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Food for the Spirit 

Grits are God-fearing, but don't call them gospel rappers

Grits may be the biggest hip-hop group you've never heard of. The Nashville duo moved more than 100,000 copies of its most popular album, 2002's The Art of Translation, and landed songs in films like Big Momma's House 2 ("Ooh Aah"), Something's Gotta Give ("Here We Go") and The Perfect Man ("Make Room").

"We're cats who love hip-hop, and grew up on hip-hop," says Stacy "Coffee" Jones, who raps alongside Teron "Bonafide" Carter. Both in their mid-30s, they rhyme about having fun and enjoying lives impacted by Christ. "I'd rather walk in the light of the truth presented/I never understood grace until I truly repented," raps Jones on "Get Down." But they shudder at the term "Christian rap" because it puts a wall between them and mainstream audiences.

What distinguishes Grits from Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo, who declares "Introduce your neighbor to your saviour" on "Go-Go Gadget Gospel"? Or KRS-One, who recorded a gospel rap album called Spiritual Minded? "It's like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr up to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. They're just conscious rappers. They've touched on all kinds of religions," says Jones. "We're not selling our faith. We're selling music," he adds.

Carter and Jones met while they were backup dancers for DC Talk, a pioneering trio of Christian rappers. "We toured with them for eight years," says Jones. Often ridiculed by hip-hop fans, as well as many Christians who claimed rap music was inherently profane, DC Talk eventually found its greatest success as a more palatable pop-rock act. When DC Talk's Toby McKeehan founded his own label, Gotee Records, Jones and Carter signed to it as Grits, an acronym for Grammatical Revolution in the Spirit. Its debut album, Mental Releases, came out in 1995. "Dude knew our vision, and he knew our heart," says Jones of McKeehan.

Grits thrived in the contemporary Christian scene for years before The Art of Translation brought it to mainstream attention. Most reviewers condescendingly noted Grits' faith (AllMusic.com calls it the "best Christian hip-hop album ever"), then suspiciously ignored their 2004 albums, Dichotomy A and Dichotomy B. Now, however, there is a generation of underground hip-hop acts who are equally forthright about their beliefs, including the Procussions, Lightheaded, Mars Ill, L.A. Symphony, Cunninlynguists and many others. If Grits evolved from DC Talk's overtly religious themes by recording albums nearly indistinguishable from its secular counterparts, save for occasional mentions of God, these relatively new artists are among the first to receive widespread acclaim regardless of their faith. Grits wants the same measure of respect.

In May of this year, Grits released 7, a compilation of older songs like the aforementioned "Here We Go" and "Tennessee Bwoys," along with three new tracks. "For a lot of people, the general mass who hasn't heard of us or who has just kind of touched on us, this is the official 'Bam, here it is. This is Grits. This is what we're about,'" says Jones. He adds that 7 is the final album on Grits' contract with Gotee Records. He and Carter are setting up a new label, 5E Entertainment, through which they plan to issue Redemption in November. 5E Entertainment's success, he believes, "is just a matter of associating Grits with music and hip-hop versus Christian and gospel."

This weekend, Grits will perform during Forward Conference 2006, a four-day youth gathering at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Co-organized by Gainesville, Ga., pastor Jentezen Franklin, it will draw a more pious crowd than the one you'll find at Vision nightclub. "We go wherever we're called," he says. "That's one of the positives of the music that we do, because it's not associated with nothing negative."

mosi.reeves@creativeloafing.com

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