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How gospel innovator Kirk Franklin and "Stomp" unexpectedly stormed the pop charts 20 years ago this week

Singer Kirk Franklin is photographed in New York on Nov. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper) ORG XMIT: NYET590

Singer Kirk Franklin is photographed in New York on Nov. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper) ORG XMIT: NYET590 ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

In 1997, seeing God’s Property’s “Stomp” on MTV was just as weird as seeing Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

If gospel choirs and anarchist collectives had anything in common, surely it was bashing the video channel and its skin-drenched paeans to mammon. Credit the groups’ shared evangelical impulse. With these two simple motivational anthems -- each had a second verse same as the first -- the groups sought unlikely fans outside their normal audiences. And they found them: Their albums went triple platinum, becoming the biggest ever sellers for, respectively, gospel choirs and anarchist collectives.

They also upset fans who felt the groups were abandoning their principles. One concerned reader of VIBE, responding to the magazine’s profile of GP’s perpetually-in-motion leader Kirk Franklin, wrote, “It’s hard to believe that ‘Stomp’ is a church song. The people in the video gyrate, throw their hair wildly, shake their bodies, and Kirk even does the Snake.” Another letter ended with a piece of advice: “Kirk needs to stop playing church to the beat of Satan’s drums.”

Franklin had heard such critics throughout his career. In fact, he addressed them in his introduction to “Stomp,” the first time many non-gospel listeners heard his voice:

“For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far…” (Wait a minute: Who thought gospel music had gone too far?)

“You think we’ve gotten too radical with our message…” (Gospel music was radical now? What did that even mean?)

“Well I got news for you: You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if ya don’t know, now ya know.

It was an introduction directed, in different ways, at gospel and pop fans. The gospel fans already knew Franklin’s music, and might have heard the same criticisms in their own congregations. For the unchurched, Franklin’s intro was something else entirely: an irresistible claim that this song “Stomp” was so innovative, so subversive, so Notorious B.I.G.-quoting, it could no longer stay confined to its obscure corner of Tower Records. And in fact, the hit single version of “Stomp” was a remix, built on a repeated snippet of Funkadelic’s utopian “One Nation Under a Groove.” This was a big tent song.

As often happens, the objections of some cranks got reworked into a selling point, and the song sold. Upon its May 27 release, the album God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, and became the first gospel album to top the magazine’s R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. In July, “Stomp” briefly became the most played song on R&B radio, bumping elbows with Biggie, both himself (“Mo Money Mo Problems”) and his ghost (Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”).

These days, with Franklin enjoying a thriving gospel career and lauded crossover work with Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, it’s tempting to hear “Stomp” as what its intro claims: a singular, “radical” work that opened the mainstream to gospel music’s message. In fact, the song was a culmination of both progressive and traditional impulses -- an ongoing argument within the gospel community and within Franklin himself. Kirk Franklin has always loved secular rap, but he made his name as a gospel traditionalist, albeit a young and energetic one; and without that base of support, there would have been no “Stomp.”

In the early ’90s, as now, gospel was not a commercial force. If an album sold 100,000 copies, the industry was surprised; sales of 200,000 were confined to the biggest names. And remember, this was the heady era of the CD boom, when other niche acts from Pantera to Travis Tritt regularly went multi-platinum.

Like other subgenres, gospel relied on a unique infrastructure to connect with fans. Gospel acts played churches, award shows, and an annual circuit of summer conventions, most notably the long-running Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA). On mainstream radio, gospel songs were confined to the Sunday morning shows of R&B stations. The early ‘90s saw its share of affectionate gospel homage -- I’ll see your Sister Act and raise you a Cop Rock -- but actual stars like Shirley Caesar, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, and the Mississippi Mass Choir were invisible to the broader public.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the twentysomething Kirk Franklin, formerly known by his street moniker Kid Fresh, was leading worship at Greater Stranger’s Rest -- “somewhat of a traditional Baptist church,” its Pastor R.E. West told Ebony magazine. “I brought in the drums, the microphone and then here comes this little kid who gets up and dances and bounces. The older people couldn’t stand it. But… eventually, he won them over.” Franklin had been leading music in different churches since he was 11, but he was equally immersed in hip hop and, as with many worship leaders, the line between professional demands and self-expression was fuzzy.

Throughout his career, Franklin has played to his strengths -- writing, arranging, directing, and generally commanding audiences’ attention. As he readily admits, one of those strengths is not singing. The “Stomp” video sums up his style. In front of the writhing mass of youth, Franklin twirls and gesticulates and, yes, does the Snake, all the while barking sharp, ad libbed rhythms: “Put your hands together!” “You can’t take my joy, devil!” Sometimes the words pour forth in an unintelligible rush: “Now young people if you don’t mind I feel like having a little church in here, ‘cause the devil is alive but [something] messiah [something] deliver! Come on! UNH! Salt -- a’can you help me?!?” “Salt” was Cheryl James from the rap group Salt-N-Pepa, who’d decided she could in fact help Franklin by rapping a few bars on “Stomp.” Another Kirk Franklin strength is networking.

Working multiple jobs throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, Franklin’s early career moved as relentlessly as his song-leading style. He made a demo tape at Stranger’s Rest; it got into the hands of well-connected choir leader Milton Biggham, who invited him to work with the DFW Mass Choir. Franklin followed the choir to the GMWA in 1990, where he directed one of his songs, the trad and swinging “Every Day With Jesus.” The workshop’s mass choir recorded it. Then in 1992, Biggham’s Georgia Mass Choir cut Franklin’s tension-and-release masterpiece “Joy,” a rare instance of Franklin singing a lead vocal. America’s tuxedo-and-robe gospel crowd was learning his name.

Tuxedos and robes were only part of the scene. Back in Texas, Franklin put together a smaller choir called the Family to perform his original songs. “I wanted to create something as wild, as abstract, as me,” he told VIBE. Well, not quite. The group wore chic suits and dresses and allowed Franklin to indulge his penchant for flashy designer vests, but “wild” isn’t the word that comes to mind when listening to the 1993 album Kirk Franklin and the Family, released on a brand new indie label, GospoCentric.

The album was built on, in the words of GospoCentric’s owner Vicki Mack Lataillade, a “very, very rough” demo. The Family had recorded it live at Grace Temple Seventh Day Adventist Church, Franklin’s Saturday night gig, and then the label spruced it up with overdubs. The songs have clear, simple melodies and casually inventive vocal arrangements; they’re built for quick learning and easy recall. More than half are slow. Franklin calls out lines and testifies in his trademark rasp, and the Family responds with parts written for their specific voices. Despite ignoring clear Biblical injunctions against soprano sax, the album at its best -- the strutting “He’s Able,” the immediate worship staple “Silver and Gold” -- sounds like it could have been recorded any time in the past 20 years.

You can’t say the same for the era’s more adventurous gospel music. Some artists experimented with current R&B on record well before Franklin got there. Hammond and Kee, both fine soul singers, used New Jack swagger and Jam and Lewis synth shrieks on their early-‘90s solo albums, then incorporated some of those techniques into their small choirs. “It’s a sound that is in the progressive African-American churches,” Hammond told CCM magazine about his Radicals for Christ Choir, formed in 1995. “It’s not trying to play the soul, ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ stuff.” This resulted in plenty of jams, but also in plenty of music that today screams “early ‘90s.” In the opposite direction, the ‘93 album from the tuxedoed-and-robed Mississippi Mass Choir indulged in a brief dad joke called “Why We Don’t Rap.”

Franklin’s debut album sidestepped this musical argument altogether -- it’s easy to imagine him leading a version of “Bringing in the Sheaves” -- and pretty soon everyone was buying it. Worship leaders could easily teach Franklin’s choruses to their choirs and congregations, and his album soon passed the MMC’s to become Billboard’s #1 gospel album. This was a remarkable achievement for a debut on a fledgling label with little promotional money; but Franklin was about to get bigger than even he had imagined.

More than a year after the album’s release, R&B stations began moving “Why We Sing,” Franklin’s gentle reworking of the hymn “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” from their Sunday morning shows into regular rotation. Listeners in droves immediately started requesting the song. “I’ve never seen response like the kind that song generated,” Elroy Smith, the program director at Chicago’s WGCI-FM, told Billboard. While the praise and worship song climbed to #28 on the R&B chart, white Christian audiences began noticing Franklin’s name in the pages of CCM magazine. In Billboard’s April 15, 1995, issue, the Top Contemporary Christian Albums chart started using SoundScan data -- precise point-of-sale data from record stores and Christian bookstores -- and Kirk Franklin and the Family became the first black gospel album to top it.

For 14 weeks.

“With the success of Kirk, we have learned to expose traditional gospel in all areas,” a Warner executive told Billboard. Though young, Franklin was not considered avant-garde; he was “traditional gospel,” and the industry saw his success as a breakthrough for that tradition. Accordingly, the gospel business scrambled to catch up. A Billboard report revealed label execs fretting about professional presentation and better looking CD packages. “In the past, some artists have looked at gospel as strictly ministry,” said one VP. “That is no longer the case.”

The Family had already recorded their second proper album, Whatcha Lookin’ 4, before “Why We Sing” blew up, but their hectic schedule of concerts and interviews delayed its release. As a late-1995 stopgap, they released the surprisingly enduring Christmas. Franklin worked his “Why We Sing” magic on “Silent Night,” giving it a catchier melody; his original song “Now Behold the Lamb” has been anthologized in mainline Protestant hymnals. But his most prescient move was the third song. It employed a young choir of Dallas youth, centered around Erykah Badu’s magnet school alma mater and informally called God’s Property of New Jack.

Their song “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is the proto-”Stomp.” Over a G-funk beat with a woozy one-finger synth lead, God’s Property whoops, harmonizes, and trades shouts with Franklin, who seems to cavort like a mad elf. Key lines include the birth of the “Put your hands together!” cadence and the disillusioning “Santa Claus ain’t got no list!” There’s also another Notorious B.I.G. quote. Franklin reworked Biggie’s sex jam “Big Poppa” to drive home the real meaning of Christmas: “I love it when you call him your Sav-yuh!” Next to this hullaballoo, “Stomp” sounds tame; but then, so does “Christmas in Hollis.”

Franklin had met GP’s founder, Linda Searight, through the DFW Mass Choir; then he kept running into her son, the prolific drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, in choirs around town. Attracted to GP’s youth and energy, he invited them to sing on the title track of Whatcha Lookin’ 4. (“This is for the young people! ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE!!!”) When that album finally dropped in the spring of 1996 and equaled the debut’s success, major label Interscope saw Franklin’s crossover potential and offered him a production deal. “Kirk Franklin means to gospel what Bob Marley meant to reggae,” label head Jimmy Iovine told the LA Times. Franklin used the deal to write and produce an album with GP.

Although several GP members also wrote songs -- Larron Vaughn’s jerky organ workout “It’s Raining” is a highlight -- Franklin’s were clearly the focus. In 1996, Interscope whetted public interest by including “My Life Is In Your Hands” on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Get On the Bus. Then in the spring of ‘97, GP performed the original, pre-remixed version of “Stomp” at the 10th Anniversary Essence Awards, earning a standing ovation from Prince.

WGCI’s Elroy Smith attended the taping and got excited. “I only wished I’d had it that night,” he told Billboard, “so when a few days later, a copy [of “Stomp”] came in our offices… I marched it into the control room and slammed it twice.” With Interscope’s promotional money and Franklin’s support among Christian and R&B fans, the album’s success seemed preordained.

Still, cranks gonna crank. “Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp,” read another letter to VIBE. “prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop or R&B.” Franklin might have become used to such criticism, but it still stung. “There have been times I have lain in my hotel crying,” he told JET, adding, “God really laid it on my heart that if they don’t have nail prints in their hands and they don’t have blood streaming down their forehead, you don’t owe them no explanation.” To CCM, he used a different divine metaphor: “I used to try to defend myself all the time. But God told me, ‘You are not my attorney! You are not my Johnny Cochran!’”

One self-proclaimed former fan suggested to VIBE, “I think Mr. Franklin may be trying to prove to himself that he is not what others perceive young church dwellers to be.” That claim is as perceptive as it is unprovable, but this tension -- intense loyalty to gospel’s legacy vs. a constant drive to test that legacy -- defines Franklin’s work. It may have driven Franklin himself. “I’m pretty sure it was a quiet sense of turmoil in his artistry,” Sput Searight told The Cipher podcast in 2016. “He met up with this young group of guys [God’s Property], and that record hit the top of the charts… I imagine that he, like any artist, would wanna venture in that direction... but he had obligations and dates to honor with the group he already had.” Franklin himself told Billboard, “This is an opportunity to express the side of me I don’t get to express with the Family. With God’s Property, I get the chance to be 27.” Franklin was 27 when he said that. Presumably with the Family, he felt older than his years.

In his 1998 memoir Church Boy, Franklin continued working both sides of the tension. He denied any “conscious effort” to make his music sound “contemporary” or “edgy,” but then expressed surprise that the church hadn’t challenged him more. “My radicalness, if there’s such a word, hasn’t created as much controversy as you might think it would. I mean, with some of the things we do onstage” --  dancing, rolling around, opening his music to worldly rap and R&B -- “you’d think the traditional church would have boycotted me. But it hasn’t, and I’m glad for that.”