Why Jay Rock Is The Unsung Hero Of Top Dawg Entertainment (Video)
In Hip-Hop, the first is not always the biggest. Just as football has its linemen fighting for every inch, Rap music often has its figures that blaze a trail, light a path, or move the boulders for another artist to shoot the resulting gap. This week, TDE announced its Championship Tour. After a 2017 boasting #1 albums, a plethora of Grammy nominations, platinum and gold plaques, and key advances for its newer roster additions, Top Dawg and company have great reason to celebrate.
However, 2018 also promises to be an important moment for Jay Rock, who has an album that will follow the Grammy push and TDE curated Black Panther soundtrack of which he is a part. The first artist signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, Johnny McKinzie, Jr. is the one who has been making TDE’s brand of uncompromising Gangsta Rap for the longest. He set the pace and the expectation of quality, consistency, and even humbleness. He was doing it when nearly all of his peers were chasing trends, and he’s still doing it all these years later, when a new crop of Los Angeles MCs are now duly recognized for their voices and street narratives, and at a time when West Coast Gangsta Rap as is cool as it was when Snoop and D.O.C. were along for the ride in Dr. Dre’s ’64 Impala.
I was first introduced to Jay Rock by phone in May of 2006. To my knowledge, it was Jay’s first interview, with some of the TDE founders listening in on the conference to what their artist had to say, and what a curious writer from across the country might want to know. The ink had barely dried on Rock’s Warner Bros. Records partnership, and I was covering a lot of the label’s fast-expanding roster that year. Furthermore, I was a fan of Watts’ music and Rap history, from interviewing O.F.T.B. (Bounty Hunter Bloods from the same Nickerson Gardens complex, and the first rappers Jay ever saw perform), as well as Kam and Ras Kass. Having become a Hip-Hop Head largely through West Coast Gangsta Rap, I was hungry for a new voice, especially one detached from the Death Row/Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg/Ice Cube family tree. Jay Rock had only two records out, “Killa Cali” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) and “That’s My Word,” but we still had plenty to discuss.
When we spoke, Jay Rock was less than two months past his 20th birthday. In his young age, he had already reportedly coordinated a peace agreement between G-Unit’s exiled artist The Game and its new de facto West Coast gang-banger, Spider Loc. Rock had that raspy voice and deadpan delivery when he spoke, with an intensity of a guy who was brought up around older Heads. “A lot of people is scared to go to through Watts,” he told me, detailing it as “one of the most gutterest, grimiest cities there is. Watts is the place where crack was at an all-time high, homicides was at an all-time high, that’s where it goes down at.” More than five years before Follow Me Home would be an all-access tour in audio, Training Day famously captured the nucleus of Watts’ one-way-in, one-way-out housing projects. Back in 2006, Jay Rock was looking for his pathway out but was relentlessly set on taking his homies, his city, and TDE with him.
Just days after that chat, Watts Finest, Vol. 1 released with a DJ Skee cosign. YG made his first appearance on that tape (“Ready For War”). Future label president Punch in addition to then-TDE act Bo also appeared on the project. On a staggering seven out of the 19 cuts, an MC named K-Dot played the hungry feature role. No one outside TDE and the artist’s families could have predicted what was seeding on that tepid tape. Today, the industry beats, the slang, and the mere idea of a sprawling digital/physical freebie feel antiquated. What is telling about WF1 is Jay Rock’s commitment to consistency.
In an era when rapping about jewelry and creating catchy, instructional dances was a surefire green-light to the top, Jay’s music focused on the color-coded streets of Greater Los Angeles, the open-air drug market, and the life-and-death survival tactics of just being 20 and Black in a city storied for police profiling and institutional pass-over. The no-frills reality-rooted approach to music-making was in the vein of Compton’s Most Wanted, Spice-1, and those aforementioned Watts O.G.’s. like Kam and the late Flipside.
Jay Rock stayed the course as part of a Warner incubator that also included Wiz Khalifa and Strong Arm Steady. The partnership would not yield the fruit that Jay and TDE had hoped for. However, it possibly allowed the rapper to hone his craft in Top Dawg’s TDE Red Room Studio with some seed money. To his credit, Jay Rock missed few opportunities. He quietly appeared on a posthumous and commercially successful Tupac album—who with Busta Rhymes, is a top inspiration. Rock followed with an assembly line of mixtapes and appearances on projects by others. By 2008, he released “All My Life (Ghetto),” featuring Lil Wayne and will.i.am. The corresponding music video with Weezy front-and-center featured Jay looking confident, comfortable, and ready for the spotlight on his biggest stage to date. Kendrick Lamar was there, waiting in the wings, along with cameos from Ab-Soul and fellow Watts representative (and then Wayne protégé Glasses Malone).
Sadly, in 2008, mainstream Hip-Hop did not seem as ready for Jay Rock—even with the Midas touch of Rap’s reigning superstar prominently in the song and video, and a Black Eyed Pea at the chorus. The record did not chart, and the MC returned to the abyss of Rap hopefuls, just as he played in the video, mailing his demo.
I caught up with Jay Rock next in early June of 2011. I was a guest of Strange Music in Kansas City for a Tech N9ne homecoming on the All 6’s & 7’s Tour. Jay Rock, now partnered with Strange and TDE, was on the cusp of releasing Follow Me Home. Riding in a convoy of Strange-wrapped Chevy Suburbans to the venue with the staff (including former Warner Bros. Head of Publicity, Richie Abbott), I heard the album weeks ahead of release. From the chest-thumping “Code Red” to the lyrical gymnastics of “Hood Gone Love It,” the LP captivated. “Tell ’em it’s a celebration, b*tches / With the barbeque pits and the mini-bikes / Mini-skirts, Hennessy’s, and the Miller Lites / Domino tables, who got big 6? / Where I’m from we do concrete backflips,” spit Jay. The imagery and conviction of his raps was still the focal point, with much-improved delivery and interplay with the beat. Just as another MC named Jay described his Brooklyn with specificity, Rock detailed getting his hair braided in Watts’ epicenter, drug trafficking, and lacing infants with superficial status symbols. My colleague and I passed along the compliments to J.R. over a pre-concert dinner. Just as he was at 20, 25-year-old Jay Rock was polite, thoughtful, but a man of very few words. Instead, Jay watched, he listened, and he anticipated all around him. Hours later, the MC performed album highlights before an embracing Midwest audience at the Midland Theater.
The album would follow, just weeks after Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80. While Jay Rock had a far more impressive chart debut, K-Dot’s 2011 would be a launchpad to Dr. Dre and year-end best-of lists through his digital LP. ScHoolboy Q and Setbacks, along with Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality found their way to the charts. 2011 opened the valve for TDE to set a prime example in a new era of technology, content, and music consumption. There was an audience for thoughtful, innovative Gangsta Rap—and the middle-men of labels and media suddenly were irrelevant. The walls that Jay Rock had been chiseling for more than five years were crumbling. The other three artists in Black Hippy, who had been patient players in the movement, could breach the promised land.
Even if it was not as TDE may have planned it, just as Kendrick was there for Jay throughout the ’00s, Black Hippy’s quiet big brother returned the favor. J.R. provided early-Wu-Tang-levels of support for his fraternity of talent. He went on the road and rocked opening sets, laid out features, and attended interviews and photo shoots. Members of the media covering what’s hot overlooked the quiet guy in the corner or dismissed him as TDE’s next hopeful. J.R. played the humble position in a collective rooted in trusting the process. He would also be there for Isaiah Rashad, after the overnight Tennessee sensation would go from no social media imprint to a mixtape in the Top 40.
2015 was a return to form for Jay Rock, who was the first TDE artist co-signed by Dr. Dre. His 90059 album pleased eager fans and broke into the Top 20. However, without a song in constant radio rotation, his biggest moments would remain as full or partial Black Hippy formations. Moreover, just months into marketing and promoting the album, Jay Rock was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. In the shadows of The D.O.C.’s tragedy during the days before his role building Death Row, Jay Rock was more than lucky. The MC knows this, as he’s spent nearly two years recovering, and readying for something bigger than before.
As 2018 gears up for a Championship run, the exposure and recognition of TDE’s longest tenured artist may create the perfect atmosphere for Jay Rock’s third album. More importantly, the exposure and recognition set a stage for the O.G. of the clique to finally get his award tour.