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
Rene is an odd fit no matter where he goes. His secular bandmates call him "The Reverend," since he doesn't engage in their reindeer games, like drinking, drugging, and groupie-rutting. After a non-Junkyard show, he packs up his guitar, and leaves. "Where's the Rev?" he says other musicians ask. "In his room, where he's supposed to be," he tells me. But he's used to being the outsider, as one of the few black guitarists in the game. Rene favors head-wrap bandanas and hoop earrings, making him look like a pirate with no body fat. The former Marine, who can crank out five one-armed pull-ups faster than you can click a television remote, actually sleeps in the gym of whatever school Junkyard Prophet is playing the next morning, not just for the sound check before first bell, but so that he can get in a workout.
On bass and vocals is Mass Dogg, a former welder and 25-year-old Mexican American who's been playing since he was five. He used to be in a family band. He toured the country with his Pentecostal evangelist father, cranking out their accordion-rich Norteno and cumbia music at revivals. These days, he slap'n'pops Junkyard's funky basslines, then listens to their cuts "hundreds of times" to see what they can do different or better. His nickname is a play not only on his real name (Massey Campos), but also on his former size. Massey used to be about 70 lbs heavier.
God convicted him about his eating habits, and he began taking seriously the scriptural injunction to treat your body as a temple, even though his temple potlucks are necessarily catered by Ponderosa, Bonanza, and other slop troughs where they stamp the charbroils on the meat. Along with beef jerky, Cup-a-Soup, and Little Debbie snack cakes, it's how the band has to find sustenance on their rips through small Midwestern towns (Rene just sticks with a salad usually). But the new everything-in-moderation Massey is a testament to the band's message that we tend to medicalize our worst habits, from alcoholism to obesity, instead of facing our own culpability. "I fought urges every stinkin' day of my life," says Massey, proudly. "I worked at Taco Bell for nine months, but only ate there once."
The lead singer, or lead rapper rather, is 30-year-old Wayne Ruark, who only took up the sport in his late twenties, but who sounds like he's been doing it his whole life. Wayne sports a black backwards-cap and a Chinese-character neck tattoo, which he's been told means either "God's sacred soldier" or "mentally ill." Though a high-school jock who was voted best looking in his class, he has none of the typical prima donna lead-singeritis. In song, he calls himself "the cornfield gangster" from "the hood made of wood" (that would be the small town of Salisbury, Maryland). But in real life, he's a humble sort who doubles as the band's bus driver.
He came to Christ, and the band, after a troubled adolescence that included overdosing at his senior prom and getting fired from his security-guard job at a Perdue plant after he was found stealing the chicken scales to weigh the drugs he was selling. He also ran afoul of the law when some stranger robbed a cab, then took police on a foot chase that randomly snaked through Wayne's house. The cops lost track of the perp but ended up noticing Wayne's drug paraphernalia. "It was the hand of God, dude," he says of the incidents that led him to get help.
When I ask Wayne why Massey gets a cool name like "Mass Dogg," but he's just plain Wayne, he shrugs nonchalantly. He says he kicked around "White Chocolate" or "Vanilla Fudge," but those were already taken. Instead, he settled on "G Money Funk Master Grizzup in Da Hizzouse," though he rarely uses it. "Better stick with Wayne," I agree.
Overseeing the entire enterprise is 39-year-old Bradlee Dean, the band's skipper and drummer. If Junkyard Prophet is ever properly discovered (something the business-minded Rene is working on, by, for instance, getting everybody instrument endorsements, which he says was long overdue), Bradlee stands to go down as one of the most singular men in rock'n'roll, Christian or otherwise. He stands 6'5" with hair so long he could wrap it around himself and use it as a loin cloth. He hasn't cut it in 13 years, and once, when playing the Iron Horse, a now defunct Minneapolis rock club, his stick became entangled in his mane mid-song. "I had to yank it out," he winces. "I about started crying like a fat baby. It was terrible, dude." (It is a rare sentence that Bradlee doesn't end with "dude," "brother," or "dog.")
Favoring shower shoes, short sleeves, and gym shorts even when it's cold, Bradlee's body looks like a booth at a tattoo artists' trade show. He has Disney characters, Chinese writing--so many, he's lost count. But his highlights include his twin forearm tattoos: one of Abraham sacrificing Isaac with a crucified Jesus looking on, the other of the archangel Michael's fist "knocking the snot out of Satan." Then there's the shin tat featuring the heads of his three children. Ranging in age from toddler to 17, he brings them on tour. The little ones are called Pickle and Buggy, and they love the band's thoracic-cavity thumping sound. "It's their lullaby," says Stephanie.
The oldest is Torrey Lee, who mixes his own atonal music on a Macintosh laptop, and who threatens to start a band called the Heimlich Maneuvers. Bradlee calls him "Bose," as in the speakers, though he tells me to spell it "Boise." When I tell Bradlee he's nicknamed his son after the Idaho capital, he admits, "God speaks through the heart, not the head, and my head's not into my spelling."
LUCKILY, the high-school dropout doesn't teach English. Rather, the lessons Bradlee imparts to students are from the school of hard knocks, from which he graduated with honors, and which is also the name of one of his many websites. He and his older brother Bryan nearly raised themselves. His father, whom he barely knows, spent most of their childhood in jail. Their mother was always off with some abusive boyfriend, leaving them at home, even on holidays, to eat Shredded Wheat for dinner.
If he had a father figure at all, it would have to be Pa Ingalls, played by Michael Landon on Little House on the Prairie, a show young Bradlee watched religiously. To this day, he still screens old episodes on the band's tour-bus VCR. With no provocation, Bradlee is likely to run dialogue from favorite Little House moments with the band's crew member Jake MacAulay. Jake does a particularly skillful impression of Olga, the German immigrant girl for whom Landon makes a special shoe since one of her legs is shorter than the other. (Jake as Olga: But Papa, he made me a shoe! Bradlee as Olga's dad: Ingalls, I told you not to meddle!) "Landon really raised a fatherless generation," says Bradlee. "God used him, dude."
But Pa Ingalls's television guidance wasn't enough to keep Bradlee out of serious trouble. Early on, he had a taste for violence, first taking up boxing, then Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee's martial art system. "I wanted to see if it worked in a real fight," he says. "Dude--it did!" Stereotypical drinking, drugging, and womanizing ensued, all of which was exacerbated when Bradlee got into rock'n'roll. It was a life he figured he was suited for upon copping his first real attention fix, finishing second in a "Saturday Night Fever" dance-alike contest. "I should've won," he says bitterly.
He spent the '80s and early '90s working in hair bands like Surprise Attack and thrash-bands with names like Hooker and Amaryst. "I honestly don't even know what that meant," he blushes. "But we had a picture of Mickey Mouse giving the finger. Buncha goofballs." He sank deeper into a personal morass. His final pre-Christian tally (which he mentions without belaboring the point in a self-published bio made available to students) looked like this: six emergency room visits for drug overdoses, stabbed once in the head with a screwdriver, nose broken twice, gun pointed at his head and chest in various conflicts, one DUI, two DWI's, three trips to detox, and three trips to jail.
He finally hit bottom, then cried out to God. "Blessed is the man who the Lord chasteneth," he says, forever the scripture Gatling gun. "He showed me who I wasn't, and who He was, and that's what He's been doing since that day. Boy, was it hard." Bradlee expects such transformative work to be difficult, understanding literally Christ's bit about taking up your cross to follow Him. He vehemently rejects the modern-day, superchurch prosperity gospel, which he calls a farce. "He promised you trials and tribulations, persecutions and afflictions, brother."
Though the church often portrays a passive, pansy Jesus, Christ didn't run from the fight, He went to it, delivering the truth not only with love but with ferocity. It pretty much got Him crucified, says Bradlee. It wasn't some Joel Osteen-style, blow-dry-your-hair and pass-the-plates gospel. "If you're at peace with the world, brother," Bradlee warns, "the Book of James says friendship with the world is enmity with God. He didn't come here to people-please, dude."
Consequently, Bradlee and friends have elected to turn their music and ministry over to bringing kids hard truths. To not just look at those smirky adolescents wearing their DARE shirts ironically, and tell them it's okay to say no to drugs as they've been told thousands of times before, many of them so overeducated from drug awareness seminars that they could cook up a batch of crank in chemistry class.
Bradlee would rather stress that it's morally wrong to do drugs, and that their lives are headed for destruction if they persist. "We're not coming in with boxing gloves saying we're going to knock your teeth out," he says. "No, no. God loves you. But I'm gonna tell you the truth and show you how much He loves you. You have to make a choice. Love warns, bro. It doesn't want people to go over the cliff and crash. We used to do that in this country, to love each other enough to get in each other's faces. They call it 'offensive' now, then wonder why the world's doing what it's doing."
Indeed, anyone worrying that some oversized hair-band refugee and flame-snorting moralist might get a crack at their high-school kids for two hours should ponder the daily news-of-the-weird emanating from public schools. Checking the Drudge Report, I spy headlines in which public school teachers have taken bribes from students, given wedgies, given hickeys, and had sex with a 13-year-old 28 times in one week. And that was just over the six-day period in which I traveled with the band.
THE THREE SCHOOLS we hit in Wisconsin and Indiana are all now a blur, each of them indistinct in the way of public schools. They smell of ammonia-based cleaning solvent and bad cafeteria food. The halls are adorned with photos of yesteryear's conquering heroes from the 4th-place volleyball team, their tube socks pulled so high and their Kristy McNichol-haircuts so unstylish that they have actually come around again. There are, however, random signs of the times, of misplaced priorities. One school has the Coke machines unplugged to keep kids away from dangerous soda. The same school also features a baby-changing station in the boys' restroom.
Junkyard Prophet opens every assembly with an hour-long set from their latest CD, The Price. They take the stage in a veil of smoke, made by their belching fog machines, which frequently set off school fire alarms. Rene strikes rock-star raised-arm poses while his guitar wails like an amplified hyena. Massey dredges up the funky bottom, while the lead-footed Bradlee works his kick drums like a steady cinder-block rain is falling on his double-bass pedals. Wayne, our affable, unassuming bus driver, is transformed into the Cornfield Gangster, spitting rhymes and stalking the stage like it's a prison yard and a lesser inmate has misplaced his favorite dumbbell.
The reaction varies from school to school. At Baldwin-Woodville High School in Baldwin, Wisconsin, the kids stay pie-eyed and glued to their chairs, seemingly overwhelmed and slightly frightened by the screaming Jesus rockers who are setting off sound bombs at 8:30 on a Monday morning. "Most of us like country," one kid nervously explains. But at another high school in New Washington, Indiana, the kids rush the stage, crowd-surf, and even form head-banging circles (the band once had to stop a Minneapolis show when the principal got trapped in the mosh pit).
Afterwards, girls in tight American Eagle baby-T's approach the band to sign their body parts, as their favorite secular bands do at their concerts. Bradlee declines, and tells them to email his organization to "tell me what you think of the show." He actually wants to sic his wife on them to give them a good talking-to about virtuous behavior. "Well, Kid Rock did it," protests one aspiring groupie.
Junkyard Prophet's music is the only explicitly religious part of the program. If it's any consolation to the band's critics at the watchdog group Freedom From Religion (which Bradlee says is "like a fish starting Freedom From Water"), it's impossible to understand the lyrics, except when Stephanie joins them for an acapella gospel spiritual where the chorus mentions "my sweet Jesus."
After the concert, Bradlee typically grabs the mike and works a crowd of rapt teenagers over for another hour. They're mostly afraid not to pay attention, since he often singles out a too-cool-for-the-room disrupter early on, promising to embarrass them during the first warning, then bounce them during the second.
He speaks with almost painful directness. He says to their teachers: "Now you understand what your parents felt like when you listened to Elvis Presley." He makes lots of poop jokes. ("Poop works," he insists.) Believing in the short attention span of teenagers, he feeds them with a fire hose, hitting every issue from the media and politicians lying to us about nearly everything, to talking about the moral relativism of our society, in which movie theaters put out special warnings to parents who bring their children to see the Passion of the Christ, when there're none for the usual R-rated smut.
He talks about how the media bend over backwards to promote the gay agenda, and how preposterous it is that it is unlawful to pick flowers in state parks, but that it's legal to abort babies every day in this country (to demonstrate the value of life, he shows a photo of a baby's hand leaving the womb to grab a doctor's finger, a photo that once got his session shut down by a principal who mistook it for one of those anti-abortion snuff stills).
His grasp of current-events minutiae is somewhat tenuous. For instance, I was unable to find anything substantiating his claim that "Communist dictator" Mikhail Gorbachev is somehow behind Bush's diabolical No Child Left Behind (though the teachers seemed to enjoy this one). Along with five or ten other peripheral issues (from Rosie O'Donnell's anti-gun hysteria to the hypocrisy of Madonna, who won't let her own children watch her slutty videos), he hacks off across the spectrum like a duffer on a driving range. But his meat'n'potatoes is his personal story.
After telling it, minus all the Jesus-talk, he speaks about how prevention is better than cure, about how we reap what we sow, about how we are not "sick" when we fall into alcohol and drug abuse, but rather "making bad choices," about corny notions like right and wrong and the Ten Commandments, and about how our culture is afraid to state the obvious. He talks straight to the kids, without pretense or euphemism. And they seem to respond, from the buckets of testimonials the band shows me, and from the "You rock" and "Thanks for being honest" attaboys that I witness firsthand. I also hear it in my own conversations with teachers and principals, many of whom prefer the cloak of anonymity as they quietly root for these Christian rockers. One teacher tells me that it's not the public school's place to parent the kids, but since the parents aren't doing it, somebody should.
At one assembly, Bradlee calls his own children up and tells a story about how he spanked one of his "boys that I love so much" for running out in the road and almost being creamed by a van. It's nearly unthinkable to even speak of spanking children in public these days, but the kids and teachers listen, and nobody's face melts. "If he doesn't listen the first time," Bradlee says, "that second van might not stop. I love these babies with my life. If someone would've told me what I just told you, it would've stopped a whole lot of pain and destruction in my life. But nobody had the gall to get in my face and tell me 'no.' You're somebody's babies too, and don't ever forget it. That's why we do what we do. Thank you for having me. You guys rock, big time!"
PERHAPS I'VE READ TOO MANY backstage tell-alls or seen Almost Famous one too many times, but the traveling rock'n'roll circus isn't all trashing hotel rooms and hitting naked groupies with lunchmeat. There's a lot of tedium involved, especially when you're not just a ride-along journalist, but out of necessity a roadie (my apologies to the band for breaking the rivet on their projection screen).
There are endless hours on the bus, made passable by Bradlee's unique personality. He seems to suffer from some kind of cleanliness-next-to-godliness Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, growing nearly violent if people don't remove their shoes before taking even two steps down the plastic runner in his bus aisle. He keeps us entertained by making fun of the physical peculiarities of his bandmates: "Massey, I'm not trying to be mean, brother, but your breath smells like somebody crapped."
He is also a gold-plated conspiracy theorist who will readily hold forth on the mysterious plane crashes of Paul Wellstone and John Kennedy Jr., how Oswald didn't act alone, how O.J. Simpson might've been framed ("He's driving down the freeway, all of the sudden there's this helicopter on his truck--how convenient!"), and how the moon-landing was faked in a television studio. We disagree so vehemently on this last point that he starts polling his assemblies on the subject just to settle the dispute. To what should be the chagrin of us all, apparently about 35 percent of public school students and teachers believe Neil Armstrong deserves an Oscar for his star turn in that NASA movie.
But it's not all fun and crazy talk. The road is a difficult place. His band and crew have had to sleep in frozen cars in South Dakota, and were once run out of town by police in the Ozarks after school administrators decided they didn't like Junkyard Prophet's brand of character education. They've had injuries (Wayne once tumbled off the drum riser in the middle of a song) and breakdowns, such as when the wheels came completely off their equipment trailer--a $4,000 repair on the way to play a $200 gig in Tennessee.
Bradlee's hard on himself and his band, watching playbacks of their school-assembly performances in which even his compliments are barbs: "You look great up there Wayne-O--too bad you can't sing." When I ask him why it matters--after all, he's just playing for a bunch of high-school kids in a gym--he fires back, "I don't want to be okay. I want to be, 'Hey, that's Bradlee Dean, representing Christ.' A couple times I went to Christian clubs. You'd go in and watch the band, and the drummer had these big, thick glasses on. Dressed like a total dork. . . . There's no reason for it. What people do is use Christ as a cover just to be a loser. It's not right, dude."
Bradlee likes to say that in ministry, "something always goes wrong, bro." Your life is an endless loop of tribulations and deliverance. But, as Rene says, "If God calls you to do something, do it, and ask questions later. You smell me?" And so it goes when I leave the band. A few days later, their bus's engine blows up in Manassas, Virginia. There was metal in the oil, always a bad sign. The repair will cost $26,000. Bradlee says they were forced to rent a couple vans at rape-me prices. I sympathize, but say it's too bad I wasn't around--it would've been good for the story. He calls me a vulture, but doesn't get excited, saying they always hemorrhage money on the road, "but it all comes around somehow."
A few days more, and it does. Bradlee tells me by phone that a Minneapolis contact they hardly know heard of their troubles, and volunteered to pick up the entire repair tab--nearly 30 grand. "That's amazing," I exclaim. "I guess so," says Bradlee, though he adds that small miracles such as this greet them all the time. "That's the way it works out here. We're on the King's Highway, dog."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.