T-Bone – Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony (1996)

By 1996, T-Bone was probably the biggest name in the Christian hip-hop subculture. He was kind of the Lecrae of his era, only on a much smaller scale, monetarily, commercially, and notoriety-wise. So, really, he was no Lecrae at all. But he was one of the CHH pioneers who helped pave the way for the Lecraes of the world to walk through doors that were once closed to Christian rappers. Unlike most Christian rappers whose Pharisee-like tendencies and self-righteousness kept them from working with secular artists, T-Bone was not afraid to step outside the church and jump on tracks with secular rappers (he’s rapped on tracks with Mr. Grimm, Mack-10, Chino XL, and I’ll never forget the time he out-rhymed KRS-One on his Spiritual Minded album), which is also a testament to his rapping ability. He had two fairly well-received albums under his belt (at least by the Christian community), Redeemed Hoodlum and Tha Life Of A Hoodlum, and 1996 would find him continuing the Hoodlum album theme, releasing his third project, Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony.

On T-Bone’s first two albums, Muffla (who was the last remaining original member of the production team, L.A. Posse) was the chief producer, with his partner and the other half of the new regime of L.A. Posse, Chase, receiving mostly co-credits on a handful of records. Sometime after the making of Tha Life Of A Hoodlum, Muffla and Chase would part ways, leaving Chase solely in the production driver’s seat for Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony. I have a sneaking suspicion that Muffla and Chase’s separation was over a money dispute, as T-Bone mentions during his shoutout to Chase in the liner notes that his friend had been “payahated” on for his past work. But I digress.

It’s been well over a decade since I listened to this hoodlum testify. Hopefully, his testimony holds up well in the court of time.

The Hoodlum’s IntroTestimony begins like a biopic movie. In his amazingly soothing voice, J. Curtis gives a great opening monologue that makes T-Bone sound more like a Marvel superhero than a rapper. The intriguing narration combined with the supporting somber score makes me want to run to the concession stand for an Icee and large popcorn. “Extra butter, please. And do y’all have Ranch seasoning?”

Straighten It Out – The first song of the evening is a remake of Latimore’s seventies classic of the same name (minus the “Let’s”). Chase and company (Chase on keyboards, Grant Nicholas on Fender Rhodes, Vincent Jefferson on bass, and Mr. Monologue, J. Curtis, jumps on guitar, and shows off his singing chops on the hook) recreate the bluesy deep funk groove, while Bone adapts a tone that falls somewhere in between saddened and disgusted, as he gets into his conscious bag, addressing some of the societal ills that affect the Black and Brown communities (i.e., homelessness, gangbangin’, violence, drugs, child abuse, and domestic violence), pointing to a combination of unity and Jesus as the solution. It was kind of strange to hear the album start on such a melancholic note, but still a dope record. And the jam session at the end of the song is ridiculously yummy.

Demon Executor – One of the complaints about T-Bone’s music through the years has been his obsession with killing demons. This is one of those tracks that finds our host “jumpin’ demons like a gang initiation” and eating “demons and beans on his plate for supper.” In the midst of slashing demons’ throats, he also manages to sneak in a quick jab at Mormons (“I ain’t into set trippin’, Blood or Crippin’, instead I’m into Mormon and Satanic Bible rippin’”). Ironically, as humorous as the whole “demon killer” shtick reads, Bone really sounds angry and focused on annihilating Satan and his imps on this record, completely selling it by rapping his ass off. Chase backs Bone’s bloody exploits with a blunted banger that’s guaranteed to make you Crip Walk, or at least try to.

Hurt & Pain – Chase lays down a bleak backdrop that Bone uses as a sounding board to voice his feelings of rejection, loneliness, and depression caused by shady friends, backstabbers, and bloodthirsty sharks, while he pleads for God to take away all his agony on the hook. I love when rappers are brave enough to get vulnerable on records like this. Because we all can relate to feeling like this at one point or another. And if you haven’t already, just keep on living.

09/19/94 – T-Bone and company reenact the beating and robbery that our host lived through on the date in the title. I can’t imagine acting out such a traumatizing experience, but whatever.

Tomorrow’s Not Promised – If the previous skit wasn’t enough to give you a visual of what happened to T-Bone on that fateful night in September, he raps about the events on this record, with intricate detail. I’m still baffled as to why he would just open his door all willy-nilly after hearing the doorbell ring at three in the morning, especially knowing that he lives in what he refers to as “killer Cali.” T-Bone’s storytelling will keep you intrigued each step of the way, and Chase’s drama-filled bass line and mischievous bells and whistles, along with the ominous choir chords on the refrain, make Bone’s story sound even more compelling.

Police Call – I’m assuming this voicemail message is related to one of the perpetrators that robbed and beat T-Bone to a bloody pulp on the previous song. I’m not sure what purpose it serves on the album. Maybe a receipt to prove the beating actually took place? Feels a little clout chasey if you ask me.

Keep On Praisin’ – After all the darkness that consumed the previous five tracks, we get a glimmer of light with this one. T-Bone vows to keep pressing on and serving Jesus, despite all the trials and tribulations life throws his way (he also acknowledges 2Pac’s death, which might make him the first to do so in a rhyme). Chase places a soft and pretty instrumental behind Bone’s encouraging words, and Steven Mosley adds a melodic hook to drive Bone’s determination home.

Playa Haters Interlude – A short skit where some of T-Bone’s haters get to sound off (“Chase being accused of having “Tonka Toys beats” was hi-larious).

Kill Tha Lies – T-Bone uses this track to address his haters and those talking ill of and spreading lies about the Boney Bone. As I mentioned during the previous post, the Tunnel Rats (specifically, LPG) fired indirect shots at T-Bone on the title track of Experience. T-Bone fires back, dedicating the second verse to the So-Cal Christian collective, subtly calling them out by name: “Now I’m back to set the record straight, for all them suckas that I know that wanted to player hate, talkin’ bout I bit this style, I took they style, plus I’m wack, but little rats always talk behind your back, it seems they always talkin’ prideful, when I’m the one in a Lexus still carrying ’round a Bible, I’m on my third LP…G, and I ain’t never gonna sellout like some of the rappers in the industry, always talkin’ about keepin’ it real, glorifying hip-hop tryna find mass appeal, What’s the deal? Is that why you got in the ministry, so you could talk about me and all of God’s wack emcees?” The song title’s also a light jab and a clever play on the title of the closing track on Experience, “Truth Hurts, Lies Kill.” Who would have thought that Christian rap beef could get so spicy? Chase’s laidback groove, complete with a trunk-rattling bass line, is perfectly compatible with Bone’s composed diatribe.

Puttin’ It Down – Bone keeps the same emcee energy from the previous track, spilling boastful battle-ready bars (touring on the Greyhound is crazy), and manages to take out a few demons along the way. Chase delivers again, this time with a pristine light-funk digitized banger that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mi Familia – Bone continues to sharpen his acting skills in this skit that finds him crying with his mother as he tries to console her, while emotional piano chords play in the background. This leads into the next song…

Growin’ Up – Chase provides a clean bop for T-Bone to reminisce about his childhood, reflecting on some of the hardships that shaped his youth (i.e., getting in trouble at school, dealing with a drug-addicted sister and an incarcerated brother, and losing the family home to a house fire) and made him into the man he is today, or was in 1996. I like T-Bone’s message, but I’m completely in love with the tender guitar licks that J. Curtis laces the track with.

Flock Together – The song title is based on the old proverb “Birds of a feather flock together,” which is a fancy way of saying be careful of whom you choose to hang with. T-Bone’s rhymes don’t necessarily stick to the subject at hand, but he does entertain your ears with a swaggy rhyming style and delivery. But even more entertaining is the instrumentation, topped off with a tantalizing jazzy keyboard solo at the end that Thelonious Monk might even have approved of.

Ministry Vs Industry – T-Bone discusses his journey and experiences in the Christian rap game/business and challenges all other Christian emcees to examine and asks themselves what their purpose for rapping is as well (which is also another subtle jab at the Tunnel Rats). Bone’s interesting content is scored by a strong bop that leans heavily on its sturdy bass line.

Organized Rhyme – T-Bone mentioned them on a few different tracks early in the album, and we finally get to hear his Organized Rhyme Crew rap on this album closing posse joint. Mayhem, Maximillion, and Bone’s cousin, E-Dog (who made his introduction on “Pushin’ Up Daises” from Tha Life Of A Hoodlum), join our host, as all four rappers spit competent battle bars (that I’m sure were inspired by the Tunnel Rats feud) over a slick Chase production. It’s no “Head Banger” or “The Symphony,” but I still enjoyed it.

During the first two installments of T-Bone’s Hoodlum trilogy, it was very apparent that the Holy Ghost-filled Frisco emcee had talent. On both albums, Bone displayed his uncanny ability to successfully spit on any beat, no matter its pace, race, creed, color, or religion. But his obsession with demons and tendency to mimic other rappers’ styles, semi-sullied his polished and versatile flow and made his rhymes feel cartoonish at times. Apparently, the third time’s a charm, or three is the lucky number, or all praises due to the Holy Trinity…whatever triad you’d like to subscribe to, Bone seemed to have found his voice on Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony.

Throughout Testimony’s sixteen tracks, T-Bone showcases his rhyming skills and keeps the listener engaged, getting personal and vulnerable on tracks like “Hurt And Pain,” “Tomorrow’s Not Promised,” and “Growin’ Up.” His beef with the Tunnel Rats also appeared to have sparked his competitive side, as he raps with a chip on his shoulder, spewing boastful bars and taking shots at his rivals while silencing his naysayers on “Kill Tha Lies,” “Puttin’ It Down,” and “Organized Rhyme.” Thankfully, T-Bone keeps the demon murders and impersonations of your favorite rappers to a minimum, only catching a few demonic bodies along the way and occasionally getting into his Snoop and 2Pac bits. Testimony also finds Bone less focused on flaunting his faith than the first two albums, but even when he’s not wearing Jesus on his sleeve, J.C. is clearly the underlying theme of the album. On the production side, Chase gracefully steps up to the challenge of filling in for the absent Muffla, backing T-Bone’s sanctified raps with polished instrumentals that sound more layered and musical than his two previous albums, thanks largely to the lively instrumentation provided by Chase and his cast of musician friends.

T-Bone’s well-rounded emceeing paired with Chase’s quality production, easily makes Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony the strongest album in T-Bone’s Hoodlum trilogy. It’s also a strong testament that all gospel rap isn’t corny, and I’d be willing to testify that it could hang with some of your favorite secular rappers’ output of that era. Yeah, I said it.


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2 Responses to T-Bone – Tha Hoodlum’s Testimony (1996)

  1. Daniel Blake says:

    Being honest, I would never have listened to this if not for this blog but have just played Straighten it Out and it rocks. Thanks for opening my mind a little bit…

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