These days, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul spend basically all their time together, but the quartet didn't grow up friends. They didn't meet at school. They'd all been working on rap music by the time they met. They were plucked from all over Los Angeles one by one, and installed in a tract house in a cul-de-sac right off the Gardena Freeway. "I actually kept them locked up and working together inside there," says the man who gathered them. "They couldn't do nothing but bond." — Top Dawg, "A New Hip-Hop Recipe With A Familiar Sound," 2012
House of Pain. When the words are written alongside one another they read like the blood-drenched location of a chainsaw massacre or a home of horrors, where weapons are held and torturous screams are heard. Anthony Tiffith is no Sideshow Bob, the man better known as Top Dawg is far from hip-hop’s Jigsaw, but for some undisclosed reason, he decided upon the name long before TDE was recognized as the West Coast breeding ground for excellent artistry.
The year was 1997, music was booming, and Tiffith decided to build a studio as an add-on to a house. As his cousin Terrence “Punch” Henderson toldXXL in 2012, though, the studio remained inactive while Top Dawg was busy in the streets.
Eventually, the studio space would become a financial incentive and an escape from the very streets that kept calling him. It was Top’s way out of the unlawful lifestyle that had him dodging bullets and a chance to be like the Bentley-driving uncle who found success managing the R&B singer Rome, or like Michael Concepcion, another music industry relative who ascended to rap mogul status in the ‘90s.
Top saw what success in music looked like, and once he decided to make the transition from the streets to the studio, the House of Pain was looked upon as a home of prosperity. He built the stu, created a label, and started searching for artists in his own backyard in late 2004. This time around, though, Top approached the opportunity with a label in mind. Less Suge Knight and more Charles Xavier―the studio was his personal school for gifted youngsters, a sanctuary for boys who needed a home to hone their passions as rappers.
In a rare interview with Vibe, Top explained how he was known as one of the OGs who tried to steer youngsters away from repeating his sins. Jay Rock, the first artist he signed in 2005, would actually run from him as a way of escaping being scolded. It’s this mentality of wanting to protect the young and impressionable from the madness of their surroundings that likely led Top to play a more parental role in his artist's lives. Later that same year, Kendrick signed to TDE; he was 16 at the time. Ab-Soul was 19 in ‘06 when he signed, and ScHoolboy was in his early 20s by the time he joined the roster. They were young and impressionable; only Ab-Soul didn’t come from a street-centric background. Madness could’ve swallowed any of them. All it would have taken was one bad decision and they would be devoured by their environment. It was a safe haven.
"Like he gave me a chance that nobody else woulda gave me and I wasn’t even really rapping. He let me live and sleep on his couch, let me walk in on his refrigerator, take food out his kid's mouth. I watched his kids grow up. So it’s like it’s deeper than rap music." — ScHoolboy Q, "10 Gems From ScHoolboy Q's Heartfelt Interview," 2016
ScHoolboy Q explained in a separate interview with Vibe how he didn’t sleep for two years because they were recording in the same space he needed to rest his head. The studio is where he lived, ate, slept and occasionally bathed with liquid soap, in case you thought this was lavish living. But as Q reveals in the same interview, even Kendrick, who was living with his mom, led a very similar life as the homeless Quincy.
"Kendrick was basically living how I was but he was staying with his mama. Like we was grown men. He was living with his mama at 24, 25 [years-old] talking about he gonna be a rapper. You know how that shit sounds?! You already past 21 and you still talking about 'I’ma be a rapper.' You ain’t did one show, niggas ain’t seen you on TV. So Kendrick kind of went through the same thing I went through. He just had his mom’s house to go to."
Top Dawg’s approach to creating a roof for his artists to live underneath reminds me of Rico Wade’s mother and how allowing OutKast, Organized Noize and Goodie Mob to create in her basement allowed them a place to explore their creative passions. The Dungeon was an irreplaceable space for their artistry, and House of Pain was necessary to keep Black Hippy in a working environment. A team of producers and engineers was built alongside the artists, he had a complete crew of pirates.
TDE is a family that operates like a family business. Punch is Top's cousin and co-president of TDE. Moosa, Top’s son, is Q’s tour manager, though, he also manages various other artists outside of TDE. Kendrick was discovered through Dave Free, a classmate of Kendrick’s who was working with him since their days were spent in high school hallways. Dave, who was working as a computer technician, was called by Top Dawg one day to fix a computer problem, and while he took apart Top's computer he played Kendrick's entire mixtape. The rest is history.
The Kendrick signing also brought Dave Free into the family, who began in marketing and worked his way up to the president. Dave also brought in Ali, the man famous for engineering all of the label's albums. Top discovered producer Sounwave during a random house visit, and Sounwave is who introduced TDE to Ab-Soul.
All these moving pieces intersect with one another, individuals who wouldn’t make much noise alone but could cause a ruckus together. Not only did they have the rappers but also the necessary complimentary components, which allowed the rappers to focus on one thing: rapping.
Having everyone together also created a sense of competition:
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"I was terrible," he says. "I just got good like two years ago." He says he got better by playing off of his friends' ideas. "Everybody got to be in competition, you know what I mean? We have to compete. We have to compete at all times. If you ain't competing, go home." — ScHoolboy Q, "A New Hip-Hop Recipe With A Familiar Sound," 2012
ScHoolboy Q has admitted on numerous occasions that he wasn’t a very good rapper. He was just living on the couch, going to the studio every day. They pushed him to tell his story and to become a sharper emcee. It was when no one cared that he learned the required skills to become a renowned rapper. Only Punch and Ab-Soul saw something in him; he claims the others didn’t fuck with him musically. But Q comes from a sports background, he is someone who only gets better when pressured by competition. Kendrick, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock all had a similar quality about them―watching each other write and record each day only drove them to be better. Black Hippy was Q’s idea because he wanted to rap in a group in order to write less, but I’m sure that only fed their competitive fire.
While the world was oblivious to their union, TDE was sparring in a makeshift studio improving one rhyme at a time. There was no pressure for hits, Top wasn’t standing over shoulders telling them how to create―they had the freedom to find themselves as artists. It was like Black Hippy's four members were attending rapper boot camp, the kind that allowed creativity over commercial appeal.
Though the four artists were vastly different, there was still a desire to be great in their own vacuum. This presents an interesting contrast between TDE and other rap labels. For example, look at OVO and how all the artists under Drake’s umbrella are similar in sound and aesthetic. Top Dawg didn’t want to sign five Jay Rocks or eight Kendricks, every signee has had their own lane exclusive to them.
"It was the family environment, both at home and with Top Dawg, that kept me away from the streets. We were lucky enough to have Top Dawg extend his services to make sure we had studio time. He kept us busy with whatever we needed. The door was always open, so I was able to go in and do what I needed to do at all times. We got a nice team of producers and got Ali (MixedByAli) on the boards doing his thing. We always worked as a unit and that has definitely made things a lot easier than you hear about." — Ab-Soul, "Ab-Soul's Timeline: The Rapper's Life From 5 Years Old to Now," 2012
Isaiah Rashad and SZA were signed after the explosion of Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment. They were second generation members of the label. Zay hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee and SZA is from New Jersey—the first time in the label's history that artists were signed from outside of California. What’s interesting is how both artists were brought to LA and were required to spend a summer living together. Isaiah said in a Breakfast Clubinterview that the first day he met SZA was the day she signed, and the two were then put underneath the same roof. Imagine living with a stranger while also swimming in a foreign pond. Think about the discomfort of those first few days, possibly weeks. Incredibly, this forced union did wonders for their musical chemistry. Zay and SZA went about creating in much the same way as their Black Hippy brethren, thrown together under one roof. Instead of just being collaborators signed to the same label, an opportunity was provided to be more like family, adding another branch to the tree.
Like almost everything the singer does, this collab came about spontaneously. “During the summer me and the guys were basically all bunkmates and lived together, and Isaiah and I wrote down a bunch of stuff during that time,” she explained over the phone yesterday. “Since the studio was across the street, we’d wake up and go there literally everyday and record. Some stuff was good and some was bad, but this track was one of the cool ones. It was just really fun and organic, and I think it sounds like that.” It’s true. “Ronnie Drake” is a mellow, easygoing jam that’s the exactly what SZA (pronounced Sizza) is all about: taking things one day at a time. — SZA, "Band Crush: SZA," 2013
Even though SZA recently signed a secondary deal with RCA, a major label, she has continued to maintain the creative control that TDE finds so much pride in. Ctrldoesn’t sound like a major label pulling the strings but SZA showing how she has continued to level up as both a singer and songwriter. This is the album she wanted to make, RCA just had the honor of being attached to such a promising debut release.
The more I return to The Sun’s Tirade, the more I realized how much Isaiah Rashad has grown as an artist since Cilvia Demo. He’s starting to discover a sound that can be associated with his voice, a style of writing that’s both unique and transparent. The babies are growing. This also begs the question, what is happening with Lance Skiiiwalker and SiR, TDE's even newer signees? What kind of development could they be growing through to elevate their artistry? Breeding stars doesn’t seem to be TDE’s mission statement, commercial success seems secondary compared to releasing quality music.
TDE is the best label if you desire to grow as an artist more than being just another popular personality. Kendrick’s one of the biggest rappers in the world, but his talent is far brighter than his star power. Q isn’t far behind, yet while his notoriety rises with each release, he continues to grow and improve as an artist.
The key to TDE's success is artist development. Even if some of their album rollouts could be best described as sub-par, the label is still developing the best methods to give each artist a chance to showcase his or her evolution. I like the idea of them being a development camp for artists, where raw talent is forged into shining diamonds. Once the diamond gets bright enough, the major labels come running. They came for Kendrick, Q and SZA, but in each case, the artist has been able to sign a deal that allows them to keep control of their artistry. Indie perspective with a major backing.
I hope labels on the rise are taking note of this slow and steady approach, realizing that TDE’s success comes not from isolated creation but through building a family unit that grows together. It all started with a studio—House of Pain—but it’s the people that Top Dawg put inside that studio that changed his life for the better. He didn’t get lucky with Kendrick Lamar or any of his artists, he just believed they could be great and gave them the best opportunity to become what he envisioned. What TDE offers is what an artist should expect of their label: discovery, development, and belief. It’s these three qualities that have played the biggest role in TDE’s rise and continued domination.
Be more Charles Xavier than Suge Knight. Follow in the footsteps of Top Dawg.
By Yoh, aka Top Yoh Entertainment, aka @Yoh31