The Voice of an Innovator
After over a decade in the game, major names like Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri have traded their mics for executive suits and key positions within the record industry. So, finding an artist and an innovator still in the game after 13 years is noteworthy.
Enter holy hip-hop pioneer T-Bone, who drops his seventh solo release titled Bone-a-Fide, his first project in the last three years. The esteemed emcee spent some time with GOSPELflava.com to talk about his career and his latest release.
"Iíve just been staying in the lab and trying to take what I do to the next level," says T-Bone. "After the last record, I had pretty much made up in my mind that, unless I was going to be able to make the type of record that I really wanted to make and get A-list producers involved, I was almost ready to step away. I feel like if weíre doing music for God, we shouldnít be following the world, we should be leading the world. Iíve always felt that my skills and what I do is not only just as good as 90% of the rap artists out there, but I believe I can rhyme better than most of them. After the exposure and the response from The Fighting Temptations, I felt like if weíre going to do this again, weíve got to make it on a huge scale thatís going to be able to reach past the four walls of the church and reach this generation."
Though on a three-year solo recording hiatus, T-Bone did manage to stay very busy, landing a prominent role in the feature length film that starred Beyonce Knowles and Cuba Gooding Jr..
"It was amazing. The original role of Bee-Z Briggs in The Fighting Temptations was actually written for Nelly," admits T-Bone. "They couldnít work out whatever situation they had with him. So they ended up taking auditions with a lot of different people. I had just finished working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the Yolanda Adamsí record that we did together. So they knew who I was and they were blown away by the stuff I had been doing. They were doing the soundtrack and the score for the movie. They brought up my name to the people handling the audition. So I went in to audition up against guys like LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Petey Pablo, Redman, Method Man, and Keith Murray and ended up winning the part. It was a huge honor just to be able to do that. I really wanted to get [the part] so bad. I was memorizing lines and studying like crazy. Being in the movie was something that I felt was a part of Godís plan for my life. Iíve never just wanted to be known as a rapper. Iíve always been multi-talented and diverse."
"I was blessed to be able to get the part. As soon as I was in there, most of the people there had already heard of me, which always surprises me," confesses T-Bone.
"Obviously doing full-time Gospel music, you donít ever think that a lot of these people have ever heard of you. I remember being at Beyonceís birthday party and having cats like Killer Mike, Outkast, and others telling me that they have love for me. Mack 10 has a lot of my albums. Itís amazing. So, I said ĎGod let me shine for youí and I started putting my touch on the role and people were really impressed. During the whole process, I was able to build great relationships with Beyonce and her father, who was actually trying to sign me. Her family flew me out there for different things. Iíve been to church with them and weíve done a lot of really cool things. I was able to minister to Cuba Gooding, Jr. every day. We shed tears together in prayer. I was able to actually lead Lilí Zane to the Lord and lead one of the OíJays back to the Lord. Everywhere I go, Iím a walking billboard for Christ and I try to make sure that that light is represented in darkness."
Fast forward to 2005, and the California native is back with a brand new release.
While the album is a welcomed return for the pioneer, it is not without controversy. The first element of controversy? That would be the album cover.
"When we were done with the record, me and Buster sat down and were like Ďwe need a cover now that explains everything that we have on this record.í We need a picture that represents revolution. This was actually an album cover that I had in my mind for about two years. This was the perfect opportunity because we wanted something that represented militancy and the struggle. We wanted something that represented a person who was loved by the people. Most of all, we wanted something that represented revolution. Most people know that Che Guevara was a Latin revolutionist. I figured that since Iím Hispanic and I could put my hair down now, I could put the beret on and we could make this thing look real. Plus, itís an icon shot that everybody will be able to relate with."
"In no way is this album about communism," continues T-Bone. "Weíre not trying to portray murder or who Che Guevara was. This record is a lot of metaphors and parables pointing people towards Christ. This is just a way to represent revolution. Weíre here to make change. Everyone who sees the cover right away thinks militancy and thatís what itís about. Weíre here to fight for what we believe in and change this pop culture, the way that they think, the way that weíre looked at, and the way that things are done. Weíre trying to be relevant to this generation and represent revolution."
"The controversy is not even so much amongst people in America. Itís among my people," states T-Bone. "Half of Latinos love Che and half of them hate him. The part of Che that I identify with is that heís Latino. I identify with the part of Che when he was that young 18-year old kid that got on the motorcycle and traveled across Latin America to see what his country was like. As he traveled, he began to see the needs of the people. He began to see the injustice that was going on and how people were being treated badly. He wanted to make a change. He became a revolutionist and ended up hooking up with Fidel Castro, which is the reason that a lot of people donít like him, because they feel like he became a dictator. What people donít realize is that he left Fidel because once they started getting the power; he wasnít about having the money associated with it. Heís one of the few guys in communism that actually reverted around from what most of them turn into. He went a separate way and went back into the fields working with the people, fighting for, and eventually dying for, what he believed was right. Those are the comparison between he and I. Iím ready to die for what I believe in and Iím about my people."
Perhaps, the other noticeable flair from this project is its target audience.
"This is a 100% crossover album," say the rapper/actor. "People know that T-Bone before was in your face with the gospel and with Jesus and all that and Iím still the same way. If you come see me in concert, Iím going to preach the house down. Iím all about leading people to Christ. I feel like you canít really question where my heart is because Iím one of the pioneers of the game. Itís not like Iím some dude that just jumped in and I started doing gospel hip-hop for a year or two and now Iím trying to cross over. Iíve tried to cross gospel hip-hop over every imaginable way that I know how. The bottom line is, as long as youíre shouting Jesus, Jesus, Jesus on every song, itís going to be impossible. Yeah, they may play one or two songs but even Kanye [West] didnít come out with ĎJesus Walksí first. Kanye had to win the love and respect of the people. Then once youíve got that respect, [the radio] will play what anything you want to play."
"When Christians hear the word Ďcrossoverí, they freak out and wonder what does it mean? Does it mean that Iím no longer going to represent what Iím about? Does that mean that Iím going to have girls in my videos half-naked and shaking their booty? Does it mean that my beliefs have changed? No, my beliefs are still the same."
"Hereís how I explain it. For fifteen years, I was in my ministry. Now, God has called me to my evangelistic ministry, which is stepping outside the four walls of the church and reaching this generation. Hip-hop is the number one selling form of music. What hurts me is that right now, 50 Cent is leading more kids to hell than we are leading kids to Christ. So something has got to be done. Iím not the kind of guy to sit around and just twirl my fingers. If no one else is going to step up to the plate and lead a revolution, Iím going to do it."
"The question is do you have the skills to lead the revolution?" questions the artist. "A lot people say, ĎT, youíre the chosen one. Youíre the one thatís supposed to go carry the torch. Godís opened up all of these doors for you in the mainstream...í So, I feel an obligation to do this and that God has given me a mantle to do this. Iím not just crossing over. Iím taking the Cross over into the mainstream. Everything that I do is pointing people towards Christ. I may not put it directly in your face but at that end of the day, everyone is going to know what Iím talking about. We still say Jesus on the album. We may not say it as much as we did [in the past] but we still represent. The bottom line is that weíre trying to be a light in dark places."
After thirteen years in the game, T-Bone readily recognizes the anomaly of still being a vibrant force in the industry.
"Normally your pioneers are gone at this point in the game. Iíve suffered through all of the stuff that pioneers go through. Weíre the ones that get ridiculed. Weíre the ones that get talked about. I was kicked out of many churches when I started. If you do Gospel hip-hop today, youíre welcomed with open arms. I come from a time where they would stop everything. They would stop the cassette and say ĎGet out of my church. This isnít from God. This is demonic music.í And I count it a privilege to have been able to be a pioneer and open up the doors and go through all of that hell and that craziness so that kids nowadays can just walk through the doors. Now you can go into a Christian bookstore or a church and see a gospel hip-hop section. I count it even more of a blessing that God has allowed me to be around for this long. We all know that pioneers and careers, in general, just donít last this long. Iíve been doing this full-time for thirteen years."
"People ask me Ďwhat is your key to success? Why do you think youíre still here?í The bottom line is that Iím far from perfect. I screw up every single day. I commit adultery on God. I cheat on Him and I do bad. But at the end of the day, God knows my heart and He knows that I love Him. Thereís a scripture that says ĎSeek ye first the Kingdom of God and all of His righteousness and all of these things will be added unto you.í Thatís what I do. My mentality isnít to look for a big Mercedes, a big house, a record deal, or stardom. My whole thing since day one has just been about my Fatherís business. Iím imperfect but I just want to try and be as perfect as I can for Him. I just want to be a mouthpiece for Him. Thatís been the key for me. Iíve just been focused on that and God knows when youíre for real about that."
"I think that this is why God has blessed me because He knows that I donít do this for any other reason," continues T-Bone. "Iíve performed in front of a million people on the steps of the White House. I may do 30,000 people in a stadium with Acquire the Fire and the next day Iím at a place that may have like 200 kids because Iím that type of dude. Iím not the kind of person to forget where he came from and say that Iím too big for this and too big for that. I remember where I came from. I remember coming from a small church. I try to take the mentality and ask how blessed would I have been if a rapper that was at my status now wouldíve come and blessed my little 200-seat church? What would that have done for me? How would that have encouraged me? So I try to do what nobody else will do. I try to be the exception."
As one of the trendsetters in holy hip-hop, T-Bone is still concerned regarding the state of the genre.
"Thereís not a lot of a talent period," admits T-Bone. "Iíll be the first to say it. A lot of gospel & Christian hip-hop is garbage. Thatís why for years Iíve been like, ĎDonít even associate me with that.í As soon as you say [Christian hip-hop], the first thing people think is if they heard Joe Schmo do a show or saw him on TV and he sounds horrible, a lot of times you only get one chance to make a first impression. If that was horrible and then you come in saying thereís this gospel rapper named T-Bone, I already know what that stuff sounds like. When you say ĎGospel Hip-Hop", itís almost like an oxymoron. People already have their guards up and theyíre thinking this guyís gonna say ĎJesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.í If we ever want to go somewhere as Gospel Hip-Hop and do something for God, weíve got to stop being mediocre. If you can just put a few words together and youíre average, do it for your neighborhood or for your church. But donít go out and try to get a record deal if youíre not ready to do it. If youíre not ready to compete with the best, then donít step to it. The Bible doesnít just say play. It says play skillfully. I think thatís something thatís lacking but I think itís getting better in Gospel music as a whole but I think in Gospel Hip-Hop, itís still lacking a lot."
Throughout his career, T-Bone has worked with a number of secular artists, which has caused controversy in the eyes of many. One of the most noteworthy of these collaborations was his partnership with KRS-One in 2002.
"Most people would be scared to be with him," says T-Bone. "My mentality is the exact opposite. When I get into the studio with guys like that, I want to show them how Godís people can do it. Iím not intimidated and Iím not scared. Iím ready to step to the plate and get to business. A lot of people would have been really intimidated to do stuff with KRS-One, Mack 10, Mista Grimm, and the different people that Iíve done stuff with. That was definitely a highlight of my career to step to the mic with a pioneer of the hip-hop game period who I grew up listening to. For him to give me props and to be able to hold my own with him, that says a lot to me."
"I donít really care what people think," admits the California native. "Iím used to getting talked about. When youíre in the limelight and youíre doing big things, there are a lot haters and blockers out there. There are a lot of jealous people. Itís pretty sad that even amongst Christians, there are a lot of people that get joy out of your misery. At a young age, I used to cry every day. I love people. When my ministry first started years ago, I was wondering why all of these people hating on me? The worst thing was that I didnít even know them. I would read articles about me. I would hear different pastors or people saying things about me behind the pulpit. My pastor once told me that when youíre in the limelight, you open yourself up for criticism. I just had to learn that people are going to be people and not everyone is going to be the way you are. When you know that God has ordained you and called you to do something, you could care less what anybody else thinks, as long as Heís happy. I went through a phase where I wanted to preach about what I feel is right. Then people would start saying things. I think that anyone that has been in ministry for a while has gone through this. Then I started preaching what the people wanted to hear. When you do that and they still talk about you, you get to the place where you just do what God calls you to do and if they donít like it, good."
"Iíve always loved people. Iíve never been the kind of person to judge because God has had a lot of grace on me. When I screw up, He still loves me. When I make a mistake, Heís still there. Iím like Jesus was. I love the sinner but I hate the sin. I look at when KRS-One asked me to do a song with him. He said that there are a lot of people that wouldnít work with him because heís not a Christian. I asked myself what would Jesus do? We are all walking around with these bracelets but what would He do? I started thinking about how Jesus went to the tax collectors and the murderers and the prostitutes and He touched the people who were prohibited to be touched. He touched the people who had leprosy who had to walk around screaming ĎUnclean, Uncleaní. He loved the unlovable. I was where KRS was one day. I wasnít born saved. I was a sinner too. I used to curse God. I hated God because I was raised amongst the streets and within a family that tried to force me to go to church because they wanted me to do good and I didnít want to do that. I wanted to go to the parties. I wanted to hang with the homies and do all of that. So I was where he was. But what would God do in this situation? Would he turn around because Iím not a believer or would he continue to chase after me? So I said, ĎKris, it would be an honor to do a song with you.í Especially when the guy is calling out trying to do something right in the name of God. Heís saying ĎIím trying to make a gospel record. Iím trying to do something right.í Iíve got to encourage my brother when heís doing that. So when I get with guys like KRS, Mack 10, Mista Grimm, even with Chino XL, itís not about just me doing the music. Itís about what can I offer them while Iím there with them."
T-Bone looks to regularly impact these major players with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"I remember Kris and I would have multiple Bible studies," recalls T-Bone. "Before we stepped out of the booth, he said, ĎT, I just want to tell you that youíve been a huge blessing in my life and youíre a giver man. Thereís something different about you, man.í I told him that the difference is Jesus. I wrapped my arms around him. God told me that this brother just needs a hug and I began to pray for him. When we got ready to step out of the booth and I let him go, there were tears running all down his eyes. He just wiped the tears. He was trying to just walk out of the booth and look like nothing had happened. The same thing happened with Mack 10. People know him from Westside Connection. People know him from being a gangsta. At the same time, when we talked, I started realizing that there are a lot of similarities between us. Weíre both from the streets. He was like ĎIím trying to go to church. I want to start doing good.í So here I was encouraging him. I said to him, Ďwe should do a song together. Maybe we can use our gifts to reach more people together. This could be a way that God could also use you in my ministry to give me the street credibility that I need.í When a lot of the gang members see Mack 10 on the record that puts a stamp of approval on me. He was going through a lot of stuff in his relationship, his workplace, and in his music. I was able to just come and be a light in his life. Three weeks later, as the result normally is, I was able to lead Mack 10 to the feet of Jesus. We went to a restaurant to eat Cuban food. He was going through a lot of stuff. I had been ministering to him for weeks. I asked him if he was ready to do this. After about an hour of talking, he said, ĎYeahí. We walked outside and there were fans going crazy in Hollywood. We moved over to the side. I wrapped my arms around him and I said, ĎMan, the Bible says if you confess with your mouth Jesus Christ and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead youíll be saved. Do you want to do it, Mack?í He said, ĎYeahí. I put my arms around him, led him through the sinnerís prayer, and tears came down his eyes. That was another highlight of my career and my ministry to be able to lead people like this to the feet of Christ. Thatís what the end result is about for me and how can you argue with that?"
In addition to working with Mack 10 on Bone-a-Fide, T-Bone works with the controversial figure, L.A.-based rapper, Chino XL.
"I met Chino through Sway and Tech from the world famous Wake Up Show," says T-Bone. "Chino actually signed to Sway and Tech about a year and a half ago. Heís been making huge waves out in L.A.. Heís one of the most respected L.A. rappers now. Heís one of the best-kept secrets and most underrated rappers out there. Eminem himself said, ĎThatís the one dude I wouldnít battle.í Heís known as the lyrical MC that will come and crush you. Heís known for doing that and for talking about people and that kind of stuff. Chino and I have a great relationship going. Then I started realizing that this guy has a lot of love for God too. A lot of them just donít know how to use their talents towards God. He told me, ĎMan, I love God. My baby daughter was diagnosed with cancer and she had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her head or her stomach. When that happened, I prayed to God and told him that if He would just heal my daughter, I will never doubt you and I will know that you are real and will always give you praise for everything that I do.í Guess what? God healed his daughter, so when we got together, it was easy for him to agree to do a song together. Now, it wasnít easy as he is so used to cursing. He was amazed that with this, as it sounds like regular hip-hop. I told him that it is and that this is just conversational music. Thereís no right or wrong way to talk to God. So many times we make it difficult by saying ĎOh Lord, you are so great. Lord we worship thy name.í If youíre from the streets, you can just say, ĎWhatís crackiní God. I love you Lord.í He understands that. If there was only one language to speak to Him in, how can God hear the prayers of America and yet hear the prayers of those in Latin America who speak Spanish? How will understand the Chinese when they pray in Chinese? God speaks all languages. He speaks the language of love. I shared all of that with Chino and He was like ĎLetís do it maní. Weíre talking about doing another song where heís like this guy going out and the devil is trying to make him do bad and Iím like an angel trying to pull him back to the other side. Itís like a spiritual warfare song. This ainít the end of Bone and Chino XL. Youíll be hearing more from us."
The lead single from the new album is a song that expresses T-Boneís feelings about haters and the future.
"The single that we have out now, ĎCan I Live?í is about us learning to get along with each other," says T-Bone. "If you canít get along with me, then at least let me do what God has called me to do. Let me fulfill my destiny and my purpose. Itís also about not judging a book by its cover. Thereís a lot of people that see us and they say, ĎHow could God use him? Look, heís got his hair braided. He sags his pants. Heís riding around in a low-low with 22-inch rims spinning. Look at the way he talks.í All that Iím doing is giving back the only way I know how. I wasnít raised in the South where I did country music. I wasnít raised in Detroit where I learned how to sing and do R&B music. Iím a street kid and this is the only language that I know how to speak. This is the only way I know how to give back and you canít hate me for that."
T-Bone has also filmed a video for this single. It has no shortage of star power in it, as is becoming trademark for the emcee also known as "Boney Bone Corleone".
"We just did a new movie called ĎRumbleí. Thatís where I met Leila Ali, on the set of the movie," confesses T-Bone. "She and I hit it off instantly. We became really good friends. We were having lunch one day. I mentioned to her that I was shooting a video and wanted her to play the mom in the video. The first thing she said was, ĎYeah, thatís cool. I just donít want to be a video ho.í And I laughed but then I realized that it was sad because that is the truth of what we think of when we think of women in music videos. So I started explaining to her that this is a positive record. We still have to put the images out there that people are familiar with. We still have to put the cars, the rims, the bling, and all of that out there. But we donít have the different things that those videos have. Weíre not glorifying money or any of that. Weíre trying to point people towards God. When she read the script, she really felt what we were doing. She heard "Can I Live?" and found out that it was produced by Darkchild, she said ĎThis is amazing!! Where can I sign to get this thing done?!í Weíve got her in the video. Ron Artest is in the video. I just finished a song with him for his new album. Weíre trying to keep it crackiní like pistachios."
Making big waves in the secular hip-hop community is certainly news with the holy hip-hop community. Some could draw comparisons between T-Boneís Bone-a-fide effort and Ma$eís Welcome Back project, which launched his return to the hip-hop industry. However, T-Bone, sees very few parallels.
"Thereís a big difference. Ma$e didnít come from a history of the church and pioneering and being involved with gospel music. When he got saved, it was a different thing. He got saved out of the secular world. I think that Ma$e, to be honest with you, just lacked a lot of education. At first, he came out saying ĎIím a Christian now and I donítí believe that rap is good. I believe that all rap is evil, including gospel rap.í As a matter of fact, we were slated to do a show together and he ended up saying, ĎIf this guy T-Bone shows up, I canít be a part of it because thatís gospel rap and I donít endorse it.í I thought that was cool. The guy maybe needs time to change. When you come from such a horrid background and you associate rap with the orgies youíve had with all of these women, or the money that you made and it gave you evil things, then I can understand how he may have needed a season to separate himself completely and then God was going to speak to him. Then, at the same time, he started condemning a lot of the people that were in the industry with him. He was going around saying what they were doing was wrong and they were going to hell and all of that. Then, the next thing you know, Ma$e is back in the game doing what? Rapping. So, thatís where a lot of the secular artists were writing about him in Vibe. People had a lot of bad things to say about him, calling him a hypocrite because he started off saying one thing and ended up doing another. Thatís where itís a little bit different between he and I. Iíve been on the same page of representiní Christ and have never veered from that. That would be almost like me saying Iím a Christian and then all of a sudden, I come out with a Muslim record. Iíve pretty much stayed consistent in what I do. I think thatís why people donít have a problem with me crossing over because theyíre not worried about where my heart is and where Iím going. They know Iíve been consistent with this thing the whole way, so they know what Iím about."
Though T-Bone has met and established camaraderie with numerous secular artists, he is fully aware of the difficult nature of taking the gospel into the secular hip-hop culture.
"I think itís going to be really difficult," states T-Bone. "It wonít be difficult as far as the music goes because the music is undeniable. Thatís why it was so important for me to make a great record. Thatís why I couldnít just work with Joe Schmo. In order to be the best, youíve got to go get the best. So we went and got Darkchild, Fred & Rodney Jerkins. Theyíve done Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Destinyís Child, Mary J. Blige... theyíve worked with everybody."
Then we went out and got my man Bosko, who actually worked with Kanye [West] on his new record. Heís worked with Lilí Jon and produced everyone from E-40 to 2Pac. We got Fredwreck, who did the Mack 10 joint. A lot of people may not know that Fredwreck is Dr. Dreís right hand man. A lot of those hits that you heard from Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Xzhibit, and Eminem, heís done a lot of those. We got Buster and Shavoni on there. They are my people and my family. God has used them to break gospel urban acts into the mainstream. They were a part of Kirk Franklin, Trin-I-tee 5:7, and Yolanda Adams; major people who have crossed over. They also did The Prince of Egypt soundtracks. Weíve got Hallway Productions. They just did the new Ice Cube song for the latest XXX movie. Then youíve got Warryn Campbell. Heís got Snoop Doggís single on the radio. He produced all of the Mary Mary stuff. Heís got two songs on Missy Elliottís joint. We wanted to get people who understood what we were trying to do."
"I had to make a record that was undeniable, so that when the world would here it, they would say that this was great. One of the things Iíve learned is that people donít really care what youíre talking about, as long as itís good. A lot of people said that Kanye couldnít be big because heís not rapping about dealing, hustling, and all of that other stuff. Kanye proved everybody wrong. His music could sell and he didnít have to talk about what everybody else talked about because it was good. Thatís the key. Itíll be tough to infiltrate. Anytime youíre talking about Jesus and positivity, especially in hjp-hop, weíre definitely the underdog. I feel like hip-hop is looking for that hero. Parents are sick and tired of all of the parental advisory stickers. Radio is sick of having to get all of these edits and all of the evilness that it represents. Clubs are tired of having artists where there ends up being a shoot out. So, promoting this music the right way will be the key. If people start catching on and it starts selling, people will say, Ďwell I want to do what heís doingí. Kanye made certain things popular. Snoop made Crypt walking popular. When everybodyís doing it and itís selling, everybody jumps on the bandwagon. Itís just about making stuff that everybodyís going to want to be a part of and doing it in a way thatís not cheesy."
As a trendsetter and an innovator, T-Bone makes another bold step with launching this crossover effort. Itís bold. Itís real. Itís relevant and itís effective. In a word, itís Bone-a-Fide.
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