Run-DMC to P.O.D., Ruben Torres Helped Shape the Future of Christian Hip-Hop
Pause for a second and think about your favorite artist. Now take a moment and think about the person behind the scenes that helped make them who they are. The picture in your head is not so easy to come up with now, is it? Who coached them, who believed in them when they needed encouragement, who slept on cold floors and toured in broken down vans with them before they made it? Today, we present to you, Ruben Torres. He is that guy that has stayed behind the scenes and helped create magic in not only the Christian music industry but out into all music and even the film industry.
Torres got his start in music in the early 90s with the hip-hop group Smooth Ruffness. Back then he was known as Faceman. It’s not something he often talks about, and when asked about his upbringing in music, it’s a topic he wouldn’t necessarily bring up without being asked about it.
“It was four of us, then it became two. We put out a couple of projects and toured with P.O.D. in 1993 – 94,” he said, trying to think back.
While touring and performing was something that drove his musical passion, Faceman had a strong desire to perform with his heroes, Run-DMC.
“I had just gotten saved and Run-DMC was doing the ‘Down with the King’ Christian sounding stuff,” he said. “It was a dream of mine to perform with them.”
Smooth Ruffness was afforded that chance in 1995 when they opened up for the hip-hop legends at Belly Up in San Diego.
While the memory of that night is burned into his brain as a dream come true, it also provided something else – a completely new perspective of what he wanted to do with his life.
“We are in the backstage area and see who DMC is with. I see these older guys who were in their 70’s, maybe 80-years-old. They are in suits and have these big cell phones,” he shared. “At that point in my life, something just clicked in me where I didn’t need to be an artist anymore. I want to be the old guy with the cell phone behind the scenes. As an artist, your time expires, as a business guy behind the scenes, you could be 90 years old.”
A few months later Torres performed one more time as Faceman. This time, it was in front of his mother, who was seeing her son perform for the first and last time.
Faceman had accomplished everything he wanted to do as an artist, it was time to become Ruben Torres.
“At that point, I was done. I was still writing songs and producing in the studio. I was just passing down knowledge. I had been there done that.”
Throughout this mid-90s timeframe, Torres had been working with Rescue Records. The small independent label was founded by Noah Bernardo Sr., father of P.O.D. drummer Wuv.
Torres was sat down, and asked: “Do you want to be an artist or a business guy?” For him the answer was simple.
One of his first duties with the label was as its Vice President.
Originally Rescue Records was formed so that P.O.D. had a label and a support system. P.O.D. started gaining traction so having the label brought some stability to the band.
“They were large everywhere else before San Diego started to embrace them,” said Torres. “As the band blew up we became ready to sign more acts to the label so we moved into the hip-hop stuff.”
Pretty soon Rescue Records was developing and signing some of the area’s top talent, and even extended beyond that as well. Artists and groups such as Fros’T, 12th Tribe, Unity Klan, Dirt, Dogwood, Tonex, and others joined P.O.D. under the sphere of Torres’ and Rescue Records’ guidance.
After a while, Torres broke off from Rescue and began cultivating talent on his own.
He was sent music from “two white kids from Texas,” he said. At first, he was a bit apprehensive about what he was getting into, but those two “white kids” wound up being Playdough (KRUM) and Blake Knight of Ill Harmonics.
Another young emcee that he found potential in was a kid from Florida named Jonah Sorrentino, or as everyone has come to know him, KJ-52. At the time KJ was performing with Golden Child as the group Sons of Intellect.
Torres recalls shooting a video with the pair and even having Sonny from P.O.D. and the rapper Dirt in the video. “No one is doing this right now,” he thought at the time.
Torres takes great pride in looking back at all the artists he’s had the chance to work with. Some of these talents would go on to be huge national touring acts, most notably P.O.D. KJ-52 would go on to be one of the biggest Christian rappers of the mid-2000s as he found his niche for mixing funny songs with deep spiritual stories in his songs.
“The biggest reward is knowing you were there since day one and believing in them when no one was,” he admitted. “I was riding the bus before they were riding the limos. I was sleeping on the floors of friends houses and churches before they were in the five-star hotels. We did all that stuff together and I know it’s something these artists will never forget. We’re doing the grind before the fans came on to become friends and loyal followers.”
As someone with deep roots in Christian hip-hop, Torres has a lot of feelings as to where the state of it is today. For the most part, he thinks it’s in a good place but sometimes gets in its own way in the way it’s promoted.
“I think Christian hip-hop has always been in the business of carbon copying,” he explained. “When I was in the business side of things, the distribution companies would always say, ‘This band sounds like this’. ‘You’ll love Dirt if you like Wu-Tang Clan’. Why does it always have to be that way? Why not just, ‘You’ll love Dirt period’?”
The former emcee believes that this comparison game hurts the brand of the actual artist. Instead of being the Christian answer to a secular artist, the artist needs to be seen as a credible artist in their own right.
“Artists have also pigeonholed themselves to sound like other people. Especially their first albums coming out,” he said. “I think of artists like Lecrae and Andy Mineo. They don’t really sound like anybody. Come out and be original. God called you to be you. Use your talents of what he put inside of you.”
Going back to the example of Lecrae and Mineo, Torres said that these two should give a class on how to think outside of the box when it comes to music and sound. It is this ability that allows them to be accepted in all circles.
“There’s a lot of artists out there that desire to be on the level with them and deserve to be on ‘Jimmy Kimmel’ and all the late night TV shows but they just don’t know how to get there,” said Torres. “What I see in the industry is the crabs in a bucket syndrome, meaning: once you see someone getting up there in status, let’s pull them back down because I need to be up there. Instead of holding each other’s ladders so I can get to the top and then hold the ladder for them.”
“There’s no ladder holders anymore.”
His suggestion is something akin to what major sports leagues have in the chaplain system. In sports, athletes have chaplains whom they can seek out for spiritual guidance and advice when they are veering off.
“There should be more shepherds for the Christian hip-hop industry. Maybe some of these older cats like Soup the Chemist that have been there or KJ-52. There needs to be more of these guys that are involved and gather around these younger guys and guide them and steer them in the right direction.”
Torres has taken this discipleship principle to heart and has cultivated his own community ministry called Love Thy Neighbor Movement.
Check back with Rapzilla next week for part two with Ruben Torres where he speaks about the Love Thy Neighbor Movement, working with Frankie J, and the melting pot of music in San Diego.
For more info on Ruben Torres click here.