Only two Christian hip-hop record labels today chart on the Billboard 200 without fail: Reach Records and Collision Records.
Reach, co-owned by Grammy Award-winning rapper Lecrae and Ben Washer, has had 17 straight solo albums appear on the chart. However, Reach’s first seven projects failed to land on the Billboard 200.
Collision, a Phoenix-based label owned by Adam Thomason, became a sure Billboard 200 bet in a fraction of the releases. Its streak of five straight LPs on the chart started in 2013, after dropping its first in just 2012.
But without Reach, Collision would not have developed this consistency so quickly — or, according to Thomason, ever even happened.
In 2004, Thomason met Lecrae through Plumbline, a college ministry of Denton Bible Church. He soon met Washer at a recreational basketball game, after which Thomason discovered that Lecrae was a mutual friend. By the time that Reach moved to Memphis in 2006, Thomason had joined the team — motivated by anything but a dream to start a label.
“When I met Ben and Lecrae, I didn’t think, ‘Huh, I might end up starting my own record label,’” Thomason said. “I just said, ‘I see what they’re doing. I want to help them, whether it’s ship out CDs, help with designing T-shirts or logos, learning to mix and master,’ so in doing that and being around it, you learn.”
Before Reach moved to Atlanta in 2009, though, Thomason and producer Joseph Prielozny had learned that an abundance of gifted, unsigned, Christian hip-hop artists existed, but more room on Reach’s roster did not. That year, Thomason and Prielozny raised $150 to start Collision Records LLC. They had minuscule budget, but their network from several years in the industry kept them optimistic.
“That was probably the only reason we kept going forward,” Thomason said. “One, we felt like artists needed a chance to be raised up in the worldview. Two, though we didn’t have money, we felt like we had strength in relationships to get a product done.”
This is why Thomason credited God’s providence as the greatest ingredient to Collision’s success — because the genuine relationships he built years ago ultimately guided his label to success.
Collision signed its first artist after members of Reach — Sho Baraka and DJ Official (h/t Kareem Manuel) — passed along the unknown, debut album The Zoo of a hip-hop artist named Swoope. Then Lecrae and Washer advised Collision that it needed to establish a history with Swoope, so they released the mixtape Applause, Vol. 1 in Sept. 2010.
Collision also quickly needed to decide exactly what it wanted to be known for, Reach said. Thomason had just returned from a mission trip to Sudan with Lecrae and another Reach artist, Tedashii, so Swoope featured them in Nov. 2010 on his debut single, strategically titled “Actions Speak Louder.” All of the proceeds went to building an orphanage in the nation.
“We released that [song] as a fundraiser for Sudan,” Thomason said, “but at the same time, establishing ourselves to the world as, ‘We’re going to be the ones who live for other people.’”
Collision made further strides with establishing a history for Swoope when, in Jan. 2011, Lecrae featured him on the song “Going In” on his fifth studio album, Rehab: The Overdose. Seven months later, Swoope released another mixtape, Spring Fling.
Mission accomplished: Swoope had built a significant buzz in Christian hip hop, allowing Collision to drop his label debut, Wake Up, in March 2012. The project is widely regarded as one of the top albums released in the subgenre since the turn of the decade. It peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Christian Albums chart and served as a strong foundation for the label’s next five albums, which all climbed into the Billboard 200.
In addition to Reach’s steps to introduce an artist, Thomason, as a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, also placed an emphasis on branding.
“We see art and branding as a trying to maximize what God has given us from a visual standpoint,” he said. “We’re not going to allow the world to have an excuse to not [like our products] because we were lazy in the presentation.”
By Nov. 2010, Collision had formed a four-artist roster and next chose to drop a collaborative album, WLAK, to establish itself as a label — as opposed to what Thomason joked was previously known as Swoope Records. Collision accomplished just that, as evidence of the three successful solo albums that followed.
From needing to raise $150 to routinely releasing Billboard 200-charting albums, Collision is proof that the right endorsement can go a long way.
“God can supersede anything he does,” Thomason said, “but in history, he has chosen to allow the artists to blow up through an association.”
David Daniels is a reporter for Rapzilla.com, the largest Christian music website. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidDaniels