Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Top Dawg Entertainment's Anthony Tiffith tell the full story of how L.A.'s unexpected indie label rewrote rap's rules
It doesn't exactly look like the place that so recently has launched the next generation of hip-hop superstars. Indeed, the Top Dawg Entertainment recording studio - christened the House of Pain and located in the back of a family-style home on a nondescript cul de sac dotted with manicured lawns in Carson, Calif. - has a sweat-box vibe: VHS tapes, dusty CD cases, Taco Bell wrappers and half-empty Gatorade bottles litter the stained carpet; the panel walls suggest a suburban rec room, except for the handwritten messages tacked to them that mix hip-hop tough love with inspirational business motivation.
"The ability to move people through words is a gift like nothing else," one reads. Another references the 2000 shooting that transformed 50 Cent's life: "Charisma/personality/swagger: Believe it or not, 50 being shot in the mouth area gave him more style and personality."
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But however modest it looks, this is where Kendrick Lamar's 2012 critical and commercial phenomenon good kid, m.A.A.d city and this year's most eagerly awaited rap release, ScHoolboy Q's Oxymoron, were cultivated. It remains home base to TDE, hip-hop's most influential, white-hot independent label today. Currently, the 10-year-old endeavor has staked out a unique position in the music industry: Without giving up its independent spirit or strategy, TDE has latched on to major-label resources from Interscope and released two game-changing chart-toppers. It has done so carefully, after an initial major-label experience with Warner Bros. that went sour during a label shake-up. "We thought the label had all the answers," says Terrence "Punch" Henderson, co-president of TDE. "After that, we said, 'OK, we're going to the streets, straight to the people, and skipping the middleman.' " Everyone talks about keeping it real while gunning for major success. But with Q's Oxymoron on track to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, you might say TDE has found a way to have its cake and keep it real, too.
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The TDE story starts a decade ago, when Anthony Tiffith built the House of Pain. At the time, Tiffith - whose nickname is Top Dawg - was looking for a way out of the street life of Watts, his tough Los Angeles neighborhood. He bought recording equipment with the idea of working with local talent, and Top Dawg Entertainment began to take shape. "Every guy from the streets has the same story: There comes a time when you have to get out of that world," says Tiffith. "I lost a lot of friends, saw a lot of partners locked up. When things got kinda hot, I had to find something else to do." One of Tiffith's uncles had found success managing R&B singer Rome, whose 1997 single "I Belong to You (Every Time I See Your Face)" peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100. "I was out here dodging bullets and the police, and he had Bentleys and a big house. I thought, 'Shit, I can't go to jail doing music - let me try that.' "
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF PAIN
TDE's first signing was a local Watts rapper, Jay Rock. "I'm Jay Rock's big homie - we're from the same project," says Tiffith. "When I started looking for artists, here was a guy right in my backyard that sounded great. At the time, Jay was doing a lot of the shit I was doing back in the day. He used to run from me, but I finally caught him getting a haircut on a porch in the projects. I parked around the corner, ran up and grabbed him. He said, 'What did I do, man?' I said, 'I want to take you to my studio - you can rap like a motherf-er.' " Another neighborhood kid to capture Tiffith's attention was a teenaged Lamar. At the time, Lamar called himself "K. Dot" and still was in the process of developing his skills. "It was just me and my partner Dave [Free, now TDE's co-president], making little mixtapes in the garage," recalls Lamar, 26. "I was 16 and just having fun."
As such, when Lamar entered the House of Pain, he discovered it was more about work than good times. Free, 27 - who attended high school with Tiffith's son - actually introduced Lamar to TDE's majordomo, sneakily playing an early Lamar mixtape while Free pretended to fix Tiffith's computer. On their first meeting at TDE's studio, Tiffith ran young Lamar through his trademark talent test: "I told Kendrick to get on the mic and flow over some beats I chose. I like to make rappers spit over double-time beats to try to stumble their ass up - but he was rapping like a motherf-er! I tried to act like unimpressed, but that made him go even harder. He stepped up, and we've been rocking together ever since."
The four young MCs Tiffith had brought into TDE's nascent roster - Lamar, Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock - quickly made the House of Pain their home away from home: Tiffith fed his growing crew, giving them a place to live and make music. They in turn took the opportunity seriously, looking at it as something between a job, a dream come true and a way out. Rock had been incarcerated for gang-related activity, but now he found himself voluntarily imprisoned by Tiffith in the vocal booth. "If it wasn't for Top Dawg, I wouldn't be doing this," says the 27-year-old. "We came from the same neighborhood, and he made it out. I was just a kid from the projects running wild, and he took me off the streets and put me in the studio. I've been there ever since."
Says Lamar: "When you come from the struggle of the streets, you want to do something different. Top Dawg was an OG from the projects who'd been there and done that but then went on to build something so positive. That was important to all of us."
SCHOOLBOY Q: TDE'S NEXT SUPERSTAR
In some ways, the TDE story - combining new-school Internet grinding via free mixtape downloads and social-media savvy with old-school hustle to develop audiences - proves typical of independent hip-hop over the past decade. But no label has had a greater artistic or commercial impact on current urban music than TDE. That impact became clear after Top Dawg partnered with Interscope and Dr. Dre's associated Aftermath imprint to put out Lamar's major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. A concept album about the battle between the street and the heart, good kid went on to sell 1.2 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and earned Lamar seven Grammy nominations - though he won none. Losing the best rap album Grammy to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' The Heist surprised even Macklemore himself, who texted Lamar an apology - "You got robbed. I wanted you to win" - then posted it on Instagram for all the world to see. "That text surprised me, but Macklemore is a genuine dude," reflects Lamar. "However it panned out, I wish him much success. He touched people's souls, and no one can take that away. Really, the whole Grammy moment was incredible. Not everyone gets that shot."
Up next in line, however, is ScHoolboy Q, whose first TDE/Interscope release, Oxymoron, is projected to sell more than 150,000 in the week after its Feb. 25 release. "It's crazy - we actually imagined this moment together in that little studio years ago, and now that day is here, " says Lamar. "Seeing Q come up right behind me and smash in real life is great. If my success gave him more security to do what he does, I'm happy."
At a Los Angeles listening party for Oxymoron a week before its release, Q, 27, seems like he already has arrived. He's decked out in the couture-meets-streetwear mufti that defines current hip-hop success: zipper-striped Givenchy camo fishtail parka, fedora, black jeans and gray-and-black Jordans. Behind Q's preppy dark shades, though, are eyes as exhausted as they are blunted: He rushed here straight from the airport from a run of promo in Chicago and clearly is struggling with the effects of too many flights in too short a time period. "I wore this two days ago," he says in his distinctive South Central drawl, tugging on his coat. "The only thing I did was change my drawers," he adds, laughing. "I can't walk around with nasty drawers! But there's a whole lot more to do - I've been grinding."
Says Free, whose iPhone is never far from his ear: "It's been a f-in' ridiculous week - a lot of media stuff, flying around, in-stores, sitting in front of a computer, planning everything." All that hustle around Oxymoron already is bearing fruit: Henderson, 31, reports that coming into release week, Oxymoron was even outpacing Lamar's initial good kid numbers: "To date, ScHoolboy's sold 24,000 on pre-order, where Kendrick's whole pre-order run was only 17,000."
Oxymoron may turn out to be 2014's most brutal, uncompromising chart success. It teems with sonically eerie, unrepentant gangbanger tales - albeit with the lyrical depth and rich musicality that's a TDE trademark. Oxymoron's first track, "Gangsta," provides a manifesto for the record: "F- rap, my daddy's a gangsta," Q's 4-year-old daughter, Joy, intones at the intro, before he starts rhyming about how his "grandma showed me my first strap." Says Tiffith: "ScHoolboy is gangsta. When he first told me that story, I was like, 'Your grandmother gave you your first gun? Really? I'm scared of your grandma - I'm going to make sure your contract is right!' "
Born on a military base in Germany, Q (real name: Quincy Hanley) ended up in Los Angeles' crime-ridden South Central area when his mom moved there after splitting with his father. A graduate of Crenshaw High School - made infamous in the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood - Q initially earned his nickname because of academic success but eventually gave up grade-grubbing for gangbanging. Joining his local Hoover Crip set, he quickly expanded to drug dealing, as made clear in "Prescription/Oxymoron," a chilling seven-minute confessional that is the centerpiece of Oxymoron. With unsentimental precision, the song details how Q went from selling OxyContin to becoming an addict himself. "I say in the song, 'I had a ball selling [OxyContin] 80s, but yo, the karma's worse,' and that's true," he says. "Once I was done dealing, I got addicted to Xanax and Percocets. My past came back to haunt me."