Veteran Philly emcee Hansoul (Hans Nelson) has been recreating his life story for over 20 years. Well, finally, he has something to show everyone in the form of a film. The project features Christian rap legends such as Da’ T.R.U.T.H., Eshon Burgundy, Japhia Life, and more.
We chatted with Hansoul to get the scoop on the film and how it came together.
You created this film over the course of 20 years. Can you walk through the timeline of writing, planning, shooting, editing, release, etc?
In 1995 when I left the world and stopped doing secular music, I really had a lot of supernatural encounters with the Lord that showed me it was critical to leave. The Lord dropped the vision to do the movie in my heart. After a few years of deep discipleship and seeking, in the late 90s, I started jotting ideas down on the treatment and script.
In 2001 I took a Script Writing class at Temple University right after I graduated and began to flush out the treatment more. From 2001 to 2011 I believe I would spend an hour or less every weekend just writing the script. It was very long, maybe around 200 pages when I finished writing it in 2011.
We then brought on my man NBA Vet John Salmons, a friend Kevin Hackenberg, and another partner who is a scriptwriter and started table reads of the script to help see what we could drop from the script.
Will Thomas began editing the script, he and I would flesh out the script, and the Lord kind of gave ways we could add to the story to tie things together.
In regards to the planning, we just have had a team approach – Habakkuk 2:2: “And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”
It takes a lot more planning than people think just to shoot one scene or 30 seconds of a movie let alone two-plus hour parts of a two-part movie and eight-part series. But we have people on our team who kind of help me to stay on course cause I just get a lot of ideas all the time. We have had to systematically plan every detail of every shoot date and every editing session. Planning is critical for shoot dates because I started as a secular emcee in the early ’90s on Epic Records.
My first video was shot by Billy Woodruff who shot a lot of major mainstream artists’ videos and I kind of just watched how production and planning went by my next deal with Loud Records. I was more involved with that video shoot and then the next two videos I produced and helped my man Skinny B. Then by God’s grace I directed several of my videos as a CHH artist so the planning process of shooting the movie kind of started out in regards to how a video is shot.
In January of 2012, I scheduled two shoot dates with a Director of Photography (Tom Agnello) who was an analog film guy and I shot one day with a DP Kevin Hackenberg who was a digital guy. I did that as a test to see if the digital was comparable to the film stock. From there we kind of were trying to shop the trailer we shot but we realized it was probably better to just piece the project together incrementally. Also because I have been a full-time School Teacher and this past year transitioned for one year only into an Athletic Director role at a local Philly Highschool I was not able to take a two-month period to shoot the movie in one shot so we would save money for two or three days and shoot and then a breather and circle back and shoot some more.
From a funding perspective, I flipped a house in 2007 and asked my wife if we could take the proceeds from that and put them in a bank account for the ministry. We used that money to record an album and proceeds to help market the movie. We did several fundraisers to try to gain funding and awareness for the movie.
Then in 2015, we booked Sinbad to do a fundraiser for the movie at the church where I attend and help out and we raised some funding through that. In fact, Sinbad donated $3,000 out of his own money specifically towards the movie. We then did a Tasha Cobbs benefit concert for the movie in 2016 or 2017. We did a few other funding events for the movie to help us get over the finish line.
To shoot scenes that needed crowd participation for part two – which was filmed live at a Jamie Grace and Da’ T.R.U.T.H. concert we promoted it as a live filming event and it also was a fundraiser to help our movie budget. The thought was that people would get on a train that was moving and going somewhere, so we decided to just keep moving forward.
As far as editing is concerned I was trying to find a good editor I could trust and who had a heart for the vision. After looking around for a while I spoke with Eshon Burgundy who had known Will Thomas for years and highly recommended him. I approached Will and he said the Lord put it on his heart to edit the movie so we just started grinding. First, one of the brothers from my ministry Fishermen Ministry Group Inc. Robert Merrill was given the excruciating task of syncing sound to hundreds of hours of footage which took hundreds of hours. We then created Adobe projects and sent that to Will who had to put countless hours into organizing footage.
The process with Will has been a great learning experience for me as Will pushed me to really organize the footage which was not my strong suit so that we could be most efficient with time. Then he would just start cutting and I would send notes and then I flew to Atlanta seven or eight times. Will is an anointed Director and Editor and although younger than me taught me so much about editing a film and even making a film.
Also one of my producers and my acting coach Garfield Randlemen really taught me a lot about how to act. In fact, I didn’t want to act in the movie. I was trying to cast Trip Lee and others but financially I see why the Lord had me act in the movie for certain age ranges while Timothy Brindle’s sons and a young brother Josh played my character in childhood.
You had a large cast. How’d you slot in everyone and decide who did what?
The first process is prayer. Just seeking God and in many instances, He would lay on my heart who to play a certain role. Early on because Play (Christopher Martin) and I have been good friends for over two decades I felt he would be a good person to cast for the role of Dante who is primarily in part two of the movie. The same thing with T.R.U.T.H., Japhia Life, KJ-52, and many others. I used a digital casting platform to hold casting calls to fill in the gaps. Certain roles like the role of Dr. Nelson, my dad, it was between Benjamin Onyango and Clifton Powell but we just prayed on which person would play what role. As far as Jamie Grace, her team saw our post on Backstage.com and hit us up, and then we just moved forward with her role.
I was most impressed in the beginning by the props and scene-setting to show the 1930s and even the ’60s. How did you acquire those things, set pieces, cars?
The Lord is gracious. We basically took our two fish and five loaves and He multiplied. But in regards to the cars, I was searching for years for vintage cars. When I searched to do it the Hollywood way cats were trying to charge ridiculous amounts of money like thousands a day to rent one car. A lot of things just happened on the fly.
For example, I would be driving down the street and see someone and pull somebody over and ask if I could use their car. But in the incidence of the antique cars, my wife and I were on vacation in St. Michael’s Maryland and there was an antique car convention. My wife seeing my eyes light up, told me I better not try to inquire about the cars.
The Lord sovereignly had a brother start getting it in with me. I mention I was shooting a movie and he asked where, I told him the location I planned to shoot and he told me he lived in that area and told me the name of the head of the Model-T car club in his area. They invited me in to speak. I shared my faith and the vision that we were a not-for-profit organization that wants to build a living facility for the homeless and a gang of people came to me afterward and told me I could use their cars.
As far as TVs, clothes, and other period props it was about a five-year scavenger hunt going through thrift shops and searching online for different things but in each case, the Lord would set something up. There was a vintage television set in one of the earlier scenes, getting that set was definitely an act of God. Furthermore, we want to shout out to New Life Thrift who loaned us unlimited clothing, etc, and also want to thank them for their generosity.
How accurate to your life is the story? Were there things you had to change or embellish?
The story is extremely accurate to my life. I asked my dad and others about his history and also grew up just hearing him tell me stories. I didn’t witness his part of the story firsthand but have heard from so many people about its accuracy. However, there were some adjustments. For instance, in real life, the person who warned my dad to get out of town because the Klan had hit on him, was a Police Chief who my dad had helped out. But in the movie, the character was played by a farmer but for a variety of reasons, we changed the process of how that occurred. But to answer your question mostly everything was very accurate. There were a few times we may have changed some things or adjusted some things to kind of bring the story together faster.
For instance, in real life, me, my brother Charlie, my friends Izzy Grover (who is Grover Washington Jr.’s son), and my man SP snuck out my dad’s car and we got stuck in a parking lot of a skating rink. The car wouldn’t start and we prayed which is the first time I remember praying outside of a Catholic repeated prayer. Well, we adjusted the outcome of the prayer in the movie from what occurred in real life.
In some instances, I changed names for privacy reasons but like sharing my time in college, pledging a frat all that was real, or signing with Epic, the battles with mental health, and having an offer from Def Jam the same day. Another change was Jamie Grace’s character who was kind of a merge of two people to help move the story along. She was a merge of a friend I had in college who ended up hosting BET’s Teen Summit and invited me to the church I now attend and an older sister who encouraged me when I first left the secular music industry.
Is there a certain aspect or key moment of your life/story thus far that was skipped for the film?
Yes, when I was growing up when my brother and I left Sweden because my mom couldn’t take care of us. When we arrived back in the States the person who picked us up was my Step Mom Sally. She is from Mexico and I have three Mexican Step Brothers and one Step Sister which are like my real siblings. I wanted to touch on that part of my life and honor them but the length of the movie didn’t allow it.
Also, growing up, Jazz Legend Grover Washington Jr. lived across the street from us and he was like a dad to me. His son’s character is in the movie but in the original script, he was in it. When in the world doing music I did two records with Grover on the last project and I wanted to add that to part two of the movie but for a variety of reasons I decided not to.
Growing up, my best friend at the time, Izzy, his Aunt Mira was engaged to Motown Music Mogul Berry Gordy. In the summers we would go hang with Mr. Gordy and he would have the Motown Limo pick us up from the airport and we would just chill at his crib, play tennis with him, and chop it up. I would try to convince him he needed to sign hip-hop acts etc. and he said that hip-hop was a fad. He was a real cool dude and I thought it would have been good to show my interactions with those two folks because as a teen hanging with them and seeing how they were living that was kind of what pushed me into the music industry.
I also wanted to show some of the stories I had while hanging with one of my best friends in college who was Heavy D’s first cousin. Time really didn’t permit that but all those things were used as triggers that drew me into the music industry. It’s very difficult to add too many details because of time but I am currently finishing up an Audiobook and Book that goes along with the movie which will share a lot more details.
The battle with mental health was real, the relationship breakups were real. I do want to share that I skipped some of the things I wanted to tie in dealing with college where I played Division 1 Tennis at Temple University but I just showed my character playing tennis in a couple of scenes. Also, Japhia Life’s character is based on a friend who is now a part of Roots who I was in a group with when I left the industry. I used to be close with Ahmir from the Roots and Philly Old School Rapper Schooly D and wanted to show scenes with them but what I did is kind of just mention them in Part two in a scene cause you can’t do everything in a movie. So there are changes but for the most part, the movie is extremely accurate.
What was the best part about making the film?
The best part about making the film was just seeing God’s hand and affirmation and Him speaking to me through the process. Also, seeing the Body work together in unity to produce something without needing to extend a hand out to Pharaoh or the Hollywood system but just trusting God for His grace and provision which He provided immensely. There are so many testimonies of the Lord providing and in that providing and doing so in the last minute. This was the case with so many scenes, for instance, the Klan costumes.
I needed them for the next night and couldn’t find them anywhere and the Lord put on my heart to randomly ask someone I knew who handled wardrobe for plays and she just so happened to have Klan outfits. We were shooting the next day. Also, I was desperately searching for a hospital to shoot some hospital scenes and supernaturally was approved the day before and shot the scene at Mercy Hospital in Philadelphia which I believe is the oldest hospital in Philly. This allowed us to keep it in the period we needed. The thing is we got that hospital approved like three days before our shoot date which was already committed and booked.
Another great example of God speaking and His affirmation and provision was one shoot date we were tight on budget and needed to shoot two apartment scenes and we also needed a place for our staff to stay and the night before the shoot the Lord reminded me that I knew someone who was a general manager of a high-end apartment complex which allowed us to use two apartments and stage them. They even allowed my crew to stay overnight which saved so much time with break down etc. Lastly, I started writing the movie when computers had disks. Well, I lost the script and misplaced it a couple of times and had to rewrite portions of it, and when I would find the script that was lost it was almost word for word the same which I looked at as God’s confirmation.
So to answer your question, my favorite part of making the filming was seeing God’s hand of provision, His affirmation, and Him speaking through the process and working alongside a bunch of creative and hard-working, and unified cast and crew members.
What was the worst part about making the film?
I don’t want to use the word “worst” but the most difficult and challenging thing about making the movie was the spiritual attack and the pain I experienced as well as the different issues I had to deal with. It seemed like all heck broke loose the minute we started filming and because there was such a long journey of filming it was at times agonizing.
I told the Lord in the beginning that I was willing to do the movie but under two conditions. (1) He cover my marriage and (2) I asked if I could not go through the pain I went through producing an earlier album that bore the same name as the movie. After sharing this with the Lord all I heard back was “your gonna go through more pain” and that must have been the Lord cause the pain was unreal.
Soon after forewarning me that I would go through a lot of pain, the Lord spoke to me when I was thinking about the pain and He said “but after the baby is born you will remember the pain no more” and now I actually thank God for the pain because I see it was used to produce a great movie and push me and helped me to tap into Christ’s creativity. I also realize that when there is great pain there is great fellowship with Christ.
What has the reception been like so far?
The reception for the movie has been extremely positive. People love it, praise God! I have been shocked at how much the story is hitting folks. However, although we produced a two-part movie, we are now in the process of making the movies into 6 to 8 digital episodes because we realize through our screening certain people have a shorter attention span, particularly in this generation.
When is part 2 coming out and what can we expect in it?
Part two delves into my character really going deep out into the dark side. After the last scene in Part two, my character becomes bitter. He is unhappy about things that happened in his relationship with a few girlfriends as well as being dropped from Epic so he goes out to LA and honors his contract with Loud RCA.
In real life Adrian Miller who is now Anderson Paak’s manager was my manager and Kevin Lyles who ran Def Jam and other music companies was a road manager for me for a while and I was gonna show that but Adrian’s character is shown and the movie kind of shows me losing my way.
I got involved with smoking weed for creative purposes and then Play’s character is introduced who is based on a friend of mine who was murdered. There are a lot of supernatural scenes and a lot of music scenes. The character who is introduced at the end of the movie kind of has a significant role.
There will be an interjection of my transition to making Jesus not just my Savior but my Lord when I decided to truly follow Him and the supernatural encounters He gave me to help me truly get the courage and strength to leave the music industry. We touch on discipleship and show the power of a loving Church community which I truly experienced as a member of New Covenant Church of Philadelphia.
We touch on that period and are showing how members of Cross Movement mentored me early on when I didn’t know any Christians so we touch on some of those experiences. They were not yet Cross Movement then but were individual solo artists so there will be that piece and the movie just kind of shows the early stages of Theological Christian rap from the Philadelphia region and how God’s Grace Is able to save, deliver, and restore a person in spite of how far they have fallen away.
What is the end game goal for this film?
The goal is for Part one and Part two to reach as many souls as possible and prayerfully be used to win souls. When we screened it at The Met Philly approximately 800 people came out and I think five or six souls came up to give their lives to Jesus. I said to the Lord if He doesn’t do anything else all the pain and sacrifice and money put into the project was worth it all. However, we want to win more and reach more. We are speaking with several distributors so we want to sign the right distribution deal for a Theatrical release as well as a digital release.
The goal is also to use it as a billboard to help promote the living facility & Sports & Arts Center for marginalized teens and young adults we are currently rehabbing from proceeds from the movie. The hope is prayerfully that young people will see it and want to come on board and learn how to make their own moves and albums etc that are Christ-centered. We want to teach young people the dangers associated with media but also help them to see how media can be used as a great tool to reach souls for Christ. Ultimately the end goal is to please the Lord, win souls, and fulfill the great commission.