While road tripping to Iowa with Detroit phenom Terrence Parker, we were regaling each other with stories of recent parties we’d attended. When he told me he had spun at a Christian rave during this year’s Movement Festival, that immediately caught my attention. Rave? Christian? To me that seemed like an anomaly, even a contradiction in terms.
As it turns out in the heart of the Motor City lies God’s secret weapon: Nate Carlisle, DJ and head of the God’s DJs crew. The party is called Reformation, and is an official Movement pre-party. This burgeoning organization also runs the largest online Christian electronic entity in the world and is laying the foundation for other countries to follow. With the aid of TP, I was able to get Nate on the phone to tell me more about this fascinating subject.
This is kind of a different interview for me given that you’re not a strictly House Music artist, which 99 percent of our interview subjects are. Can you tell me more about yourself?
I’m 30 years old and based here in Detroit. I’ve been DJing for 10 years now. I was doing the rave scene in the late ’90s and of course fell into the drug culture and party scene. I was a Christian at the time but fell away from my beliefs and got caught up with all the things around me. About 2003-2004, I made the decision to get away from the scene. I took a step away, got cleaned up and returned to the church and recommitted my life to God.
It was late 2007 when I really felt a strong desire to reconnect with others in the world who loved electronic music, but really had no one else to communicate with because the mainstream Church worldwide has no clue when it comes to that. So I started posting on a small forum and we started with about 30-40 people, started finding more people that were searching for good Christian dance music and here we are five years later with 150,000 registered worldwide members on our site, a 24/7 online radio station with about 1000 listeners a day and we play Christian electronic music as well as clean mainstream music as well. And with this exponential growth, as our outreach grows and our members grow, we’re seeing electronic dance music is going to surpass Rock and Roll in the church within the next five to ten years. If the church continues to only work with Rock and Roll bands, it’s going to be completely obsolete.
So walk me through the time frame again… What year did God’s DJs start and was it a production company? What came first?
It started in mid-2007; the original intent was to make a website with a list of Christian DJs, but we then changed it to a community forum. It gave us the opportunity to interact and share stories with each other. Then we decided to do a weekly radio show, and that grew to where we opened up our own radio station. The station has actually brought a ton of members into our community. I would say 10 percent of our new members come through the radio outlet. And we are the only Christian electronic radio station in the world. Many people for example will go to iTunes and stumble upon us that way.
Is it safe to assume that your parties accept all creeds? What are the basic tenets in your parties that you ask everyone to respect if they want to be a part of it?
For the small group of people that actually make up the God’s DJs staff, we absolutely require that they are firm believers in Christ and that they have a relationship with God. I have to know someone really personally before they’re on the team. With the 150,000 people we have in our community, there is no requirement. You can be of any creed, etc. etc. but you need to come into this with the understanding that you’re joining a group that believes the following. There are no requirements.
As far as the events that we produce they are all in the sanctuary of the church. We do Future Sound of Worship every year and Terrence Parker has played for us a couple of times. We literally run it like an actual church service except for the fact that we’ve got 30,000 watts of bass, lights and lasers. So the vast majority of people that go are churchgoers that are interested in a new style of music. Or they have the same type of story as me.
Let’s talk about the Movement Fest in your hometown. I see you have quite a presence with there.
I’ve attended every single Detroit Movement Festival that’s taken place and we’re actually a partner with Paxhau. We have a booth there every year. And our Reformation party last year was an official Movement pre-party.
I’m curious about the history of these parties. I’m assuming there were some that predated yours. How does one start a movement like this and how do you promote it? Are you aiming it at people that are Christian or is the goal really to have more of a secular audience to spread the word?
To say we’re the first ones to do it would not be accurate, but to say that we’re the first ones to do it successfully would be. We firstly give all credit to God. There’s also the timing. I think right now, mainstream culture is moving towards electronic music whereas in the ’90s it was not. Then it was very firmly rooted in Rock and Roll and Hip Hop.
Promoting a Christian electronic music event is extremely difficult and extremely expensive. And to be honest, I’ve wasted a lot of money not doing the right thing, because we didn’t have a precedent to follow.
We don’t produce raves, but we DJ at them constantly. We’re at almost every major rave in Detroit, down to Ohio and Indiana. We can then use those parties as an opportunity for outreach.
So how many people were at your Reformation party? What percentage were non-Christian?
At this year’s party we had just under 400 people. At our first year we didn’t advertise it and we had about 25 people. I would say about 50 percent are non-Christian maybe. We’ve actually established relationships with all the rave production companies in Detroit so essentially you’ve got all these hard core ravers and drug users saying “We’re endorsing your church event.” [laughs]
It’s an all ages event even though most of the people are adults. There were families that came and the people that were able to bring their kids were so happy. We’ve probably had five year olds with their parents. We do stages that go from 6pm to midnight.
I think people really respect that we’re trying to bring a positive image to this type of music because so much negativity is associated with it.
I think the biggest difficulty with the Christian rave scene that is it’s too small and the church is way behind the times. I’m sick of the church not doing ministry to people at clubs. But the church will wake up and we’ll be having huge Christian rave festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival. You can mark my words, you will see that happen.
I’m going to ask you the obvious question then. Like you said raves are associated with everything that is antithetical to the establishment. For example, drugs and raves supposedly go hand-in-hand.
I guarantee you there were people that came to our party that were on ecstasy, I guarantee it. This is how we look at it: anyone that wants to come into a church anytime is always welcome. If a person wants to come to church and wants to see what’s going on there, but the church says, “No you can’t come in because you’re on drugs” – that’s a bad church. Because they’re turning away the people that are most in need and who obviously want help.
What about all those girls that dress all scandalously? You know the ones in bikinis and furry boots?
You know we were actually kinda worried about that this year because I don’t know where this go-go dancer thing came from. And actually one of them sent me a message saying “I’d really like to come but is it ok if I wore my thong and bra?” I told her I preferred not because there’s going to be children there and it’s in a church. And she said, “No problem, I’ll let all my girlfriends know that we need to just wear normal clothes.” [laughs] My wife was standing there with t-shirts just in case!
The thing that’s hard for me to wrap my head around is the nature of some of the electronic music itself. Whether it’s Dubstep or just something harder, the bass is so heavy it’s just hard to associate it with praise. It’s such a grimy sound with so many dark components to it.
I understand what you’re saying but anytime we’re going to play music like Dubstep or Drum & Bass, we usually try to have our own vocals accompanying it, and they’re always worship vocals.
The number one thing we hear from Christians that come to our event is, “Wow what an amazing service, I can’t wait to do it again.” And we make sure we try to be as even as possible. There’s an even amount of Trance, an even amount of House, Dubstep, Drum & Bass so that the people that don’t know anything about the music get a nice cross section, and also in a very uplifting positive way. It’s how you produce the music, it’s how you play the music, it’s the attitude of the people around you.
Given that you’ve been a fan of this music since you were just about 10 years old, you’ve seen many trends come and go. I like to allow people to play the game of musical forecasting, and I’m hoping House never really goes away.
If you look at House, Techno, Trance, Drum & Bass… those genres have been around for 20 to 25 years. These genres and sub-genres have withstood the test of time, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think they’re going to continue to grow and change but I think we’re always going to have our core genres.
I think in the next 10 to 15 years Rock and Roll, Hip Hop and Country music are all going to take a back seat to electronic music. The bottom line is as much as people especially musicians hate to admit it, the need for instruments is quickly going away. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. But the need to play an instrument is disappearing. The need to create and write music is always going to be there but the way we do that is changing as technology changes. I mean to be honest 15 years from now DJs are probably going to be using our minds to control the turntables. It’s going to be nothing like it is today.