Thus spake The Joe

Award-winning Edmonton rapper moves beyond the Christian tag

Listening to Joe “The Joe” Gurba’s music on MySpace it’s easy to let the content of his lyrics slip by. Combining emcee Paul Barman’s esoteric wit with Aesop Rock’s baroque rhyme schemes and Busdriver’s vocalese flow Gurba is easily the most technically impressive independent rapper in Alberta’s small-but-growing hip hop scene this side of Cadence Weapon. His production handled mostly by Brooklyn’s Well Put and his Edmonton-based brother Mitchmatic is an instrument-loop heavy Kanye-like affair with an emphasis on keys and catchy bass hooks. A real intellect lies beneath the poppy gloss though with lyrics that range from a funny cutting look at hipster culture in “You’re cool” to “Canadiana” a bizarre dis track that nearly implodes with all its dense references to politics pop culture and Christian theology.

That’s right: Gurba is a Christian rapper. His first album 2006’s The Proletariat LP won the Covenant Award for Best Christian Rap Album though since then he’s drifted far enough from that audience in both form and content that unless you were paying very close attention his occasional references to God and faith could easily be dismissed as the bubblegum piety endemic of even mainstream rap. The difference with Gurba is that his faith really is important to him — which ironically makes it very difficult to call this rapping Christian a “Christian rapper.”

“There’s been a polarization in Christian rap especially amongst the people who are better at it and can survive outside that title” says Gurba. “You have Christian rappers and you have rappers who are Christian — guys who don’t feel the need to push that into every song and express that every single time they get on the mic because they don’t express that every single time they open their mouth. I definitely feel like I’ve got other things to say rather than just talking about my faith you know?”

Gurba laughs when he talks about the hardcore punk bands on MySpace who will jokingly call themselves “Christian Rap” but he’s obviously all too aware of the musical ghetto created by the label. Notably he doesn’t use the tag himself and all but the vaguest references to his 2006 award are kept out of his press materials. It’s a move that reflects his evolution as a songwriter. Today Gurba’s songs incorporate Christianity the same way they incorporate dozens of other themes and ideas much in the same way a Cormac McCarthy novel can rely heavily on Christian moral paradigms without actually being about them. In many ways Gurba’s nonchalant acceptance of himself is truer to the original “public-be-damned” spirit of hip hop than the dozens of faux-gangster fake-indie clones that populate too many underground stages and labels today.

“It always comes off as having this stand-offish demeanour like everyone’s just hurling insults at this imaginary ‘whack rapper’ in the sky” says Gurba. “Mostly the lyrics just bore me. The first rule in writing is show don’t tell and all rappers do nothing but tell. That’s an issue I think. In my future releases — it’s not like I’m not guilty of this every rapper does this — but I’m going to try not to tell anymore.”

Gurba’s upcoming Calgary show will take place at the Imaginary/Ordinary Art space on Thursday June 4 with performances from Mitchmatic A Chalkboard and Get Through Summer.