On Nov. 24, 2014, Miami-based rapper Lawren was ready to make his first Christian hip-hop song his last.

Months earlier, his wife had told him to quit rapping — unless, of course, he finally started to take it seriously. Lawren had spent hundreds of dollars on studio time but, insecure, never released any music.

After weeks of work, he submitted the music video for “Craxyr” in November to Rapzilla.com, planning to retire if it failed to please viewers enough to justify the creation of an entire project. With a family to support, keeping such an expensive hobby made no sense — even if this hobby had essentially kept him out of prison years prior.

Pistol

Lawren grew up around Blood gang members. When he dropped out of high school in ninth grade, he had more time to spend with them. After years of affiliation, he was jumped in at 17 years old, but his rapping ability kept him from experiencing the typical gang life.

“I was actually protected from doing really bad things because they wanted to see me succeed in music,” Lawren said.

Lawren, the middle name of Ralph Arteaga, didn’t serve then as his stage name. Pistol did. His flow as he freestyled earned him the nickname, and he soon built a buzz thanks to support from the Bloods.

Even “protected,” though, he still needed to make money, and his initial roofing job after he dropped out became less attractive in the scorching, South Florida summer. He quit and instead focused his efforts on selling drugs.

“It wasn’t anything for me to have a couple thousand dollars-worth of crack cocaine in my car,” Lawren said.

While Lawren grew up around Bloods, he also was raised around Christians. His grandfather was a pastor, and much of his family attended church — not Lawren, though, who only frequented youth group to play football, eat free food and recruit for the Bloods.

“He was a pain,” his cousin Jonathan Herrera said.

After growing up together, Herrera distanced himself from Lawren in their late teens because he stopped feeling safe.

Herrera’s least fond memory of his cousin was at a party, to which Lawren wore all red to represent for the Bloods, and someone tipped off a rival gang. That night, three cars full of gang members — some wielding baseball bats — pulled up to the party. Eighteen-year-old Lawren, all 5’7, 130 pounds of him, approached and starting cussing at them.

“There’s only four of us Ralphie,” Herrera said. “Why are you talking smack to these grown men?”

Lawren got pulverized, but it was this boldness that Herrera knew, if Lawren eventually became a Christian, would make a major ministerial impact. However, this seemed like a longshot for a member of the Neighborhood Piru, a Miramar, Florida-based faction of Bloods.

In 2008, Lawren’s connection to the criminal organization should have landed him in prison. Federal authorities charged 14 alleged Neighborhood Piru members under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) after a “string of shootings, home invasions, business robberies, car thefts and other crimes,” the Sun Sentinel reported. Despite Lawren’s gang involvement that warranted a RICO charge, though, police never knocked on his door.

By 2010, the guilt of his gang involvement had mounted. Lawren told the Bloods that he wanted out, so they arranged for him to be jumped out. He proceeded to rap without their support.

Several months later while mowing his grass, he received a call about a fight between two of his friends who were gang members. Lawren tried to stop it because one was significantly stronger than the other, but they still fought and neither were injured. After the scuffle, Lawren drove his weaker friend home, and neighbors who awaited them in his lawn invited Lawren to church.

“Hold on, what?!” Lawren said. “Do you know what we just did? How are we going to go to church after this?”

They ultimately convinced Lawren to go because girls would be there.

The group arrived later that day, and when Lawren walked into the church, cheers erupted. Several members of his family were members of the church, and he had visited years prior.

“What the heck,” Lawren said. “Why do they care so much? Why do they love me? Nobody does that … My own mom doesn’t do that when I walk in the door.”

People cheered because the least likely person to attend church they knew just walked through their doors.

Following a meal, attendees moved to the sanctuary, where they watched a video of Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, speaking about how science shows the glory of God.

“What are you talking about?” Lawren said. “Science and God never agree.”

Lawren and another friend mocked the video throughout, but the more Lawren heard, the more he felt convicted and convinced.

After the service, Lawren called his cousin.

“I really felt like God was speaking to me,” he said. “I never felt anything like that.”

Herrera, who had been living in West Palm Beach, just happened to be moving back to Miami the next week. Lawren asked him if they could attend church the Sunday after he arrived.

They did, and the pastor’s testimony had Lawren’s hands shaking.

An altar call followed the sermon, and Lawren walked to the front of the sanctuary in tears.

HVNTS

After Lawren became a Christian, rap turned into more of a hobby than a career pursuit. He had no interest in becoming a Christian rapper, but the dozens of CDs that Herrera gave him helped keep his passion for hip hop alive and open him up to the idea.

Lawren spent the next few years writing, recording and maturing in his faith at Christ Fellowship Church in Miami. By the time that his wife told him to either release music or stop recording in 2014, he had connected with GordonBeats, who later produced the songs “Turtlenecks and Blazers” and “2004” for Social Club.

After months of work, Lawren and GordonBeats released “Craxyr” in November and expected little acclaim.

“I never thought that anybody would like my music,” Lawren said. “I thought it was just me and my close friends.”

He was wrong, and the feedback they received was so positive it told them an EP would be worth the trouble. Lawren then recorded the other four songs on his project that dropped this Thursday, HVNTS (havenots).

Rapping is no longer a hobby to Lawren — nor a way to earn a record deal.

“Before, it was just, ‘I’m trying to get a deal, trying to get a deal,’ and if he wasn’t getting his deal, he wasn’t getting fulfilled,” another cousin and former manager of Lawren’s, Michael Rojas, said. “Now, he sees how he’s affecting other people’s lives and he’s finally getting a fulfillment out of it.”

Hip hop has become a means of ministry for him, and he’s just as bold as Herrera had imagined, which is partly why Marty of Social Club has become a mentor to him.

“I love Lawren,” Marty said before HVNTS dropped. “Lawren is a really good guy with a heart for God. He only has like [two] songs out, but every single song is dope.”

Lawren’s light discography still earned him a spot on Rapzilla’s Freshman 15, and Marty believes he’ll only improve.

“The thing about Lawren is, he doesn’t care what it takes,” Marty said. “He’s willing to pay the cost. ‘If that’s not the way to go, I won’t go that direction.’ He just has a heart that’s more about, ‘I want to do what God’s called me to do,’ instead of, ‘You know what? I have my own ego, and this is the way I want to do it.’ He says, ‘Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.’

“I love people who are teachable … That’s how you learn. Lawren just wants to learn and reach people. He’s into a local church that we love. I love seeing rappers who are involved in a local church. It’s sad to see rappers who are not a part of a church. It kind of weirds me out. That’s a red flag for me, but he’s really a part of his church, and I love seeing that.”

Download Lawren’s free EP HVNTS.