Lessons from a Homiletical DJ: The Preacher’s Mixtape, Vol. 1

Otis Moss III preaching at the Festival of Homiletics 2023 in Minneapolis, MN

On the final day of the 2023 Festival of Homiletics, Otis Moss III gave a lecture drawing on lessons from J Dilla, an influential producer and rapper who mixed two different frames or styles together. You need to hear it in Moss’s voice to get the full effect, but here are some key takeaways:

There’s the European style of clapping on the one and three beats (do-re-mi), or the African style of clapping on two and four. J Dilla merged the two together and called it not “off time” but “right on time.” We might think of churches from Europe (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians…) as clapping on the one and three beats, and churches in the African style (Pentecostals, Church of God in Christ, Holiness, Sanctified, and Missionary Baptist) as clapping on beats two and four. What happens when we make a mixtape with both styles together?

We have not recognized the benefit of bringing two different traditions together—we’re feeling the backlash of that in the U.S. right now.

Can you bring different styles, structures, and framing into your preaching? 

Black preachers are “multi-lingual” and speak in multiple dialects to traverse different cultural contexts. Women must do this also. The 4 different Gospels together give us a mixtape of the Jesus story. If you as a preacher only hear from one particular voice, how can you communicate the fullness of the Gospel? J Dilla teaches us: a good DJ has to have multiple artists of different styles in their crate (of records, back in the day) to choose from. 

Expand your crate

A good DJ has to listen to a significant breadth of music (not just to American music, but as J Dilla did, also to Malaysian funk…). Look at the geography and background of your favorite preachers. Find space for people that don’t fit within your particular tradition. Don’t just run to the do-re-mi commentary. 

But also, expand what you fill yourself up with: 

  • Poetry
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Food
  • Art  
  • Film 

How does a poet, in 2 or 3 stanzas, say more than a preacher can in 2-3 paragraphs? The way Marvin Gaye mixes the rhythms of the U.S. national anthem expands our crate when we hear the Psalms. Understanding how food piques our taste buds gives us the understanding that we need a quality roux to mix together a bunch of flavors well into gumbo. Cinematography, for example, demonstrates how the preacher needs to change approaches, after the wide, establishing shot: zoom in and create an intimate space. 

Practice and preparation

J Dilla had patterns for how he began work, every time: cleaning the house while listening to music. When he died young, there was a huge collection of ideas on tape that never made it into music he produced. What is the practice for the ideas you have, that have never made it into a sermon? Preachers have to have space for those to percolate. How about the practice of reading Scripture out loud, for caring for our “instrument” and using our voices in multiple ways? Your pause has more power than the words you may utter. Practicing can help preachers internalize, to preach from the heart under any circumstances. There will be ideas that you never get to preach; it can take years to develop the space where a particular message can be heard.

Expand your imagination

Preach differently sometimes. Preach off the lectionary, instead on what is pressing on the hearts of your community. Change your vocabulary with ideas shared from Charles Johnson (The Way of the Writer): 

  • Study the opening lines of literature that make you want to turn the page 
  • Study the dictionary; try exercises limiting your most-used words 

J Dilla was always working on the question: How do I break free from doing the same things over and over? Imagination is key.

Trafficking in stories 

Preachers can find stories laden with meaning, everywhere! Otis Moss III told multiple stories that illustrate the power of storytelling for putting the Gospel in context. Listening for stories allows us to “decolonize our imagination.” 
To watch (or listen to) this talk and others from the 2023 Festival of Homiletics, purchase access to the 2023 recordings