Braille stands in the vanguard of Christian rap. Cornering the market on "good hip-hop that happens to be Christian" and executing it with undeniable crossover appeal, Bryan Winchester is perhaps the only emcee in the world who rocks youth groups, underground rap crowds, and James Brown audiences (Braille opened 20 shows on Brown's final tour) with equal aplomb.
Of course, the humble 25-year-old from Eugene, Ore., doesn't consider his career trajectory particularly noteworthy. Asked if moral-minded hip-hop (thanks to household name Kanye West's smash "Jesus Walks" and young rap savior Lupe Fiasco's explicitly Muslim bent) is making a comeback, Braille says it never went away.
"I think there has always been a variety of artists sharing different perspectives on things," he says, citing the second half of hip-hop's "Golden Era" (1988-'93) as inspiration. "I grew up on early-'90s hip-hop, and during that time, artists weren't afraid to express their morality and beliefs. It was natural for me to talk about those things because my perception of good hip-hop was shaped by artists who were sincere, honest, unique and original."
Braille is talking about a time when the underground/mainstream demarcation was just becoming relevant, a time when fiery declarations of identity -- racial, spiritual and otherwise -- were the norm. Also noted for adventurous sampling, this hip-hop was governed by hearts, minds and ears unchecked by political correctness and copyright laws.
As hip-hop continued to ingratiate itself into the mainstream pop landscape, though, ideological and musical freedom dwindled, formulaic hit-making became the order of the day, and Braille's "sincere, honest, unique and original" heroes fell by the wayside.
Saturating the world's media like never before, hip-hop's pop potential has now been realized to startling effect. The mainstream, excelling in pairing society's lusts for sex, drugs, alcohol and violent crime with scarily slick production, all too often tailors its wares for passive, near-osmotic consumption, careless of its effect on society. Instead of hearts, minds and ears, hip-pop seduces by the desirous urges of the id.
Braille aims deeper. "I always try to consider the kids and the impact that music can potentially make on listeners' lives when I create," he says, carefully adding that, while his output promotes "different thoughts, values and styles than most contemporary music." Yet, he says, "I don't look at the rest of the rap world like an enemy."
The "rest of the rap world," for its part, is beginning to return the kindness. Braille's lyrical focus is not dogmatically Christian -- which would alienate the underground's more actively involved audience -- but instead details the daily struggles of the mindfully moral. With beats by top-shelf underground producers (as well as high-profile names like Jay-Z collaborator 9th Wonder), his solo and group work (with Portland's much-loved Lightheaded) has been embraced largely in the secular terms of beats and rhymes. Lightheaded's co-sign with leading West Coast undie (i.e., "independent" "underground") powerhouses People Under the Stairs resulted in a group record deal with PUTS' respected Tres Records, and Braille can be found sharing stages with the Bay Area's the Coup, PDX's Lifesavas, Seattle's Blue Scholars and other socially conscious members of the West Coast's underground elite.
These particular groups indicate today's underground rap climate:
Everybody's got a movement. That Braille gets lumped in with the Coup (1970s-style pro-black radicals) and Blue Scholars (neo-socialists) demonstrates what's common in the indie-rap concert scene: Two or three groups get paired together by promoters who intuit some kind of ideological connection between them. Most underground rap shows feel like a nebulous "theme party," with successive performers shouting out their various -- and sometimes laughably unrelated -- causes. Braille, then, gets teamed with the other "open-minded community-builders."
Asked about his "spiritually conscious" involvement within this "socially conscious" scene, Braille demurs. "There are many 'sub' movements happening on the West Coast," he says. "I think each act is unique, but there are some common themes. I don't think it's an intentional thing -- we are just all representing our styles." He adds, "It's encouraging that we've all been able to see various levels of success, and I think it speaks volumes about the listeners more than anything else."
When Braille comments that his music is "definitely filling a void," he means his particular sub movement is winning fans. As CEO of his own label (Hip-hop IS Music, www.hip-hopismusic.com), he hopes to retain them.
Interestingly, he's also filling a void left by the biases of modern hip-hop A & amp;Rs. By reaching out to like-minded artists, he looks past typical label requirements in lieu of building an ideologically unified team. "Most of my artists are married with children and have full-time jobs," he says. "There aren't many labels that are interested in promoting their lifestyle." Opposed to the idea that dedication to one's family should prevent artists from releasing records, he hustles for them -- mostly using the Internet as a promotional tool. "These artists can't tour and hustle to blow up like the younger guys," he says. "They have responsibilities."
As Braille's responsibilities -- to his art, artists, fans, family -- mount, he seems tireless, spending countless hours in front of audiences and PowerBook screens. Nobody knows his target audience quite like Braille -- which is good from a business angle but time-consuming. More than once, he's asked himself if it's really possible, if hip-hop can indeed sustain his or his family's life.
There are solutions, of course: Braille loves hip-hop; God is love; through God, anything is possible. And so it is through faith and love that Braille completes the cipher, fortifying his joyful noise with punch lines, slang, scratches, kicks and snares. It's the sound of devotion.
Braille with Lightheaded and Theory Hazit at the Spread on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 9 pm. Tickets: $5. Call 456-4515.