VIBE: In your wildest dreams did you ever think TDE would get to this point?
Top Dawg: “Man, it’s crazy, when I [used to watch] Uncle Mike (Tiffith’s uncle is rap mogul pioneer Michael Concepcion), I was like Man, this nigga getting so much money, I want to try music. It was this producer named Demetrius Shipp [who] was going through some issues, so he hollered at me. Me and a few of my niggas rode down to get his money for some shit he produced. Me and him kind of partnered up where he was using my studio because it was just sitting there. He was using the studio but I was off doing what I was doing, hoping that he might strike gold and I could cross over. When I did decide at the end of ’04, early ’05 to really mess with the music, I had the dream of it being [this big]. This took me by storm, though. This nigga first record is platinum. I knew that Kendrick could be the biggest kid in the game. Honestly when I heard him at 16 [with] the knowledge that he had, I knew he would be big.”
It’s amazing to see Kendrick remain so humble after all the success. What did you see in him initially?
“When he first came to the studio… I put him in the booth and put this double time beat on, trying to throw him off. He went in there and started going off! So I’m trying to play like I’m not paying attention. He notices I’m not moving and starts going crazy. So I look up and I’m like, “God damn. He’s a monster.” So the next day I had a contract for him [Laughs]. “
You’re a West Coast guy who’s well-respected in the street. Now you’re a respected music executive. How were you able to make the transition?
“Really, just hard work, learning lessons as we go [and] our whole situation at Warner Bros. with Jay Rock (Jay Rock was signed to Warner Bros. in 2006 and released with masters in 2010). Jay Rock is pretty much our guinea pig. When [TDE] first got signed to a label, I thought we was on our way. Going through all that bullshit taught us how to really win.”
What are the lessons you learned from the Warner deal?
“One thing I learned is don’t chase radio or follow the artists that the label follows. If it’s hot, that’s what they’re on. They make me fuck up my acts ’cause I’m telling them to follow that when they should be doing their own thing. Two, don’t depend on nobody else to things for you. The label is there, but they don’t know shit ‘cause they not in the streets. Spinning out of the WB situation, we realized that the Internet was really becoming big and that became our focus.”
You and Jay Rock are both from Nickerson’s. Did you know him before he was rapping?
“I wasn’t really familiar with Jay Rock because it’s like a 15-year age difference. When I decided to really start messing with this music, [I began] looking for artists. One of the homies said, “You need to check out Jay Rock.” I heard his name because he was messing up. A lot of times I like to talk to the young homies: I been through all this bullshit you been through. Cut this shit now. I wind up chasing Jay Rock down in the hood. He seen me a couple times and tried to go the other way ‘cause he think I’m fixing to discipline him. Then one time I catch him on the porch getting his haircut and his eyes got so big like, He got me. I said, “Yo, you can rap, I need you at the studio tonight.” We went from there.”
You have artists from different, sometimes rival, neighborhoods that didn’t know each other. Was there ever conflict?
“It was a little tension with Kendrick and Jay Rock early on because our hoods were going at each other. They didn’t know how to react. With me being the big homie [I would advise them]: “You guys can bridge the gap between the hood, because y’all can speak to the world now.” You can get some money and change all this gangbang shit.”
How much did your uncle help you with the music business?
“Uncle Mike helped me with pretty much all of this. I watched him do music, so it made me think, that’s a way out. I watched him in the streets; I wanted to do that. He had all the fancy cars, the houses, the hoes; he had everything that inspired me. He taught me so many things.
Some funny shit, when I was in the 9th grade, he came to our house and he was pimping. He left a hoe at the house with me and I’m 14-years-old, a horny devil, trying my best to get that girl [Laughs]. But when I talked to him he said, “You don’t need no girl like that.” I took all the lessons that I learned from him and applied it to this hustle in music. He wasn’t hands-on with what I’m doing, but what I learned from him taught me how to navigate through this shit.”
You’ve won with simple-man principals. How has an upstanding guy like you prospered in an industry with the fake?
“Honestly, coming up, I ran into so many fake nigga’s promises that it just made me more determined to win without nobody. A lot of the same people who gave us the fake bullshit call me now and I remind them of the time when I asked them for something and it never happened. To me your word is everything. So many people can’t handle the truth. They be like, “Top, you changed.” Nah, I’m just keeping it real. I’m the same nigga sitting at the Lakers game. My number been the same for 15 years. So if you my homie, don’t call me and ask can Kendrick do something on somebody I never heard of’s [project]. Don’t be offended if I tell you it’s not good. Didn’t nobody hand this to me. If you want something, bring me the next big thing; bring me some hot beats; do something. Don’t just call me like “What you gon’ do for me?” You not my kid.”
What can we expect from Schoolboy Q’s major label debut, OxyMoron?
“OxyMoron is about to be a real problem. Q sits back and watches what Kendrick does…so he’s already got his game plan. For a minute, I was on his head like, You need to do this, do that, but I’ve been riding to it lately and that shit is sick. The fans are gonna get an album they can ride straight through. It’s gonna be just like GKMC or better.”
TDE is the first West Coast label in a long time to produce quality music and success similar to Death Row’s. What do you feel are the similarities and differences between the two?
“I respect Suge for what he’s done in music. He had the coast booming. They had a star roster; I think I have a star roster. Shit was a lot wilder back then and I think shit got a little out of control in certain situations. I try to stay calm; I try not to have the big entourage because sometimes when people see so many dudes moving they want to challenge you. We got a lot of similarities, but we don’t club like they clubbed ‘cause you always got someone that want to come and try some shit. Then you have to put a demo down on somebody and then the following week you gotta put a demo down on his brother, then his cousin. It keeps going and brings negative attention. We had that attention early in the game with Jay Rock—everybody thought [we was] gangbanging. We couldn’t get no shows; everybody was scared for us to show up at events. We learned from that too.”
As the new exec on the block, do you ever get advice from the older guard?
“I like when people call and give me advice, but I still like to go my route. Baby called me and paid me some respect; I done talked with Diddy; me and Fif [50 Cent] have two- and three-hour conversations—he a real dude. He knows everything that’s going on.”
So what’s the ideal end game for TDE?
“I want to get Jay Rock, Soul, Q these platinum records and just sit back…Those are the four dudes that I been with forever and these are the dudes I want to see rich. Eight to ten years is a lot of time to be messing around with these niggas man. [I want] each of them to get they own label, branch out limbs from TDE.”
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