In the eight years since he hit the Christian rap scene, Lecrae Moore has not only risen to the top of a growing heap of talented artists, the burgeoning record mogul with an evangelist’s heart has accomplished things that most others have only dreamed about. As the leader of the 116 Clique (Trip Lee, Tedashii, KB, Pro, etc.) and founder of Reach Records, Lecrae has impacted the mainstream, sold hundreds of thousands of records and garnered multiple Grammy nominations and Dove Awards.
But when Lecrae first started to write rhymes about the Gospel, it never crossed his mind that rap music could be a ministry, much less a sustainable career. These days, Lecrae isn’t just a believer in that possibility, he is completely sold out to the idea and doing everything he can to transform the culture.
In this extensive Whole Notes interview, Lecrae talks about how his upbringing shaped his music, how his view of Christianity has radically changed with time, why he doesn’t get too caught up in defending his art form, and how he intentionally pursues artistic integrity:
Chad Bonham: How has your background as a young kid who was raised in a single parent home that moved around a lot impacted the message of your music?
Lecrae: My background is a little all over the place. I’ve experienced some ugly times. I’m sure everybody has to some degree. And I’ve experienced good times. But more than anything, I think it’s more of the hard and trying challenges I faced in my past—obviously not knowing my biological father and experiencing some shapes and forms of abuse has helped me relate to people that are in pain. But then, also it’s been having a mother that was supportive and family members that were encouraging and supportive as well and helped me see the bright side of things. Having a diverse background has allowed me to relate to people from all walks of life.
Bonham: Did you have any religious background prior to your conversion as a 19-year old?
Lecrae: The only exposure I had to church or Christianity was exclusively through my grandmother who was a believer. She was heavily involved in ministering to the poor. She had a ministry called “Consider The Poor Ministries” and she was always trying to feed the homeless. I was always watching her do those things. But church was completely different. Church was pretty much 50-year olds and older in suits and ties and a lot of language that I didn’t understand. It was kind of weird deal for me where I didn’t feel like I belonged. Church was something I was going to do when I got way older.
Bonham: What was your introduction to hip hop and how did the music influence you as a young person?
Lecrae: I lived with my older cousins and my uncles during the summers and they were the biggest influences on me. That’s all they listened to. They watched videos all the time. Even as a little kid, a seven and eight-year old, that’s what I was exposed to. I began to fall in love with it, just the whole culture. You’d walk outside your front yard and people were breakdancing. There were music videos on TV all the time. You ride in the car and you hear hip hop. These were messages that were articulating the life that I was seeing in front of me. It was like having people tell stories about what I was seeing and what I was experiencing. So obviously a lot of those songs were glorifying the violence and the drug abuse and the misogyny but ultimately for a young kid, it was the only picture of people in the media that looked like me and talked like me and dressed like me. We’d just sit there listening to record after record. That was really it. Their music was my music. They were the people that influenced me the most.
A lot of time, the music reflects reality, which reflects music. It’s not one or the other, They kind of feed off each other. Someone might write a song that reflects reality but then reality wants to make sure it lines up with the music and then the music reflects that reality and it spirals out of control. It becomes ridiculous. Maybe there was one murder in the neighborhood but the song says there were three then the neighborhood says, “The song says there were three. We’ve got to get it up to four.” You start to begin to base you identity on what the music says. “This is what the rapper says a man is and I haven’t done that so I need to do this to become a man.” So it just starts to fuel a young mind. And my uncles were involved in gangs, so they were a picture of the music I was listening to. It was strong and influential for me.
Bonham: I’ve read about a conference that you attended where you committed your life to Christ at the age of 19. Tell me about that event and how it led to your spiritual turnaround.
Lecrae: God really started to draw me near to His heart about six months leading up to that conference. I went through some tough experiences and got into a lot of trouble the summer after my senior year. I had to bail my friend out of jail multiple times. All kinds of crazy things were happening and the one person I relied on was a girl that I was involved with and then that relationship dissolved. So I was kind of left feeling empty handed. I really didn’t know where to turn and I felt like my life was out of control. A group of Christian guys had invited me to come to one of their Bible studies and I just thought, “Why not? I don’t have anything going on.” So I went and was shocked that they were so normal. They weren’t 50 years old and they didn’t have on suits and ties. They did look like me and they did dress like me. So I was intrigued. I was a young guy and I was just looking for some kind of help and hope. They invited me to a conference and I said, “Why not?” I’d never been to Atlanta and obviously my motive was that I’d have some fun and there’d be a lot of girls there and maybe I could get some help in the process. It turned out to be the best trip I’d ever taken.
Bonham: What was your introduction to the idea of taking your interest in hip hop and turning into a format that could express your new found faith in Christ?
Lecrae: Rap was my only social outlet. I was very introverted growing up and I had small circle of friends. Any opportunity I got to rap or articulate things through rhyme or hip hop was great for me. I didn’t care what they wanted me to talk about. It helped me gain some social worth. So when someone first came to me and said, “Why don’t you put something together that talks about God?” I said, “Sure, why not?” I’d do anything when it comes to rap. Even though I was a non-believer initially, it made the believers take notice, and it helped fuel my sense of self-worth. But as I became a believer, it was normal to articulate my views through hip hop. Talking about God and my faith wasn’t a weird thing. That’s all I knew how to do was to say what was on my heart.
Bonham: What was your exposure to Christian rap at that point?
Lecrae: I really didn’t know anything and I did think that it would be corny. I thought that would silly or weird if somebody had an album where they were rapping about Jesus. I would’ve rejected it. But the funny thing is, on that trip to Atlanta, they started playing The Cross Movement and to be honest, I thought it was terrible. I thought, “This is ridiculous. Every single song is about Jesus?” On the way back home, I thought it was incredible because my heart had been transformed and they were articulating things that I could understand now. But before that, I didn’t know anybody else was doing it.
Bonham: Do you see the irony in what you’re doing now with Reach Records and the 116 Clique?
Lecrae: It is mind blowing how God put all of this together with His providence. It’s a unique story that He’s telling and you can look in hindsight and see why He did some of the things He did.
Bonham: At times I don’t even know what to call this genre of music. I’ve heard it called holy hip hop, Christian rap, Gospel rap. What do you call it?
Lecrae: I allow people to call it what they like. For me, Christianity is not a genre. It’s faith. The Gospel is not a genre either. It’s faith. I definitely understand the semantics of naming things to give them some kind of distinction but I think my faith is pretty distinct. If you want to call it hip hop, essentially it is. That’s the art form. But Lecrae is definitely a Christian so when people say, “What do you do?” I say, “I’m authentically hip hop and I’m authentically Christian.” You’re definitely going to see a marriage of the two.
Bonham: How would you assess the current state of Christian hip hop?
Lecrae: I’m really encouraged. There is definitely a coalition brewing of different artists that want to infiltrate the industry and infiltrate the world and be a light. We’re all on the same page and we all want the same things. We have the same heart. That’s encouraging to me. It’s obviously not without its issues and its problems. If anything, one of the biggest concerns I had was the quality but I’m even seeing now, because of the strong independent movement, that the quality has increased. People are focusing on making good music and not just getting a record deal. That’s been encouraging.
Bonham: Who are some artists outside of the Reach Records family that have caught your attention?
Lecrae: There’s a label out of Portland called Humble Beast. They’ve got some great artists like Odd Thomas and Propaganda and Braille. Those are some incredible guys that I’m excited to see what God does with them. One of my good friends Thi’sl has a label called Full Ride and he just signed a great guy named Reconcile. I’m excited to see what God is going to do through him as well.
Bonham: How have you developed your writing and rapping skills throughout your career?
Lecrae: A lot of people just love music, especially a lot of aspiring artists. They just want to jump in and start making music. They don’t really take time to grow and appreciate the craft. So we challenge each other specifically at Reach Records. We’ll put together songs and tear them apart bit by bit and we’ll study other musicians and work on what we’re trying to accomplish. I take it very seriously. I always want to be growing in my craft. Any artist should—whether you paint, whether you do music or film—always grow and study.
Bonham: What was the foundation for the 116 Clique and what are your overall hopes for what the group collectively accomplishes?
Lecrae: The mission of Reach Records is to change the way people see the world. Everybody has a worldview but it isn’t a biblical worldview. That’s the right worldview. Obviously Christianity is saving truth and it’s sanctifying truth but we believe that it’s total truth. It is the truth about every aspect of life from economics to masculinity to marriage. God has the right view on all of these things. We have a voice within the culture and a voice for God as His ambassadors to articulate that to the world. That’s what we want to do. Obviously there’s a great impact on urban culture but God has expanded that and we’re content to serve Him as best we can in that capacity.
Bonham: Do you ever feel like it’s an uphill battle as you try to impact the culture?
Lecrae: Sometimes it weighs on you and it wears you down, especially for us because we’re very critical and we’re very passionate about seeing transformation. So you sometimes don’t see it as fast as you’d like to see it. One of the things we try to do is take time to reflect and be grateful for the battles that are being won, the individual smaller battles that are being won as opposed to looking at the massive landscape and how overwhelming it can be. We try to look at things bit by bit and be grateful for those small victories.
Bonham: Does your GMA Dove Award nomination for Artist of the Year reflect a change in the industry and the fact that people are starting to get what Christian hip hop is all about?
Lecrae: There are a lot of aspects of it that are great. Some people who have a broader platform and can reach way more people than we can have given us a little more of a platform. That’s humbling to think about. Aside from that, when people celebrate the gifting, it’s ultimately a celebration of the Giver. It’s just acknowledging what God is doing in and through us. That’s exciting for me. And my whole team is excited about it. They know that they had a role to play in any kind of success that I’ve garnered. We’re all excited at Reach because it’s a win for us all.
Bonham: I was talking to Manwell Reyes of Group 1 Crew recently and he told me that your story is unexplainable. It’s just a God thing. Is that your best response to the surprising success you’ve had despite not having the benefit of a major label or national radio support?
Lecrae: Absolutely. If we can point to how it happened, then we did it. Obviously you do all that you can but if you can look back and see how all the dots came together, and if it’s explainable, then it wasn’t God. That’s the way you have to look at things.
Bonham: How do you deal with critics within the church community who teach that Christian rap is an oxymoron?
Lecrae: I do have a very thorough articulation of what I’m doing and I’m able to give an apologetic for it. Sometimes the formats aren’t right. Obviously Twitter and Facebook aren’t the right formats for giving a long apologetic about what I have going on. And sometimes the best times I’ve been able to articulate things was when there wasn’t media coverage. It was just a one-on-one conversation. I try not to focus on it. When you start to focus on that, it becomes your mission. My mission is not to give an apologetic for why I’m trying to impact people’s lives and use the Gospel to transform. My mission is to impact people’s lives and use the Gospel to transform. I want to be on that mission and not explaining it all the time.
Bonham: Some of your critics, like G. Craige Lewis, have said that rap itself is okay, but the hip hop culture is the problem. So is he basically saying it’s okay to rap as long as you don’t wear saggy jeans?
Lecrae: Yeah, it’s an error of logic that you run into. I totally understand it. There’s a pragmatic side to it. If this is bad then let’s get rid of it. It makes sense from one particular angle. But if you look at things holistically, what you’re doing is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and you start attributing the problems to things that are not the problem. Music and art and culture are never the problem. It’s always sin and sin dwells in the hearts of men. It’s dealing with people that ultimately makes the change happen. It’s not dealing with things. A gun ban isn’t going to solve crime. People with sinful hearts commit crimes and so you’re going to have to deal with the hearts of men.
Bonham: Is your best answer usually going to be the fruit of your ministry and the lives that have been changed through your Gospel presentation?
Lecrae: Absolutely. But again, to be pragmatic, some people have seen lives changed through some extreme things that were not probably ultimately beneficial. But when we trace it back, we see consistency. We’re not seeing any issues or stumblings or a lack of understanding of truth in what we’re doing. That’s what is encouraging to us. We’re seeing changed lives and we’re not seeing errors or shortcomings that are coming through the method by which we’re doing it
Bonham: Can you share a story about someone who has been impacted by your music and through your personal ministry?
Lecrae: The most recent and biggest testimony to what we’re doing is a guy (Torrance Esmond aka Street Symphony) who was producing for a lot of mainstream hip hop artists out there. His life was money, sex and drugs. He was caught up in that lifestyle. In love and as a friend, we reached out and built a relationship and started to get in his life. He’s experiencing the music. We speak the same language and look like him but we’re distinctly different because of our faith. It intrigued him to keep coming around and eventually he came to Christ and started doing production for us and ultimately was someone we hired. He’s been a believer for three years now and works on staff at Reach Records. That’s been the beauty of some of the things we’ve been doing.
Bonham: How important is it for you and the others in the 116 Clique to model godly relationships and biblically centered priorities for other young men?
Lecrae: It’s of the utmost importance to have that prioritized. I was at a festival (South by Southwest) for five long days and my wife was with me the whole time. There was a lot of stuff going on around me and I wanted to make sure we could spend time together. That’s where your priorities are. You don’t want to ride the train of success and look behind you and see your family mangled in the tracks.
Keep up with the latest from Lecrae and the Reach Records family of artists by visiting the official website HERE.