If you could start a record label with one artist who would it be? Would you base your decision on their ability to sing, write, or dance? Some intangible, non-quantifiable quality? Their charisma? Regardless of who the artist is, there must be a keen eye for talent, noticing the metaphorical diamond in the rough before anyone else does. There has to be some willingness to fail, and a willingness to take risks. Will the risk always turn out well? Of course not. But, the goal is to be able to trust in the evaluation process that can help select artists with some level of consistency.
With the NBA draft just days away, teams will be asking themselves similar questions - which player(s) will alter the future of our franchise? Making calculated risks – because few players are guarantees – is the name of the game. Teams will employ a range of metrics, watch hours of film, consult with friends and family members, and much more – all in hopes of landing a player they will ultimately entrust with millions of dollars, and the future of their franchise.
Music, much like the NBA, relies on taking risks, failing, and adjusting to new circumstances. Both rely on an ability to see qualities in a person before someone else does, valuing people that have no apparent present value, and relying on a high level of innovation. Every artist won't pan out, just like every draft selection won't, but if calculated risks are taken, attention is paid to the evaluation process, and talent developed, the odds of success become greater.
After hearing a verse from Watts-native, Jay Rock, producer, Anthony Tiffith, better known as Top Dawg, sought out Jay Rock in hopes of working with him. Known for his tough demeanor, and having a past life as a hustler, Top Dawg had built a reputation as someone you don’t mess with. So, when Jay Rock heard that Top Dawg was looking for him, he quickly ran at every encounter – ducking and dodging what he thought was a bad situation. Then, the story goes, one day Jay Rock was getting a haircut, Top Dawg pulls up on Jay Rock while he’s in the barber’s chair, and Top Dawg explains that he was interested in working with Jay Rock – a sigh of relief.
After releasing his debut mixtape, Hub-City Threat: Minor of The Year, in 2003, Kendrick Lamar, then known as K-Dot, gained the attention of Top Dawg. Lamar, 15 at the time, impressed Top Dawg so much that he invited Kendrick to his in-home studio and told him to get in the booth and freestyle, essentially trying to verify if it was actually him that was rapping on the mixtape. Needless to say, it was actually Kendrick Lamar on the mixtape.
Jay Rock and Kendrick impressed Top Dawg so much that he signed them to his newly formed, independent label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE). Taking Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar under his wing, Top Dawg gave them access to his in-home studio, allowing them to work on their music, build skills, and hone their craft.
With two cornerstone artists in place, Top Dawg began expanding the roster to other local rappers – Ab-Soul in 2007, then Schoolboy Q in 2009. Putting out a constant stream of mixtapes, each artist created a grassroots movement, building their following – first in Southern California (Watts, Compton, Carson, Los Angeles) – then on the internet via blogs and digital retailers.
While talent, and the brand of TDE is well-respected today, the early days weren’t easy. Jay Rock, the flagship artist of early TDE, was trapped in a bad record deal, which ultimately stalled the release of his debut album, and made him somewhat of a sitting duck. But, instead of throwing Jay Rock to the side, Top Dawg continued to push Jay Rock. And while many of the mishaps with Jay Rock’s early career are unfortunate, they allowed for the young label-head, Top Dawg, to learn many of the needed lessons of the music industry.
It’s plausible to believe that Jay Rock’s early struggles allowed for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul to flourish, and later signee’s like SZA and Isaiah Rashad. With 4.72 percent of the overall market share in R&B/hip-hop this year to date, it’s also plausible to say that the once fledgling label has figured out a critical element to the music business: how to develop artists. The label now boasts 9 artists, a number of platinum albums, widespread critical acclaim, and the greatest rapper alive.
TDE’s willingness to take risks, attention to detail, and artist development has helped bolster the label, and fill out one of the most impressive label rosters in music. The success of the label has been such that it’s easy to consider them to be the champions of music’s current season.
It’s rare to see a label take its entire roster on the road, but TDE isn’t the average label. With releases from singer, songwriter, SiR and rapper, Ab-Soul, an upcoming release from Jay Rock, huge-commercial years in 2017 from SZA and Kendrick Lamar, and the team offering the soundtrack to this year’s biggest movie, Black Panther, TDE set out on The Championship Tour.
With banners hanging from the stage, and each member dressed in TDE, Nike branded sportswear, the idea of building a team isn’t just a metaphor – it’s meant to be taken literally. Top Dawg’s roster construction was built organically, selecting artists that he believed in, creating a winning environment, and paying keen attention to artist development.
Packing out venues across the United States and Canada, The Championship Tour is undoubtedly one of the staples of the summer’s music experience. Across each city and state, most of the venues selected to house the tour are Amphitheater’s, making the concert feel more like a music festival. Though the tour hit a bit of a hiccup at the end of May when singer, songwriter, SZA revealed that she had permanently injured her voice, being forced to leave the tour, the show continued on.
After attending The Championship Tour at Camden’s BB&T Pavilion, it didn’t seem like the tour missed a beat, with Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar serving as headliners. Backed by two large screens displaying a range of images and videos, each act held their own, and showed the diversity of the label’s sound. Jay Rock, performing music from his upcoming album, showed skill and performance presence, often embodying much of the charisma and bravado of West Coast Rappers prior. Schoolboy Q, an obvious fan favorite, electrified the stage, offering a level of energy that kept the crowd on their feet the entire time.
As smoke filled the stage, with flashing red lights, and the sound of car revving its engine – the audience awaited Kendrick Lamar. After a few (very long) minutes of built anticipation, the sound of Geraldo Rivera came through the speakers, criticizing Lamar for his music – but this only served as the opening to Lamar’s DNA. Lamar’s set took the audience through a catalog that encompasses a range of hits from good kid, m.A.A,d. city, to To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN., and The Black Panther soundtrack. Performing for an hour straight, Lamar’s catalogue felt relentless with hit after hit. Fan favorite’s Alright – a political war cry – and HUMBLE, sent the crowd into a frenzy, with Lamar stopping to let the audience finish the song with no music.
Over the course of the past 15-years, TDE has seen its share of hiccups and failures. But, the label has also seen a substantial amount of growth and success. For Top Dawg, the investment in a 15-year old Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock (currently sitting in the Top 5 on Apple Music) early on, platinum albums from Schoolboy Q and SZA, has seemingly paid off. The Championship Tour is just one example of a label head taking the long view, and showing off during the parade.