Gospel and secular music are often viewed as distinct spheres with little to no overlap. But don’t tell that to writer-producer Warryn Campbell, who has been hopping industry fences between rap, R&B, and gospel for two decades — and won Grammy awards for his work in each genre.
That makes him a natural resource for Kanye West, who has recently and enthusiastically embraced faith after more than 15 years in the largely secular trenches. Campbell met a young West before he embarked on a rap career, and the two have collaborated in the past: It’s Campbell’s work on the Late Registration cut “We Major” and the Graduation track “Homecoming.” They reconnected creatively this year — West brought his Sunday Service performance series to Campbell’s church in Los Angeles, and Campbell found the sample that forms the basis of West’s “God Is.”
That track came out on Friday as part of West’s Jesus Is King. Coincidentally, Campbell released his first album, a compilation titled Warryn Campbell Presents My Block Inc., the same day. The producer-pastor spoke with Rolling Stone about his work with West, his turn to the church, and why old gospel records make for great samples.
From the beginning of your career, you were able to work in rap, R&B, and gospel all at once — how did you get your start?
I started at Death Row Records. I was a protégé of DJ Quik, and I was doing some work playing keyboards on his third album. At the time, he started to be managed by Suge Knight. We moved the studios to Death Row, and that’s when I started playing on all the Death Row stuff — Murder Was the Case, then the Tupac stuff, I’m playing keys. I got to learn from DJ Quik, who’s one of the best I’ve ever seen do it. From there, I took that to R&B, did Dru Hill and Shanice Wilson, the Doctor Dolittle soundtrack. I was the keyboard player with Brandy too when the first album came out, on the road with her.
Then I met these two girls, Mary Mary, who said they want to do gospel. I grew up at church, but I didn’t know how to make actual gospel music. So I just made the music that I knew how to make and we put gospel lyrics on top of it. That’s how I ended up in both worlds. But I’m of that Quincy Jones school: There are only two kinds of music, great music and terrible music.
But the music business treats gospel and rap very separately.
Completely different ways. But what I would play or do on a Tupac record, or even a Kanye record — I produced “We Major” with him and Nas — that’s totally something I would do on a Mary Mary album. When I did Kanye’s “Homecoming” on the Graduation album, I could have done that with Mary Mary or Brandy or Alicia Keys. The stuff that Kanye’s doing now is just drawing attention to what was in him the whole time. It’s just all in the lyrics.
When did you first meet Kanye?
Funny story. Everybody knows that Kanye had that big accident and came out with the Get Well Soon… mixtape and did “Through the Wire,” right? The night he had that accident is the night I met him. We were both in the studio working with Beanie Sigel and State Property on their second album. Kanye was working with them during the day, and I was coming in that night, we were doing that shift-change at the Record Plant in Los Angeles.
They were taking his equipment down and setting mine up, and we met in the hallway. We just started talking. He said, ‘Yeah, man, you know I rap, too?’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m getting ready to go do Def Poetry Jam right now.’ Then he spit like a whole five-minute verse in the hallway.
The next day one of the A&Rs from Roc-A-Fella called me like, yo, man, Kanye almost killed himself that night, he got in a bad car accident! I’m like, what? When I first met Kanye he was kind of chubby. But next time I saw him he was a skinny guy. He’s like, yeah, man. They had to wire my mouth shut — I couldn’t eat.
When did you start working with him?
So he puts out the first album, then on the second album, I saw he was doing a lot of samples. So I decided I would make my own samples. Me and another guy named Dontae Winslow, who did “I Made It” for Jay-Z, he’s an amazing trumpet player. So we made a sample, and a DJ friend of mine gave the beat to Kanye. That ended up being “We Major.” Then the next album he asked if I had anything else, so I gave him the track for “Homecoming,” featuring Chris Martin from Coldplay.
The funny thing about that is, my younger sister was singing on the road with Kanye for years. They ended up in the U.K., and she called me like, Kanye is trying to get Chris Martin on this record, but Chris doesn’t want to do it because he says he doesn’t want to be the corny white guy on a rap record. My sister starts humming a melody, and he looks at my sister like, I like that right there! Then he did the chorus, and she’s like, since I’m the one who got him to do it, can I get a piece of the song? I’m like, absolutely not. My sister is Joistarr, who’s on my new album.
This is your first time putting out an album of your own?
Yep, first time putting my name on a project. I have all these artists signed to me, and what I didn’t realize is, they all want an album out now. So my publicist said, let’s do a compilation. I wanted to keep it so that each artist did something indicative of what their album was going to sound like. We’re gonna shoot videos for all the songs with storylines that all run into each other.
Several of these songs have throwback production — almost Rene & Angela.
We took ’em to the Eighties a little bit. When everyone goes right, I want to go left. Everybody is into the Nineties right now. I made records in the Nineties. So for this, let’s give ’em some Eighties. The first three songs on the album give you an Eighties vibe. “Stressed Out” is another one. Toni Estes, who sings on that, is known for writing — along with Rodney Jerkins — “It’s Not Right But It’s Ok” for Whitney Houston.
In addition to running a label, you run a church, right?
Yes, I pastor a church in North Hollywood called the California Worship center.
And Kanye hosted a Sunday Service there?
He asked me to speak at his Sunday Service. So I went before my church around nine o’clock and did a little five minute sermon. Then a couple weeks later, I was in Cincinnati, and Kanye said, man, I would love to bring Sunday Service to your church. I said that would be a great idea. I didn’t tell anybody, any staff members there. They just noticed there were an extra 150 people there and Tori Kelly — what’s going on here today? Then when the choir started singing, they sang from the seats, they didn’t stand up. It blew our church away. Then Kanye started taking it on the road, doing different churches after that. But ours was the first. People are still talking about it at our church.
I was told that Kanye asked you to mentor him about pastoring.
I don’t know if it’s so much that — I just told him, whatever I can do to help you [I will do]. When he did Coachella, he wanted to know which scriptures to tie in with the songs. I do things like send him a list of all the scriptures. I wouldn’t call it a mentorship — I’m just walking with him, shepherding him in these areas. If he doesn’t know something or has a question on something I try to give him my wisdom on it, my perspective. I come from a place I call “the cheets” — the church and the streets. I understand it a little differently than some people would.
When did you become a pastor?
It’s been four years — it’ll be five years in April on Easter.
What was it like to move from your background as a producer to a pastorship?
It’s different. As a producer I never had to be anywhere. I get up, I make some schedules, stay out in the studio ’til five in the morning, wake up at two or three in the morning. Now I have to live a regimented life. I preach on Sunday, and that comes every seven days no matter what. I try to read a book a week. I have to stay informed, stay relevant, know what’s going on in all the world, be able to speak to a multi-ethnic group of people, people from millennials all the way up to people in their seventies. It’s a big job, a huge job.
What scriptures did you feel like would fit with Kanye’s songs?
Last Easter, he sent me twenty songs. Easter is about the resurrection of Christ, so I explained that you use the scripture John 3:16 that says, “for God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” To me that means, if you love, you give. People only give to the degree that they love, and they only love to the degree that they’re willing to give. Not giving money — giving time, giving patience. Things of that nature — I just try to show perspective on what things mean.
When did you end up working on “God Is?”
The day after the Sunday Service, he invited me to come by the house and hear what he was doing. I was there that whole week at his compound in Calabasas. I ate some swordfish in one of the silos, that was fun. One of those days I played the sample in “God Is,” I had it chopped up and I played it for him. He said he loved it and asked me to give it to him. I did. I hadn’t heard the finished version until [Friday].
What is the sample?
“God Is” by James Cleveland; it came out in the Seventies. When I was a kid, there wasn’t a church choir in Los Angeles that didn’t sing that song. I had never heard the record; I had only heard it in church. When I finally heard it, it was amazing — those records were cut live in the church. Not only do you hear the choir and the person singing, you hear the crowd. When you cut it up, there’s so much nuance in those samples that you don’t have from a regular R&B or soul record. You don’t have those people screaming in the background — “Hallelujah! Praise god!” It makes for great ambience.