The Miami Herald
HOLY HIP-HOP: Prodigal Son uses rap to share story of changing his life and turning to God
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MIAMIHERALD.COM: Click on Today's Extras to hear Prodigal Son's music.
Here, in a multipurpose center for Catholic Charities in Davie, rapper Prodigal Son is spitting out a song. Rapping God's word to the devout is a bit like preaching to the choir, but the crowd is up on its feet, shaking to his beats. His lyrics are an urban discipleship: ``God lean on 'em, and drop word on 'em, they ain't ready for the moves that you making on 'em.''
Dressed like an approachable Kanye West, Prodigal Son, aka Kelly Williams, says he has more than a few rhymes.
A former thug who has found religion, Williams, 29, has a testimony.
''My goal is to have gospel hip-hop mainstream,'' said Williams, whose beats sound like pre-crunk Southern rap. ``I want everyone in the world to listen to positive hip-hop.''
Life as a full-time Christian rapper is a tough job. Williams may be found performing at South Florida Christian night clubs, rapping at marriage-enrichment classes or sweating at half-time high school basketball games.
Like many Christian rappers, Williams sells his music over the Internet, in Christian book stores and out of his car.
''For the most part, Christian rap is still underground,'' says Jerome Baker, who founded thechristianrapper.com in 1999. ``It's still in its infant stages. Most secular labels won't push it.''
Williams runs Holy-wood records, a recording label that has signed two other Christian rappers, out of his Coral Springs apartment. Under Holy-wood Records, he has released five of his own CDs, including a soundtrack for a Christian motivational group, The Power Team.
After having a hard time getting a distributor stateside, Williams signed with a company in London last June. The Awake Music Group markets, promotes and releases his music throughout the United Kingdom.
Williams' recording studio is a converted laundry room, with a plywood booth.
''It's the size of a jail cell,'' he said.
He should know.
Growing up in the industrial city of Canton, Ohio, Williams spent his teen years robbing people, stealing cars and selling drugs, he said.
''Jail became a second home,'' Williams said. ``I was depressed. I didn't get along with my father. I had no hope.''
While incarcerated at age 16, he heard a dude rapping at a table. The fellow inmate shared the rap with him.
''I thought he was one of the best rappers there. I felt kind of honored,'' Williams said.
The music bug stuck with him.
In 1999, Williams left Ohio for Fort Lauderdale, where a brother lived, in search of a record deal. At that time, his music was raunchy, with lyrics about shootings, pimping ho's and selling drugs. Among the songs in his repertoire: Die with Me Tonight.
Williams got a one-year record deal with Miami's Quick Hit Records. Under the name Q-Dizzo, he recorded a Christmas song (it wasn't raunchy) and a CD. But the release of the album kept getting delayed. It was never released.
''I was kind of frustrated, '' Williams said.
During his times as a secular rapper, Williams' wife, Sheila, was less than impressed with her mate. He was a womanizer, she said, and often didn't come home to her.
''I won't lie to you and tell you he was the greatest person,'' Sheila Williams said. ``He was way out there. It seems like he's done a .''
He tried a more conscious approach to his music, rapping about subjects such as self-worth and God. The label nixed it, saying it wouldn't sell.
''I felt a little confused and hurt,'' Williams.
In 2002, Williams performed as Q-Dizzo at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He didn't get booed, but he didn't win, either.
Then, he touched the legendary Tree of Hope, a stump that performers touch at the Apollo for good luck. Immediately, a thought crossed through his mind: ''God told me I wouldn't do that type of music anymore,'' Williams said.
Shortly after, while smoking weed on his couch, Williams dropped the remote control and the Trinity Broadcasting Network came on. He saw the rapper Ma$e, who had become a devout Christian.
''Something told me to leave it alone, come to God,'' Williams said.
The next day, Williams' label called, complaining that he had missed a show and he was no longer needed. That was his breakthrough, he said.
Williams went door to door in his apartment complex trying to raise money to be a rapper. He raised $75.
He quickly recorded a CD, and started selling discs as he had once sold drugs. ''I would take whatever money I could make on my music, flip it back over to the product,'' Williams said.
Williams named himself Prodigal Son, after the Bible story about a son who left home and ran wild, only to be greeted with great joy by his father when he returned. Since then, he has released four more CDs. His latest, Christ'sExecutive Officer, dropped this month.
When Williams is not performing, he devotes himself to helping local youth by teaching them how to write, record and produce. At a Boys & Girls Club, he helps with songwriting workshops. At a local church youth group, he talks to teens who are curious about sex, drugs and music, serving as an on-the-spot mentor.
''Kids can be vulnerable with him,'' said Williams' friend, Jameson Reeder, youth and college pastor at New Covenant Church in Pompano Beach. 'They see him with the microphone, gold chains, they see his bling and his pants are sagging. They say `He's talking to me.' ''
At his recent concert at a marriage-enrichment seminar in Davie, Williams impressed the crowd, rapping about his past life.
''A lot of people that rap make up stuff that they've been through,'' said Clarence Stephenson, 29, of Miami Gardens, who saw Williams perform in Davie. ``But you can tell that he has compassion and he's for real. He has love for what he's doing.''