Been sitting on this one for too long. Figure Dre Day + a week before Kendrick’s two shows at Roseland here in NYC is as good of a time as any to get it up.
The below comes from a conversation with Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith about two weeks before good kid, m.a.a.d city hit retail that fed into a piece on Kendrick and TDE that ran in Billboard the week of GKMC's release.
I’d met the TDE team a few days before this call at 30 Rockefeller where they were shooting Kendrick’s television debut performing “Swimming Pools (Drank)” on Fallon. After the taping, the crew headed downtown for a quick in store appearance at the Soho Apple Store as part of the location’s ongoing interview series. Chuck Creekmur moderated, Ab Soul showed up and joined Kendrick for another quick performance of “Swimming Pools.”
The crew was hungry and it was getting late. We got separated in the scrum after the in-store and I headed back to BK with plenty of color already in the books. Top and I jumped on the phone a few days later and I really enjoyed our conversation. He’s an industry outsider who’s pushed through all of the setbacks and slammed doors to build the foundation of an empire, and I always find those types of success stories particularly inspiring.
He doesn’t seem to do a lot of interviews (at least not now/yet), which, while understandable, is still unfortunate because he’s been through a lot while navigating TDE to where it is today. With so many web-and-road-focused independent campaigns out there basically adopting and building on the back of what’s essentially the Rostrum/TDE model (rooted in the never stop, never rest blueprint sketched by mixtape Weezy), I’m sure there are a lot of folks who could gain a lot from his perspective.
Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:
You guys piled into the van and that was that.
All the fans bogging you down.
Yeah, I can’t go out in public.
I see working at Billboard does a lot for you, man.
So, first off, congrats on everything – it’s a long time coming. The music is fantastic, and the excitement is definitely there. I know you guys put in a lot of work over the years to get here, so congratulations. I just want to talk a little about the road getting here and where things are going from here. For some reason I didn’t quite know that you were producing R&B records at one point?
Yeah when I first started, I grabbed a producer and he produced some records on B2K. At that time, producers were getting a lot of money. I was just being a copycat – step on his toes, and get me some money, too. I ran around with him a little bit – ran into the B2K guys and we produced a few records for them.
So you weren’t really a producer, you were more a manager?
Exactly, yeah, yeah… I couldn’t make a beat to save my life man.
So in terms of your interest in music – was it you thought it would be a good decision business wise – this is a good hustle, I see what my uncle is doing – what was the motivation?
That’s exactly what it was. My uncle was making some good moves and he had some artists that was making a lot of noise – and it looked kind of easy. You wanna find someone who could rap or sing, and put the music out there. I thought it could be a couple of months – I could be on top of the game. I never really see myself working a 9-5, so I always had it in my mind that once I left the streets I’d have to find something quick and easy and I thought the music was that.
So your uncle – was he doing stuff that we might know? Who was your uncle?
Yeah he did a lot of stuff with Bobby Brown, Kirk Franklin – a lot of people. I don’t really want to put his name out there. He was doing a lot of work and making a boatload of money – so just seeing that, it looked so easy. I was there off the bat – I built the studio, never start working. I had it built for seven years before I even started messing with it. It was in my head automatically; once I finished doing whatever I was doing I was going straight to music.
Do you know about how much you put into that studio?
I put about $100,000 into it.
What I did was I had a house at home in Carson – I built a room on the back. I spent about $30,000 - $40,000 on the room and I spent about $50,000 – $60,000 on it quick.
And I’m mad right now, because I probably could go spend $15,000 – $20,000 and have everything I had back then.
So you sunk about $100K into the studio at the back of the house – and it sat there for a good seven years?
Yeah, I built it in ’97 and waited until ’04.
And 2004 was when you hooked up with the producer that got you placements with B2K?
Yeah his name was Demetrius Shipp – he had done a lot of work with Tupac and a bunch of other people – he had a lot of placements. I knew him; he used to have some issues some time. He wanted me to ride with him and talk to some folks about his business, and you know me; I’m an opportunist, so I said yeah. From that point on we were kind of partnering up, and I’m trying to manage this dude, and I don’t know what’s going on but I’m just thinking about collecting this money – let’s go collect this money, you know what I mean? I made a few dollars, which got me ready for bigger and better things – bigger and better opportunities.
About how old were you when you started working with the producer?
When I started working with Meech? 2004, that was eight years ago – I was young, I was real young.
Are you gonna tell me, or are you gonna keep that one close?
I’m gonna keep that one… I was young, man.
So you started working with him… You hooked up with Jay Rock around the way, right, and you guys start putting records out with him?
Yeah, what happened was – the thing with me and Demetrius, we’d done it for about a year and it kind of fell off. The street started getting hot. I was thinking it was time for me to focus on getting this music thing going, which I thought was going to be an overnight thing. I was looking for artists, and I heard one of the Jay Rock mix tapes. Me and Jay Rock from the same neighborhood, so I got my hands on some of his music, so I started looking for Jay Rock. He thinks I was trying to discipline him on some bullshit that he was doing, but really I was trying to find him to get him in my studio. Every time I’d try and find him, he’d break and run – thinking I’m coming around for the wrong reasons. But I finally caught him sitting on his porch and I told him – I got a studio, heard your music, let’s get you over and do some music. I got over there and locked him in the studio. You want to hear something funny, though? When he first got there, guess who was recording? Me! I tried to learn how to engineer a little bit. I knew once I decided to go the music route, I knew I had to learn something about the music, work Pro Tools a little bit, and record a little bit. Once Punch started locking himself in over there I showed him how to handle that and he took over from there.
So these days Punch does a lot of the engineering for you guys?
He started out doing a lot of the engineering you know, and then Derek Ali came around – he the mix master now.
So I talked to Punch earlier, and just got off the phone with Dave – heard about how everything went with Jay Rock, Warner, and how that situation unfolded. Can you talk a bit about that - just about how you guys built the opportunity for Jay to get the deal with Warner and what happened once he got the deal?
We went and worked on a few records and we met Naim Ali. I kept giving him music, and he was impressed - he saw that Jay Rock had some talent in him, and we brought him four songs and he loved them. The situation started there. He signed us up there at Warner Bros. We worked on an album…We finally got a record that we loved with Lil Wayne, Will.I.Am, produced by Cool and Dre. It was going crazy, up to about 700, 800 spins a week. The new guys came in and they just shitted on our record. They came in, brought in Gucci Mane, [and] the other rap dude that was saying “Ay” all the time from Atlanta. They didn’t have no love for Jay Rock or what we were doing – they just shitted on our record. Me and Punch flew out to New York and asked for a release and we got out of that situation. We learned a lot from our situation. They really shut us down, we really felt like we were on our way.
Can you talk about your learning curve with the industry? Like you said, you just got in and it’s not like you studied music or the industry necessarily. Can you talk about what you’ve learned along the way?
One of the main things is to keep doing what we do. Don’t depend on nobody else in this business, don’t let them change up what we doing. You always got to stick to our guns, and just keep pushing hard with what we doing. Whatever deals that they bring to the table extra is cool, but if we do what we plan, and work our plan the way we work it, we can win, you know what I mean? It’s not really to trust the words of everybody – we ran into so many people that said they were gonna do this, do that, and you think people are going to come through, but they don’t – and you get a lot of disappointment that way. The main thing to me is staying focused and doing our thing – don’t let anyone else control you. As long as we do us, we good. We learned that from the Warner situation. We went in and signed a deal – we thought the label was going to make everything else happen. And we got a little lazy and laid back a little bit, you know? But after that situation, we had a meeting and we told each other, Hey we are going to control our own destination. We are going to keep pushing and make everyone come to us.
Obviously you don’t get a record with Wayne, and with Cool and Dre, with Will.I.Am without a lot of work. So it must have been…to watch that record rise – I know you were pushing to get that in front of people, and to get it on radio and everything, and then to watch it all disappear, it must have been incredibly frustrating.
Man, it kind of like broke my heart. You work so hard to get somewhere, and then you finally feel like you’re there and they say, No that’s not it. Because at the time we got Wayne, he had just sold over a million copies in one week. Out of the love he had for us, he gave us the track for free, [like] “Here you go Top Dawg, you know I fuck with y’all, get this record for y’all.” Punch, Jay Rock, Kendrick flew out of town… we took months to get this done. They stayed in the studio all night while Wayne knocked out 20 verses waiting to get our shit done. Then I had to make a phone call, it finally got done. When it got back to me, we couldn’t find the Wayne verse. Everything was just crazy and when we finally got it right, we thought this is it, hottest niggas in the game, hottest producers. And guess who stopped us? It was crazy.
And the deal with Jay Rock and Warner – that was a standard artist deal?
Yeah, it was a standard artist deal.
So you come out of that meeting…thinking we’re not doing this again (laughs). And you start working it heavy independent. Can you talk a bit about where you think you were doing things right? And where you needed to get better?
I think we made all of our fuck ups during the time at Warner Bros. And we learned towards the end when we saw them fucking up, we started picking up the slack. The main thing was the Internet. It kind of levels the playing field, you know? We can’t go compete with them on radio, but can’t nobody stop us from putting it up on the Internet. So our whole thing was to make good music, keep putting it out there, keep promoting, get some visuals up on the ’Net. And everything started working out. We had built a little momentum with Jay Rock, people had started to know who he was. That situation with Warner, it fucked us but it still helped us, and I do appreciate the opportunity that Naim gave us. Through Jay Rock, we still touched and we travelled and we kind of got our name out there. It was easy getting on that ’Net and just working because I had the right artist that just loved to work. These dudes wanna be in the studio, they wanna work, they wanna win. And they like me: I go hard, man. I went crazy on these dudes to show them this is how bad I want this. And they got this understanding. They want it as bad as I did, and that’s what made it happen, that hunger. We got to go out there, we gotta work ourselves, ain’t nobody gonna do shit for us. The producer Sounwave and all these guys in there making the beats. We start making great music, getting these videos up. I think actually I probably shot our first video with a little camera… Matter of fact, me and Kendrick in the studio shooting a video. Everybody had nine jobs, doing everything we can to win. And that’s what made us a strong family. We all know what each other needs, and it just worked. People saw what we were doing, followed up on that, they respected that and they started supporting us.
Right, that’s great. And you can see that. You were saying Dave shot videos, and you shot videos… I was like, Dave does everything, man.
I mean, everybody, man. Even if we on tour, you might see one of them dudes selling merch. We a family, and we know ain’t nobody gonna pick the slack up like we do. When you’re working for yourself, you go harder. We got a tight knit family. It’s hard to bring anyone in, because we’ve built this thing over the past eight years. We all know each other. I’m the warden over there at this penitentiary, who keeps these 10-12 dudes in there and they know, I put these dudes in the hole for the week so they do what they do.
I hear you.
It’s a good thing. I don’t try to be like, I’m Top Dawg, this is how it should go. I do that at certain points, but really it’s like, these guys can override me on shit. Sometimes I’m not on point with everything. I’m still learning today. All this shit is still new to me. We all on certain decisions, it’s a team thing. They out vote me on shit. It’s going to go the way they voted. The key to them respecting me is me respecting them. Everybody knows I’m not the dude that’s gonna say it’s this way or no way. You got a lot of dudes that go that way, but that builds hatred in the camp and it bubbles up later on down the line. With us, six, seven, eight years and no hatred.
We fight sometimes, but no issues that bubble outside.
With you, do you talk to anyone outside the camp who you get advice from, perspective from, or insight from?
There’s a few people I talk with. I used to talk to Jay Brown a lot, and he used to give me advice. Recently, I’ve been talking to the elite now. I’ve been on the phone with 50 Cent for two, three hours; I talked to my man Baby. They pretty much give me the insights on a lot of shit. Both of these guys have been in the game for a long time, sold a lot of records. I respect their opinion on certain things, but I called my uncle, too. He gave me a lot of info on the game, too. I’m always trying to learn something. Once you stop learning, then it’s over with, you know? It’s crazy, like, these guys… before I really started doing the music, it’s always the stuff I rode with and fucked with, and for these dudes to advise me on certain things, or to call me? That makes me feel a certain way. Getting that respect from these guys, that’s really holding their own. Birdman’s been doing this for years, and you know, it’s a good feeling, makes me feel like I’m doing something right.
No, I hear you. It’s a testament to what you guys have built. It’s undeniable at this point.
The craziest thing is we not satisfied. We not where we wanna be yet. Even though people look at us and tell us, y’all are on top, or whatever. But we know it’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve done a lot but we haven’t sold records. This is our real first release, that’s some real serious shit. This is gonna set the tone for TDE.
How do you feel going into that? Is there any anxiety, or is it just bold confidence?
Just confidence and excitement, man. I got so much faith in this little dude Kendrick. Everybody used to say that was my little pick or whatever, because he’s always been on point. I think he was born to do this. Everything comes naturally to him. He’s always been a team player. He sat back to let Jay Rock do what he was gonna do, instead of being impatient at a young age. If he had a record that was crazy, and I told him I wanted it for Jay Rock, he never argued. He said it was the best thing to do. At a young age, 16-17 years old? Man I wanted everything. If you had told me to give something great to someone else, we would have been fighting. But with him, when I first met him, when he first rapped for me, I tried to play like I wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t doing shit, but this nigga was rapping his ass off. And that day I knew he was a star. I think I gave him a contract the next day. Normally I try to wait it out to see if I can do something for somebody, but I said I had to sign this nigga right now. His overall talent man, he the best rapper alive. -BMI-