The Magazine

What Would Jesus Rap?

On the road with Junkyard Prophet, apostles to the public schools.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By MATT LABASH
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It was a common phenomenon in the churches of my childhood after guest-speakers armed with Power-Point presentations would mount the pulpit at your local youth retreat. They'd ruin your good-times vibe by telling you how rock'n'roll was Satan's soundtrack. As evidence, they'd whip out their highlight reel, in which Yoko Ono's "Kiss, Kiss, Kiss" played backwards purportedly hissed "6-6-6." To the untrained ear, it sounded more like "cyst, cyst, cyst." It left us Christian kids disillusioned, confused, and wondering who in their right mind would listen to Yoko Ono forward, let alone backwards.

My biggest fear, therefore, when riding along with Junkyard Prophet for a week's worth of shows in their 14-school, month-long tour, wasn't that I'd be proscribed from using profanity on the bus, though I was (I haven't been encouraged to use the Nerf curse "stinkin'" since 6th grade). Rather, I worried that the band's music would suck. Mercifully, it doesn't.

Their sound is grease-bucket funky, with miter-saw guitar work over a tight, bass-heavy rap/rock hybrid, in the vein of Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit on the secular side, P.O.D. and Pillar on the Christian one. When I blasted them from my basement, my wife, who has a stomach for Christian praise music, descended the steps to complain, which I took as a good sign. While the words "Christian rap" can cause the involuntary skin prickling of a bad peanut allergy, Junkyard doesn't make your teeth hurt with candy-apple, love-ya-Jesus lyrics.

Their songs do without the secular genre's f-bombs and pimp-talk. But the group makes up for it by sounding like saggy-pants Elijahs standing on Mount Carmel, summoning down Jehovah-thrown firebolts. You can call Junkyard Prophet many things, but "light touches" isn't one of them. They take it to the unsaved (Gonna burn in hell if it's not God you pleasin' / What you gonna do when your lungs stop breathin' / Reign with the King or burn with the heathen) to Christian hypocrites (Playin' the game / Blasphemin' His name / For the gain and fame / Your claim is vain / Your walk is lame) to the current presidential administration (Homeland plus security / Equals nothing but democratic slavery / Exposin' your conspiracy / Pack your bags, get your butt back to Germany).

It will come as a great disappointment to Junkyard's leftist critics, who've assumed they're propagandistic Bush puppets, that the strongly pro-military band is also more antiwar and anti-Bush than most of the Chomsky-spewing cyberdorks who pilloried them. The band's drummer and leader, Bradlee Dean, calls Bush a "punk, lyin' stinkin' kid," and says Dick Cheney is a "straight-up liar" who he expects "will be in Hell pretty soon." He regards our two-party system as "professional wrestling," and says if he had to commit, it would be to Howard Phillips's Constitution party.

I was supposed to hook up with the band in January, but their tour was cancelled the day before my scheduled departure after Bradlee drove his ATV into a snow bank, flipping over the handlebars and busting out six teeth. "I feel so stupid," he said on the phone at the time. Though with his swollen jaws and missing teeth, it sounded more like, "I eel oooo uuuuiiiddd."

He has healed up now, and enjoys the cosmetic benefits of falsies melded to a retainer. His bandmates have to remind him not to leave the thing behind when he takes it out to eat. "He recently left his teeth at the Red Lobster," says his wife Stephanie, who used to do television commercials for places like Costcutters hair salon, and who has the blonde perkiness of a Liberty U. head cheerleader. Stephanie teaches the young ladies "Virtue" class at the assemblies, and also sings a few pop-ish sexual-abstinence-themed numbers with the band.

I finally meet Junkyard Prophet at their headquarters about an hour outside of Minneapolis as they pack up their bus to hit the road. It's a corporate-looking strip mall office, adorned with a cherrywood conference room, a kitchenette, a foosball table, and framed portraits of their favorite theologians, men like John Knox and Charles Spurgeon.

The lead guitarist is 42-year-old Rene Benton, who just joined the band last year, and who commutes from his home in Las Vegas. When not playing with Junkyard Prophet (the band doesn't perform when school's out for summer), Rene plays hotel revues and Vegas shows and is conversant in nearly every style of music. He's gigged around the world with everyone from Fishbone to Gigi Hamilton ("she's, like, the Whitney Houston of Sweden"). He even went to China for a last minute fill-in with Chubby Checker. That must've been hard, I suggest, since I don't make him for a guy with lots of Chubby Checker records around the house. "Not too hard, man," he laughs. "Chubby only had two hits--'The Twist' and 'Let's Twist Again.'"