By now, just about everybody in rap knows Top Dawg Entertainment, but they may not understand the full story behind the imprint. Billboard magazine takes a deeper look at "The Tale of Top Dawg" as told through the stories of key label players, including Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolBoy Q (who are featured on the magazine's cover), label president Terrence "Punch" Henderson" and founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith.
TDE won over the rap world by staying authentic, especially when it comes to L.A.'s gang culture, drug use and more. These topics don't make for your typical hit singles and chart-topping albums, yet TDE has found a way to maintain an independent feel and still bring in mainstream sales figures. The winning strategy was birthed from a bad deal with Warner Bros. Records. "We thought the label had all the answers," said Henderson. "After that, we said, 'OK, we're going to the streets, straight to the people, and skipping the middleman.'"
Ironically, Tiffith started TDE as a way to escape street-life. With the example set by his uncle, who previously managed R&B singer Rome, he got the label off the ground. Jay Rock was the first to sign. "I was out here dodging bullets and the police, and he had Bentleys and a big house. I thought, 'S--t, I can't go to jail doing music – let me try that, " he explained to Billboard.
Ten years, seven Grammy nominations and a platinum-plus selling album later, and TDE has turned itself into a leader among a sea of rap labels. They've expanded to include singer SZA and rapper Isaiah Rashad and can expect a No. 1 chart entry from Q's Oxymoron release. The 27-year-old's long-awaited major label debut clocked more than 20,000 pre-orders and forecasts of first week sales are coming in at 150,000-160,000 units.
In the magazine, Tiffith credits Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine with laying a blueprint for where he wants to take TDE. Dre has amassed a multimillion dollar fortune over more than two decades, lessons of which Tiffth picked up on. "He [Dre] took me to his house," Tiffith recalled. "When he showed me his backyard, I was like, 'What the f--k? You could see the whole city from there! Looking at that view, Dre said, 'Man, you can get this. I came from Compton, you came from Watts; work hard, and this can be yours.' But it's not about money with Dre: He just does it for the love, which was the most inspiring thing of all. When you do s--t for the love, that's when you get your best s--t."
Time will tell if TDE is able to maintain their stronghold on rap. From the looks of it, the label has no plans of slowing down. They plan to drop six projects in 2014 alone, including Lamar's next release this September.
The TDE Billboard issue is available for online purchase now.
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(Photo: Billboard Magazine)