Teamwork makes the dream work, a corny cliché that can be found at the heart of any Disney movie or child’s film.
It also embodies Top Dawg Entertainment, a label whose success wasn’t built by one man but many who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the music that now has worldwide acclaim. This is a tight-knit group, a small, closed circle, an in-house squad of artists, producers, and a very important engineer. Derek “MixedByAli” Ali has been a pivotal figure that goes mostly unseen, unheard from but occasionally shouted out, it’s safe to say he’s far from truly appreciated. It wasn’t until TDE’s Punch posted an Instagram screenshot of a collection of albums all engineered by Ali did I truly realize his importance.
It’s more of a label discography, behind every TDE mixtape or album, Ali is behind the boards. That instantly recognizable TDE sound? In no small part, that's the sound of Ali.
SZA and Isaiah both clock in with one project, it will be fascinating to watch their contributions grow. The rest of the list is a trip down Memory Lane. Ab-Soul’s Control System, arguably his best body of work yet. With that said, Longterm 2 is still my favorite audio scripture from the Black Lip Pastor. The music is a true representation of someone broke and almost famous. The first Longterm has yet to grace my ears but I spent months with Longterm: Mentality. The second verse on “Hell Yeah” is Ab’s “Control.”
It felt like we waited forever for Jay Rock’s sophomore album but I never realized how much music he had in his catalog. Watts Finest Vol 1-3, Gudda Muzik, FromHood Tales To The Cover Of XXL, all mixtapes that somehow escaped my radar. The first time I heard him was “All My Life,” the first single off Follow Me Home. During the time I was waiting for a follow-up, I should’ve dug back, there’s plenty of music in his past that has yet to be discovered.
It was maybe a year ago that I discovered Jay Rock & K-Dot’s collaborative mixtape, No Sleep Til NYC. Ab-Soul also makes various appearances. Kendrick was still K-Dot, it was the early days of TDE. This was 2007, back when mixtapes weren’t released on iTunes and streaming sites and consisted of freestyles over industry instrumentals and not songs with original production. The duo rhymed and flowed across some of New York’s most infamous classics, if you ever wanted to hear Kendrick and Jay Rock rap over "C.R.E.A.M," "Dead Presidents III," "Kick In The Door" and "It Ain’t Hard 2 Tell," this is a must have. Another early K-Dot mixtape included is C4, a project that truly showcases how much influence Lil Wayne had on a young Kendrick. Almost every song is his rendition of the Carter III. This is before he develops his own voice, it’s a good glimpse at how he and the rest of TDE have progressed. There’s even a young ScHoolboy Q verse on “Welcome To C4.” Training Day is the only K-Dot mixtape that isn’t in my iTunes.
I was under the impression that ScHoolboy Q’s first TDE project was Setbacks (before signing to the label he released Schoolboy Turned Hustla) but it seems that Gangsta & Soul came before. It’s an interesting title, one that I might have to dig into. Oxymoron has grown on me immensely since its release, but I’ll still vouch that Habits & Contradictions is Q in his prime. He is only getting better, the next album will be one to hear.
To my surprise, there’s an album that I wasn’t aware existed at all - TDE: Do It Nigga Squad Vol 1. It turned out to be the first, official TDE compilation tape. At the time, Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Punch were the only artists signed to the label. Q makes an appearance on the second song but doesn’t sign to TDE until 2009. The artwork is gold; you can tell this is when Photoshop and hip-hop were just beginning to collide. It’s a testament to how far they have come, look at their young faces.
At the very bottom of the list of albums is The Original Good Kid Mad City. That's right, I made you wait until the end to drop the bombshell. Let me say that again. THE ORIGINAL GOOD KID MAD CITY!!!!!!????? I couldn’t believe my eyes. Are you telling me, the intricate, acclaimed, dare I say classic debut from Kendrick Lamar wasn’t the original? What could possibly be on this album? "Cartoon & Cereal"? "County Building Blues"? "P&P 2"? Which songs didn’t make this edition? My mind is full of speculation. The good kid theme has been one he’s been exploring since the Kendrick Lamar EP, I’m certain leading up to the album it underwent various changes. To think, there’s another version that we are likely to never have. It’s a cold, cold world.
Only those in the tight-knit group knows about all the unreleased music and albums. Before These Days, Ab-Soul said he turned in two albums to TDE. I’m certain Ali has the files. He has all the files. For good reason, he does excellent work. That’s the benefit of being the in-house engineer for a label with some of the best rappers in the game. You get all the music the world doesn’t.
By Yoh, aka Longterm Yohtality, aka @Yoh31