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Joe Gonzales

No Way, Shape or Form


My story is extremely unorthodox in that I had no clue I would be where I am and that’s personally and professionally. Professionally, I had no clue I’d be rapping if you were to ask me when I started rapping 10 years ago in 2008, I had no clue it would have been my career. It started out as something fun, a hobby, I was doing a favor for my pastor at the time. I had no clue that in a decade, this would be what I would solely be doing to provide for my family.

But as the years progressed personally, I definitely didn’t think that I’d be where I am in that I thought that I would have progressed a little bit more in my career. And I’m glad that I didn’t because though 2015 to 2016 were the hardest years of my life, they were easily the best years of my life as well. I don't know that I would have been able to become the man, Christian, husband, father, brother, friend that I am now had I not gone through a lot of those things that I went through in those two years. So even personally, I’m not sure on the positive and negative side, I would have envisioned that I am where I am today, but it’s a good thing. You don’t really appreciate the mountaintop or at least what I thought was the mountaintop if you’ve never gone through the valley. You could see it, but if you would never walk through it, you have no appreciation for being out of it. I walked through a valley for two years of what I can now call depression (I didn’t want to call it that at the time because there was a denial that I was living in and also, I didn’t want to belittle people who medically deal with depression all of their lives and not just a season of depression) but looking back on it, that’s exactly what it was. That was triggered and induced by a plethora of things, but depression nonetheless.

Until you’ve kind of been through that, you don’t really have an appreciation for joy or clarity of mind or peace. You can’t appreciate the sunshine if night never exists. I’m grateful to be where I’m at personally and professionally, even though it’s almost as if I’m starting my career all over. It was very clear that I would have been unable to handle massive success professionally because of where I had been personally in the last three or four years. So being able to walk in humility now, it’s only because I’ve been humbled. It’s either you humble yourself or you’re gonna get humbled at some point in time. On the other side of things, fortunately now I can say I’m really grateful that the Lord saw fit to humble me without eliminating me or without me losing my mind. There’s so many stories that I can go through in my own life or where I see in the Scriptures where pride does result in a fall, but a fall that you can’t come back from. I’m just like “Woo, thank you Lord that that’s not what you chose for me.”


Joe Gonzales

I’m a pianist by trade. I grew up playing piano and organ in my church. That was literally all I wanted to do. I wanted to produce music, but I wanted to produce Gospel music specifically. My influences were the Kirk Franklins, the Hezekiah Walkers, the John P. Kees and things like that. Even when I was introduced to hip-hop, 2004 was a sonic turning point to me. I had heard hip-hop, but then there’s the age old question, when did you fall in love with hip-hop? That was 2004 with specifically Kanye West’s The College Dropout. Even then, there was four to six straight years of me still thinking that Gospel music is going to be what I did for the rest of my life. I guess repeating other people’s words and not speaking in arrogance, but I’m a pretty good piano player, I’m a pretty good organ player. I was an in-demand musician all my life. I started playing when I was 15. I was a late bloomer, but I bloomed really high. My flower sprouted all the way up.


At about 16, 17, I was traveling the nation playing for different groups and choirs and praise teams and all of that. I remember I got a full ride to college at 17 and when I turned 19, I was flunking out of college. You’ve got to test into your major. My music teachers were giving me tests like, “This is what a middle C is.” Now mind you, I’m playing all over the country and eventually the world at the time, I’m like, “You’re asking me what a middle C is?” C’mon bruh. Along with that, I was extremely clear about music being what I’m going to do the rest of my life. So pre-Algebra and biology and all of this, I’m like why am I in this class? Eventually I just started skipping them. I got smart on my last semester before I left college. The beginning of the semester, all of my music courses I went to the teachers and sat down and played for them on the first day of class. I said, “Just give me a syllabus, I’ll be here on test day, but I will not be showing up.” Some of the people in the course were like, “Oh, this is a middle C.” But me, I’m not coming to class to do this every day. Meanwhile if music’s two or three of my courses, I’m getting straight Fs in the other five.


I got invited to play at a jazz club in Sweden and I remember waking up like I’m never going back to school. Like ever. In life. School will probably be beneficial in certain areas, but it’s slowing the right now down. ‘Cause I gotta get back to make sure that I at least show up for the test for the class that I’m getting a D+ in, so I dropped out of school.


From there, it was alright, we’re full go on this. Let’s find the Gospel whatever musicians, artists, in the city that are making music and let’s produce for them. Let’s not just play for them, let’s produce for them. That ended up introducing me to some rappers like “I rap for my youth group,” so it’s like ok, cool. You need beats? I wanna help you make music. Then in 2007, a good friend of mine who was a rapper, his rap name was Freddy Prince at the time, which is a horrible rap name but whatever. If you read this, I’m really glad you changed that. He was supposed to come through to the “studio,” which at the time was my mother’s basement. And didn’t, but I had made some beats for him or whatever. So I was like, man, you know what, Ima rap on ‘em. So I did so just as kind of a joke. Then I ended up showing it to my pastor and he was like, “You should do some more of these.” I’m like, ok, I genuinely loved my former pastor, current as well, but at the time he was my pastor. So I’m like yeah. I know he was a man of insight and discernment and wisdom, so let’s pursue it. So that one track became 14.

The 14 tracks were my first album, The Zoo. As I played the project for my crew as far as hip-hop was concerned, they were like, yeah, you’re killing it bro. Nobody as far as Christian rappers is rapping like this. It was very Lupe Fiasco-ish in word and Kanye West-ish in production. The College Dropout was a large influence on me, but so was Lupe’s Food & Liquor and The Cool, so it was almost as if those three albums made a baby. That’s how I came. That was gonna be a one and done sort of thing. Alright man, get back to these choirs, whatever. This is not something that I wanna do forever. It was 2008 when the album came out, I had already proposed to my wife, so I was preparing to get married. It’s like man, I’m about to be a husband and eventually a father. I know from being a fan of Christian Hip Hop that there’s not too much money in this. So two things happened almost simultaneously.

One, I had an “album release” concert because the album was circulating around the city and around the state, actually, and I invited my friend Yaves Ellis, who at the time was going by The Street Pastor, which is also a horrible rap name. And he came and opened at the show and bought a couple albums like man, I’m glad you finally did it, blah, blah, blah.

Fast forward to him having a show in Chicago with - this just seems to be a pattern - with another good friend of mine, his name’s Kareem Manuel, but his rap name at the time was Katalyst, which is a terrible rap name, with a K. But he and Katalyst were discussing before the show how diluted Christian Hip Hop was. It was like people are getting a pass on the hip-hop because they’re Christian. Nobody’s really rapping well, but they get a pass because they’re talking about Jesus. It’s like the kid that comes and sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” at the Apollo. It’s like he’s not that good, but we’re not gonna boo him. Because he’s singing the song from church. So Yaves is like, “Bruh, I totally agree with you. I totally agreed with you ’til I heard this,” and he gave him my CD.


That is only important because Katalyst was connected with the Reach Records circle at the time. So he passed my CD to Sho Baraka. Sho was first, Sho passed it to DJ Official, DJ Official passed it to Lecrae. Lecrae passed it to his good friend at the time Joseph Prielozny, who was basically responsible for the sound of Reach Records up until about Gravity. Joseph was thinking of stepping out on his own to do his own record label, which would eventually become Collision Records, which is where I signed. So that domino effect got me my first “record deal.”


While this was simultaneously happening, another pastor friend in the city was having a youth night and they called Da’ T.R.U.T.H. in to rap. Pastor Dennis, I just love him dearly, he’s always been like a father to me, he called me to play at the youth night, not abnormal in the least. But then he slid in, “Oh yeah, I want you to rap before Da’ T.R.U.T.H as well.” I’m like wait a minute. I know who Da’ T.R.U.T.H is. I’m a fan of his. Rap is not what I’m trying to do in any way, shape or form. I’m not trying to get up there and embarrass myself. He does this for real. This was just kind of like a fluke that I happened to be good. He’s like, “Just try it.” So I did. And I mean T.R.U.T.H. fell in love with me. That was the beginning of our friendship. But also, he invited me to his hotel room the next morning and was like, “Yo man, I got this album coming out called The Big Picture and I’ve got this song called ‘Suitcase’ that I want you to be on.” So I’m like yeah sure, this is kinda weird. It’s like being really good at a pick-up game and then LeBron James says he wants you to go join the Cavaliers. It’s like ok, sure. So I did it, again, no intention of pursuing this at all. But that ended up being how everybody heard about me. Outside of the artists, the Reach Records circle that was quietly being passed my CD, the masses of fans, people to this day, tell me I remember the first time I heard you on “Suitcase.” It was almost the, to keep making the comparisons to Lupe, it was the Lupe “Touch the Sky” verse on Kanye’s Late Registration where it’s like the real fans have been on since freakin Revenge of the Nerds but the world was like, "Yo, who’s that on the third verse of 'Touch the Sky?'"

So those two things happened simultaneously in 2009 I believe. Then I signed the deal in 2010 and the rest was I guess history as they say.

But as you listen to the elongated or intricate, nuanced story, it’s like, “Oh yeah, you had no clue, no plan on being a rapper in any way, shape or form.” But I’m glad. The Lord doesn’t do anything on accident. I’m glad that the story unfolded the way that it did because my new album, Sonshine, it’s like hip-hop church but not in a corny way. I’ve lived enough life, I’m a believer in Jesus, but I’m a very liberal believer. So I’m not the guy that’s like, well, we don't listen to secular artists. No, Kanye’s my favorite artist. I’ve been rubbing shoulders sonically with my ears with every kind of music so you get the authentic bang and boom of hip-hop. You get the authentic grit, you get the authentic storytelling and lyricism and all those things. But then the Gospel influences are undeniable as well. Very similar to Chance The Rapper, which you can listen to Chance and be like oh no, he goes to church for real. That wasn’t a “Let’s bring a organ player in to give it a little Gospel flavor.” It’s like nah, he goes to church for real. He’s very adept with the culture of Black Gospel music and hip-hop at the same time. It’s kinda like those stories write themselves by whatever context you’re in. That’s not something you can kinda drum up.

Sonshine is multi-faceted, I almost tried to fit a double entendre into one word. So it’s Sonshine with an O, not a U. The primary meaning is that the Son of God is shining on me and there’s a plethora of songs that refer to that, and not shining in the happy-go-lucky way, but moreso there is an ever-present covering and contentment that I had to find myself was only in Jesus. That can come off as a very Christianese statement, but it’s like nah bro, I didn’t find it in a bank account, I didn’t find it at the bottom of a bottle, I didn’t find it at a party, I didn’t find it in success, I didn’t find it in accolades, I definitely didn’t find it in depression, I didn’t find it in numerous arguments with my wife, I didn’t find it in the broken relationships with my siblings and some of my family due to my own action. I found it in the Lord. It’s like everybody is looking for hope. I don’t care who you are, atheist, believer, agnostic, whatever. Everybody’s looking for hope. So I just want to tell people about where I found mine. So that’s Sonshine in one meaning.

Then there’s also sun ‘cause you shine like one. I feel brighter than I ever have. Even though I’m kind of starting my career over, I feel like yeah, this is where I’m supposed to be. There’s this putting on that I feel where it’s low key a flex, but not an arrogant one, just like I’m over here shining, you can see it if you want. We low key getting wins. That’s what it rhymes on the song “Flex,” it goes “I ain’t gotta flex, I’m really getting wins, but I ain’t gotta flex.” It’s like you can see it or not, but we shining over here.




Kelsey @directedbykels

It’s also me telling my sons to do the same, to find the covering and protection in Jesus. Then also, be the best you. Nobody’s ever going to be a better Jeremiah or Micah than my sons. There’s a song a wrote on the record, it’s called “Black Boy,” but I remember sitting on a plane from Ohio to Atlanta listening to one of my homeboy’s beat tapes and writing to my sons. It started as almost a poem because the rhyme scheme was so unorthodox. It’s almost an Andre 3000 rhyme scheme but he just pulls off unorthodox rhyme schemes better than anybody I know. Him and MF DOOM. So it wasn’t even supposed to be a song that saw the light of day, but it’s such an important message that I want to uplift my sons specifically, but I think will uplift African-American sons across the world.

The record itself, this is really the third draft of the record. There’s two other whole albums that may or may not see the light of day, just because of where I was in life. First one was in light of the aesthetic of the nation and certain scenarios that were happening at the time, it was a very angry, racially charged Black power record almost. Not from the standpoint of Black pride, but more from the standpoint of Black anger and dominance, and with that, you gotta be pointing the finger at something. As I listened to the records more and more and played them for a plethora, a pool of people, the response was, “Ehhh, I mean yes to your macro point, but in the micro you seem to be demeaning an entire race, which some people would agree with, but it’s like I don’t think that’s really what you wanna say. I think you should keep fleshing these records out and see where you land.” ‘Cause right now it’s a basically white people suck, Black people are awesome. And the reason white people suck is because of what they did to Black people. That’s such a blanketed album. I’m just lumping them all together without considering anomalies. There are some good white people out there. Even though I scrapped most of this music, one of the race records from the first album did make it, it ended up being “TSNK (Thou Shalt Not Kill).”

The second draft was the beginning of Sonshine. Sonshine is a very bright record, but as I stated earlier, you don’t really appreciate sunshine, the actual sunshine in the sky, without the night. The second draft of the record was extremely depressed, very dark, very low, just detailing my life at the time. I touched on some relationships that I had in my family and some of my friends. We moved from Akron, Ohio to Atlanta, Georgia. Some friendships failed, some family relationships failed, not primarily due to the move, but that was another strain as well. At the time, my mother was dealing with cancer over the span of album creation time, the second and third time that she had cancer. On my second record, Wake Up, I detailed how the Lord brought her out of breast cancer. It was this great testimony. Then years later, she has to go through lung cancer and brain cancer in the span of three years. So it’s kind of like, “C’mon Lord.” That was a low point. ’Cause I’m a self-proclaimed mama’s boy and she’s a phenomenal woman. That was a strain. On top of that, my wife and I hit the worst financial times that we had ever experienced in our marriage in 2015, 2016. It was just a low time.


I left the record label, the only label that I had known, the label that had given me the height of the success that I had at the time. The age-old artist who didn’t thoroughly read his contract and they own 100 percent of the publishing. So that was a big thing. But then aside from that, there was a lack of vision at the label. We had done some great things because we had a lot of talent at the label. But I could also see the ceiling of my career. It was like alright, what do we look like in five, seven years? And there weren’t too many answers for that. So I ended up going through a very personal separation from the label and then from there, there was just nothing happening musically, so it was almost as if my career ended with my time at the label. Just a very low, low point.

Masses of fans that I have got a glimpse of my depression with a song I released called “Lambo.” Money can’t buy happiness, got that. But I would not mind crying in a Lambo. So I know money is not the end all be all of my problems, but it would be nice to suffer in a $110,000 car. That would be awesome. I probably would’ve just sold it to solve some of my problems. But money wasn’t going to keep my mom from having brain cancer. Money wasn’t going to fix some of the relationships. Money wasn’t going to undo some of my wrongs. Money wasn’t going to undo some of other people’s wrongs. So it was moreso a vent at the time. I think though that is the catchiest line in the song, the most impactful line for me life-wise was, “Until God is enough, nothing else will ever be. I burnt a lot of bridges screwing up, I hope they light a path to a better me.” The song was actually originally called “Better Me,” but “Lambo” was way more marketable. It’s like hey, hey, hey, you’re looking for all of those things, peace, security, contentment, joy, in everything but the one place that they can actually be found and that’s in God. You can’t change your past. I’ve burnt a lot of bridges screwing up, but I hope they light a path to me becoming a better person, to me becoming a better husband, a better father, a better rapper, a better friend, a better brother, a better son, all those things. The path that those burnt bridges lit became the third draft of the album, which is Sonshine.

From there comes the second to last song on Sonshine, “Shining Down.” It’s a super Gospel song with hip-hop drums that’s just like hey, when the rain falls, when the pain comes, all those things, like it’s cool, I’m good ‘cause the sun is shining down on me. It’s a reflective song that does not negate the harsh realities of life. So I’m not saying I may not ever hit that low place again as far as scenarios are concerned. I think there’s an internal security and contentment that I have if I ever do hit that low place again ‘cause now I know the sun’s shining down on me. Now I know I’m covered. Now I know I have contentment. Now I know where to find peace. So song’s like “Shining Down,” songs like “You Got Me,” which is almost the same sentiment, you hear me every time I call on you, whether big or small, I can put it all on you. I know I be trippin, but Ima fall on you ‘cause I know you got me. So there’s this safety blanket, there’s this security blanket that I’m placing every step and scenario and portion of my life on, that I only found in the low place, that I only found in the dark, that I only found in the valley.

After finalizing the third draft of the record, you can hear me smiling on certain songs. It’s like you don’t listen to Chance and hear the same grit and scowl that you love from a Wu-Tang record. You’re not getting the same sentiment. You can hear that he’s happy making most of that music. Like I said, my favorite artist is Kanye, you can hear that happiness shift if you travel throughout the course of his albums. The College Dropout ‘Ye is not the same 808s & Heartbreak ‘Ye. His mother died and a plethora of other things in life, so you can hear emotions sonically. As you listen to Sonshine, you can hear me smiling, you can hear happiness, you can hear joy, you can hear peace, you can hear hope. I think that’s the biggest thing. Like I said, everybody’s got hope in something, everybody’s talking about hope in some way, shape or form. I just want to tell people about the hope that I have in Jesus.

The biggest single off the record right now is a song called “All the Time” and really encapsulates what Sonshine is all about. It’s a very simple statement that you hear in African-American churches all the time. The pastor gets up and says “God is good” and the audience responds with “All the time.” He says, “And all the time” and they respond with “God is good.” It’s very simplistic, but it’s a life-changing statement if you genuinely believe. Like is God really good all the time? Is God good when my mom has cancer for the fourth time? Is He still good? We’re not rich, but we’re not as broke as we were. We’re still trying to figure out how to pay the rent for the next couple months. Am I going to take some shows? Do I need to make some beats? Is God still good with that? Some of the relationships that were broken at the time are being repaired currently. But they’re not fixed. Is God still good? The answer’s yes.

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