Finding God in the Game

Hip-hop A&R man turned preacher Cole Brown discusses the intersection of Jesus and Jay-Z with his book Lies Hip-Hop Told Me.

Like many teens weaned on the MTV culture of the early '90s, Cole Brown developed a love for hip-hop. While a student at Grant High School in Northeast Portland ("I learned nothing, but I loved the school"), he occupied his reclusive existence with encyclopedic investigations into ever-more-obscure corners of hip-hop and R&B.

"I didn't really know how to communicate with people," Brown says. "I didn't have any friends. Well, I had one friend. Every nerd has one friend. So my life became music."

It's hard to say which is more unlikely, that Brown—a pasty, lantern-jawed recluse from one of America's softest 'hoods—would wind up working in a studio alongside the likes of Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, or that he would later abandon that career, convert to Christianity and move back to his hometown to open a storefront church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. To hear Brown, now 34 though still possessed of a close-cut boyishness, tell it, the story hinges on a pop-culture dream fulfillment of American Idol-sized proportions.

Brown's teenaged audiophilia fixated on no less obscure a fetish than R&B singer and producer Teddy Riley. A member of the R&B groups Blackstreet and Guy, Riley—often credited as the father of new jack swing—had already crafted hits for the likes of Michael Jackson and Keith Sweat when he received a heartfelt piece of fan mail.

"I wrote Teddy Riley a letter as a freshman or sophomore in high school, just talking about how his music had influenced me," Brown says. "And a couple weeks later, he calls me on the phone and says, 'Thank you so much for your letter, it reminded me that I don't just do this for the money.' And it made me cry. And I told him that my dream was to work for him and he said, 'Call me when you get out of high school,' and he gave me his number."

Riley reconnected with his idol after graduation, and was rewarded for his efforts with an offer to move to Virginia and intern with Lil' Man Records, an imprint of Interscope that Riley managed.

Cole says Riley started him off as a personal assistant, but that he soon took on the duties of an A&R man, administering to tasks as various as selecting songwriters to work with the label's artists and policing Ol' Dirty Bastard's in-studio substance abuse.

Just as Brown's childhood aspirations were becoming a reality, he made the fateful acquaintance of a relatively unknown R&B artist named Mike E. Himself a recent convert, Mike E shared with Brown a personal take on Christian theology that had a profound effect on the up-and-coming A&R man. Though familiar with the language of Christianity through his R&B obsessions, Brown had never given much thought to a religious existence. "Living in Portland," he says, "it's easy to be 23 years old and to never have heard about Jesus."

Mike E's testimony fascinated Brown, and after a period of initial skepticism, he developed an interest in Christianity. After just two years at Riley's side, Brown elected to quit his job with Lil' Man Records and return to Portland, where he attempted to form a career as a producer of gospel and R&B records. He cites some successes—such as working with ex-Destiny's Child singer Michelle Williams—but the endeavor more often proved an unlikely frustration to Brown's newfound religious convictions.

"What I found out really quickly was that the commercial gospel industry was far more corrupt than the hip-hop and R&B industry," Brown says. "People were having sex with people who weren't their spouses, while singing about how you need to not do that. It was just really frustrating."

Brown turned his efforts to preaching. In 2006, he convened seven followers in Northeast Portland's Fernhill Park and founded Emmaus Church, which later moved into a storefront on Northeast Shaver Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. (Brown describes Emmaus as "a nondenominational charismatic church." Members who feel so inclined are encouraged to speak in tongues during Sunday services.) Brown began writing shortly thereafter.

His first self-published book, 2010's Lies My Pastor Told Me, addressed the circuitous development of his unique take on Christianity. Lies Hip-Hop Told Me, also self-published and due for a July 2 release, follows this same line of reasoning, but takes for its subject matter the twin obsessions that have described Brown's anomalous career. The book examines 14 of hip-hop's most ubiquitous catch phrases (like "bitches ain't shit" and "stop snitchin'") from the perspective of a hip-hop fan cum biblical dialectician.

Lies Hip-Hop Told Me approaches its musical constituent with knowing affection and its biblical sources with surprising erudition. Brown might be the only biblical scholar ever who has quoted Bobby Brown and the Book of Deuteronomy in the same paragraph.

Take this passage from Brown's chapter on "Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A.: "Jesus died…to save people like you and me and people like the racist, power-abusing police officers N.W.A. rapped about. When we pray for people in authority we glorify Jesus by acknowledging that he alone is able to rescue us (and others) from our slavery to evil and unite us (and others) to God."

"I don't want my view of the world to be forced upon N.W.A.'s view of the world," Brown explains. "I believe that N.W.A.'s view of the world is wrong in this regard, not because of anything I think is better, but because I think Jesus is a higher authority than me and a higher authority than N.W.A. So Jesus is going to correct me and he's going to correct N.W.A., but we still get to express ourselves."

Some of Brown's passages prove more controversial. In the chapter on the phrase "No Homo," he stresses that homosexual intercourse is a sin, "but it is not alone on that list and it is not the worst of all sins.” 

In distinction to the ideologues clogging the mainstream of America's theological discussion, though, Brown has developed a doctrine that allows for the peaceful coexistence of his religious convictions and secular obsessions. 

"I still love and listen to virtually all the hip-hop I listened to before," he says. "I listen to it in a different way, I think, no longer worshipping and absorbing everything it has to tell me, but enjoying the lyrics, the wordplay and the music and, oftentimes, the truth that it tells. I was just listening to Nas this morning. I love it.” 

SEE IT: A release party for Lies Hip-Hop Told Me is at YOLO Lounge, 412 SW 4th Ave., on Tuesday, July 3. 8 pm. Free. 21+. 

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