To hear John Reuben's music and to see his goofball videos, you wouldn't necessarily pin the 30-year-old rapper from Columbus, Ohio as being one of the more thoughtful voices in the Christian hip-hop scene. Yet, even in the most easygoing track of his elegantly produced and deeply funky sixth album Sex, Drugs and Self-Control, which releases today, Reuben proves that the currents of faith and struggles with both modern society and modern Christianity are flowing freely. Reuben took time out of gearing up for his early January tour to give Christianity Today some insight into the inspirations and questions that fueled his latest creation.
I found some footage online of you rapping in a church when you were 13. Is it safe to say that you have been into hip-hop for most of your life?
Yes it is. That video is not the greatest performance. I was tooling around with it when I was young, probably even a little younger than that. Whenever I got the opportunity to perform, I would do it. And when I got older, that's when I would go to open mics and try things out.
What was it about hip-hop that interested you so much?
I thought it was very creative. When you're young, you don't really think about that stuff too much. Something either registers or it doesn't. For me, at a young age, I didn't listen to rock; I would listen to mostly hip-hop stuff. And for whatever reason, I was into writing. I would put poems together and had a few of them published. So, something about the lyricist and wordsmith putting together really creative rhymes and sounds alongside really cool and vibe-y music is kind of what got me.
But your mom was running a record label that released heavy metal. Did that not interest you at all?
As I got older I had an appreciation for metal after going to some shows. She kind of grew up in a really strict home and a church that didn't allow music or anything that appeared to be of the devil. That was kind of crazy. But my mom snuck out and was going to Petra shows and it progressively got crazier and crazier with groups like Vengeance Rising. She was always sneaking us around to metal shows, but I was definitely not passionate about it. I was more into the mix tapes that people would make for me of different hip-hop artists. That's what I pulled from.
What did your mom think about you wanting to perform hip-hop?
She was fine with it, very supportive. I think she's proud. She likes to keep up with what I'm doing and she'll tell me every now and then, "I like that song … that video was good." Or, "That was boring, you should put more energy into your music." She likes to offer advice, but otherwise she seems really happy with what we've done.
You've dealt with anxiety and depression in your life. What has that been like for you, and how has it affected your music?
I've always been good at finding escapes from unwanted realities in my own life. When I became fully aware of it, I found myself working through whether or not that's what God was to me. Part of faith in a loving God is being present in your own life and the lives of others, which forces you to be honest with the ugly and unfortunate things from your life and the world around you. This turned into complete hopelessness in the times that I couldn't reconcile that a loving God is in control. Since I was young, music has been how I've processed my insecurities, doubts, and fears. You can't force songs out that you don't have, so naturally these issues are going to show up in my music if this is what I'm wrestling with.
You've said you've been sitting on this album for three years. Why so long?
We had been working on it on and off for while. The majority of it was recorded late '07 and early '08. The album was originally set for late spring/early summer this year but our label (Gotee) was going through a transition, and I wanted to add a few new songs to the record. I had hoped for an August release but this was the date that worked out.
Listening to your new album, if I didn't know you were a Christian artist, I wouldn't have guessed it from the album. Was that intentional?
Any song you write would be intentional, but I'm very comfortable with people knowing that I believe in Jesus Christ. I'm not trying to be sneaky or tiptoe around anything. There's no real agenda at all. I'm just writing. A lot of those songs are very heartfelt songs and prayerful songs. Maybe someone who would be wired like me will see that and latch on it. I just sit down and I write and create these songs. You go where the songs are going.
In the liner notes concerning the opening track "Jamboree," you say that an undue expectation is put on Christian artists. Can you elaborate on that?
There's an unhealthy expectation of what people expect from you. Whether you're an artist or a preacher or whatever, there's this superhuman aspect that comes with the faith-based title around what you do. I wish my faith came easy for me. Some days I have big questions about why I'm on stage working out my own ideas about who God is. There are times when I literally wake up and I'm praying. And there are other times I wake up and I don't believe in God but I'm working it out. I'm not a superman when it comes to spirituality. But I think for some artists, the idea is that that's not supposed to be there and that you're supposed to have things figured out. I can't always paint a picture of super confidence and uber-happiness.
You also talked about the track "Paranoid Schizophrenic Apocalyptic Whisper Kitten" being about your struggle with the idea of making Jesus "cool." What do you mean by that?
When I was a kid, I didn't like Christian music at all. It felt corny and like a lot of energy was being expended with trying make Jesus cool. It's so unnecessary. When you think of the stories of Jesus and the people he was extending open arms to, those people weren't that cool. There's a danger in trying to "outcool" the world. It's impossible. Why would you even want to?
It makes me really said that in our industry we have become much more adamant about trying to keep up with Joneses rather than having a unique voice and doing something that's heartfelt. That's what's going to bring people to the Lord. Not this idea that, "Oh, that concert rocked so hard, I'm going to give it all over to the Lord," or "That church had Xboxes, so now I want to know the creator of the universe." It's a fine line. You see kids coming out of youth group so burned out. They have these experiences where they think their youth pastor was corny, and now they're out to prove that they are hip or relevant and end up being the loud obnoxious kid on campus. Maybe I've had so much of an intake of that, I'm pretty burned out. But with as much suffering going on in the world and people hurting, the last thing we need to do is to prove that you can be cool and a Christian.
The album title feels very pointed. What was your thinking behind that?
I thought it was more humorous than anything. I really didn't think too much about it. There's an interesting play on words there, with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. I've been asked a couple of times about how people will receive that or if I'm scared of how it will be perceived. It never really entered my mind. It's not like I have an agenda to be edgy or push buttons, like "Here's this cool Christian who says 'sex' and 'drugs.'"
You've said this album is full of questions you've been struggling with over the last few years. What sort of questions?
The content of a lot of this record is about me wrestling with understanding the Lord and working through depression and certain elements of anxiety in my life.
Do you feel like you got those questions answered?
I think that stuff is always going to be there. The more you're engaged with the world and you see the suffering going on around you, you can't help but have these questions. Life is brutal and mysterious. The easy thing to do is to isolate yourself. You think you're being strong and super committed, but you're really ignoring everything. I don't think having these questions is unhealthy as long as you're holding on. There's a lot of the world that we won't understand, and that's okay.
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