Happy 20th Anniversary to Dave Hollister’s debut solo album Ghetto Hymns, originally released May 25, 1999.
Most debut albums serve as an introduction to a new artist, but Dave Hollister’s Ghetto Hymns (1999) was more of an affirmation of one hip-hop/soul’s most powerful male vocalists. Even if fans hadn’t learned Hollister’s name yet, they had grown well-accustomed to his signature zeal that helped season a string of hits throughout the ‘90s. When Tupac Shakur was musically inaugurated as a solo rap artist, with the heart-wrenching narrative of “Brenda’s Got a Baby” from his 1991 debut LP 2Pacalypse Now, it was Hollister’s soul-stirring vocals that made the pain increase your heartache. On the flip side, when new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley’s group BLACKstreet began to dominate radio with hit singles like “Booti Call” and “Before I Let You Go,” it was Hollister’s smooth tenor that accentuated the rhythms, drifting you into an auditory euphoria.
With the attention of a full-length project catering to his robust vocal versatility, Hollister sought to establish himself as one of the leading male vocalists of his generation, and the newest ambassador of Chicago’s time-honored soul tradition. Reflective of his partnership with the East Coast hip-hop supergroup Def Squad, rap veteran Redman introduces Hollister to begin Ghetto Hymns, before you are immediately drawn into the LP which is structured as an autobiographical saga with an impressive supporting cast of super-producers. The opening street ballad aptly titled “Came in the Door Pimpin’” features Too $hort and finds Hollister skillfully matching the bravado of the Bay Area hip-hop icon, accomplishing the feat by finessing a clever production effort by Jazzy Pha, a few years prior to his reign as the sound wizard of the south.
Bad Boy hitman Stevie J lent his beat-making precision for the album’s lead single “My Favorite Girl,” Hollister’s first charting single as a solo artist and somewhat of a prequel to “One Woman Man” on Dave’s sophomore effort Chicago ’85…The Movie released the following year. “Favorite Girl” landed on the Billboard Hot 100 which led the LP to earn a gold certification, and still stands as an interesting opening chapter to Hollister’s life story which would interestingly unfold over the following two decades. The authentic writing and passionate delivery of the lyrics, “I told you once before / I'm goin' say it once again, don't you call no mo' / my girl is lying next to me / do you think this is a game? / why you testing me / you keep on stressing me” give a rare and relatable male perspective of being on the uncomfortable end of a borderline stalker situation.
Sticking with the theme of trials and tribulations as a big city bachelor, “Baby Mama Drama” lacked sufficient promotion yet it has endured as one of the most entertaining male R&B performances of the era. Brilliantly scripted and produced by Hollister’s former BLACKstreet cohort Eric Williams and Wesley Hoggs, the cinematic piano chords assist him in ascending to his hallmark of range and expression. Staying true to his roots, Hollister’s voice inflections shift from high to low organically, in a manner mostly reserved for Sunday morning praise and worship sessions. Like Wilson Pickett a generation earlier, his vocals transport you to inside the stone layered churches that stand as towering monuments in predominantly black neighborhoods across the US. Even with a gritty tale of love gone awry, and now steaming with bitterness, Hollister makes the song ooze with personality and confidence.
The connection with Erick Sermon on the songs “Call on Me,” “Missing You,” and “The Program” solidify the album in the hip-hop/soul subgenre and verified Dave’s alliance as the R&B wing of the Def Squad. “Keep Forgetting” takes more of a traditional approach as Hollister covers the Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit record “I Keep Forgetting (Every Time You’re Near).” Another impressive accomplishment for Hollister’s ambitious checklist, as many would have shied away from any comparison to the face of “blue-eyed soul” of the previous decade. Similarly, the album’s outro “Respect 2 Him” covers gospel legend Twinkie Clark-Terrell’s “In Him There is No Sorrow.”
Dave Hollister is one of my all-time favorite artists, both for his unparalleled vocal passion and his transparency in sharing his interesting life journey. His signature testimonial delivery helped distinguish him from his R&B male counterparts of the late ‘90s and scripted an engaging chapter in the Windy City’s contemporary soul legacy. As an initial outing, Ghetto Hymns affirmed why industry titans like the aforementioned Shakur, Riley, and Sermon aligned themselves with Hollister’s flexible tenor.
Additionally, Ghetto Hymns met its immediate goals of airplay and album sales, giving Hollister a successful run in the R&B genre with his first two albums. The LP provided a great foundation for an artist with staying power, as Hollister would later make a smooth transition into gospel music, collaborating with some of the genre’s biggest names like Hezekiah Walker and Fred Hammond.
Beginning with Ghetto Hymns, Hollister has provided lifetime fans like me with an incredible body of work that soundtracked our crazier days of the late ‘90s, progression into maturity of the ‘00s, and settlement into family life and spirituality years later, with the unblemished voice intonation to reflect the peaks and valleys of each period.