA system finally booms and Watt takes the stage. He’s now transformed into “Praiz” and his presence has a definite electrifying effect on the crowd. They sway, they clap and they dance. As one young fan puts it, “It’s better than going to church.”
To learn more about Vance Watt (aka Praiz) and his music, visit his website, www.plpb.net.