From the streets of Watts to a hip-hop empire

From the streets of Watts to a hip-hop empire

Photo Credits: Karl Ferguson Jr. From left to right: Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Ab Soul, and ScHoolboy Q together make up rap group Black Hippie.

The ascent of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and his generational group of artists

Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith is a familiar face in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He seemed to be everywhere in the community, from swap-meets to block parties to funerals. To many kids in the neighborhood, he was a paternal figure doling out advice and reprimanding kids when they slipped up. Tiffith comes from a background shaped by the Los Angeles gang scene. In 2004, at the age of 30, he decided his life was destined for change. Drawn to the artistry and business side of music, Tiffith founded a neighborhood record label — a space to cultivate budding talent and shepherd artists away from trouble.

In order to grow his label, Tiffith added Terrence “Punch” Henderson — part-time IKEA supply manager and part-time record producer — to the project. The nascent label’s first target was Johnny Reed Mckinzie Jr. a.k.a Jay Rock, a talented but unrefined twenty-year-old emcee with a rugged baritone from Tiffith’s Watts neighborhood. Tiffith surprised McKinzie at the barbershop, offering to pull him off the streets and put him in the studio. Mckinzie obliged and Top Dawg Entertainment was born. During the early days, TDE was built on ensuring the success of Jay Rock, eventually signing a co-deal with “Warner Brothers Music” to produce Jay Rock’s debut album “Follow Me Home.” Around this time, Tiffith also stumbled upon a once in a generation talent. 

Dave Free — a teenage disc jockey from the local high school — knew that Tiffith was the key to the music industry. In a brash and bold act that would end up changing not only the DNA of T.D.E. but of hip-hop forever, Free posed as a tech repairman to fix Tiffith’s computer to show off a mixtape from one of his close friends — a shy, but unabashedly confident 16-year-old going by the moniker “K.Dot.” Free slipped on the tape and began mindlessly tinkering with the computer to stall. Tiffith was struck by the tape and sensed the kid on the tape was cut from a different cloth. Tiffith added Free as a co-founder and struck a deal with Kendrick Lamar Duckworth — now the T.D.E. poster boy, and debatably greatest MC alive.

From a notoriety standpoint, T.D.E. didn’t truly take off until the formation of the Black Hippy group. The supergroup became the first to have all four members featured on the hip-hop publication XXL’s Top 10 Freshman Class and catapulted T.D.E. into the big leagues. Black Hippy, all in their early 20s and from Los Angeles County, is composed of Jay Rock from Watts, Kendrick Lamar from Compton, Schoolboy Q from South Central LA and Ab-Soul from Carson. Although Black Hippy never released a collective project, they frequently feature on each other’s albums and tour together. Combining heads gave them an opportunity to build off of each other musically and develop a lasting brotherhood. Their kinship has served them well, keeping them grounded and focused amid showbiz’s blinding limelight. 

As of recent, T.D.E. has taken a distinctive shift into rhythm and blues, signing talented up-and-coming artists like SZA and SiR. SZA’s album 2017 “Ctrl” made a name for her in the mainstream as the best young R&B artist. SiR, on the other hand, has flown under the industry’s radar but has nevertheless produced some of the more soothing, down-to-earth, groovy albums of the past two years with the 2018 record “November” and the 2019 composition “Chasing Summer.” These new artists take the pressure for the label off of Kendrick and Black Hippy and add to the palette of sound the label can deliver. These new influences work wonders for all involved as the hip-hop/rap side of the label collaborates and feeds off of the R&B side. This is evident in the more fluid, multi-dimensional tracks produced by the label like SiR’s “Hair Down” featuring Lamar as well as the critically acclaimed “Black Panther” soundtrack, whose creation was led by Lamar and Tiffith and features 7 T.D.E. artists. 

Top Dawg Entertainment has risen from relative obscurity in the early 2000s to one of the most dominant labels in the industry — often being referred to as the new Death Row Records, Suge Knight’s infamous record label that produced Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” When discussing the work T.D.E. has done to cultivate such a list of artists, those close to the record label refer to it as a family. T.D.E. always locally sourced artists — eight of the 10 are from Los Angeles County. T.D.E. puts its artists in the driving seat; giving them space to become inspired.  While speaking with Complex magazine, T.D.E. co-founder Terence Henderson discussed letting the music shape the business process, not the other way around. 

“The goal was to always touch people, so whatever came out of that was cool,” Henderson said. “We were going against the grain of what was popular. We did that every time.”

After 22 studio albums, two compilation albums, six extended plays, 17 mixtapes and more than 10 million records sold in the U.S. alone, T.D.E. and Tiffith are still bound deeply to their roots. In the wake of the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, Tiffith paid for the rent of over 300 Los Angeles families from the Watts neighborhoods Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens.

At the Legacy Leaders Spring Gala in Watts honoring the work of Tiffith, his son Brandon spoke on behalf of his father, reflecting on his father’s journey, his ambitions and his community.

“As a kid growing up in Watts, I always wanted to be a leader in this community,” Tiffith said. “Being able to reach out to community members in this area and being able to show kids what’s past these projects has always been my goal.”

T.D.E. is currently home to the pioneers of the hip-hop industry — bringing home Watt’s first Grammy Award winner under Jay Rock as well as the hip-hop world’s first Pulitzer Prize for literary excellence to Kendrick Lamar. Under the guidance of Tiffith, T.D.E. has brought honor and pride to the Watts community, and it’s safe to say he’s accomplished and exceeded his goal.

Written by: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org