Hip hop and I have had an on and off again relationship for the past 20 years. It started with the early days of “Christian hip-hop”, when Cross Movement and Grits drew me in. I never committed like a couple of my brothers. I guess I thought it had to be all or nothing, and I wasn’t in to everything I heard. Recently, I have been drawn back and it is in large part thanks to Taelor Gray. I knew Taelor for about a year before I really knew he was an artist. Even then, I heard snippets of his early stuff and honestly, I wasn’t hooked. Then I saw him live and as the saying goes, I saw the light. Seriously, if you can, catch a Taelor Gray live show. I don’t care if you like hip-hop or not. His lyrics are both challenging and inspiring, his delivery solid. He is growing in his craft, experimenting, and it’s exciting to watch. I got to sit down at the too early hour of 7:00 AM and chat with my brother about his craft. Check it out and check out and support his music at http://www.taelorgray.com/.
In your own words, describe your craft? It’s hip hop with soul. It’s in some ways explicitly worshipful, it’s has maybe a little bit of an edge in regards to an opinion standpoint. I am a very opinionated person, so what I say represents what I really believe, whether or not I contextualize the conversation to include an another perspective or not.
What inspired you to create music? My relationship with the Lord. More recently the birth of my son. It has given me a brand new fresh outlook on life, a perspective on fatherhood and possibilities and things like that. I don’t know how that happened…
Well Taelor, when a Daddy loves a Mommy…. (laughing) Yea, I am going to leave that part out. I just came into this writing binge. But the whole family dynamic, the artist doesn’t typically go there but that is a lot for me. That and the social environment that we are in, being tied specifically to what I am going to be doing with my life for the next 5-10-15 years. I would say that becoming more plugged in to the social realities of our country, historically and in recent times and thinking how they are going to impact me and my family. So the socio-economic realities, ethnicity, race, culture…how they directly impact me and my family the church we are serving in.
So how did becoming a Dad change your heart? Watching a human being enter into the world and you are directly a part of that reality. For me, artistically, this was something you read in a science book turning into real life. You know the science part, you have seen the PBS TV show, read the science books, but when you actually see the reality of a child coming into the world and now I watch him learn and grow and comprehend things. The reality starts to kick in and its miraculous, its amazing, its inspiring. And my wife has been a huge inspiration, how incredibly strong she is, how much she has changed into a mother and being in tune with that has been amazing to watch and experience.
It’s obviously a challenge with a family time wise. What are some other challenges in making music? I work a full-time job so it is easy to feel like work gets in the way some times. But creatively, I am just so random that I will think of something in a moment and I just have to get it down. So unfortunately that fleshes out during work hours, so sometimes it is just putting down a quick note in my phone or sending myself a quick email from my work computer. Or if the work day is too crazy, I will have to find myself in a dark room at the end of the day where I am probably destroying my eyes staring into a phone and trying to get everything down. Some of my best ideas I have forgotten about on the way home from work. The time is a challenge, I envy artists that have all day to think and create.
Do you ever censor yourself in your music? Censor? Absolutely I do. I am kind of scared of what I would say if I didn’t have a censor. I want to be honest, to be authentic, but in some warped way I want my honesty to serve the people who are listening, not just myself. I can speak honestly, get it off my chest and feel good about what I wanted to say but the reason I censor myself is because I don’t think that me uncensored is going to help everybody. It’s the same reason I would censor myself in a social media platform. I am going to keep it real or whatever you want to call it but to what extent, what good is revealing this thought that I have?
What is a track that you are proud of? There is a song where I rapped over a Coldplay song and it received mixed reviews. But because of the content of the song, it is probably one of my favorite songs. [spoiler: I (Chris) was one who critiqued it…it just didnt work for me, so I felt like a terrible person when he said this and said as much.] It’s ok, art exists to be criticized. I have seen that happen to the greatest artists of our time. I am not exempt. I love criticism. Someone told me yesterday that they hated something that I did, that it did nothing for them, and I had to take that to the chest. My wife is probably the toughest critic that I know…she strategically clouds how she feels or doesn’t get invested over all. And it helps that she doesn’t really like rap, she just listens to humor me.
Christian rapper; how do you feel about the term? I have come to the realization that I am not a title nazi. You listen to the music and that is the conclusion you come to, I am not going to wrestle you to the ground and make you change your terminology. We use words for a reason to define what we think we are experiencing. If you want to make a big philosophical discussion, I go with “rapper who is a Christian,” but again, not going to wrestle you to the ground. If you listen to my music and say “Christian rapper…because you make a lot of religious references,” then ok, I am not going to argue with that. Drawing more attention to it by trying to decode everything is too much work.
What is your dream tour? [this caused a lot of thinking] The tour that I would want to be a part of, I would want to be in the audience for. I would do my thing and just want to enjoy it. I have never seen Josh Garrels live and would love to do that. I would love to go on the road with Shad, to see how he engages his audience and builds the intimate feel that his music seems to have, just to see what his live show would be like and I feel like we would match in some ways. And as a final, my brother [Christon Gray], from a comfort standpoint, we have the most chemistry.
Who inspires you? There is a guy James Blake, really only one song that I know of his. He made a song called Retrograde that I just repeated for five days straight. Just one song. Kendrick Lamar, creatively, is just one of the most talented artists overall. The way he takes concepts and applies them to a sonic landscape. I am really inspired by Drake, he is a mainstream guy but just knows what works musically. There is a guy John Mark McMillan, that man, the dude is a beast. Jon Foreman, the lead singer of Switchfoot, when he breaks off he gets to another creative realm. The writing for his solo stuff, I love. I don’t know where they are going creatively or content wise, but I really love Gungor. I Am Mountain was a challenging album to digest; the writing is just like, “Dude, did you just sit down in a room and smoke some hookah and come up with it?”[laughing] I don’t know, whatever the creative juices.
What is the cost of doing music? The cost is what you want it to be, depending on how much you want to invest in this dream. For me, I think in percents. It is about 30-35% in the full context of my life, of my financial resources. 70-80% of my creative resources. It is an outlet because in my job I am not required to be creative.
Tell me about falling off a stage? Oh man, that was horrible. It had been a long night, the curtain call song, Swoope wanted to do an encore. We were all tired, he knew he was wrong for it. We were a little off our game because we were tired. It was a two level stage, I was jumping around on the lower level, slapping fives and I went to jump to the higher level and I wasnt looking. I knew where I was and where the stage is. I went to land where the stage was and it wasnt there. I completely lose it, bust my side, fall off, glasses flying. The DJ is right there watching me struggle and a group of fans is like “Oh, are you ok?” I am the performer, I dont want to engage with them that way. The culmination is that we are all at IHOP and I am just hoping that I got by because no one on stage saw it. But someone caught it on video, posted it on instagram and everyone got to relive that, laugh at it. I didn’t feel too bad because I think Iggy Azalea fell off a stage, Andy Mineo too.
If no one would listen to your music, would you still make it? I think if I am honest, the answer is no. Some people want to be purist and say they just make it for themselves. But it costs money to invest in your craft. You want to make it sound the best you can, so you go to the studio, the production, the hours. If after all that, nobody cares, you have to evaluate if its worth it. For me personally, no, I would probably stop and get into the critique side of things. A huge part of inspiration is hearing what fans think of what you do.
Whats next for Taelor Gray? An album! I have done a series of projects but one of my bucket list artist desires is to do a full length album. The Straw Man and the other projects were just a serious of songs with no cohesion. If they were an album, they would have got whittled down. So an album is on the top priority list, along with a couple other collaborations.