BMI Trailblazers of Gospel Music - Show
Paras Griffin

Music Sermon: How Kirk Franklin Remixed Gospel Music

In honor of Kirk Franklin's 49th birthday, #MusicSermon chronicles how the former VIBE cover star remixed gospel for a generation that may not have found christianity through church pews.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

In this era of music, there’s “trap gospel,” one of the biggest rappers of the last several years wears a “3” on his hat to represent the holy trinity and holds his own version of the altar call at the end of his shows, and the song “Jesus Walks” is an old school classic. But it’s easy to forget that way back in the 90s when Kirk Franklin’s music first hit MTV, the pop charts and the cover of this publication, church folks were scandalized. Easy to forget that a gospel artist dressed like a rapper or member of your favorite male R&B group wasn’t common. There was a wide chasm between gospel and secular music. Until Kirk. In honor of his birthday, today’s Music Sermon takes a look back at how he changed an entire genre--maybe two.

Gospel and secular music have a decades-old love/hate relationship. The genres have always influenced each other even as they’ve denied each other. Up until relatively recently, the best of black music’s singers, musicians and producers developed their craft in the black church, bringing the oil with them into the world to sprinkle some anointing on soul and R&B tracks. Then there were the greats, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, who turned away from presumed gospel careers to seek pop success, but who had the spirit so imprinted in their voices they made everything sound like worship anyway. R&B has always reached back to acknowledge the church, in the way you swing by on event Sundays even if you haven’t been to service in a while: artists participated in gospel tributes, featured choirs on big songs and performances, and in the 90s it was an unwritten rule that an R&B album contained at least a gospel-feeling interlude. But gospel’s foray into secular music was much less frequent. It happened occasionally; The Hawkins Singers, The Staple Singers, and The Clark Sisters all had singles land on the pop or R&B charts. Then Andraé Crouch laid the foundation for contemporary gospel music in the 70s and 80s, using secular influences in his sound and working with pop and R&B stars including Elvis, Michael Jackson, El Debarge, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, and Chaka Khan. (And composing/performing one of the livest TV theme songs of all time for Amen!) And then, Kirk. Kirk Franklin didn’t just bridge gospel and secular music, he combined them. The title “gospel rap” still isn’t commonly used, but Kirk Franklin is to whatever that hybrid genre would be called, what Puffy is to “hip hop soul.”

In the 90s, even young Christians were feeling disconnected from the gospel music they heard at church and on gospel radio. And the gospel that had a life on R&B radio, like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6 and Sounds of Blackness, was more inspirational. Messages of agape love and hope. Not a lot of Jesus. Kirk came with Jesus, seeking the ears and hearts of the young churched and unchurched alike. He didn’t just aim for secular influence, but a full secular sound, with songs that sampled the Beastie Boys, Rufus and Chaka Khan, LTD, The Jacksons, Tears for Fear and even Scarface. Remaking hits from the 80s (yeah, yeah) to make it sound so crazy (yeah, yeah)…crazy for the Holy Spirit! It was kinda how parents blend vegetables into their kids’ favorite dishes on the sneak, except with Jesus instead of broccoli. Franklin created gospel that not only moved you to praise and tears, but made you wanna dance. Not just praise dance. Dance, dance. In the club. And while you were bankhead bouncing you realized you were getting a word. “They don’t come to gospel for the production or the beats,” Franklin told The New Yorker regarding his penchant for pushing sonic boundaries in gospel, “I wanna give you Jesus, but I wanna give you Jesus with an 808.”

While his career has been dogged with a mixture of praise and criticism, accused sometimes of having one foot in the world and one foot in the church, Kirk has remained one of the biggest contemporary gospel stars of all time – definitely the biggest of his generation. And still, continues to stand in the gap.

Franklin was a prodigy, and was writing, composing and directing the adult choir at his church as a minister of music by age 11. But unlike some children from strict christian households, he listened to and loved secular music. He established his name in traditional gospel circles working with various mass choirs, and simultaneously formed his own group, which he called The Family. His intention was to move gospel closer to secular music from the beginning. Not the message, though; just the music. “I’m trying to change the way people look at gospel music,” Franklin explained to the LA Times in 1996. “It’s not corny, and it’s not hokey. We’re not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It’s not about that anymore, kid.”

At non-church audience performances, Franklin and The Family would flip current hits to get and keep the crowd’s attention, adding Christ-centered references where appropriate. Not just R&B hits, hip hop hits. “When the holy spirit comes, you know it comes correct…woo ha!! It gots you all in check!” Sound familiar? That type of flip, where you don’t distill the essence or the energy of the original, just the language, has become one of Franklin’s signatures.

Kirk and The Family’s breakthrough hit, “Why We Sing,” was a traditional contemporary gospel song, but still a remix of sorts. It was an update of the classic hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with another of Franklin’s signatures: his voice guiding us through the song as combination worship leader and hype man. Over time the song rose to the top of the Gospel chart and the Contemporary Christian chart (The first black act to do so), and crossed over to the R&B chart. Kirk Franklin & the Family became the first gospel album to crack a million units in sales (unheard of prior, even with gospel’s biggest acts), and the first gospel album since Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace to land in the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart.

“Why We Sing” kept Kirk Franklin & the Family at No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart for almost a year (42 weeks), so they dropped Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas as a way of giving fans new music in advance of the sophomore album. The LP produced instant choir classics, like “Now Behold the Lamb,” but also spawned the jingle jam “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” in which a Kangol and leather vest-clad Franklin informed us, “Santa Claus ain’t got nothin’ on this!” Then he broke it down towards the end about how “(He) love(s) it when (we) call Him (our) savior.”

We talked about Kirk being the gospel inverse of Puff already, right?

The second album Whatcha Lookin’ 4 established Franklin songs as a staple for any youth or young adult choir worth their salt. They were easy to teach and easy to recall, with simple three-part vocal melodies--guaranteed to get the entire church rockin’. Enough so that the elders will ignore hearing Tony! Toni! Tonè!’s “Anniversary” during the modulations.

You know your part. Sing along.

By the way, there’s also a “Crush on You” remix for “Melodies…”
Yes, Junior Mafia.
Yes, for a gospel song.
Yes, it’s an entire bop.
Yes, Kirk is milly rocking.

Whatcha Lookin’ 4 was another platinum success, but it was the follow up that broke Franklin wide open in the secular space and made him a gospel’s biggest superstar. Jimmy Iovine, who was hipped to Franklin’s music by an employee, offered Franklin a production deal through Interscope Records. He believed Franklin would be for gospel what Bob Marley was for reggae. Franklin decided to build something outside of The Family that he could be more experimental with, and tapped a young Fort Worth choir called God’s Property to work with him.

The debut single was “Stomp,” and it changed everything. The single that went to radio was a remix, with a Funkadelic sample, featuring a rapper (Salt of Salt-n-Pepa), and was released on the same label that housed Death Row Records. The song’s intro was a declaration from Franklin – with another Biggie reference thrown in for good measure:

“For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far, you think we’ve gotten too radical with our message…well I got news for you; you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now ya’ know.”

(I’m positive Big never thought that hip hop would make it that far.)

God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts: both firsts for a gospel album. The single was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts and the first gospel video put in regular rotation on MTV. The project eventually sold three million copies, the largest selling album ever in the genre at the time. This was not your grandmother’s gospel.

Son, they were goin’ down the Soul Train line on this.

The saints weren’t really feeling it. While Kirk was still beloved as a gospel artist, some thought he was going too far to translate God’s word to young audiences.

VIBE’s October 1997 issue featured a cover story on Franklin’s unprecedented mainstream success – a story in which, among other things, he referred to himself as “the holy dope dealer” peddling “Jesus rock.” Some of the resulting letters to the editor were scathing.

“I was a Kirk Franklin fan until I read your story,” one read. “I commended him for being a young man who really loved the Lord. Now, I think he uses the words “Hallelujah” and “God” over bouncy beats to appeal to GenX, not to the traditional churchgoers. You can’t straddle the fence when it comes to serving God.”

“If I can go to a club and ‘stomp’ on a dance floor, then what’s the purpose of going to church? Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp, prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop and R&B. Once (you’re saved), your life does not become a ‘holy ghost party.’”

But was this a fair assessment, or out of touch? After all, music is a form of ministry, and the point of ministry and evangelism is to bring souls to Christ. Why should the message not go forth in a way to reach a younger audience? Why can’t it be a “holy ghost party?”

This has been Franklin’s counter-argument as he’s faced this criticism continuously over his 25-year career. He responded to detractors in a 1998 interview with Jet magazine, explaining, “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. As long as the message is still the good news about Jesus loves you and He died for you. He’s coming again for you.” The bottom line, “No matter how radical my music may seem, does the music say Jesus or does it not say Jesus?”

Franklin once expressed in an interview that he felt like he could be a 27-year-old with God’s Property. He didn’t have to temper his energy and excitement. Didn’t have to dress in suits to perform. Didn’t have to be a church elder. The success of “Stomp” and the God’s Property album left him free to push boundaries even further. He was all in. Shiny suit, fish-eyed lens, bubble coat and ski goggles, Darkchild production (and feature! With a Mase flow!) late-‘90s bling-era all in.

This is the greatest video in the entire history of music videos. You should watch it multiple times. ALL MY REAL LIVE SAINTS THROW YOUR HANDS UP!!

Kirk wasn’t just churning out party gospel, either. As great as Franklin was and is as a hype-man and ad lib master, his prevailing talent has always been his songwriting. He used his newly solidified multi-genre crossover appeal to round up Mary J Blige, Bono, contemporary Christian artist Crystal Lewis and he-who-shall-not-be-named for “Lean On Me,” an incredibly moving anthem for humanity and community.

To his point in the Jet interview, no one could argue that the doors of the church had opened that much wider, thanks to Kirk. Not only were all welcome, be they in traditional Sunday best or streetwear fly; people wanted to be part of it. Gospel’s reach outside of Sunday morning radio programming, AM stations, BET’s beloved Bobby Jones and gospel conventions saw continued growth following the two God’s Property albums.

In 1999, gospel duo Mary Mary (and producer Warryn Campbell) followed Franklin’s 80s sample, hip hop influenced formula to score a multi-genre hit with “Shackles (Praise You).” The sample of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” drove the single to success not only on the R&B and Pop charts, but also on the Dance chart, which propelled it internationally. Production virtuosos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis scored a Top 10 R&B hit for Yolanda Adams with “Open My Heart.” A remix of the track cracked the Top 40 on the Dance chart. Gospel artists scoring No. 1 R&B hits and selling platinum albums were no longer anomalies. Secular producers working with gospel artists became more common.

TV was getting into the gospel game as well. After decades of being relegated to the Stellars, The Doves, and maybe one BET Awards performance, gospel was getting fresh looks. In 1999, VH1 added Franklin, CeCe Winans, and Shirley Caesar to a televised concert special. "Gospel music is no longer relegated to just the churches in the South," network exec Robert Katz told CNN at the time. "There is an emerging gospel music, a pulse that is all over the country.”

The game had changed.

This next part is far too familiar in stories of skyrocketing success: after the highest heights, there is conflict, because mo’ money, mo’ problems. And that goes double when you’re supposed to be about the Father’s business (just ask John Gray). On the heels of The Nu Nation Project, Franklin faced multiple lawsuits and a public battle with porn addiction. His next album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, was a throwback to the sound and style of the early Family albums; traditional contemporary gospel. But it didn’t sell as well as his previous projects. Franklin found himself in a spiritual identity crisis. In a 2003 interview, Franklin revealed that he was unprepared for the success. “Selling a lot of albums and crossing over made me famous, and it gave me an audience. It gave me validation.” Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he was seeking attention and adoration, and when it came in the form of celebrity, it was addictive. “It was almost like I was the worst person God could have ever chosen…It’s like sending a crack addict to be a missionary in a crack house.”

Fortunately, Franklin bounced back, and relatively quickly. He didn’t go as hard as he had previously--he was older, youth culture had changed, and Kirk in a 4XL tee doing snap rap gospel would have been a bridge too far. But he went back to the formula that worked for him. The days of 17-person choirs were gone (thanks, label budgets), but flipping familiar hits is evergreen. Soul/R&B (Patrice Rushen, “Haven’t You Heard”), pop (Kenny Loggins, “This is It”), rap (Scarface feat. 2Pac “Smile”), all could be used to glorify and edify.

 

There’s more, though. Much like Puffy was once blamed in part for hip hop going too pop and getting too shiny, Franklin bears some weight in steering gospel music away from the traditional format of scripture-based gospel sung by choirs to the modern praise and worship format. The songs are simple and repetitive, and usually sung by small praise teams instead of choirs, led by worship leaders or soloists, and can be backed by tracks instead of musicians. In an attempt at being more radio-friendly, more gospel artists also stay in a Jesus-free inspirational lane. Is it a love song? Is it a gospel song? Who knows?!

Shortly after Andraé Crouch’s death, Franklin shared on his personal blog that he was embarrassed he’d dismissed Crouch’s style of gospel when he was younger, and expressed amazement at the wide recognition and respect Crouch enjoyed and how his music touched people of all walks of life. Things Kirk implied he’d thought only possible with crossover success. And now, the sound of gospel music had shifted completely. Arguably too much so.

“Our music doesn’t affect people the way it used to. It doesn’t create movements like it did during Andrae’s time. Is it because today’s worship leader is too busy trying to get the record deal, the applause, a higher church salary, and that crossover song? [The guilt is all over my hands, people!]”

Franklin may be more mindful now of the balance between blending and distilling, as many career gospel artists are tackling the question of how to restore their genre to former greatness – a question echoing throughout R&B and hip hop as well. Now, a gospel influence in hip hop and vice versa isn’t so foreign. There are even thriving Christian rappers. But Franklin is still one of the go-to’s when secular urban artists need a gospel OG. In 2016, almost two decades following the angry VIBE write-ins, Franklin found himself again facing questions about the appropriate line for gospel crossover when he recorded “Ultralight Beam” with Kanye. When asked about the backlash, Franklin’s answer to the The New York Times sounds like it applies to all the ups and downs of his career. “What I always have to remember is motive and intent: ‘Kirk, you know why you’re there, you know what God has put in your gut. Some of that will come and you will weather it.’ Christianity ain’t something you signed up for like a vacation. It’s not a first-class trip to Fiji. You’re signing up for the ridicule.”

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Kamaiyah/GRND.WRK/EMPIRE

Kamaiyah Talks Long-Awaited Debut 'Got It Made' And Independent Status

On a cloudy afternoon in New York City, rapper Kamaiyah is dressed for comfort, wearing a purple sweatsuit, and the purple beads adorning her signature box braids match her fit. She’s made a stop at the VIBE office during a day of interviews, accompanied by a crew of three women, including her newly appointed A&R Justice Davis. Kamaiyah is observing more than speaking, preserving her voice since she is recovering from a nuisance cold. But the East Oakland native’s energy switches from laidback to zealous as we discuss her lead single “Still I Am” for Got It Made, her long-delayed forthcoming project dropping February 21.

 

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After almost 4 years I present to you my project “ Got It Made “ 2•21•20 the wait is over we going up and this mutha fucka slap 💁🏾‍♀️ flood my comments with 500 ☂️’s and I’ll drop a song tonight 👀 (Presave link in my bio)

A post shared by Kamaiyah🧿 (@kamaiyah) on Feb 3, 2020 at 11:00am PST

On the CT Beats track, the go-to producer for her hypnotic g-funk sound, she earnestly raps, “I done took plenty losses/ That's why I feel like I deserve to keep flossin'/ This shit is exhausting/ When you boss up and run your own office.” The verses point to her departure from Interscope Records and YG’s 4 Hunnid Records and the launch of her new label GRND.WRK (pronounced groundwork), in partnership with Empire last August. She decided to dip after the release date for her project Something To Ride To was pushed back multiple times. This makes Kamaiyah one of few women in hip-hop, and perhaps the first from the West Coast, to run her own shop.

“It's very important and vital because a lot of people feel you need a man to make you an artist,” Kamaiyah said. “You need a man to mold you into what you need to be.” But Kamaiyah — who has been rapping since she was 9, recording in the studio since she was 11, and dropped a critically acclaimed mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto (2016) before she was signed to a major deal — already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be before she signed on the dotted line.

In the months since she left the label, she began building her office in the upstairs area of her loft; finished recording, mixing and mastering Got It Made, a project she was planning before she parted from Interscope; and her manager Brandon Moore became her partner on her new venture. 2020 will be the first year Kamaiyah has full control of her career since breaking into the mainstream hip-hop world in 2016. This was always part of her master plan and why the previous arrangement did not fit her.

“I signed too fast, but I never wanted to sign,” she reflects. “I was always the artist that was like, 'I don't want no deal.' I wanted to hustle because I knew where I come from. Everybody does it independently. But at that time it was the best decision for everybody. I took that L for the team and we learned a lot. It was like four years of music business school.”

Kamaiyah wants to carry on in the spirit of Bay Area hip-hop legends like E-40, known for their independent spirit of hustling their CDs out of their car trunks. But she also wants the pop accolades of hip-hop superstars like Drake, Missy Elliot, and Oakland’s original hip-hop icon MC Hammer. Her biggest hit to date is YG’s "Why You Always Hatin?” also featuring Drake, which charted at no. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. But she wants more. Success for Kamaiyah means Grammys, Billboard No. 1's, and gold and platinum plaques. Partnering with Empire, a digital-first independent distributor, and a label launched by San Francisco native Ghazi Shami in 2010, could be her winning ticket. In the past decade, Empire’s launched several successful hip-hop projects such as Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album and Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu. This partnership can give Kamaiyah the independence and support toward the mass appeal she’s seeking. Having dealt with project release delays in the past, her strategy going forward is consistency.

“Great quality music at a rapid rate...People just want to see you [working]. And if they know you consistent, they gon’ consume the music.” Kamaiyah also wants to use her platform to sign new talent, especially in the Bay Area, where she said artists can benefit from music business education when their records go viral. “Once they get the traction and the record, it becomes this egotistical thing and it's like ‘I made it cause I'm cracking out here.’ But they don't realize it's a whole world to build towards.”

Her first project Got It Made will be the blueprint for GRND.WRK. The project is feel-good music her fans “can shake their asses to and vibe out to and ride out to,” she said. For instance, she teamed up with veteran Trina for the f**k boy revenge track “Set It Up.” They role-play as two women who have been cheated on by the same man. “We get together and we go against the ni**a instead of us going against each other,” Kamaiyah says. On “Get Ratchet,” which she calls a “modern bounce” record, she taps DJ Espinosa, a San Francisco native known for winning Red Bull Music’s 3Style DJ competition, to spin at the end of the track. For “Digits,” a song about getting someone’s number, she brings on fellow Oakland rapper Capolow, a newcomer she’s excited to give a bigger platform to. She describes the track as “magical gangsta sh*t.” On past projects, Kamaiyah sampled '80s and '90s R&B (i.e. “I’m On” and “Leave Em”) but says the only track on Got It Made that has a sample is “1-800-IM-HORNY.” She intentionally avoided the high cost of clearances, an obstacle contributing to past project delays. She won’t mention names but says she enlisted “legends who created those records that we’re sampling” to shape the project's sound. Fans can expect Kamaiyah to begin touring the project in April.

Although she’s finally releasing her project, her fans might be curious about the status of her other promised records such as Woke and Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. Will they see the light of day? “Anything I did at that part of my life I have PTSD from,” Kamaiyah said frankly. “It was done with good intentions, but then it became something negative and when you put that out, the world is going to feel that. And energy is transferable so I'm not putting out that shit.”

While Kamaiyah was facing career obstacles in recent years, she witnessed the impact of tragedies close to her community. The death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was murdered at a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2018, hit close to home as Kamaiyah has family close to Wilson’s family. (John Lee Cowell, who is accused of stabbing Wilson to death, is currently on trial.) “Do I feel like he should be convicted? Absolutely. To the furthest extent. You took this woman's life. She barely got to live.” Then there was Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019. Kamaiyah said she had a long talk with Nip a month before he was killed last March. He wanted to see her reach her full potential, especially as a woman representing the Bay Area. “He’s telling me, ‘What you mean to our culture we never had’,” Kamaiyah said. That last conversation put the battery in her back when she was on the fence about her music. “I'm frustrated career-wise and that's a person that was like, ‘Don't stop because we need you in this culture.’ So I gotta hustle 10 times harder ‘cause other people see the long end of the vision.”

Justice Davis, Kamaiyah’s A&R, is ready for Kamaiyah’s vision to come to life. Davis began working as Moore’s assistant and after giving input, moved up the ranks. As a Los Angeles native, Davis said she brings the knowledge of her city’s culture together with Kamaiyah’s Oakland hustle. She wants to see Kamaiyah grow as a businesswoman, artist, and for their team to prosper. “[I hope] for people to see her talent and know she really is the queen of the West coast."

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Jack Dempsey for Crown Royal Apple

Joe Freshgoods Put On For Chicago With Royal Apple Goods Collection & Pop-Up

The Windy City's chilly air seeps into the building as the main door cracks wide open. Busy crew members scurry between rooms, ensuring every fixture and branded display is arranged perfectly before the clock strikes 3 o'clock. A group of focused workers huddles nearby to go over loose ends and delegated tasks. Throwback hip-hop jams float throughout the warehouse, teasing the chill vibes to come. Time is of the essence and it's almost showtime; Confirmed guests will soon start trickling into Moonlight Studios in the next hour or so. It's the calm before the storm at The Royal Pop-Up, a two-day event curated by Crown Royal Regal Apple and its creative director, streetwear designer extraordinaire Joe "Freshgoods" Robinson.

In the first room to the right, a crew of black, swagged-out mannequins stands tall in the middle of the room, rocking yellow hoodies, black and white tees, pants and bandanas etched in J-F-G, Crown Royal, and red apples. With the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend serving as the backdrop, fashion and basketball enthusiasts alike are set to get an exclusive glimpse of the limited-edition capsule collection, Royal APPLE GOODS, designed by Chicago native Freshgoods in collaboration with the Canadian whiskey brand.

Not too far away stands the DJ of the night, fellow creative and entrepreneur, Vic Lloyd, setting up his station as he prepares to set the musical energy for part of the day. To the left of him, a pair of workers in all-black prep the tote bags they'll be pressing with APPLE GOODS' design and logos. In another room to the far left, nail artists Tacarra "Spifster" Sutton and Slay Lewis are settling into their stations where they'll be taking manicure appointments to deck out the nails of anyone looking to add an extra flair to their fit. Two barber chairs are about 20 feet away for attendees down for a fresh cut or a quick line-up by the South Side's own Roger “Rodge” Williams of Raw Cutting Room.

Staying true to his hometown has always been Freshgoods' wave. While getting his feet wet as an intern at Leaders 1354 and working at Fashion Geek, he started his own apparel brand Don't Be Mad, eventually co-founded Fat Tiger Workshop with Lloyd and others, and caught the eye of major brands like adidas, McDonald's, New Era, and more. So it's no surprise that Freshgoods hand-selected some of his home city's top creators and makers to help make the pop-up experience that much more authentic and true to Chicago.

In the last room, friendly bartenders are preparing the Regal Apple Bar where specialty cocktails will be served in golden cups. On the opposite side, a sneaker cleaning station is ready to keep guests' kicks crispy, while two framed, Crown Royal Regal Apple-themed backdrops are perched in front of a brick wall, perfect for those looking to capture the moment in the form of a picture.

In an unused room in the back of the studio space sits Joe Freshgoods, relaxing on a black, plush couch, rocking the hoodie from the Royal APPLE GOODS collection, a pair of loose-fitted, tie-dye pants and his latest, sold-out New Balance 992 collaborative shoe. Despite the craziness that is All-Star Weekend and a jam-packed schedule of appearances and connecting with friends, Freshgoods is chill, present, and ready to chat about working with Crown Royal, Chicago’s underestimated fashion scene, his favorite '90s fashion trend and more.

--

Tell us about the Royal Apple Goods capsule collection. What inspired the designs?

Royal Apple Goods was pretty much inspired by basketball, my love of lettering and a bit of my colorway. I wanted to make cool basketball merch. Just stuff that you can go to the gym in and rock. I just wanted to make it a dope basketball-themed collection.

We noticed that you decided to work with some fellow Chicagoans for different parts of this pop-up. Why was that important to you?

Oftentimes, when these big activations pop up in different cities, they never really tap into the community. It was pretty dope to be able to have my people around town who I collaborate with —a lot of the barbers, DJs, artists, nail techs, people that are moving and shaking in Chicago. Everybody that's working in each booth [at this event] is someone that people respect. I think if we're doing a project in a city as big as Chicago, you want guests and people to recognize, "Oh, that's [Spifster] the nail tech." Because a lot of these people are really booked. You don't often get to see these artists in one room at one time. Like Rodge, you’ve got to book him two weeks in advance. I know with Spif, she's booked six months in advance. It's rare to be in an area where you can just go from station to station, get merch from me, get your nails done by the hottest nail person, get your hair done, and listen to good tunes. It was just important to just tap in with the local community. It just made sense.

With your style mantra being "Clothes is art defined by the times," how do you define today's time in fashion?

I think for me, you hear that streetwear is dying and that it's always like a thing where I still thrive on the art of, "Oh, wow." I love merch related to a time, you know? Everybody that gets my merch today and tomorrow, it's going to be dope to say, "Yo, I went to this event that Joe helped put on, and he had merch."

I love making clothing like concert merch. That's my whole vibe. If I was a rapper that did a show in Chicago, this would be my merch for that show, you know? That's how I approach a lot of my products with different brands. This is what I wanted to do with Crown that made sense for the community. Right now, I've got the hottest shoes dropping today, but I'm doing something different with Crown Royal. I like to give some stuff away, so this feels good.

If you were to create say a retro '90s fit, what would that look like? What's Joe wearing from that decade?

I was always a fan of the Naughty By Nature overall. I don't know. I like that rugged Timberland...I just like that real rugged, man-man, streetwear look, you know? Obviously, I love to dress colorfully, but I've always been a fan of that construction worker wave of the early '90s. That was with all the sweatsuits and all. That's always been my wave. Yeah, real Treach, Naughty By Nature vibes.

In a recent interview, you mentioned how Chicago kind of plays the little sister to other cities and is often overlooked or left out in different ways. What do you think this week means for your home city when it comes to fashion, the culture, and everything?

I think this week is very important. When Chicago first got the news that there was going to be a very big basketball week, it was pretty dope. This is one of the first times since being a kid to have all these people from out of town here. Since I've been an adult, there hasn't been a Super Bowl here or anything. I don't know, and we had this big thing about Chicago where it's like, "Am I safe here?" But it's a beautiful city.

The Royal Pop Up was a vibe during #NBAAllStar weekend. Here's what you missed: https://t.co/etxoU0pPnp pic.twitter.com/gVS4nmmUHt

— Vibe Magazine (@VibeMagazine) February 20, 2020

I think it's one of the top food cities to me, in my opinion. Yes, it's a cold city, but it's pretty awesome to see all these events going on. All this positivity. Complex Con was here. That was big, but this is bigger. It's so cool to see all my peers doing their projects, and everybody supporting each other. There's no beef. Everybody's about community. It feels good. With this big basketball weekend, I'm glad so many people are getting to experience Chicago for the first time like this.

It's insane and to imagine the last time All-Star Weekend was here a little over 30 years ago? It's a sigh of relief for Chicago to be a city of attraction where people are comfortably out and about versus being in Cali or Los Angeles.

Exactly.

With the NBA All-Star game set to honor the late Kobe Bryant, what’s one of your favorite memories of Kobe?

Kobe was so serious on the court. He performed to the highest level. Every time he stepped off the court, and you saw Kobe in commercials, it was like whoa. I was always a big fan of his commercials, especially the one with Kanye. When he was dancing with Tony Hawk...it was always dope to see that, "Oh, he’s human," even though he was a shark on the court.

Every time Kobe would just make people laugh. In certain in-game moments, he would dance a little bit. He was so stern on the court, but every time Kobe showed personality, every time he was a comedian, it was just funny because it was coming from Kobe.

As a man of many talents, can we expect you to indulge in any other endeavors? What's next? Joe Freshgoods: The Movie? 

Not yet (laughs). I'm really just trying to expand the brand. Right now, I'm building a really great team. I think teamwork is so key to movement. For so long, I was so used to doing things myself, but within the last three, four years of just having a team, it's felt like there are endless possibilities. I'm just kind of expanding. I'm really big on pop-up shops. It's something that I've honed in on as my thing, being able to connect with different communities across the world. I kind of want to get bigger at that. That's the goal for the next few years is to just kind of expand on these pop-up moments, and make them live a little longer in different cities.

What inspired you to take the pop-up shop route with your brand?

It's pretty simple. It's like the Master P formula when it comes to going from state to state selling your mixtape as opposed to having your mixtape in Target, or Best Buy, or in Sam Goody. For example, I could make more money going to New Orleans. No brand ever goes to New Orleans to show love. But with me, I pull up with my team, we do a pop-up in NOLA and actually get to touch the community.

Traditional retail is kind of dying in the sense of going to New York and opening up a big store. That whole model is changing to the point where now I can go to a certain area and pop-up for five days, and do well, go to L.A. and then go to Houston, you know? With that formula, a lot of brands can't do that, but I can and I'm going to keep doing it.

Lastly, if the Royal APPLE GOODS collection had an accompanying playlist, what three songs would be on it?

Ooh, that's a really good one. Aw, man. The Bulls theme song (“Sirius” by the Alan Parson's Project). That's one, that's just a vibe right there. Man, I need a toxic Future song (laughs) Okay, "March Madness" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile." Yeah, I like that.

Additional reporting by Obehi Imarenezor

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Scotch Porter

Scotch Porter Founder Calvin Quallis Talks New Haircare Line, Self Care Beyond Products

Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts  in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.

This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.

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VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?

Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.

VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?

I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.

VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?

At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.

 

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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. ⁠With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 11, 2020 at 10:01am PST

VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching. 

We’re launching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.

VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?

I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.

VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?

Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.

VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.

It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.

VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.

Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.

 

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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:55pm PST

VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?

On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.

VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?

One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.

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