Controversial Christian Rap Collective Tunnel Rats Turn 20

Twenty years ago, Dax Reynosa founded Tunnel Rats, a 13-member Christian rap collective based out of Whittier. The group featured minimalist boom-bap styles; lush, jazzy compositions; and scratch-laden music you could breakdance to. The album for which they're best known—2001's Tunnel Vision—was a musical middle finger to anyone who found their battle-rap bravado sinful. (And there were many.)

Tunnel Rats respected God and hip-hop with equal militancy. Though they never experienced much in the way of commercial success, they helped to pave the way for other Christian rappers, and they're remembered as pioneers of the genre.

Nowadays, Reynosa, 43, is a smooth-jazz singer who wears casual suits and flat caps. Speaking recently from a rehearsal studio in Santa Fe Springs, he discusses his early roots at Radiotron, the now-legendary MacArthur Park hip-hop-focused youth center featured in the 1984 film Breakin'. Reynosa became a break dancer and later an MC, rapping in his early days not just about his faith but also the crack era he grew up in.

Reynosa is the son of a devout Vietnam veteran, and his father inspired the group's name. As a so-called tunnel rat in Vietnam, his job was to go underground to clear out holes made by Viet Cong forces—who often still lurked, waiting to ambush.

As it pertains to hip-hop, Reynosa saw the genre as being in need of a spiritual cleanse. In 1993, he performed at now-defunct graffiti-equipment store Hex's Hip Hop Shop. After the show, he invited some two dozen rappers who also performed that night to come back to his Whittier home for an open-mic throwdown. The racially mixed collective included Latinos, blacks and whites, groups that didn't always gel in Whittier back then, Reynosa notes. Standout performances that night came from acts including Reynosa's cousin Jurny Big, his sister Zane One, the four-member group Future Shock, and Shames Worthy—all of whom joined the first incarnation of Tunnel Rats.

The group began performing in churches throughout Southern California and, before long, across the Northeast and Deep South. They were most accepted by progressive church leaders who saw hip-hop as a way to reach the youth. But their style—somewhere between battle rappers and street preachers—wasn't always welcomed. Indignant church members accused the group of being sinful because their rhymes were glorifying their skills rather than God. Says Reynosa, “We would leave in tears.”

Their style was widely misunderstood. “I would rather hurt you with the truth than console you with the lie,” Reynosa says. “I know it sounds contradictory, but I want to battle you with love.”

As a majority-Mexican act, he says, they also encountered prejudice in the South. It was almost too much to bear. One night in Mississippi, an inconsolable group member named Redbones put a pillow to his face and screamed continuously. “He couldn't believe that we had given up our lives to minister the gospel through rap music,” Reynosa recalls, “and . . . had nothing.”

Indeed, they were paid very little—if at all—for their church performances. “Sometimes, when [churches] did put us up in a hotel, it was a ratty hotel. There were roaches or spiders, or no floor, just concrete flooring,” Shames Worthy recalls. He says that when sleeping arrangements were being made, he, as the group's youngest member, was sometimes relegated to the bathtub.

Before Tunnel Rats recorded their first project, Reynosa teamed with Jurny Big to form the side-project duo LPG; their meaty sound was game-changing at a time when Christian hip-hop was largely perceived as a cheesy, watered-down version of secular rap. LPG offered rugged breakbeats and melodic riffs with strong production, and many consider the duo's 1995 work, Earthworm, to be the first gospel-rooted album to feature real hip-hop.

Two years later, Tunnel Rats' debut, Experience, continued to fuse battle rap with brash Christianity. The work has the spontaneous energy of an impromptu cypher, as well as strong evangelical overtones. “Salvation was freely given,” Jurny Big says in the album closer, “but to receive it, it costs/It costs your life.”

Reynosa says the group received numerous letters from teenagers who were inspired by the music to leave gangs or to excel in school. But perhaps the group's biggest effect was on the Christian rap movement itself, which began to gain speed in the ensuing years. Philadelphia MC Japhia Life received comparisons to Nas on his 2000 debut, for example—a sign that Christian rap was being taken seriously.

But in the early 2000s, Tunnel Rats found themselves in a beef with Philadelphia-based Cross Movement, who adhered to stricter biblical teachings and refused to work with secular artists. (This was in contrast to Tunnel Rats, who collaborated with mainstream rappers including, at one point, KRS-One.) A Cross Movement member named the Tonic dissed Tunnel Rats in a 2001 interview with a Christian music site, faulting them for placing musical credibility ahead of gospel sharing. Fans of the Philly-based act, meanwhile, accused Tunnel Rats of offering little distinction between aggressive, secular West Coast rap and their own.

Instead of apologizing, Tunnel Rats made this their calling card, using a turbulent sound on their definitive 2001 work, Tunnel Vision, which embraced everything the conservatives hated. “T.R.'z”—slang for Tunnel Rats—opens with Reynosa's line, “I pull a pistol out my pocket, and I cock it,” and the track slags off rappers who believe inferior skills can cut it in the Christian marketplace. The song features abrasive sound effects and full drums and succeeded as something of a wake-up call to a still relatively staid genre.

Yes, there were spiritual references—Macho rapped, “I'mma be found guilty of spreading the Word”—but the work felt raw. Critics were impressed, and a whole generation of Christian MCs took note. West Covina rapper Propaganda even joined the group, becoming a member before Tunnel Rats' 2004 self-titled album, and is now an in-demand touring artist signed to Portland-based Humble Beast Records.

“Jurny and them used to tell me that all the time, 'We got paid one bottle of juice so you won't have to,'” Propaganda says.

Tunnel Rats are on hiatus, but Christian rap surges forward. The genre's biggest star is Lecrae, a Dallas MC who gets love in both the religious and secular industries—he has had No. 1 gospel albums and was even on the 2013 Rock the Bells tour. Lecrae also followed in Rats' footsteps on a 2011 mixtape, which features secular artists such as Don Cannon and 9th Wonder.

Twenty years after Tunnel Rats faced criticism even at the churches where they played, Christian rap artists now regularly crack the Top 20 iTunes rankings.

Reynosa made a promise to his colleagues in the group back in the day: “We're not going to make anything, but someday, three generations from now, they will.”

It's fair to say that, more or less, his words have come true.

“It was tough at the beginning, but the foundation's been laid, and it was laid properly,” he says now. “On truth, integrity and not only a love for Christ but a love for the art.”

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