Lessons from Hip Hop and the Story Behind the Good Fruit Co.
Part One: A Violent Beginning
From an abusive childhood to drug addiction, Chung found solace in hip hop music. Initially, hip hop only added to this destructive lifestyle. When he finally heard the call of God, he left his music behind, only to sense God calling him to return to the music he had always loved. This is the story behind Chung Lee and the Good Fruit Co.
BY chung leeinPart of Something Bigger
Jun 23, 2016 | min read

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illustrations by Bryan Sang Park

MY PARENTS EMIGRATED from South Korea in 1977 to Frederick, Maryland. My aunt was already living in Frederick, so our family followed suit and immigrated to the same city as her. It was a rural country town where one of my first memories was seeing older guys smoke cigars in the mall as they waited for their wives to finish shopping. I grew up in a typical Asian American household where my parents were from one culture, conservative and traditionally Korean, while I was born and raised in an American culture. Eventually my father’s extended family also moved to Frederick, so there were about 15 of us living in the same small townhouse — your typical immigrant family.

My father became a pastor around the time I was born, so there was this extra layer of conservatism in our family. All I remember from my early years was my father’s abusive behavior — he had anger issues and would often use passages from Proverbs to make me “better” in one way or another. Sometimes I deserved it, like when I stole money from him when I was six years old and lied, saying I found it on the playground. I still remember that day because of the nervous, tingling, and almost-pee-my-pants feelings I experienced when my dad questioned me. Of course, there were no external expressions of love in my family — any emotion was contained. Based on the combination of physical and verbal abuse with the emotionless sort of love, I always thought my parents just didn’t like me.

I had a leg cramp on my way home from middle school one day and wanted to cut through a neighbor’s yard. I rang her doorbell numerous times, but nobody answered, so I began to walk the long way home. When I got to the end of the street, she answered the door and was furious because she thought I had pulled a “ring and run”. So she called my home and told my mom everything. I was greeted at the door by my mom’s yelling, which woke my dad, who was told what happened. He never asked me my perspective but started yelling at me as well. My dad then told me to lie down and lift my feet — this was how he always punished me — and he took the metal fireplace tool and whacked the bottom of each of my feet 10 times. After the bruising hits to the bottom of my feet, he made me strip naked and run around my house 100 times. It was embarrassing but I had to continue even when my cousin pulled into our driveway. After running a total of three miles or so, I entered the house to find my dad laughing at me.

There were other times when my sister and I would crack jokes and laugh, but he would think we were laughing too loud and beat me with a PVC pipe. This was the type of household I grew up in. I was angry and acted out my anger in violent tempers, bullying, and fights.

Part of Something Bigger

We didn’t have cable TV growing up, just the old school rabbit ears with foil. But one night I stayed up late watching TV and the show “Soul Train” came on. They played a music video by US3 called Flip Fantasia, the first hip hop song I had ever heard, and I was immediately drawn in. What was this amazing music? It was a jazzy track with hip hop flavor. Horns, samples, and a rhythmic beat with lyrics drew my attention. I was soon introduced to R&B and all other sorts of hip hop. NWA and Public Enemy led to me 2Pac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs and Harmony, and what they call Gangster Rap. The thing about Gangster Rap is that they not only talk about violent things, but they do so from a very angry and misunderstood perspective. These people feel caged, mistreated, abused, and discriminated against. I gravitated toward it because I felt the same way in my own household. Gangster Rap soon became my sanctuary — finally, someone would relate to how I felt. I found myself buying as many albums as I possibly could. I would steal money from my parents and friends just to have the money to purchase these albums. Other times, I would leave our stereo locked into 93.9FM or 95.5FM and leave the cassette recording all day to try and capture the latest hits while I was at school. Once, I stole Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle” album and memorized all the lyrics. I would spend nights just reading through lyrics, trying to learn what these rappers were saying and trying to rap just like them, although I didn’t really care about being a rapper.

The thing about Gangster Rap is that they not only talk about violent things, but they do so from a very angry and misunderstood perspective.

As I journeyed down this road, I soon found myself doing the things talked about in those songs. By the time I was 12, I was drinking alcohol, and at 13, I smoked my first joint. This was actually more of a result of the friends I was hanging around. I was living in a small town called Damascus where there really wasn’t much to do but party and do stupid stuff. I smoked my first cigarette when I was in middle school. I was influenced by a documentary about kids growing up in New York City; that was the first time I heard about marijuana and I wanted to try it. Drugs and alcohol looked cool — the kids in the documentary just did whatever they wanted to make them feel good, and I felt the same way about myself. Once I started to experiment, I found a way to escape from reality. My aunt owned a deli and I remember asking my 10-year-old cousin to steal some Phillie Blunts for me so I could roll up and smoke some joints. For the remainder of my high school years, I found myself addicted to marijuana, alcohol, and LSD. During 10th grade, I was taking a tab of LSD nearly every other day. I didn’t do well in high school and I wasn’t accepted into college. But somehow, even after being rejected by University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), I was mailed a letter about a summer program that would admit 100 students if they passed the summer courses. I got into that program and passed with flying colors. It probably helped that one of my classes was Health 106: Drug Use and Abuse.

Drugs and alcohol looked cool — the kids in the documentary just did whatever they wanted to make them feel good, and I felt the same way about myself.

During my college years, my issues with addiction spiraled out of control. I moved into a neighborhood called Springhill Lake in Greenbelt, Maryland and was soon hanging out with the local street hustlers and dealers. I once walked out of the neighborhood convenience store after purchasing some blunts to blaze up. I ran into a guy who tried to sell me something, but I had my own so we decided to blaze up together. He and I ended up being part of the crew who ran the game in the neighborhood; we were known as the guys who could get whatever drugs you needed. We sold drugs to adults and kids. There were hot spots where we posted up and people knew who we were, so they would look for one of us to find what they needed. Within six months, I was arrested three times and pulled over numerous times.

Within six months, I was arrested three times and pulled over numerous times.

My love for music remained. Some of the guys I smoked with were trying to be rappers. A few friends and I started an underground hip hop crew at UMD called the “Undergrounduates”. We were making music and writing songs purely out of our love for hip hop. When I decided to drop out of college, one of the guys mentioned the Omega Recording School of Arts. I checked it out and thought it was the perfect fit, since I wanted to start pursuing a career in producing and recording music. I dropped out of UMD and went to the Omega Recording School of Arts, where I was certified as a Recording Engineer and Producer. I began producing for underground artists in the DC and Baltimore area.

Part of Something Bigger

I ran with a crew called Air Tight Assembly and spent my nights recording, drinking, and smoking with them. Eventually, I brought a friend into the mix, but the others began having issues with him. The problem with street life is if someone has a problem with someone you brought in, they have a problem with you. They aren’t going to tell you either. They will call you, invite you over for an unexpected “meeting”, and either jump you and beat the crap out of you, or shoot you. When they called me for a meeting, I knew what was about to go down. In my own mind, I planned a way out of this situation: Get three cans full of gasoline, pour it around and on the house we recorded at, then make a trail so I could light it from afar and burn their house down with them in it. I sat in my car for two hours telling myself, “If you do this, you’re going to hell for sure.” My understanding of Christianity was focused on morality — I had learned right from wrong, and that there was a way I “should” live. I knew that if I went through with something like this, there would be no turning back. Pure and simple, I would face God’s judgement, and there would be no forgiveness. Jail time was obvious, but I would also be going to hell. I told myself, “I’m fine with that. I can live with that.” Thankfully, by God’s grace, I ended up driving away and never returning back to the street life.

“If you do this, you’re going to hell for sure.”

I remember wondering, “How did I end up here?” So I started really making a greater effort to serve at church. I had always attended church on Sundays, although many times I would come hung over and drugged out. But this time I was serious. I wanted to be clean and start doing something good, so I helped my cousin take the youth kids to DCLA in 2006. Francis Chan was speaking — I had never heard of him or Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, and Matt Redman, the worship leaders for the event. Francis Chan gave the message to “Let go and let God”. I was so tired of this life I was living and the addictions I couldn’t break. While singing “How Great is Our God”, I felt God’s love for the first time — and I broke. I was an utter mess.

I felt God’s love for the first time — and I broke. I was an utter mess.

After that conference, I threw away all my rap CDs because of the polluted messages the artists promoted. I knew those messages affected me and I had to stay away from them. I started reading the Bible every chance I could get and eventually I started doing independent contract work in audio visual. It started out well. In January 2007, I bought a condo and moved into a neighborhood where some of my other friends lived. I thought I could witness to them, but it all backfired. Within one month, I found myself drinking and using drugs again. Within two months, I had lost my jobs and all my money. I filed for bankruptcy, and once my case was dismissed in May 2008, I found myself living back in my parents’ basement, having once again hit rock bottom.

Part of Something Bigger

It was then that I realized I couldn’t live with myself anymore. I couldn’t trust myself, I hated myself, and I cried out to God in desperate surrender to do something with me. For the next few months, God ripped me apart and began to give me an understanding of the Gospel. Though I had grown up in church, I never knew that God wanted us to have a relationship with Him. It was during this time God revealed Himself to me and it broke me down to my core. In one of my songs, I wrote, “He gives and takes away so now I see what He did for me. Losing everything to gain Christ, what a luxury!” That is what God did for me, He took away everything so I could gain Him. I began learning the true meaning of the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice. There is no way I could ever make the payment for my sin — it’s impossible! God is perfect, holy, and righteous; there is no way I could be justified before Him by myself. But Jesus was perfect and still gave His life up on the cross. He took the penalty of my sin upon Himself so that God’s wrath would be satisfied by His sacrifice. By God’s amazing grace and faith in Him, I am saved. I didn’t and still don’t deserve it, but God made a way for me — He is just and the Justifier. Jesus covered my penalty for sin. Even after everything I did, Jesus still loves me and took it upon Himself so that I would have eternal life. This truth tore me apart and I asked God, “Why? Why would you do this when I don’t deserve you?” All I could feel in my heart was God telling me, “Because I love you, Chung.” This answer broke me every single day — it still breaks me. I never experienced how it felt to be loved by my family, but here is God, who I’ve offended and rebelled against. He turned my life around, and for the first time, I felt deeply loved.

I couldn’t live with myself anymore. I couldn’t trust myself, I hated myself, and I cried out to God.

While I was going through the turmoil of bankruptcy, I wrote a song to God after drinking many glasses of liquor. After recording it in my parents’ basement, my mom sat on my bed and asked to hear some of my music. I hit play and she listened. Right before she left my room, she said, “I don’t understand what you’re saying, but this is a great way to reach the youth.” I shared the song with my cousin and he said the same thing. So I started searching for Christian Rap online and found some YouTube videos of guys rapping on stage at church. I struggled to understand how this was glorifying to God. I had a huge problem putting Christians and rap together, especially because of my past history with hip hop. I had this perspective that hip hop was negative because of all the songs I had listened to growing up, which promoted drugs, sex, alcohol, pride, greed, and money. So I thought to myself, “How can these two be fused together? They can’t!” As a newly devoted Christian, I just thought rap was off limits because of the nature I identified it with, a nature that was rebellious to God. I didn’t think it was something that God could use or find redeemable. It belonged in the “secular” world and that was where it should stay.

I prayed for over four months as this idea of using rap to reach the youth kept being brought up by my mom, my cousin, and other friends. I had grown up in a conservative Korean church where they still played the piano and organ, sang hymns, and considered having drums in the sanctuary a heresy. But one day, I was on GodTube (the Christian version of YouTube) and watched a video by Lecrae called “Praying For You.” I didn’t know who Lecrae was at that time, but I was struck by how good the song was. When it came to my attention that he was talking about himself, I realized this was a great way to reach the youth. It was then that I said to God, “OK, Lord, I am going to go this route, but You have to do everything because I have no clue what I’m doing.”

“OK, Lord, I am going to go this route, but You have to do everything because I have no clue what I’m doing.”

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