Music: Xross: Between Jesus and Jay-Z

The word of God came to local rapper Xross in a strip club, and he has been fighting to save hip-hop ever since.

Xross

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Few people love hip-hop more than Xross. And few people hate it more than the Twin Cities-based rapper/minister, who is part of a growing -- and, some might say, wholly unlikely -- genre known as holy hip-hop.

"Hip-hop culture has been hoodwinked and basically just lied to for way too long," said Xross ("cross"), aka Korey Dean.

"It glorifies money, drugs, a promiscuous lifestyle. It's leading a generation to believe that everything can come to you like something out of a microwave oven and you don't have to work for anything. I wanted to write an album that spoke the truth they need to hear."

The truth Xross refers to, of course, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's all over his new album, "Tell 'Em tha Truth." And it consistently defined an interview with the 34-year-old rapper two weeks ago at Nutty Boyz Entertainment, the Brooklyn Park recording studio owned by former Timberwolves player and aspiring rapper Troy (T-Hud) Hudson -- who has enlisted Xross as a spiritual adviser, while Xross uses T-Hud's studio for some of his recordings.

Christian rap is not an entirely new thing, but it only recently started to get some respect.

Two weekends ago, Xross was in Atlanta receiving an award at the burgeoning Holy Hip-Hop Awards. The BET network, which covered that ceremony, also now airs a weekly Christian rap show called "Generation Gospel" at 11 a.m. Sundays. Even the Grammy Awards has started to recognize the genre, albeit a bit clumsily: Xross and his wife, Mariaha Markel, earned a nomination in the best rock-gospel album category with a track they co-wrote for the 2005 compilation CD "Holy Hip-Hop: Taking the Gospel to the Streets." (The disc lost to rockers Third Day, but at least Xross can officially call himself a Grammy-nominated artist.)

"Early on, Christian rap earned a stigma of being kind of corny," Xross admitted, "but that's gone away. The production is a lot better, the beats are better and then there's more substance in the lyrics."

Another key difference might be the ever-important and somewhat intangible quality known as street cred. Many early Christian rappers looked like TV's Urkel when he got older and tried to shake the nerd traits, and their music sounded about as edgy as a DC Talk album.

Xross' music, on the other hand, is laden with hard-hitting beats, street slang and songs referencing gun violence, drug-slinging, one-night stands and all the other gangsta-isms that have made 50 Cent a multimillionaire. The difference, of course, is he puts all that down.

"I know what the enemy looks like, and I'm about to smoke him out," he raps in the album's title track. "I told them about the dope game and the cocaine on the block/ I told them about the Hennessy and the girl that got shot/ We talk about the church and the disconnection from the street/ When the church is disconnected from the street, there's more beefs, more crime, more murder / Disciples falling asleep."

Make no mistake: Xross' lyrics are consistently devoid of profanities and clean enough for churches, where he stages about 50 percent of his performances, including his CD party Saturday at the Shiloh Temple in Minneapolis, where he is a member. But were it not for the Christian message in every one of his songs, Xross would probably be deemed too racy to get played in KDWB's hip-hop-lite rotation.

"The music has to be culturally relevant," Xross explained. "That's key for Christian hip-hop, or for ministries period. So the craft of Jay-Z, Diddy, Kanye, 50 Cent definitely influences me because they're masters of the craft. It's just that their information is not conducive to building healthy families."

He added, "I think having street credibility makes it easier for some people to relate to you, especially someone going through a tough time."

Xross was going through his own rough patch when his breakthrough moment came in 2002. He says he heard the voice of God in -- of all places -- a strip club in Orange County, Calif., where he was living at the time and aspiring to be a secular rapper.

"I was just doing the usual: tipping dollar bills to the strippers, hanging out, getting high," he remembered. "God just kind of came to me and said, 'Hey, man, are you really happy?'

"The power of God is really strong when he speaks to you, and you know it's him. Of course, my partners just thought I was high. I didn't really realize it was the full power of God, but the full emotion started to take over, tears were streaming down my face. I knew I wasn't really happy. I wasn't fulfilled. That night, I gave my life to Christ."

A native of Louisville, Ky., Xross came to Minnesota to play football for St. John's University as a running back. He later joined the University of Louisville team and made it to the Liberty Bowl. He nearly played for the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, but was sidelined by a hernia, he said, so he came back to earn a degree from the University of Minnesota.

Now a father of four, Xross said he makes his living off his music and ministry. He runs his own label, 1 Way Entertainment, whose roster includes a Christian rock band, Breakthrough, as well as his wife and his rapping teenage son, KJ. With help from the Bobby Z-run, nationally distributed label CC Entertainment, he fully expects to tour the country behind "Tell 'Em tha Truth" and earn radio play for the single "Y U Runnin'." The only question is, will he be performing in secular or holy venues, and will he get played on mainstream or Christian radio stations?

"We see almost as many doors open and close in the secular music business as we do in the Christian world," Xross said. "Some people still don't get it. But mostly, the doors are opening more and more, especially in churches."

Succeeding as a minister, he said, is ultimately more important. But he sees ministering and rapping as one and the same.

"Hip-hop ministers fulfill the great commission in the Bible, which is to preach the gospel to all nations. We're not supposed to only preach to the people who are already saved."

'Death' becomes Casanatra

There aren't a lot of headliners at the Triple Rock that merit comparisons to Nickelback, but such is the odd fit but admirable appeal of local hard-rock trio Casanatra, which has a release party there tonight for its latest CD, "Death Ride."

Led by singers/guitarists Dennis Asher and Jer Fink and anchored by drummer Lance Reed -- yep, there's no bassist -- the band musters up a tornado of stormy, crunchy guitar riffs that are balanced out with angsty and anthemic choruses, much like Canada's most loved/hated band since Rush. Other songs thankfully recall the Foo Fighters and Soundgarden, too. The album has a fixation on all things six-feet-under that's weirdly clever and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Fellow hard rockers Self-Evident and cow-punks the Rockford Mules open the party (10 p.m., $6).

Meet Yeltzi

With a debut album titled "Snow in August," it's no surprise that the burgeoning new folk duo Yeltzi hails from Duluth. In fact, the twosome is made up of two well-known mainstays in the Twin Ports music scene: singer/songwriter Sara Softich and Beaner's Central promoter Jason Wussow. Using accordion, banjo, violin and acoustic guitars, the pair has created an upbeat and playful brand of twangy, traditional folk music. They call it "gypsy bluegrass," which is pretty apt.

Their CD-release party up north was back in October, but they are just now getting to the Cities to promote the disc with two shows, tonight at the 318 Cafe in Excelsior (7 p.m., $7) and Saturday at the 331 Club in Minneapolis (10 p.m., free). And for the record: Duluth did actually see an August snowfall back in 1949 (no surprise to those of us who caught Wilco's outdoor show there the week after Labor Day '07).

Random mix

Rhymesayers Entertainment has announced plans for a second Soundset festival over Memorial Day weekend this year, but the location will be different. It's moving out to Canterbury Park from the Metrodome lot because the Twins have a home game that day, May 24. This is the last year that will ever be a problem. Stay tuned for announcements on the lineup and, hopefully, bus routes out to Shakopee. ...

Story of the Sea has a release party tonight at the Turf Club for its overdue second album, "Lunar Co." Now a four-piece headed up by brothers Adam and Ian Prince (ex-Manplanet and Houston), the band capably weaves between bouncy, Strokes-style snarl-rock and powerful, Afghan Whigs-style grr-rock. These Modern Socks and Ice Palace open the show (10 p.m., $5). ... After spending last year performing everywhere from Australia with the Beautiful Girls to Piano's in New York (where he had a weekly gig), former Planes for Spaces frontman Joe January is hunkering down at the 400 Bar for the month of February. He's playing there every Thursday (9 p.m., $5), building up to the release of his first solo record, "Broken Record." ...

If you didn't make the Wailers show two weeks ago and/or you need to be reminded that every little thing is going to be all right, you can get your Bob Marley fix tonight and Saturday at the Cabooze's 17th annual Songs of Freedom tribute concert with the International Reggae All-Stars, Lynval Jackson, Innocent and others (9:30 p.m., $10-$15) ...

Mark Olson and Gary Louris are kicking off the campaign for their long-awaited duo album, "Ready for the Flood" (which came out Tuesday), with a mini-set Monday at Treehouse Records in Minneapolis. Tickets to the in-store went as fast as the ones for their two Varsity Theater dates Feb. 21-22, so that leaves radio giveaways as fans' only option to see the former Jayhawks mates perform in town. Both Cities 97 and the Current are hosting them in-studio Monday for sets to be aired later in the week.

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

  • related content

  • Audio: Xross - 'YURunnin'

    Thursday January 29, 2009

  • Audio: Xross - 'Tell 'em Tha Truth'

    Thursday January 29, 2009

  • XROSS CD PARTY

    With: KJ, Sammy McDowell, Mariaha Markel, Triad-4-Christ, more.

    When: 6 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Shiloh Temple International Ministries, 1201 W. Broadway, Mpls.

    Tickets: Free. Call 763-502-0212.

    HEAR

    samples from Xross at startribune.com/music.

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