Justin Ratliff looked out over a crowd of 5,000 youths jumping nearly nonstop as if they were attending a caffeine convention instead of a Wesleyan teen gathering at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky.
When the deep, pulsating beat and the nearly computerized sound of the electronic dance music took hold, he grabbed the microphone as he stood onstage.
“You’ve got to have a relationship with him,” he shouted, referring to Jesus.
Welcome to the high-energy evangelism of Ratliff, a Christian disc jockey unafraid to groove into a dance step while playing tunes before as few as dozens at a local gathering or as many as 25,000 at a national festival.
“It’s not just about the music,” said the ex-youth minister, looking considerably younger than his 35 years. “It’s about the entire experience — the atmosphere, the lights and everything.
“It’s so popular, and it’s everywhere these days.”
It’s also clean as a whistle in faith circles — devoid of the sex and drug references that are sometimes found in the mainstream electronic dance genre.
The work of Ratliff, known by the stage moniker of Josiah — his middle name — Freebourne, is included among other Christian DJ mixes on the just-released national CD, “Heaven Sound Sessions 3.” Proceeds from online downloads will go to battle sex trafficking through Abolition International, according to tatsyfresh.com, a Christian club music site.
“We all just want to bring awareness to this curse,” Ratliff said.
And he wants to bring awareness to the electronic dance scene, fueled by mp3 tunes boomed from a Vestax VCI-300 electronic controller.
“Kids are going to find this music and be drawn to it,” Ratliff said. “Why not have a wholesome Christian alternative in its place? Isn’t that what Christian rock did? Isn’t that what Christian hip-hop has done?”
Music talent judge Simon Cowell has called modern disc jockeys “the new rock stars.”
But Ratliff, a new member of Columbus’ First Christian Church, sees himself as something quite different.
“My mission is to engage the culture and to inspire a generation to follow their destiny in Christ,” he said. “I’ve always been a minister at heart. And I think that comes out when I perform.”
If you thought DJs still reigned as anonymous music selectors, think again. In electronic dance music, they are chefs, often mixing and layering one song with another to produce a fresh hybrid of sounds and rhythms.
“You’re always making new songs,” he said.
And often, they find themselves center stage amid a musical act’s vocalists or by themselves in the spotlight. But Ratliff said he is careful to shine the light on God.
Others note his ability to hold a crowd’s attention musically and verbally.
Daniel Dodd of Kansas City, Mo., and heavensound
music.com, an online Christian dance music site, watched Ratliff work almost effortlessly in 2010 at Heaven Fest in Loveland, Colo., before 25,000 people.
“He kept the people really engaged,” Dodd said.
The Rev. Mike Voigts, senior pastor of Wilmore (Ky.) United Methodist Church, said Ratliff “reaches young people that many churches are never able to reach. He does so with love, grace and a personal testimony that connects with them.”
He does this mostly on weekends, since his full-time day job is in the safety and training department at Seymour Tubing. Additionally, he is studying business management at Indiana Wesleyan.
Away from his vocation and avocation, he spends time with family — wife Jen; and children Asher, 5; Elijah, 4; and Olivia, 20 months.
“I try to be very choosey about the events I DJ,” he said. “I don’t want to be away from my family all the time.”
In fact, the Scottsburg native hopes to train others to step into DJ work on the electronic dance scene as he phases out his role soon.
But even when he’s away from the stage, Ratliff admits that Christian dance music’s energy gets him pumped up.
“To be perfectly honest,” he said, “if I’m driving alone in the car when this music is playing, I have to be careful and use the cruise control.”