LL COOL J, "The Power of God," and The Preacher's Kid
By Stereo Williams
My father hated rap music. That's not unusual; in the early 90s, everybody's father hated rap music.
I was growing up in the small town South, the son of a prominent Baptist minister. And the only music I ever heard him play was classical, jazz or gospel. I knew that back in the late 60s/early 70s, before his ordination as a minister, he'd been a bassist in some soul and jazz bands. He would still occasionally rave about how good Booker T. & The M.G.s were, and had some old Temptations and Beatles records in a corner room where our piano was. But mostly, he didn't dwell on secular pop music; and he was especially leery of most contemporary stars. I still remember how aghast he was at Madonna's controversial "Like A Prayer" video; he'd preached about the dangers of Prince after seeing the artist's semi-nude Lovesexy album cover in a record store.
And Hip-Hop? Rap music was not welcome in our house at all; my Dad would make that very clear after he and my Mom saw a 20/20 exposé on N.W.A. Knowing that I came home from school every day and turned on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City, they were definitely concerned about the Niggaz With Attitudes. My mother was appalled ("They should ban them just because of that name!" she lamented) and my father was adamant: there would be none of that rap mess in this good Christian house.
Artists like N.W.A., Ice-T and 2 Live Crew were making headlines, and my father saw rappers through a wholly nefarious lens. To so many of my Dad's generation, Hip-Hop was ignorant and non-musical; a slap in the face to a generation that had fought through the Civil Rights era.
Throughout the 1980s, it felt like middle class Black boomers, to a certain degree, were sharply focused on the maintenance of Black dignity. For those who'd taken pride in the mainstream successes of figures like Oprah and Cosby, the foul-mouthed, angry posturing of rappers was an affront.
Beyond all of that, my parents were just very Christian. With "Fuck the Police" and "Me So Horny" looming over the culture, they were not about to let me listen to rap music. And your parents never care about the nuances: they don't know the difference between Too $hort and A Tribe Called Quest. My Dad just said "no rap."
But he was impressed with MC Hammer. The fleet-footed rap star from Oakland had become one of the biggest artists in music on the heels of "U Can't Touch This;" Hammer was the kind of famous that was usually reserved for pop stars. Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em was a monster hit album and it put MC Hammer in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to Taco Bell commercials. But my Dad was a fan of MC Hammer because the rapper had a guest spot as a preacher in an episode of the Sherman Hemsley sitcom Amen. And Hammer also had a number one hit about praying.
My father loved that. I know this because he'd embarrassed me (again in a record store) by declaring his fandom in an uncomfortably demonstrative diatribe next to a Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em store display — complete with a cardboard MC Hammer standup.
"That's the kind of rap music you should be listening to!" he declared in the middle of this Turtle's Records and Tapes. "Not this 'I'm a nigga, you a nigga' trash. Hammer is the one who sings 'You Gotta Pray,' right? I like him."
He suddenly paused and stared at the cutout for a second.
"I don't like that he has shirt off," he conceded. "But I like his message."
Of course my Dad loved MC Hammer: Hammer was exactly the kind of rapper everybody's dad liked. He could dance, his songs were catchy, and he had a "eat your vegetables/stay in school"-type wholesomeness that parents feel safe letting their kids look up to.
I never had a problem with party records or what you may consider pop-rap, but I hated the way my parents and other adults seemed to fawn over "safe" stuff like Hammer and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. I hated the way they'd play C+C Music Factory at youth events and call it "rap music." I needed my Dad to understand Hip-Hop didn't have to be smiling, cuddly or toothless. I needed him to see it better.
I'd heard LL COOL J's Mama Said Knock You Out via my friend Telly. "Around the Way Girl" was all over the radio and that iconic "Mama Said..." video was starting to get steady play on MTV and BET, but it was Telly who let me borrow his tape so that I heard the entire album. Every track was dope (I played "Eat 'em Up L, Chill" constantly and wrote a verse over it that I'm glad no one will ever hear), and it covered so much ground, so many different subjects and styles. It was one of my favorites.
And something of a wedge was forming between me and my Dad. I wanted him to connect with what I liked or at least understand why I liked it. My brother was ten years older than me and grew up in the small town South before Hip-Hop became so centered in Black culture. His favorite artists were Luther Vandross and Guy — he was an R&B dude. Likewise, my sister loved En Vogue, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I was the only person in this house listening to Public Enemy and Ice Cube. And, boy — was it resonating. It was Spike Lee movies and A Different World episodes and videos with emcees like Chuck D and KRS-One that were showing me a perspective on Blackness that wasn't so preoccupied with fitting in with the American status quo.
But I knew my father had been impressed with the fact that Hammer had rapped about prayer. I couldn't come at him with the "angry Black man" argument; not if I was trying to help him relate to the music more directly. So I took a different route. I thought if I showed him that other rappers not named "MC Hammer" also expressed their faith, he would be more open to rappers and Hip-Hop, in general.
So during a drive for breakfast one Sunday morning, I talked to him about LL COOL J's "The Power Of God." I explained the first verse was about how God can get you off of drugs and reshape your life:
"A basehead cleaned up his actHe stopped smoking crack and took his soul backDecided he could find a much better way to liveYou know the way, positiveWithout all the negative chemicals and drugs"
I explained a line in the song that echoed a mantra my father loved: "A little truth in the hands of a fool is a dangerous thing." LL raps:
"Money is small and the soul stands tallAll those who don't realize this fallThe mind of a drunken fool is a useless toolAnd it's cool to be in schoolAnd overcome and overpower, but still upliftYour mind is a gift"
My argument was thoughtful and precise. I really sold this song. If my Dad was impressed with "You got ta pray just ta make it today," he's got to be blown away by a rapper actually breaking down why God matters and how He lives in us and we should allow Him to guide our steps on the daily.
I mean — my Dad has to eat that up! Right? Right?
I wish I could tell you that my breakdown of LL's "The Power Of God" changed my father's entire perspective on Hip-Hop. I wish I could tell you it inspired him to delve deep into the artists and culture. I wish I could say this conversation led to he and I finding newfound musical and generational common ground. Alas, it did not do any of those things.
He literally ignored everything I'd just said and doubled-down on his "no rap" edict.
"If I come home and see the television on rap videos, no TV for a week," he calmly explained as we pulled into a Hardee's. "If we go to the mall, don't take the money I give you and spend it on that stuff. I want to know what you're listening to. Do we understand each other?"
I was bitter in defeat. I obviously defied my Dad's "no rap" rule immediately and often. Sometimes I did have to endure a week of no TV because I'd been caught watching a Geto Boys video or something. That was life back then. But eventually, my Dad changed. Over the years, he wanted to connect with his teenaged son. He started rapping Naughty By Nature and Craig Mack lyrics to me and my friends ("Hey, did you fellas get a new 'flavor in ya ear?'"); he started making Snoop Doggy Dogg references in his sermons to elicit cheers from the young people in the congregation. My super-Christian, "no rap in this house" Dad suddenly wanted desperately to be "down."
He died in 1996. I will miss him forever. I still laugh about those awkward teen years where I felt like my Dad hating the music I loved meant that he'd never understand me. It says a lot about us as individuals and our respective generations. He never quite "got" it, but I applaud those moments where he at least made an attempt. I still remember the one time where he actually suggested I check out a rap group he'd been hearing about.
"A few of the youth pastors were talking about this rap group that I haven't heard you mention. Do you know dc Talk? I told them I'd ask you about them..."
Like I said -- at least he made the attempt.