An emcee who’s never cursed — at least on a record — will compete with mainstream Hip Hop juggernauts Eminem, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino for Best Rap Performance at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
As if this didn’t defy stereotypes enough, The Recording Academy also put Lecrae on the ballot for Best Gospel and Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song. This made him the first artist ever to be nominated for rap, gospel and CCM categories at the Grammys. And he did it in the same year.
Why It’s Important To Be An Anomaly
After Anomaly topped Billboard and sold 88,000 in week one, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon invited Lecrae to join its house band, The Roots, on Sept. 18. Schure Media Group (SMG), a New York City-based public relations firm that partnered with Lecrae last spring, orchestrated the appearance.
SMG represents a small roster of entertainers that includes singers Beyoncé and Prince, who enter this weekend with 24 Grammys combined. Reach asked SMG to help publicize Anomaly. It inked a deal within a week.
“In the music industry, sometimes the wrong things are glorified,” Lecrae’s SMG publicist said. “Like [Lecrae] says himself, he’s an anomaly. And that’s what we were attracted to because we felt like his voice and what he stood for was missing in the industry.”
This voice has influenced Hip Hop culture, several industry experts said.
“If you listen to some of the stuff that Kendrick [Lamar] is putting out, some of that is laden with Bible verses … And I think Lecrae has given him the courage to do so,” Reggie Hawkins, program director of the Sirius XM Radio channel Hip Hop Nation, said. “I just think that guys are trying to find an alternative for the monotonous type of music that we’ve been hearing for so long. How many people can you kill? How many girls can you have sex with? How many cars can you drive? It all feels empty.”
MTV News reporter Rob Markman stressed that the genre has always tackled the topic of faith.
Just not this often.
“Everywhere I look around, I see religious themes and faith-driven themes in Hip Hop more than ever,” Markman said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see more of it, and Reach Records is really blowing up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you have Born Sinner, J. Cole. If Lecrae doesn’t exist, does J. Cole still come out with that album?”
Sway Calloway, MTV alum and Sirius XM Morning Radio host (who once sat down with a sitting POTUS), believes Reach’s success not only spurs dialogue about faith, but also encourages rappers to spurn Hip Hop’s negative stereotypes.
“It’s important for Lecrae to be able to put out No. 1 albums as an independent artist with that subject matter because all it’s done is open doors for other creative people,” he said. “I think [Reach rappers] make it OK for artists to come out and not have to just rap about their cars, material items, women in a derogatory way or murder.”
Of course, so did socially-conscious Kanye West when he bucked gangsta rap trends in 2004 with College Dropout, Sway said. The debut album featured Grammy-winning single “Jesus Walks,” which West intended to have an evangelistic message.
“I want to make the first gospel Rap record that you can hear in a strip club or a club,” West told Sway years ago.
“Hmm. That’s interesting,” Sway said. “Who [do] you ever hear talk about Jesus at the same time the DJ is banging [music] at the club?”
“Isn’t that who should be hearing it the most?” West said.
Lecrae’s music has yet to hit strip clubs, probably, but his roots suggest that he asked the same question twelve years ago in a … slightly different context.
In the beginning, neither Lecrae nor Ben Washer, who co-owns Reach, planned to start a record label, let alone influence mainstream Hip Hop.
Washer had zero concrete plans, changing his major five times at Auburn University. He graduated in the winter of 2001 and, until the next fall, continued to switch hats — from a woodshop in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to a Christian camp in Golden, Missouri, to a church internship in Denton, Texas.
In class at Denton Bible Church, Washer sat next to a fellow intern who had graduated that spring from the University of North Texas. He and Lecrae Moore bonded over poking at another intern who routinely fell asleep in class, and in volunteering at McFadden Ranch, a juvenile halfway house in Roanoke.
Lecrae, an aspiring Hip Hop artist who had starting rapping at the age of eight, used Hip Hop to communicate his biblical message in the teens’ cultural language. He and Washer were quickly made aware of its influence.
“You changed my life,” a juvenile delinquent named George one day told Lecrae, “You did the “Take Me as I Am” song, and my eyes just opened up. I need God. I want to be a different person.”
Lecrae was taken aback.
“From sitting listening to this song?” he said.
Stories like George’s multiplied. By the time that Lecrae and Washer’s internship ended in the spring of 2003, they had fallen in love with the idea of using music to impact people.
That summer, Washer returned for a fourth time to the Christian camp, Kids Across America. He asked the director in charge of finding the camp theme song, Ray Arechiga, if he had found anyone to create a track for their 2003 theme “Crossover: From death to life.” Arechiga already had asked six artists, but each declined.
Washer suggested Lecrae for the job. Within the week, Lecrae had recorded “Crossover” in a closet. When the several hundred campers who bought Lecrae’s demo returned home, his fans multiplied by word of mouth across America.
Following the end of camp in August, Washer attended a wedding and half-joked to a friend from college, Chris Carreker, about starting a record label. The idea stopped being a joke in September. They planned to form Reach Records with Lecrae, but not necessarily as a Hip Hop label.
Washer and Carreker wanted to sign an acoustic duo called A New Leaf, formed by Joseph Prielozny and Kurt Denmark. A New Leaf recorded music for Reach, but the group ultimately never signed or released any songs — although Prielozny has produced music for Reach ever since.
While Reach had been birthed, Washer returned to Baton Rouge in September to invest in real estate with his father. Lecrae stayed in Texas with Carreker and balanced his Comcast marketing job with recording his debut album, Real Talk, which dropped in May 2004.
A year later, Washer’s hate for real estate had grown as intense as his passion for music. He moved back to Denton to run Reach full-time, and Lecrae quit his cable job to rap full-time.
Ask them if they did it for the money, and Washer will tell you about his $500 monthly salary — much of which he raised support for — and the bag of potato chips sprinkled with hot sauce that often formed his and roommate Adam Thomason’s lunch. Lecrae will tell you about sharing a low-income apartment and living off of “love offerings” from youth group concerts.
Reach’s distribution deal for Real Talk was with the local post office. They put CDs in manila folders and mailed them to fans who ordered online.
Real Talk sold locally, too. Lecrae took a box of CDs to a Family Christian bookstore, which agreed to sell three copies. He asked three friends to buy the CDs so the bookstore would stock more. This pattern repeated until all of his friends had Real Talk.
Despite their modest methods, doors to youth groups continued to open because Lecrae walked through each one like it was a tunnel at the Barclays Center.
“He’s the same in front of 10 people as he is in front of 10,000,” Washer said.
Reach’s Rap group, the 116 Clique, scheduled a show in the summer years ago on its first nationwide bus tour at a youth center in Phoenix, where the air conditioning broke. The venue, large enough to hold about 500 people, left hundreds more standing outside.
The sweaty, foul-smelling 116 Clique performed back-to-back concerts so the fans who were stuck outside would not go home empty-handed. Reach’s fan base blossomed years before mainstream Hip Hop took notice because of the label’s integrity.
“Most of the world operates on, ‘I work to get results,’” Thomason, now CEO of Collision Records, a Phoenix-based Hip Hop label, said. “Those dudes work hard because of conviction. If the results come, they work hard. If the results don’t come, they still work hard because of the conviction.”
In August 2011, most mainstream Hip Hop artists, fans and media members still had no clue what a Lecrae was.
His previous three albums — Rebel, Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose — had charted No. 60, No. 17 and No. 15 on Billboard, respectively. Reach had also built a six-artist roster of Lecrae, Trip Lee, Tedashii, KB, Andy Mineo and Derek Minor. But as is common in the workforce, an impressive résumé often opens fewer doors than the right connections.
At this point, Lecrae’s most influential endorsement had come from famed Baptist preacher John Piper — but 60-year-old, white theologians have little influence on mainstream Hip Hop coverage.
After Reach moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 2009, Lecrae reconnected with someone who did — Torrance Esmond, better known as producer Street Symphony, who Lecrae had befriended during his one semester at Middle Tennessee State University.
Lecrae invited him to his church and recording studio, where Street Symphony produced three songs for him over the next two years.
“What I rock with musically has got to be dope,” Street Symphony said. “Guys like Lecrae, Andy Mineo, they put that hard work in, so you got to respect it.”
In 2011, Street Symphony introduced Lecrae to publicist Tasha Stoute, who pitched Lecrae to the BET Hip Hop Awards for its annual cyphers.
Stoute was convincing. BET invited Lecrae to participate, but he declined. His wife Darragh was due soon with their third child, Landon.
But Landon was born two days before BET filmed the freestyles. With Darragh’s blessing, Lecrae flew from Atlanta to New York that night. He wrote and memorized most of his verse on the plane.
“I thought to myself, ‘I want to be distinct. I definitely want to have the aroma of my faith, but at the same time, I also want to be culturally relevant and not seem as if I’m in this bubble isolated,’” Lecrae said.
If Lecrae was in a bubble, he popped it with his performance, which 4.1 million people watched when it aired Oct. 11.
“Lecrae had a dope delivery,” legendary Hip Hop producer DJ Premier, who DJed the cyphers, said. “He had confidence with the way he spit. He just looked ready.”
The seven cyphers featured an all-star cast that included Grammy-winning rappers Eminem and Ludacris. Lecrae’s performance on no sleep still stood out — for a reason other than BET spelling his name “Lacrae” on the broadcast (and, to Premier, Lecrae not cursing the one time he screwed up his lines during the recording process).
“There were more popular rappers than Lecrae, but he really made me take notice because he held his own as an emcee, and he also had a little added message with his freestyle,” Sirius XM’s Hawkins said. “As a Christian myself, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is something different.’”
On the same day, Sirius XM personality Statik Selektah released “Live & Let Live,” a collaborative single with Lecrae off his compilation project Population Control. Statik Selektah discovered Lecrae because he checked iTunes’ Hip Hop album chart for his own project on January 11 of that year, and Lecrae’s album Rehab: The Overdose sat No. 1.
His music impressed Statik Selektah, who interviewed Lecrae on his radio show. Statik Selektah also familiarized Rob Markman who, upon hearing Lecrae’s music and story, thought coverage was overdue.
“[Lecrae] was beating out some of the rappers that we cover every day in the sales bracket,” Markman said. “He clearly has skills. He’s popular because there are people buying his records, selling out tours and talking about him. Why aren’t we talking about him?”
Mainstream Hip Hop outlets started to cover Lecrae consistently when news of the project that he pitched with Street Symphony in the winter of 2011 broke. He wanted to release a mixtape.
Reach hired Street Symphony as its A&R in early 2012, and he continued to leverage his contact list for Lecrae. Street Symphony showed an unfinished Church Clothes to his friend Don Cannon, a DJ who had produced for Grammy-winning artists 50 Cent and Ludacris.
Impressed, Cannon agreed to host the project. And 100,000 listeners downloaded Church Clothes within 48 hours of its May 20, 2012 release and 250,000 within the month. This served as a valuable marketing tool for Lecrae’s album Gravity, which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard and won a Grammy.
Since then, Lecrae has had no shortage of mainstream coverage that spells his name right. The New York Times, The Atlantic, ESPN The Magazine, Rolling Stone and Huffington Magazine have told their readers what a Lecrae is. Jimmy Fallon invited him back to perform on Jan. 9.
MTV, BET and Hip Hop Nation have covered him, as well as members of his label. Reach has had 17 straight solo albums chart on the Billboard 200. Lecrae’s current label mates Trip Lee, Tedashii, KB and Andy Mineo and former ones Derek Minor and Sho Baraka helped build this streak.
“When we were playing music in the 90s, anytime you got a Def Jam record, you picked it up and listened to it because the brand became so reliable,” Sway said. “You understood that if an artist comes out on Def Jam that they’re probably going to be great … I think Reach, in this genre, has become like that.”
Reach’s 2.3 million record sales and decorated trophy case attract interest to this day. Imprints of Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group have invited Lecrae to meetings, he said. Def Jam named Don Cannon VP of A&R in July 2013, and Cannon — who also hosted a Church Clothes 2 mixtape last fall — said he “campaigned” to sign Lecrae.
But rather than join a family of subsidiaries that includes Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and Ludacris’ Disturbing tha Peace, Reach signed in March with RED Distribution, Sony’s independent marketing arm.
“We’ve entertained discussions with a lot of different people,” Washer said. “There’s been interest from everyone … But we just never felt like anything made sense and was the right fit to protect the legacy of what we’re doing and the culture of who we currently are.”
Reach explains this culture on the about page of its official website, which reads differently than that of typical Hip Hop labels: “The heartbeat of Reach is Romans 1:16, ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’”
The 116 Clique is named after this Bible verse. Reach’s music is Hip Hop by genre but includes gospel content. This created The Academy’s confusion about how to classify them, and Lecrae’s interaction with record labels is further proof of this puzzlement.
“Major labels just struggle to grasp what it is we’re doing,” Lecrae said. “In their mind, we’re gospel, so they want to pair us up with the biggest gospel artists in the music industry. Or they say, ‘Oh! I get it! You guys just want to be regarded as rap. C’mon, we’ve got this song called “Sippin’ Lean and Smoking …”’
“Y’all don’t get it. It’s cool.”
Reach refuses to risk losing freedom to a major label that would jeopardize its ability to impact the hearts of people — its original motivation to join the music industry.
Two years ago, a woman named Marlene who attended the same church as Trip Lee wrote him a letter. Marlene had cancer in her 40s. She knew death was near, which a diminishing number of days with her husband and children made more difficult.
Despite this pain, her letter expressed gratitude. She told Trip Lee that two songs on his album The Good Life — “I’m Good” and “Take Me There,” which the second verse of is about a woman dying of a disease — helped her find peace.
“I know that I’ma suffer / That’ll only make me tougher / Death is just a doorway to take me to my faithful lover,” Trip Lee said on “I’m Good.”
Marlene’s letter still serves as the ultimate affirmation.
“I spend a lot of time agonizing over every word I say and thinking carefully about not just how it sounds musically, but also how it impacts people,” Trip Lee said. “[Her letter] just made me think, ‘I’m not fooling myself. It really does impact people.’ And it’s not flimsy … Even going through the toughest of situations — like dying of cancer and leaving your husband and your kids behind — this music even has something to say to you. And I think it’s because I’m pointing to eternal, timeless truths.”
When Trip Lee arrived at The Fillmore Silver Spring in Maryland on Nov. 2 to watch his label mates, Lecrae and Andy Mineo, perform on The Anomaly Tour, the roar of screaming fans could be heard blocks away. Bystanders unfamiliar with the “Unashamed Movement,” the nickname of the 116 Clique and its fans, are often left baffled by its fanatics.
“People would be at our shows like, ‘What is going on? How are all these people here so hyped?’” Trip Lee said. “That makes me smile. I love the confused looks on people’s faces.”
Statik Selektah witnessed these fans when he went to the Apple Store in SoHo, New York for Lecrae’s performance there in 2012.
“[Lecrae] shut down the block,” Statik Selektah said. “Andy Mineo would poke his head out to look in the room and people would go crazy … The way that they go crazy for them is different. I don’t know what it is.”
Mineo believes he knows why.
“I think we offer something in music that [fans] connect deeply with that you don’t typically get in Hip Hop,” he said. “A lot of the vulnerability on records people are relating to. When you move somebody at the heart level, they start to appreciate not only the music, but you as a person.”
Reach is misread by major labels because it chases a different goal, which it achieved when Anomaly sold 88,000 copies in its first week, as well as in 2004 when Real Talk sold …
Well, whatever it did. Washer was unaware he was supposed to care about first week sales back then.
“We’ve always felt like we were being successful because our success was focused on people,” Washer said. “When you’re about to release an album, you hope it sells a certain amount. When you’re doing a tour, you hope a certain amount of people come. There’s that. But really, I remember Lecrae standing on a wooden box at Boys & Girls Club in front of 15 kids — that was a success.”
Lecrae had a successful 12 hours in September before he launched out on The Anomaly Tour. After he performed the night of Sept. 18 on The Tonight Show, he ministered in New York City’s Rikers Island Prison early the next morning.
“I just try to make a habit of trying to find something that keeps me grounded,” Lecrae said, “so the prison trip was important for me, and that was really the highlight of that weekend.”
Reach declined to publicize it, but the label had teamed with an organization called Send Musicians to Prison. Most of the 116 Clique spent three days at Rikers Island Prison and three more in the Los Angeles County Jail in September.
Lecrae, Andy Mineo, Tedashii and KB told inmates about their Christian faith and used a portable PA system and iPad to throw concerts.
“[The prison tour] made us want to serve in capacities where people don’t know our names so much,” Mineo said. “You go out and do [The Anomaly Tour], and everyone knows us and they enjoy the show … Then you do these other shows, and they don’t know who you are. They don’t care. They’re just enjoying the fact that you’re spending time with them and loving on them. That was refreshing for our souls because sometimes you can get accustomed to the applause.”
Reach is intentional about preventing applause from changing its motivation. On tour, everyone on the team participates in a group Bible study. The label also sets aside time every year for a retreat to refocus on its mission.
Some Reach employees even cap their salaries to protect themselves against being driven by money, which is perhaps the most anomalous thing in Hip Hop history.
“It was never about business first,” Mineo said. “Ben and Lecrae didn’t think they were going to have one of the best independent records labels in the country. They just thought they were going to put out music that helped change the way people see the world.”
This conviction, coupled with its art form of choice, has given Reach a unique relationship with the music industry — no better encapsulated than by Lecrae’s latest album, Sway said.
“When you think of an album title like Anomaly, I think that across the board describes what’s going on with this movement through Reach Records,” Sway said. “It’s like an enigma — somebody’s got to do an album called Enigma … You can’t really pinpoint what it is.”
Lecrae & Reach Records Are Hip Hop’s Enigmas
Over a decade ago, Lecrae set out without a blueprint from a tiny Texas town you’ve probably never heard of to influence the hearts of people through Hip Hop. Instead, he has arguably influenced Hip Hop itself, as well as the hearts of people — all while attracting avid listeners across historically contradictory genres.
Which, as a result, has confused the music industry about how to classify him. If Lecrae and his seventh studio album Anomaly were nominated for best artist or album awards this year, they would be classified as Rap, according to The Academy. This is after his sixth studio album Gravity won the 2013 Grammy for Best Gospel Album.
“Why y’all scared to be different?” Lecrae asks on his song “Say I Won’t,” which premiered at halftime of the Miami Heat-Brooklyn Nets game at the Barclays Center on Dec. 16. The question is fitting, since Lecrae and his independent label Reach Records’ value to the industry lies in the characteristics that make them anomalies.