Stephen Wiley and the Birth of Christian Hip-Hop [Interview]
Once upon a time, in hip-hop history, existed a time and place far removed from what we see now. Before there was the talk of a rapper’s plight, there was Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Artists and groups such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, DJ Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow and a slew of other DJ’s and MC’s introduced a new style of music called rap. However, it wasn’t new for one young artist, who had been unknowingly doing it for years. This is the story of how Christian hip-hop was born.
Jazz drummer and local Oklahoma DJ, Stephen Wiley never sought out to be a rapper. Wiley had aspirations to gain fame out of his band and spent his teen years playing night clubs for people older than he. The seed for music was planted by a pastor who allowed him to play the drums at his church. At the time, “rock” sounding music was taboo in the church, so he had to get his fix outside of it.
Wiley would go on to play in his high school and college band, and eventually, would become the morning show DJ as a junior at Oklahoma University.
As Dr. DJ, Wiley would open every show with the same a cappella rhyme that would serve almost as his intro song. One day, a friend passed on a recording of Sugarhill Gang and said to him, “Steve, you can do this.”
From there on out, Wiley began experimenting with his intro and would try it over various pieces of music.
His creativity eventually led him to make raps about things he was passionate about. Wiley entered the studio and recorded a song called “Basketball Rap” with his band Uptown Syndicate in 1979. It became a regional hit in Oklahoma. If that song title sounds familiar, well it is, but more on that in a minute.
As Wiley began soaking in the rhythms of hip-hop, he had the opportunity to see Sugarhill Gang perform live in his hometown. He was even afforded the opportunity of meeting them after the show and was invited onto their tour bus. It was there that he met the group’s producer and now early hip-hop legend, Sylvia Robinson. Robinson created Sugarhill Records, the hip-hop group, and also gave Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 their first break.
Wiley expressed his interest in rapping and hung out with the group for awhile. By the end of the night, Robinson told Wiley, “You can join our crew.” A very pleased Wiley left that meeting excited for the future.
Soon after, the aspiring MC met another key figure in golden era hip-hop, J.B. Moore, the producer for a new star from New York, Kurtis Blow. The two had a number of conversations and Wiley mentioned that he was asked to join Sugarhill Gang and even had a rap style song with his band called, “Basketball Rap.”
Moore then warned Stephen and told him, “Those people are crooks and they’ll rip you off…they aren’t good people, send it to me, I’ll take care of it.”
Ultimately, Wiley doesn’t join Sugarhill and sends his song to J.B. Moore.
Nothing comes about with the song, but in 1984 Wiley hears his song on the radio with a different chorus, except Kurtis Blow, was doing the rapping. “The song was pretty much the same,” said Wiley.
“I was a young guy in college, I don’t understand my rights but I knew I had been ripped off. I didn’t know about getting a lawyer and copyright and all of that.”
Circling back to 1981, Wiley became a Born Again Christian. His band Uptown Syndicate had still been performing and they sent a demo to a Motown producer in L.A.
“They said, ‘If you get to L.A., you get a contract with Motown. All you have to do is get out here’,” he said.
The band was all ready to go until Stephen had what he describes as a “Damascus road experience.”
He was listening to gospel music and the voice of God said to him, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33).
“It wasn’t audible but I heard it so strong on the inside,” he exclaimed.
At the time, Wiley was doing night shifts at a warehouse and he asked his fellow Christian friend about it. “‘I think I heard the voice of God’ and my friend says, ‘That’s a scripture. I think God’s trying to get your attention’.”
He called the producer in L.A. and explained what happened, “You may or may not understand this, but I think God is trying to give me direction.” Waiting to be laughed at or cursed out for wasting this person’s time, they respond, “If you heard from God, you need to follow God. Who am I to question God.”
That was the confirmation Wiley needed.
“I’m on the radio and they are playing 15-second gospel clips and I hear about advertisements to Bible colleges.”
Wiley decided to write every school a letter and slowly heard back from a few. He settled on going to Rhema Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, OK.
Once he began learning the ins and outs of the Bible, he began applying the scriptures to his rap music. The year is 1981 and with hip-hop still in its infancy, the only beats he has are scores and soundtracks from movies. He began making songs on a little 8-track recorder and would perform at churches and youth events with his demos.
He also worked at a youth correctional facility and would use Christian inspired hip-hop to connect with the struggling teens. He was able to connect on a level they could relate to, and this became the basis of his future raps.
Fast forward to 1984-1985 and he ends up going into the studio to record his own music professionally. At this point, Wiley had already been rapping for four years.
With the record finished, it was time to make copies and distribute. Little did he know that one need would take care of the other. The place that duplicated his tapes also did the duplication for Kenneth Copeland Ministries and Lionel Richie. Unbeknownst to him, the company went to a Christian booksellers meeting and were passing out copies of Stephen Wiley’s album alongside Lionel Richie’s.
“Five record companies called me in one day, follow up,” said Wiley, who was now getting the most attention he had ever received. He ultimately signed with Brentwood Records.
That deal made Wiley the first Christian rapper to get nationwide distribution and get a legitimate record deal. There were plenty of artists who came before him or at they same time, but they only had hits regionally or locally. He was able to make an impact through a wide market and Christian rap was now on the map.
His first single release was called Bible Break. In 1986 “Bible Break” the song would chart at No. 14 on the Christian charts. Around nine months later he would follow-up with a project called Rappin’ for Jesus. It contained the songs “Rappin’ For Jesus” and “Let’s Praise (Psalm 150).”
Wiley’s record deal helped open the door for Christian hip-hop. Over the next couple of years, the genre would take off and at times rattle the status quo of the church who had still been fighting over rock music. The Dove Awards would have to expand their categories and CCM would jump on the rap train to keep the music moving along. Things were changing…
Read more about Stephen Wiley’s story, the Dove Awards creating a rap category, and the “Grandmaster of God” making a comeback here.