Kendrick Lamar Is Now A Part Owner Of His Record Company
Kendrick Lamar and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith have a different relationship than most label founders and artists. That was clear to any listeners of 2017’s “DUCKWORTH.,” a spellbinding revelation that these two had intertwining paths even ahead of Lamar’s 1987 birth. For the last 14 years, these two men from Compton and Watts, California respectively, have worked together in building something greater than themselves through Hip-Hop music. DAMN. is only the latest proof, in a Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) catalog that includes gems from ScHoolboy Q, SZA, Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, and the longest tenured artist, Jay Rock.
Acts on TDE seem to stay for the long haul, despite a fast-paced erratic industry. From Lil Wayne to Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre to Wiz Khalifa, some of the biggest artists in Hip-Hop have had problems with their executive counterparts, even during long and successful careers. That has not been the case with Kendrick and Top, and a new interview gives a glimpse as to why.
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In a Billboard feature story by Datwon Thomas, Kenny and Top Dawg sit down together to tell their story. The bond is apparent, whether it comes to Top cosigning that switching the rapper’s stage name to “Kendrick Lamar” sounded like an expensive cologne, or memories of budget a la carte fast food meals. Those were lean days, leading up to Jay Rock’s Warner Bros. deal in the mid-2000s, and beyond. Now, Billboard reports that TDE has 4.72% market share in a combined Hip-Hop/R&B silo. The studio started in Top’s home (he recalls blindfolding an engineer he brought over to set up the hardware as a security measure) has combated the labels that have long been in metropolitan skyscrapers and plush compounds.
However, the interview reveals that they are doing it differently than most. “People really don’t know that Kendrick owns a percentage of TDE,” says Top Dawg in the discussion. “The movie, the TV sh*t that we’re working on, Kendrick’s going to be [an] executive producer on whatever we do.” TDE has released four platinum certified albums and one (Kendrick’s 2011 Section.80 release) at gold. As ScHoolboy Q (TDE’s first artist with a #1) and SZA make top-selling, Grammy-considered albums, Lamar is in a rare position.
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For years, artists and managers have launched labels together, from Dr. Dre and Suge Knight at Death Row to Buckshot and Dru Ha at Duck Down. However, TDE did not begin with Kendrick. The label launched before Lamar was old enough to have a driver’s license. In a recent conversation with Drink Champs, LL Cool J revealed that he quietly received a piece of Def Jam Records during one re-negotiation period. Like Kendrick, L was an artist who helped Russell Simmons’ and Rick Rubin’s label succeed at critical stages.
Kendrick says of his mentor, “You don’t get too many people like him this side of the neighborhood. A lot of motherf*ckers want you to see them down just like them. Or don’t want you to come up like them. If it weren’t for him, I’d probably be sitting around with this motherf*cking money and face and platform and not doing sh*t because I didn’t have the proper guidance to know exactly what to do and how to inspire the next kid.” Meanwhile, Top says of his artist, “I trust his judgment, he trusts mine. Some sh*t I’m tripping on, he might call me and change my whole mind about it.”
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Notably, Top (who cites his uncle Mike Concepcion as a record executive mentor) clarifies a common misconception. TDE features Blood and Crip gang members on a Black-owned independent label, with distribution through Interscope and Dr. Dre. To many, that mirrors Death Row’s run in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the product of Watts’ Nickerson Gardens projects and former “hustler” bemoans knee-jerk comparisons to Compton’s Marion “Suge” Knight. “Have you seen any of his qualities in me? You’re not seeing me go crazy, beating on anybody, arrested every week. If they were talking about success, I would’ve been cool with that because he had great success. But they judge us brothers like that. They put us all in the same box,” he says. Knight is currently on trial for a murder that took place in 2015 at the same Compton landmark of Tams Burgers which has been featured in Kendrick Lamar’s visuals and lyrics.
Knight, who lost Death Row to bankruptcy in the last decade, has been critical of TDE. In 2014, he called Lamar’s and Compton rapper The Game’s record label contracts “two of the worst deals in the industry” while on The Arsenio Hall Show. Knight had previously boasted that Dr. Dre (who now works with Lamar on albums since 2012) forfeited all equity and master recordings when he abruptly exited Death Row in 1996. Additionally, Snoop Dogg titled an album The Last Meal, referencing Knight earning royalties far after the rapper left the label.
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Elsewhere in the comprehensive Billboard interview, Kendrick says the first Rap concert he ever attended was when he opened up for The Game in 2006 during The Doctor’s Advocate Tour, with Jay Rock. Meanwhile, Kendrick speaks to the importance of owning a studio. As opposed to be pressured by the cost of time, he said the freedom allowed TDE artists to find their voices and focus on quality.
#BonusBeat: This recent Last7 episode examines Kendrick Lamar’s confirmation that DAMN. is an album intended to be played forwards and in reverse order: