The music video for "Southtown," the song by rap-metal newcomers P.O.D., is a heavy screamer that catches the band's passion, serving it up on MTV like a jackhammer is trapped on the far side of the screen. Under a hot Southern California sun, in the middle of a lower-class residential street, the band pounds away on their instruments. The neighborhood gathered around--parents, children, black, white, Latino, punks, homies, skaters--is grooving hard to the music in a sort of feverish trance. Watching at home, hard-core enthusiasts probably bob their pierced and tattooed heads to this, but few of them can realize they are listening to a heartfelt prayer to God the Father, asking for peace. But odds are, they'll find out soon enough.

Payable On Death, known more widely as P.O.D., has been tearing it up ever since their big-label debut album, "The Fundamental Elements of Southtown" (Atlantic), hit stores, shelves, and CD-listening stations last August. The album went immediately to the Top 10 on Billboard's "Heatseekers" chart, as well as Billboard's top 200 best-selling albums chart, and started climbing.

But the real story behind P.O.D. begins when the bandmembers were each scratching and clawing their way out of the stranglehold that was their home turf--the depressed mean streets of south San Diego, on the Mexican-American border. Vocalist Sonny, 26, and drummer Wuv, 26, were cousins and next-door neighbors, and both were born to teenage parents more interested in partying than raising a family.

Both found their way to church through hard times. After Wuv's parents broke up, his father found God at a Christian street concert, left behind his life as a drug addict and dealer, and began to go to church, often bringing Wuv with him. Meanwhile, Sonny's mother was dying of cancer, sending him on his own search for reasons and relief that eventually brought him to God.

Wuv, who had started jamming with another south San Diego musician, P.O.D.'s 24-year-old guitarist, Marcos, suggested that Sonny join them. Bassist Traa, 30, completed the picture. The band, influenced by Bad Brains, Bob Marley, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix, was born in 1992. The shy Sonny slowly let go of his performance quirks, like singing with his back to the audience, to become an emboldened frontman. The band showed a fearlessness that translated as a fresh passion. The mark of a rough childhood still scarred them, but they sang about hope, the kind they wanted everyone else to know about.

Self-created, produced, and financed, Rescue Records served as a home to the band's first three independent releases, which sold more than 40,000 copies. They did what they knew--made records and played wherever people would have them. When they began, they didn't even know that the contemporary Christian music scene existed, and though "Southtown" is nominated for Best Hard Music Recorded Song at this month's Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards, P.O.D. has never fit well inside the CCM fold.

Every new band draws comparisons. For now, P.O.D. is being compared with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine. But though the sources of inspiration bleed through, P.O.D. makes Limp sound like Top 40. Comparisons with Rage are closer, because Rage songs boil over from passionate emotion--theirs political, P.O.D.'s spiritual.

But unlike many other Christian musicians, P.O.D. is grounded in the real world: south San Diego, a border town with plenty of drugs, poverty, and crime. They aren't hanging out on clouds, espousing washed-out truisms about the Lord. They tell it like it is, complete with the pain and frustrations of being human. They are holding out for hope without leaving town.

If comparisons must be made, let's start with Sublime, the Long Beach, Calif., dropouts whose mixed and troubled cultural surroundings inspired earnest longing in their music. Then go further back to Bob Marley, a Third World musician raised in a culture of poverty and violence, who also sang sincerely about God.

Likewise, when P.O.D. pauses from their heavy beats and maddening guitars to sing from the heart, the ache and healing combined in their music is audible. They melodiously urge the listener to "set your eyes to Zion" as they sing.

But hard and loud is P.O.D.'s calling card. When you get Howard Benson (Less Than Jake, Sepultra, Motorhead) to produce your record, and Chris Lord-Alge (Hole, Green Day, Suicide Machines, Rob Zombie) to mix it, God

comes out sounding a whole lot younger and louder. "SouthTown" is the catchiest tune, but the whole is solid. "Outkast," the first single, was memorable for the anthemic chorus ("I'm an outkast, but don't count me out"). Their rendering of U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky," with south San Diego replacing the Central America of U2's original, is a poignant and charged up cover.

Remarkably, the band apparently has earned the respect of record execs who usually frown on outspoken Christian acts. "At first, Atlantic didn't even bring up our faith," Sonny told a music magazine recently. "It was us who kept bringing it up to make sure it wasn't an issue. I was expecting them to tell us to tone down the preaching. I let them know we weren't going to change, and they said they didn't want us to change. They mentioned how everyone is preaching, so why not preach God."

P.O.D. will begin a European tour with Korn in May.

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