A Music Collaboration Unveiling Event
Nipsey Hussle and Eugene “BIG U” Henley attend A Craft Syndicate Music Collaboration Unveiling Event at Opera Atlanta on December 10, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Prince Williams/Wireimage

Big U Speaks On Nipsey Hussle's Impact, Developing Options Program And Crenshaw's Legacy

To hear passionate words from the man who first believed in the cultural phenom that we now have experienced as Ermias "Nipsey Hussle" Asghedom is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Eugene “Big U” Henley, the respected former gang leader, now community activist, speaks of the late artist like a brother, a son and a warrior in arms to better the area they both hold and held dear to their hearts...the Crenshaw and Slauson blocks of their neighborhood in Los Angeles.

A few days after Nipsey's murder, Big U helped organize one of the biggest gatherings of rival gangs from all over L.A. to show unity and oneness with a peaceful, non-violent march through the streets, ending at the famed The Marathon Store.

With a year of reflection on the untimely and senseless death of Nipsey, Big U linked up with noted interviewer, Jacky Jasper, and let VIBE in on his thoughts and feelings around the talent, heart and spirit of his former artist, as well as the social impact they both have had for the Crenshaw community.

This intimate conversation proves to be rare and revealing in the remembrance of Nipsey's life and a full-spectrum look at a Big U that we don't get to witness often. This is where the imprint of peace and power meets the driving force in "The Marathon Continues" movement.

VIBE: What is your ultimate goal for these kids through the Developing Options program?

Big U: The ultimate goal is to be for young African-American kids what the YMCA and these other places could’ve and should’ve been. They probably were a lot of good things to other people, they just weren’t to us because I never had one of them out here. The only thing we had was the park so I don’t really know what the experience was. I always hear them talk about the YMCA and the Boys’ Club. In the Crenshaw area we don’t have one.

So you decided to make one?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to be the pioneer, the first to do it. Growing up, because most neighborhoods in California are infested with gangs, so for us being at the area we were at, Crenshaw and Slauson, for us to play football—tackle football—we had to go to another area to play. We couldn’t play in our neighborhood. That was a thing I grew up with, that was a motivating factor as far as tackle football. We had Van Ness park so we could play baseball, basketball, but if you wanted to play tackle football you had to travel.

How long have you had the program going on for these inner-city kids?
I started it in 2003, I came home in 2004. The name of it back then, and still is, is Ex-Offender’s Fellowship Network, which is our parent company, but we also do business as Developing Options. When I created it, I was actually still in prison. I knew I wanted to come home and do things that would move me in the right direction of helping my community and the kids in my community.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

@developingoptions toy drive recap

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on

Now from this program you’ve had going on for over 15 years, how many kids have gone on to achieve excellence in something like the NFL, because you’ve allowed them a safe place to play football?
Through Robert Garret and our program at Crenshaw High School, we’ve had about eight or nine kids that have made it to the NFL that we’ve touched or influenced in some kind of way. I always want to give credit to Robert Garret and Crenshaw High School, because he took a chance on bringing Big U to the school. It's people like that who take chances on me or cared to. He was a coach and a teacher at Crenshaw High and he was the first one to allow me and Mark "Bear Claw" Martin to come on the school campus and to be mentors to the kids. A lot of kids grow up and they look up to us. Just things like paying for the banquets, being there to administrate the kids, helping kids get home, buying them clothes, whatever they need to succeed.

Any popular names that made it through that we might know of?
Yes. DeAnthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs and he just went to the Baltimore Ravens. Greg DuCree, Marcus Martin, all of Crenshaw. Any kids that came out of California that have made it, they all came out of Crenshaw.

How do others get involved in the program that are outside of your unit? Is there any way of doing that? Or do you not allow that?
No! Everyone’s involved. We get help and assistance from the likes of Chris Brown, Sean Kingston, Kurupt. My biggest supporter is Wiz Khalifa. Always want to shoutout Josh Smith...DeShawn Jackson is one of our strongest supporters. Anyone can reach out. But my next step is getting a building that can be a source to help kids educationally. We’ve always been strong reaching kids through our athletic programs, but I really want to reach kids educationally. Right now I’m looking for a school.

You want to get them strong on their academics.
I do that already, right? But it’s more than just me. For about the last 10 years I’ve had about 30 kids that I’ve coached and mentored personally. I’m happy to say about 12 of them are in college right now. All Division 1 colleges right now. My son is at Reno; Darius is at Dixie State; David is in the U.S. Airforce; Nigel’s at UCLA. So I have kids all over the PAC-12.

That’s amazing. Where did you get this vision from? Was it from the lack of access to those types of healthy outlets, so you wanted to give to the next generation?
I got the vision for it while in incarceration.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Wow How Old was I ?? What Prison ?? I was on my Student Shit ?? I prepared for this Freedom Walk while i was incarcerated. Now i MANAGE over millions in state/GOVERNMENT accounts, have over 21 full time employees OVER 15 years doing what i studied for ( helping our people ) None of it dealing with ENTERTAINMENT OR MUSIC !! And yes im Not Finished. About to start this Youth Mentoring program !! 2 days a week two hours after school ..... we going to Keep UNEEKING THE WORLD #THEUNEEKWAY ALWAYS THANKFUL TO @snoopdogg for taking a chance on a HOODSTA... @syfl_snoopspecialstars #syfl #crenshawdistrict #uneekmusic #bigu1 ##developingoptions 👨🏿‍💻 📘📚 @pieces_0f_lee is RUNNING point on this Program Reach out to her our @dynastydoe

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on

Got you. Now, were you Nipsey Hussle’s manager?
No, Nipsey was actually signed to me. He was signed to me for production, but I was also doing a little management too, me and Steve Lobel. I brought Steve in to be our frontman because, you know how hard it was to be Big U, my reputation precedes me. I had to put a white face in front of a black situation. And because we were moving at that time, I was half and Steve was half. But no, he was signed to me at Uneek Music, my production company.

 


Since Nipsey’s death, how is the community taking it and what have you done for the community since then? How is the community supposed to take it now that the Marathon store is closing down?
I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I do the community work. I’ve always done the community work. I did the community work and Nip did the entertainment.

I came home in 2004. I didn’t pick Nipsey up until 2006-2007. At that time, Me, Suge [Knight] and brother-in-law [Rick] were running together. Suge was giving me studio time. A lot of that early studio recording time with Nipsey was because of Suge. It was me coming home and trying to teach my whole community to love the community. To help them get an understanding of us and what Crenshaw was. People from the outside who didn’t understand us were coming in and filming in the ‘hood and writing books about the ‘hood and I said, “Y'all can’t come in here anymore.” Know what I mean? The homies didn’t understand that, but Nip did.

If you look at the last speech Nip gave, at my banquet, he said, “I remember when Draws [Big U] first came home, he was hard on everybody. But now I understand. You gotta have your own. You gotta be your own.” See! He got it. He was one of the very few people who truly understood that the message was, “We need to do this ourselves. We need to put our own value on our self.” People couldn’t understand that we were selling Crenshaw shirts for $100. Or $40 or $50. They didn’t understand where that came from.

Like I said, when I first came home, I made it my mission to put a value on “us.” To make the people appreciate Crenshaw and all it has to offer. So as soon as I came home I started pushing Crenshaw. Like my young guy, he never went to Crenshaw High School.

Understood.
Nipsey didn’t go to Crenshaw, Sam [Nipsey's older brother] didn’t go to Crenshaw High School. I understood how big Crenshaw was. Crenshaw is a community that’s bigger than all of us. The success of Crenshaw is so far past what me and Nip was doing. I had to explain that to him and the rest of the young homies...how we got something, we need to brand this. And all of us need to get behind it. It doesn’t just belong to one person.

Is that where the first instance of trademarking came in?
Actually, trademarking Crenshaw is almost impossible. You can’t trademark Crenshaw because it’s a city. It was a white guy who was the first one to use the Crenshaw logo on his shirt, if that’s what you’re referring to. He was a Mike Tyson fan. He paid me and Nip to wear the Crenshaw crewneck in the video. He was out of New York. He was a Mike Tyson and [former MLB super star] Darryl Strawberry fan. Darryl Strawberry is where the original motivation came from. Darryl Strawberry wore that Crenshaw Coca-Cola font for the Crenshaw High School baseball team. It was a baseball coach from back then that came up with the Crenshaw Coca-Cola logo. Then some 32 years later, we took it and took it to the next level, but I’ve never trademarked anything but "Uneek."

[You know what’s funny? Let me give you this good-hear tidbit that you can give to your people. You know when they were talking about somebody trademarking Marathon? Man, I don’t know anything about no Crips. I don’t deal with Crips like that, you know what I’m saying? If it doesn't say “Hoodstas” or “Sixties” I’m not doing sh*t with it.

And what’s funny to me is, how people listen to all this rhetoric on Instagram, on YouTube, all these bum ass lanes, everyone is running around “Like, subscribe and follow! Like, subscribe and follow!” and they take this bullsh*t and spin it to be something. People tell me all the time, “You should say something." Man, I shouldn't say nothing! I just look at these “journalists” like they’re asinine. They just don’t even make sense. Here goes another one: Nipsey was my brother! And my son! And my nephew! If I had any intentions of trademarking from him, who the f**k could say anything about it anyways?]

So, from you saying that he’s your son, that he’s your brother, the conspiracy theories of these people saying things about his death must’ve really pained you some?
Not really. It didn’t bother me, but it only bothered me because of the people that are supposed to know me even entertaining the idea. It would bother me if you claim you’re someone who's supposed to know me and you’re even entertaining the bullsh*t. And the sh*t don’t make no sense, you know what I mean? It doesn't make any sense that they're trying to make me and him be enemies when clearly motherfu**er, I just was with him.

Got you.
He came and got me and flew me out of town! But, you know, it’s the same way I tell people all the time, it’s the same sh*t. They say Suge set up Tupac, so who am I? I’m not no different than Suge. Ain’t no ni**a be fittin’ to be sitting in the car when motherfu**ers are shooting at him. For them to say that about Suge, you don’t think those same motherfu**ers aren’t going to say the same about me?

Yeah, but that must hurt though? I hear what you’re saying. It hurts when people close to you to even think—
To entertain the idea. That’s the point. It ain’t even the fact that the lames do it, what hurts the most? My daughter. My daughter and my kids. You know me, it doesn't bother me, I’ve been disliked around this world for years. But to them, it bothers them. Then they have to deal with the bullsh*t of the world. That’s the only thing that makes me want to go knock one of these dudes heads off because it’s all lies. And my thing is, if you really love Nipsey, why are you going to sit around and let people say false sh*t about him?

Word.
You know what I’m saying?  What does that lead to? What happens after the case is over? And Big U may not know when the case is over, but guess now what happens? Now I see them right now. I did the Kev Mac interview and showed them the text messages of me and Nip texting, the day before he died, and we were texting about some business. I showed that on the Kev Mac interview right? Right after I did that, and that sh*t came out, everybody started changing their tune. Now you’ve got a lot of these lames talking about, “Nobody ever accused you of killing him, you came out and said you didn’t.” Well, that’s because you lames were putting out a fake ass post saying the police was looking for me.

It was then that I learned fast, don’t address anything ever said on the Internet. That’s why I never address it.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Eugene BigU Henley Sits down with Kev Mac and Discuss Nipsey HUSSLE passing Days leading up To it and After.

A post shared by Bigu1 (@bigu1) on

Here’s the question I have to ask: there's people at home on their laptops that have the audacity to come up with conspiracy theories. Don’t they have the fear of writing this and then coming back into your town not knowing if there’ll be repercussions or not?
Well let me just say this to you, I’m going to handle every one of them I catch. I don’t give a damn what nobody said. If you think I did something, you're going to know I did something. That’s not even a question, that’s an obligation. Because you hurt my family, your malicious attacks is an attack on my kids and on my family. So yes, I promise you that. You can write that down too. I don’t care. I’m not letting none of them go. I ain’t did nothing to nobody, I shouldn’t have been accused of doing nothing to nobody. It’s just click bait. Somebody’s making money lying on me or putting me into some bullsh*t I had nothing to do with, you know what I mean? I'm not the type to forgive and forget. I’m not Martin Luther King. I’m not going to let you slap me and turn the other cheek.

Switching gears to new and developing projects...

I did a deal for this documentary with FX before Nip died. I did a deal that I wrote, me and Jim-Bob wrote it, and FX picked it up right before—

Who’s Jim-Bob?
That’s my guy, that’s one of my partners. He’s a Piru from Compton. He came up with the idea and we pitched it to FX. We pitched it to a couple of people and ran with it for about three-and-a-half years, then FX picked it up. It was crazy, Nip and I were excited. We were going over how we wanted to make it look. Nip was supposed to do a song. It’s a struggle with my group and then four months after we signed the deal he died. But Nip is the whole reason I got back into music.

It’s crazy, man. He called me and told me “look...” I already had talked to him while he was making the album. Now let me tell you something, Nip has about 100 songs, bangers that didn’t go on that album.

You’ve got unreleased material from Nip is what you’re saying?
I don’t have it. I don’t know who has it. I’m assuming his brother has it.

Understood.
I’m telling you, the music we were doing...the music he was playing before he died, when he was in the studio...he has some sh*t that’s going to come out if they ever put it out. I don’t know who’s running it, but he has some sh*t. I’m talking about the songs that didn't make the project that just came out.

I don’t know if this is the rumor mill or not but do you and LeBron James have the same connections with inner-city kid programs?
I don’t have any connections at all. I have nothing going on with him, no.

What about T.I.? Because I see T.I. talking about you a lot.
No, me and Tip...remember I did Tip’s show a long time ago when he had that Redemption show.

Yes.
I did Tip’s show with him where I’d talk to the kids. I did some administering to the kids for him.

Because he really looks up to you, you know? Whenever he speaks about you, it’s always in a positive light. 
Right. Me and Tip do community work together, always. We have to.

You’ve got a long hand in Atlanta helping people out as well?
Yes, we’re trying to take Developing Options, my gang intervention program nationwide. With Developing Options, we got the gang violence down 70 to 80% in L.A. from where it used to be. There used to be murders every day. I would love to work with LeBron [James]. I’d love to work with anybody who's got the right mind. I like what LeBron is doing. We definitely need LeBron and a lot of brothers who have the money that I don’t, to be able to reach these kids. I know if I had access to the financing, I could put more kids in and graduate from college than I am right now.

How do you feel waking up and walking around as one of the most powerful men in L.A.? Does that take its toll on you?
No, it’s not a toll on me because it isn’t true! I don’t know who the most powerful man in L.A. is, but it’s definitely not me because I’m one of the brokest ni**as in L.A. [Laughs]

I think you need money to be powerful or why else would they try to strut? Let me tell you something, I don’t know if you know who Poo Bear is? But this is what you’ve got to put in the article. Poo Bear gave me a very sizeable donation to help us with the organization and push. If you don’t acknowledge nobody in the world, you better acknowledge Poo Bear.

I have to raise just for my football program almost $21,000 a year so I don’t have to charge these kids out the roof. What people don’t understand is that now, here in L.A., they charge people to play and practice on the football fields, on the grass. You have to pay to rent that field.

Until this year I used to get a classroom for free. I have a mentoring program for young black men where two times a week, we get together and talk about whatever is bothering them. Now get this, I’ve had my store on Crenshaw for about 12 years. Every night, for 12 years, I’ve got kids walking the streets with nowhere to go. If they’ve got nowhere to go, that’s how they end up doing robberies, they’ll go to the liquor store...

What are your thoughts on saving our young men, our sons in the struggle?

You talk about gang violence...people think kids are getting forced to join gangs, for whatever reason. But no, it's because when they ain't got nowhere to go, they join a gang, they get somewhere to sleep, they can go to the homie house. Let's keep it one hundred. I don't have any plans for the 60s [gang]. I got a plan for young men, young Black/African men in our community. I got a plan for the Black community as a whole. Black, Mexican, Brown, or what have you. I did that years ago. Now, I'm trying to save...I'm trying to save people and if they was saved on the road to it, Alhamdulillah. But, I got one for the 60s, the Bloods, the Crips, the who all ever. Cuz right now, I don't have no choice on who walks in my door trying to get help. The only problem is, I can't help everybody.

 

Any plans for honoring Nipsey in the future?

We’ve got a couple of things planned that we're going to do. My organization is going to do something. I’m going to always honor Nip. We put a trophy together with our banquet in honor of Nip. I know the city wants to do something, the city is sitting down with me to do some stuff too. So, we're trying to make it big man. Nip was our Young Prince.

I see him as legendary before anybody did. I saw him as legendary before the world did. I’m the one that invested in him first. When nobody else invested in him, Big U invested in him. I saw the legend in him first. I saw the legend when none of y'all saw it. And, let me tell you this: I brought the legend to VIBE in New York. I brought the legend, took him all over the country, I paid for all of them flights for us to go everywhere in the beginning, because I believed in the legend.


 

From the Web

More on Vibe

Getty Images

Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

Continue Reading
Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

Continue Reading
Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Continue Reading

Top Stories