John Wells is a name that the Christian hip hop community should be familiar with. If not, then some homework needs to be done on this man. However, his more recognizable moniker is The Tonic of the Crossmovement of Crossmovement Records where he also serves as CEO.
My first hearing of The Tonic was the first verse from the song House of Representatives on the album by the same name. I knew he was not an average emcee when I heard him use sarcophagusin his rhymes. Later, I would get my hands on Crossmovement’s first release, Heaven’s Mentality (1997), and I was very intrigued by the wordplay and imagery of Shock! But it was his song, I AM, that forever locked his distinctive voice and rhyming abilities in my head.
What many don’t know is The Tonic has been rhyming for the glory of Jesus long before the inception of Crossmovement. But by the Lord’s design, he ran into other young men that were doing the same thing and decided to form Crossmovement in 1993. Over the next 16 years Crossmovement Records expanded its roster and influence by the gracious hand of God and became the most recognizable name in Christian Hip Hop.
Despite the success and fruitfulness of Crossmovement Records, all was not well with The Tonic. I remember the e-mail I received from him in 2005 detailing problems with his health which eventually caused him to miss several tour dates, etc. as he was resigned to bed rest. The daily demands of being a husband, father to be, CEO, artist, and minister seemed to take its toll on him. Later, he disclosed that he was suffering from severe cases of anxiety attacks. These attacks were also the key reason in the delay of his solo album, The Dash. The Dash would be put on hold indefinitely.
Four years later, by the grace of God, The Tonic is no longer suffering from anxiety attacks and The Dash is here!
The most significant days in our lives are our birth dates and our death dates. But what about that dash in the middle? That dash is the duration of our lives. What are we doing with our lives? What we do with our lives sets the stage for eternity.
If I had to liken The Tonic to a secular emcee, I would with Chuck D of Public Enemy. With verbal dexterity, The Tonic cleverly conveys the issues of the times with passion and urgency. Just imagine CNN having a correspondent from the hip hop culture. That’s how I hear him. However, he never just leaves the issues of our day in observation mode. He unashamedly provides the triumphant solution to the ills of humanity, putting man in his place and attesting of Jesus’ rightful place.
The Dash is classic Christ-centered Tonic delivery saturated with mostly east coast boom bap featuring labelmates, R-Swift, Mac the Doulos, Shachah and Iz-Real. Another pleasant surprise were the appearances of former Crossmovement members, Cruz Cordero and Enock. Ah, the body of Christ! The Dash is another gem from the Crossmovement camp!
“The Dash” by The Tonic
(L to R – Me, Teddy P and John Wells (The Tonic) in Philadelphia, PA)
Life is filled with memorable moments. You know, those moments which you’ll never forget where you were, who you were with, how old you were and certain feelings associated with that moment. Well, my hip-hop world was blown away as a believer when I first heard House of Representatives by The Crossmovement in 1999. It actually was released in 1998. I came to find out later their first release was in 1997 titled Heaven’s Mentality, which I recommend. Classic Christian hip-hop, yo!
I grew up in Houston, TX, but I always had what one fellow emcee told me was the east coast virus. He had it too and he’s originally from California. The east coast virus is simply an affection for east coast music and style without having any roots or prior associations with that part of the country. Funny, right? I remember as a kid preferring Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-ONE, Whodini, Slick Rick, Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy over hometown emcees like the Geto Boys and The Convicts.
In the mid-late 90’s, as a radio DJ in college in San Marcos, TX, I was nicknamed “East Coast” by some of my peers because of the large amount of east coast hip-hop I played on my show. So naturally, after I got saved, though I no longer desired the lyrics of secular hip-hop, I still longed for intricate lyricism, certain drum patterns, break beats and scratching.
It was quite a frustrating search and I thought I’d never find what I greatly desired – Christocentric lyricism packaged in east coast beats. It’s not that it didn’t exist. The problem was the lack of marketing and advertising. While mainstream hip hop was the 2nd most popular music genre and the fastest growing genre in music in terms of annual sales increases, the Christian music community saw hip-hop as a sub-genre of the contemporary scene. From a bottom-line dollar standpoint, there was no need to invest in the Christian hip hop market because there was no perceived audience. Music history proves that notion wrong, especially hip-hop history. Hip-hop evolved and existed for 5-6 years in the boroughs of New York City before it caught the attention of music executives. Once the street buzz was boomin’, music executives couldn’t help but to see this as a lucrative machine to wrap their hands around. Remember Rapper’s Delight by The Sugar Hill Gang??
Aside from the business aspects, other tensions were prevalent. The Christian community was slow to receive Christian hip-hop because of hip-hop’s secular reputation. Likewise, the secular hip-hop community shunned Christian hip-hop because of its content. Literally, it had no place and I identified with this problem and was often misunderstood. How can one love hip hop and Christ? In some people’s minds, these were the antithesis of each other.
Music in and of itself is not inherently evil. The intent and content of music’s lyrics draws the line of distinction between sacred and secular.
That memorable moment? In 1999, there I was walking around in the Christian bookstore in San Marcos, TX looking for some good reading material and I decided to walk over to the music listening posts. Surprisingly, they had a hip-hop section and I immediately thought to myself, “I wonder how corny this is going to be?” But this album grabbed my attention. I saw 7 guys sitting at a semi-round table dressed up on their upper torsos, and dressed down on their lower torsos. I saw sneakers, Timbs, and a slogan that said “Advocates Of The Theocratic Rule”. I was intrigued by the cover alone. Then I read the titles of the songs and I played the demo.
INTRODUCIN’ THE LORD JESUS THE CHRIST // THE AUTHOR, THE FINISHER OF ALL LIFE
We brings the ruckus when we uplift the gift of salvation // It was He who came through forty-two generations // Logos invasion to planet Earth through virgin birth // The last Adam had come to reverse the works of the first // He became a curse to become a cure // The blood poured made sure // That he who enters by the door will be eternally secured // What shall I render? // Surrendered lives are due to Him // In due time the True Vine reconciled humans to the divine union of the Father // Hearts are altered to the altar // He died for all walks of life, He’s the Lord of all cultures // Perfector, resurrector, all life is His // Sin-disconnector, eternal-holder of the sceptor of righteousness // Thunderous praise comes from his numberless fleet // The sovereign King all things are placed under His feet // The uncreated, incarnated creator of all creation is to be celebrated in all occasions // ‘Cause He’s the glorious, victorious victor with the greatest victory of all history// Peep the unveiling mystery // Of the Chief Corner-stoner, The Atoner // May we present to this world the most generous blood donor (Lyrics written by Juan “Enock” James)
I was rocked! This was it! This was what my heart and mind were looking for! These men looked like me, talked like me and yet it was undeniable that they were students of the Scriptures. You can’t write those kind of rhymes without having been soaked and saturated in Scripture. There is so much doctrine in that one verse. The Lord used Christian hip-hop to whet my appetite for sound and weighty doctrine. I wasn’t getting this in urban contemporary gospel music. Christian hip-hop at that point was for me the theological depth of hymns intertwined in urban musical ruggedness. Ah, what a dope blend!!!
Crossmovement, in many respects, has been graciously used to minister to and educate, primarily the hip-hop culture, as well as opened doors for this genre of music to be expanded and marketed better. There is still much work to be done in that aspect and the Lord will move in His time.
What I am blessed by the most is seeing the multifacetedness of redemption. Redemption not only involves people, but the things people do and create, even hip-hop. Hip-hop is not outside of the scope of Christ’s redemption! The beauty of Christ is displayed in array of ways, especially through the arts. And for now, we are only seeing a glimpse of His redemption. It is still unfolding and the culmination is forthcoming!
In future posts, I will highlight the artists that have been a blessing to me as they have endeavored to use hip-hop as their soapbox to magnify the excellencies of Jesus Christ.