Delmar Lawrence, the Memphis rapper better known as “holy hip-hop” artist Mr. Del, will be the first tell you that in ecumenical terms his gospel music career is not the Ten Commandments.
Nevertheless, like Moses, when Lawrence saw the light 13 years ago, he made a promise to deliver his own 10 messages on the word of God.
“It was almost like a promise I made to God,” Lawrence recalled as he celebrated his 35th birthday earlier this week. “I told God that I would tithe my career to him, so that I would do 10 albums. So from 2000 on up to now, this is my seventh album.”
Lawrence is talking about Faith Walka, his new album on his own Dedicated Music Group imprint, which is part of major label Universal Music’s Christian label group. The record is being released Tuesday.
On Friday, Lawrence will throw a free album release party at Madison Line Records featuring performances by himself and other acts on his label.
A Shelby County native, Lawrence said he would have not been the obvious choice to become a Christian — much less a Christian rapper — growing up. A graduate of Germantown High School, he was an early associate of the Oscar-winning rap group Three 6 Mafia, which is noted for its profane, often violent rhymes.
“My mother was very religious, but I never was into the church,” said Lawrence, who was raised by a single mom. “I was more into the streets and into music.”
The turning point came in 2000, when, fresh off tour, he heard God speak to him in an Easter church service. It was accompanied by a vision that he was standing in an auditorium in front of a bunch of young people praising God.
“When I saw the vision something clicked in me, something just let me know that that was what I was supposed to do,” he said. “He said to trust me, and right there I made the decision to live the life of God and follow that vision.”
At that point, Three 6 Mafia was already one of the biggest hip-hop acts in the city. Nevertheless, Lawrence told the group of his decision and walked away, beginning a new career as a Christian rapper. He was not the first. The marriage of freestyle and the Good Word goes back to the early ’80s. But Lawrence’s street cred and his deft ear distinguished him in the genre.
In 2005, Lawrence received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel Album for Shake ‘em Off, his contribution to the EMI compilation Holy Hip Hop: Taking the Gospel to the Streets, Vol. I. In 2010, he received a Dove Award nomination for rap album of the year for his CD Thrilla. The same year his Dedicated Music Group, which had signed its deal with Universal, received a second nomination for Urban Recorded Song of the Year for Mali Music’s “Avaylable.”
Lawrence didn’t just pay lip service to Lord, either. He started Mr. Del Ministries at Woodland Hills Church of Christ in Cordova. The church regularly draws about 200 worshippers, including Lawrence’s former Three 6 Mafia cohorts Gangsta Boo and Lil’ Chat, though the pastor stresses visitors shouldn’t expect a hip-hop service.
“A lot of people think, do you rap in the church? And that’s not the case,” he said. “It’s very different. Pastor Del and rapper Del are two different people. The worship experience is completely intimate based on relationships. My music is my music.”
That said, Lawrence’s music is no less potent at delivering the Word. Faith Walka chronicles Lawrence’s journey from non-believer to devout servant, with one track for every year since his conversion.
“The album plays out year by year. Every song describes what I was feeling or emotion I was in at that time,” said Lawrence. “So I have songs like ‘Grateful,’ about how thankful I am for beating the odds, coming from a single family home, not really on track to become anything or accomplish anything, to rising above gang activity to have my own company and being a recording artist.”
Another track recasts the alternative rock band R.E.M.’s hit song “Losing My Religion,” into a plea to stress personal relationships with God over rote churchgoing.
Though he has three more records before he fulfills his compact with God, Lawrence said he’s already looking forward to retiring from the rap game. He looks forward to becoming a Christian Jay-Z, overseeing a flock of Dedicated Music Group artists that includes Mali Music, Canton Jones and Lisa McClendon, as well as new artists to come.
“I’m definitely looking for a great roster of artists who can continue in the holy hip-hop field and build our brand,” he said. “From when I started 13 years ago, holy hip-hop is on a whole other plateau and it’s still growing.”
Mr. Del record release party
8 p.m. Friday, Madison Line Records, 287 Madison. Free, seating limited. Visit mrdelministries.com or facebook.com/mrdelmusic.