Josh Niemyjski is the man behind Sphere of Hip Hop, a site that has been curating new music, news, and other content for nearly two decades. Josh features some of the best Christian rappers–not necessarily “Christian Rap” (more on that later)–on his site, podcasts, and industry press. He also runs Illect Recordings, an independent rap label working with some of the most respected artists in organic rap, Christian or not.
Josh has navigated the waters of faith-informed music his whole life. He’s seen ugly hypocrisy, shoddy imitation, and other problems Christian Hip Hop has been marred by, but his love for the glories of both hip hop and Christian art and thought is what drives his passion as a promoter, hip hop head, and Christian. Josh has been one of the voices to help shape Christ and Pop Culture’s Sunday Oldskool hip hop podcast from its inception, and he was generous enough to share some of his insights into the booming genre with CAPC.
What is your vision for Sphere of Hip Hop (SOHH)?
I kind of reinvented it recently out of necessity. I deviated from the original plan over the years, but some of the moves I was making weren’t necessarily smart ones. I’m trying to get back to our original approach, which was more about curated content. I’ve been being a bit more selective and particular about who we put on than most outlets. We’re trying to do it in a way that isn’t driven by marketing or advertising. We spotlight some of the artists who aren’t rapping over trap beats and aren’t going to be quite as popular these days. I don’t have a deliberate goal to be around hip hop, it’s just what I do and what I love. We also cover stuff that has found a larger audience; we’re not trying to be strictly an underground hip hop site. We’re saying, “We think this is dope, so we want to spotlight it as something we think our audience will like.”
Another positive angle of Sphere of Hip Hop—and I know it’s cliché to call a label a community or family—but it does work that way. I know of five or six couples that have met because of SOHH events that have gotten married. It’s more than just disseminating information and posting videos; it’s become something pretty special, and I think that sense of community is what draws a lot of people to it.
Are all the artists featured Christian?
It varies in how they choose to brand themselves, but ultimately they do all have some connection to the church. The majority would be considered Christians. There are a certain number of them we feature who are clearly on the journey but haven’t arrived at that faith decision. So it’s probably best to categorize it as faith-based hip hop, but without all of the pretentiousness that you can see in “Christian Hip Hop” sometimes.
For you personally, how do hip hop and faith come together? Is hip hop merely professional, or does it mean more to your life?
I swim in it. Outside of my city, where there’s not much of a music scene (much less hip hop), all of my friends are people I’ve met in the music industry. It’s kind of hard to nail down the specific role hip hop plays in my life because it’s second nature now. I don’t have a deliberate goal to be around hip hop, it’s just what I do and what I love. I’ve always been drawn to it, so it’s been cool to build a lot of relationships and friendships through it.
Were you a hip hop fan before you were a believer?
Yes. In second grade, one of my friends got the new LL Cool J single. I remember all my schoolmates playing kickball outside while our teacher let us stay inside and use the record player to listen to hip hop. I was the only white kid listening to it, so it was an interesting experience for me, learning about the music from that angle. It’s tough for me because a lot of the early Christian hip hop stuff was pretty crummy, but I’m friends with a lot of those people. I respect their contributions to the genre but I never could get into their music.
But there were actually a few Christian rappers who spurred me on to become more serious about my faith. My faith wasn’t really brought home until I discovered groups like Freedom of Soul, LPG, and Tunnel Rats. I was like, “Wow, a quality record that sounds like what I’m into, not some 5-years-behind copycat recording by a Christian.” Ultimately, those kind of groups from the 1992-1995 range were what got me hooked and convinced that my faith could be more substantial than just going to youth group and not swearing.
Was there ever any tension between your hip hop tastes and your growing faith?
There was a time around my sophomore year of high school when I threw away all my 3rd Bass and Public Enemy records, the stuff like that in my collection.
You didn’t burn them in a bonfire did you?
No, just the trash. Burning the music was certainly going on, as hip hop was getting blamed as a great evil in society. I went through it, but I was more scared that some of the content would steer me down the wrong path because I wasn’t quite as strong in my faith at the time. I was just hedging my bets to try and stay in a positive space.
But by my freshman year of college I bought back pretty much everything I had trashed. I was cognizant of how it was affecting me and how those messages would play out, and I learned that I could separate the two and be fine. There is still stuff that I listened to before I became a Christian that I’m not proud of. 2 Live Crew and stuff like that. The message was trash; listening to it these days is embarrassing.
Through the Illect label I’ve had a chance to work professionally with a lot of the artists I grew up listening to. We have songs with guys from Black Sheep, A Tribe Called Quest and Jurassic 5, a bunch of groups that were a part of my formative years. It’s come full circle in a cool way.
Would you care to weigh in on the eternal battle over whether being a “Christian” who raps or a “Christian rapper” is the better approach?
It’s always been a big deal for a lot of people involved in it, but for me it’s purely a distraction from my ultimate calling as a believer. The label doesn’t matter. The label doesn’t save people. I’ve met some really bad business people and just dirty humans carrying the “Christian rap” label loud and proud, and then I’ve met some people who want nothing to do with it who are some of the most genuine, giving and serving people I’ve ever come across.
It doesn’t matter. People are people. I struggled with it early on. As a young believer, you feel like the world is coming at you and you have to fight back. “Stand firm! Be bold! People are going to Hell!” That kind of thing. Not to say that I don’t still have a sense of urgency [about sharing my faith], and I think every Christian should, but it’s more a matter of communicating to people and living out the gospel message in a way that people are actually attracted to. If you go around being a jerk to everyone, they won’t be interested in your message.
You don’t have to water down your beliefs or adopt methods that compromise the gospel with that strategy, but those are common accusations leveled against Sphere of Hip Hop. What we’ve been on since we started is dope hip hop from Christians. We’re not scared of being clear about that, but we choose not to use any marketing tag line or other press that leans on “Christian” as a selling point. We want to earn people’s respect so they care about the message we have to share. And that’s a foundational aspect of hip hop: if you have a person’s respect, they’ll listen to a message from a different perspective.
These people aren’t actively trying to listen to sermons or go to a Christian rap show. It’s more about being wise. “How can I properly engage this particular audience in a way that they’ll respond to?” And that particular, unchurched audience is not stupid. They can figure out what you’re talking about, that you’re rapping from a perspective of belief. They can tell you’re different.
Not to diminish the other path; it can be effective, too. I know my calling is unique, so I don’t want to disrespect other methods. You just have to understand your audience. If you’re ministering cross-culturally, you learn the values and morays of that culture and immerse yourself in it. That’s how you more effectively become a part of the culture and make an impact.
A lot of things become clearer the longer you’re a part of it. We’re seeing a big culture shift in hip hop right now, where people aren’t quite as scared to be linked to the church. Real talk, being sold in Christian book stores and doing church shows is low hanging fruit. It’s very easy and very profitable. I know a lot of guys who won’t do that who could. They’ve put out five or six records and are still rapping for a couple hundred people in bars to make $150 a show. They’re not any less talented than some rappers who perform for 10,000 kids at a youth conference.
Do you have any recommendations on Christian artists who might be a little off the radar for folks looking for quality hip hop?
Taelor Gray, K. Sparks, Scribbling Idiots, Alert312, Sivion, Ozay Moore. There are a lot of guys without huge backing who are putting out really exceptional hip hop that can appeal to people in both markets—Christian and conscious, organic hip hop. I could rattle off another 20; those are the kinds of artists we’re working with at Illect.