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Top Dawg Entertainment is a bit of an enigma. It’s hip-hop’s most popular label and, some would argue, its most recognizable brand. It’s achieved this by seemingly being both everywhere at once—thanks to stars like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and SZA—and also appearing to shrink from the spotlight. Until 2014, there were scant online photos or interviews available of its founder and namesake Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. This has changed gradually over time, but the enterprise is still shrouded in a good deal of mystery. Piecing together what we have learned about this label, we’ve assembled three origin stories, each of which speaks to a different aspect of the label’s history.
2012: BEFORE THE FLOOD
It’s October 21, 2012, and we’re standing in a parking lot in San Diego alongside the entire TDE team. The next day, Kendrick will release good kid, m.A.A.d city, and tonight the crew is playing a sold-out show to around 1,500 people, which, at that point, was considered a large crowd for the guys. They’re excited, slightly raucous, and maybe a little bit nervous.
Over the course of the previous three years, TDE had established itself as a regional powerhouse, releasing seminal West Coast independent releases like Schoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions and Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80. They’d been able to parlay this underground success into a deal with Interscope, and they had quickly become Dr. Dre’s pet project. The lead single from good kid, m.A.A.d city, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” had reached the Top 20 on Billboard charts. All signs pointed towards an impending breakout success, but there was still an unsettled energy.
The scene in San Diego recalled that part in Goodfellas when Tommy (Joe Pesci) is going to be made and Henry (Ray Liotta) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) anxiously wait for the news in a nearby cafe—except, of course, in this case, no one gets shot. (At least not on this night.) Kendrick’s manager, Dave Free, paces outside of one of the tour buses and concedes that there’s no way that they’ll get the No. 1 slot for good kid (Taylor Swift’s Red comes out the same day as well), but he’s expecting a solid No. 2. Jay Rock seems a little more upbeat, and (rightfully) thinks that this is going to be a landmark album. Ab-Soul is bouncing around, getting high and spitting out overly complicated theories about the ratchets, while Kendrick and the rest of the TDE peeps are goofing around with their friends who had driven down from L.A. for the show.
“It’s a time of reckoning, like it’s finally happening,” Ab-Soul later says to me. “Right now, I see the potential to take over the whole game.”
At this point, five years later, we all get that he was right. Good kid, m.A.A.d city went on to become a watershed release, going platinum despite coming in second to Taylor’s Red its first week. Schoolboy Q would score two No. 1 albums (Oxymoron and Blank Face LP) in three years. And the label’s three breakout artists (Kendrick, Schoolboy, and SZA) would headline festivals and arenas around the world. By 2017, TDE would seize nearly 5 per cent of the hip-hop/R&B market share. By most measures, they’ve become the most important and success label of the decade, and to the outsider, or recent fan, that success seemingly came overnight. But the path to get here was long and arduous—and took the better part of two decades.
1997: OGs AND BLINDFOLDS
Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith is nearing his 30th birthday. A seasoned hustler, Tiffith understood that the tenure of someone in his position was short, and that he needed a Plan B. He looked to his uncle, Mike Concepcion, as an example. Concepcion was a founding member of the Crips gang, and was shot and confined to a wheelchair in 1977. In the ’80s, after his mother died, he gave up the gang life, and turned to music, producing the 1990 anti-violence anthem “We’re All in the Same Gang,” which was produced by Dr. Dre and featured Ice-T, N.W.A., Digital Underground, and King Tee. He was also immortalized in a line from Nas’ 2001 track “You’re Da Man”: “45 in my waist, staring at my reflection/ In the mirror, sitting still, in the chair like Mike Concepcion.”
Tiffith decided that the first step to breaking into the music business was building out a studio in the back of his apartment, so he went shopping for equipment.
“When we picked it up, this dude told me he could help put it together,” Tiffith remembers. “[Later] I go and pick the dude up, and I say, ‘Yo, I got to blindfold you.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Lay down back here. I’m not going to do nothing to you. You don’t need to know where you’re going. I don’t want you coming back, stealing my shit.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I understand.’ I get home, pull into the garage, and my girl’s there. So when I was like, ‘Come on,’ he pops in with the blindfold, and she thought I had kidnapped the n—a. Like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’
2003-2006: GETTING THE GANG TOGETHER
Though Tiffith was able to stick it out in the game longer than others, by the early aughts it was time to move on. “I lost a lot of friends, saw a lot of partners locked up,” he says. When things got kinda hot, I had to find something else to do.”
He had the studio, but he didn’t really know how to use it, nor did he know any artists for that matter. He enlisted the help of producer Demetrius Shipp, who was a veteran of the rap game, producing the track “Toss It Off” on the posthumous Tupac album Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and Tiffith had once done him a favor, chasing down a debt for him and letting him use the studio. Tiffith had originally thought of producing R&B groups, but he soon decided that rap would be more profitable.
“One of the homies said, ‘You need to check out Jay Rock.’ I heard his name because he was messing up,” Tiffith recalls.“I wind up chasing Jay Rock down in the ’hood. He seen me a couple times and tried to go the other way because he think I’m fixing to discipline him. Then one time I catch him on the porch getting his haircut and his eyes got so big like, ‘He got me.’ I said, ‘Yo, you can rap, I need you at the studio tonight.’ We went from there.”
Rock had grown up in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects and was a member of the Bounty Hunters, a Blood gang that has been in that area since the turn of the ‘70s. The gang was originally called the Green Jackets, when, in the aftermath of a deadly, Crip-led battle at a Curtis Mayfield and Wilson Picket concert in 1972, the anti-Crip gang contingent formally coalesced into a faction they named the Bloods, with the Compton-bred gang the Pirus as their leading crew.
Though Rock was born in Nickerson Gardens, which was firmly Blood territory, he had to cross over to Locke High School. It was only two miles to the West, but due to the complex matrix of gang territories, he was firmly in Crip territory. “There were a couple of bloods, but it felt like I was the only one,” Rock recalls. “I had to watch my back when I go home. I was on enemy territory. People would be running into my class, and I had to get out. That’s how it was back then.”
Map of Gang Territory in L.A. from www.streetgangs.com
Soon, Rock would have company. David Free was a local high-school DJ who had recruited a number of promising MCs, most notable among them a 16-year-old kid from Centennial High School named Kendrick Lamar. Free immediately saw Lamar’s potential, and set out to put his music in front of the right people. But connections were scant at that time in South Central L.A., and though Tiffith was just getting started, he represented the closest thing in the neighborhood to the recording industry.
Free had no prior relationship with Tiffith, and did not directly approach him; rather, he posed as a computer repairman in order to gain access. Arriving at Tiffith’s house, Free was nervous. He didn’t have a clue how to fix computers, but he wanted to play Kendrick’s music for Tiffith. He’d taken the computer completely apart, and, as soon as the tape was over, he looked up, exasperated, turning to Tiffith and declaring, “Man, I don’t think I can fix this.”
He accomplished his mission, and Tiffith agreed to audition Lamar in person. At that point, Lamar was still calling himself K-Dot, and though his technical skills belied his young age, he had yet to find his own voice. Tiffith was initially skeptical, but was soon won over. “I told Kendrick to get on the mic and flow over some beats I chose,” Tiffith says. “I like to make rappers spit over double-time beats to try to stumble their ass up— but he was rapping like a motherfucker! I tried to act, like, unimpressed, but that made him go even harder. He stepped up.”
Not everyone was happy about this development, and there was initially some uneasiness in the studio. Though Jay Rock was happy to have company, Kendrick was from a part of Compton that repped for the West Side Pirus, who were then at war with Jay Rock’s gang. “It was a little tension with Kendrick and Jay Rock early on because our ’hoods were going at each other,” Tiffith remembers. “They didn’t know how to react. With me being the big homie [I would advise them]: ‘You guys can bridge the gap between the ’hood, because y’all can speak to the world now.’ You can get some money and change all this gangbang shit.”
Once Jay Rock witnessed Lamar in action, he was a quick convert. “Kendrick came through,” Rock says. “I remember we was doing this record, the first record we ever did. And I was struggling writing my verse. I’m writing on a piece of paper. I’m trying to hurry up and finish my verse before him. But he’d already finished his verse. I’m like, ‘Where your paper at, homie?’ He said, ‘Nah, I write in my head.’ From that moment right there, I was like, ‘Wow, this dude is something else.’
By the end of 2006, the two were joined by Hoover Crip Schoolboy Q from South Central and Ab-Soul, a German-raised eccentric who learned to rap in the freestyle chat rooms of the African-American social network, BlackPlanet. The modern incarnation of TDE was born. The studio was christened The House of Pain to reflect the group’s tireless work ethic. Tiffith even came up with a five point, handwritten manifesto that he taped to the wall:
- Charisma, personality, swagger.
- Work Ethics.
Though the pieces were all in place, it would still be a long, hard-fought journey for the label. The ’90s were the golden era of West Coast hip-hop, producing Tupac, N.W.A., DJ Quik, Kurupt, and many, many others, but the aughts were much leaner. The most popular and artistically adventurous hip-hop was coming from the South, and New York was able to stay on the map largely thanks to the bruising raps of 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew. But L.A. hip-hop had not really moved on from the G-funk era, and the only one true commercial breakout artist, The Game, was a nostalgist who was most closely associated with G-Unit.
An entire coast would wander through the desert for the better part of an entire decade. But, when they emerged in the early ’10s, TDE was leading the charge.
This is part of our program, The Story of Kendrick, an in-depth look at the life and music of Kendrick Lamar. Sound cool and want to sign up? Go here. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out and share on Facebook, Twitter or with this link. They’ll thank you.
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