Meet Good Fruit Co.: The Asian American Christian Hip-Hop Label
Raise one index finger — you just counted the number of record labels with four Korean American Christian hip-hop artists.
More than ethnicity makes the Maryland-based Good Fruit Company unlike any other Christian hip-hop label, though.
This month, cofounder Sam Ock released his second album Grey. It sounds different than typical hip-hop projects, thanks to an atypical musical upbringing compared to other hip-hop artists. Which, is a good place to start the Good Fruit story.
Ock started playing classical piano at five years old. After he joined the praise team at his church, he learned keyboard, drums and bass guitar. In high school, he added jazz band, wind ensemble and choir to his résumé.
Ock wasn’t exposed to hip hop until his cousin introduced him to Eminem’s music.
“Whoa, what is this?” Ock said. “What is rap?”
He soon became a fan of A Tribe Called Quest and boom-bap hip hop, the drums of which he thought would be fun to combine with classical strings. Ock began to make beats that utilized his entire arsenal of instruments. He would upload them to SoundClick and play them for his friends on AOL Instant Messenger.
Ock tried to find rappers and singers to record vocals over his instrumentals, but — as a Christian — he couldn’t find any whose lyrics fit his ideals. So he taught himself to rap and sing.
“I actually consider myself to be more of a producer,” Ock told Rapzilla. “I see my voice — singing and rapping — as instruments to use in my production.”
Reading his Facebook newsfeed on a Friday night, though, Ock finally found a rapper who he wanted to work with. A mutual friend had posted a webcam video of a group of teens, one who rapped while the rest danced.
“What do church kids do on Friday night when they don’t have service?” Ock said. They don’t go partying, so they just make silly videos.”
James Han, who grew up in a more urban area of Maryland than Ock, became a hip-hop fan at an early age and started writing rhymes in high school. He wasn’t pursing a rap career when Ock watched his freestyle on Facebook, but his performance impressed Ock, who reached out to work with him.
Six months after they started collaborating, Han’s youth pastor connected them with his cousin, Chung Lee. He had produced music since high school and began to rap when he recognized he could use it as a youth ministry tool.
Han and Lee, who go by the stage names J. Han and CL, were hip-hop heads — not musicians like Ock, so it took time for them to build chemistry.
“When I met them, they both weren’t on the same page as me in terms of fusing genres together,” Ock said, “but they were open to just making good music.”
The time it took to make good music wasn’t long. In 2009, the same year they met, Ock and J. Han wanted to share another video to a song they had made with their Facebook friends. They shot it from Ock’s home, uploaded it on to YouTube and, after a few hundred thousand views, realized forming a group may not be such a foolish idea.
Ock, J. Han and CL formed the label Anointed Music Productions (A.M.P.) in 2010 and released their debut album AMP, short for “Amplify Christ,” in May. Since then, they’ve thrived in a place where few Christian hip-hop artists are more prominent — the Korean American church. Today, the music video for “Never Change” has 1.5 million views.
AMP members didn’t intentionally form an all-Korean group. They simply connected through the network available to them. And when AMP set out to engage culture with art created through a biblical worldview, it had no intention of primarily engaging Korean culture.
Ock and J. Han simply grew up around Korean American communities and all of them attend Korean American churches, giving them a relatability to this church network that few hip-hop artists offer.
On Good Fruit Co.’s four-stop Fearless Tour last year, Asians made up 90 percent of its audience, the label that launched in 2014 estimated. The members didn’t know how many people would attend concerts on their first national tour, but they experienced enough success to plan a 10-stop tour in 2015.
Ock and J. Han only graduated from college two years ago, but they and Good Fruit have developed an important voice, which J. Han is still wrapping his mind around.
“Knowing the possibility that people are really listening to you is really frightening,” he said. “I don’t always feel like I have the best thing to say. I don’t know the most. I feel like I’m still learning a lot. Why would anyone want to listen to me?”
Whether Good Fruit thinks its worthy or not, people are listening. And it’s built a following not only in America, but also overseas.