Terrence “Punch” Henderson is experiencing his third reinvention. As rapper, filmmaker and president of independent label Top Dawg Entertainment, Punch describes this moment as doing something that he’s never done before in the music business. After helping the Black Hippy crew — Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul — reach the top of the rap game as solo acts and getting SZA to superstar status, he’s looking to duplicate his previous success with his latest endeavor: the hip-hop collective A Room Full of Mirrors.
With Punch quarterbacking the project, ARFoM consists of Punch dropping free gems alongside talented lyricists: Daylyt, Nick Grant, Lyric Michelle, Ichiban Don, Billymaree, Jrias Law, Earlee Riser and producer Hari.
Hit play on the collective’s forthcoming visual EP — due Dec. 3 — and each artist gets their chance to shine. Inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 classic heist film Reservoir Dogs, the visual (titled Money Bags) follows the collective suiting up for a robbery and throwing down lyrically in front of the camera. While their voices and styles mesh sonically as a unit, Punch is quick to stress, “This is not a group. This is literally a collective and everybody’s an individual artist.”
Days after hosting an intimate screening of Money Bags in Compton, Calif., Punch hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss the collective’s formation, the cinematic inspiration behind the EP and the future of TDE.
Tell me A Room Full of Mirrors’s origin story.
Room Full of Mirrors came about [while I was] actually working on my solo album. This was around the time we had just finished SZA’s CTRL Tour, so I had a little bit of idle time. I started finishing my album, and then some of the artists that are part of the collective had just started coming around. I knew all of them individually — so they would hang out, listen to the music, and some of them would add stuff to it. Then everybody started crossing paths within those sessions. It was to a point where my album was done and we was just in the studio. So I decided to record a song to see how it would come out with everybody on it.
You have a proven track record when it comes to recognizing talent and putting the right folks together on a track. In your eyes, what does each member contribute to the collective?
Daylyt is a pure lyricist, alien-like. Nick Grant is the same way, like the way he uses his metaphors. And you have Willie B, the Ichiban Don, who’s equally a producer and an MC, so he hears the music completely differently and his voice melts into the track. So his voice and approach was always better for the song. Then you have Jrias [Law], who’s pure passion. He brings the heart and the soul to the record. He’s almost like a method actor. Then you have Lyric Michelle, who’s talented and super creative all the way around. She’s a lyricist first, but then she’ll sing and might do some background [vocals]. She [also] directed the film.
We got Earlee Riser. He’s a different case, because he was still finding his voice when we started. So a lot of times he’d be in the background chilling — but we had this one song [where] he came out of his shell and found his voice as far as MCing and singing. Then Hari with the production, and Billymaree sings and raps as well. So it’s like everybody brings a completely different thing to the table, and I just want to utilize those things properly.
Did you have the vision for ARFoM first before building the collective, or the other way around?
Nah, it was the other way around. The name didn’t come about until later. It came about because we had a song called “Believer” and it got so deep and so personal. You start to realize that everybody is the same, even though everybody is so different and from all over the place, but they really reflecting each other. So it’s like, “Yo, I’m standing in a room full of mirrors.” It’s crazy.
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Watching the Money Bags film and hearing the EP, it’s evident that you’re a fan of movies, history and pop culture. What fueled the inspiration for both?
I think Lyric said it [during the screening] — but we are all filmmakers who know how to rap. Daylyt is a cinematographer, who shoots and edits videos. Lyric is a director and she edits. We all do different things outside of music, on the film side. It’s always interesting, because we approach it differently than a normal rap collective would — but the idea and the concept [for the film] was that I always wanted to do what happened before the robbery in [Quentin Tarantino’s film] Reservoir Dogs, and what could have possibly happened after. I even thought about trying to do it with Black Hippy before.
What made now the perfect time?
I think it was the understanding of film and just this collective of different people. If you look at the movie Reservoir Dogs, none of the people knew each other. They was all coming together for this one job. So this is kind of what this is and what it felt like. It was like a marriage.
Why did you decide to break up the visual into three chapters?
I think the songs [I chose] just fit a certain mood and a certain pattern. Like, the first chapter, “Nobody Dies” — everybody’s getting ready for what’s going on. The mood, the beat and the lyrics all match that theme. Then the second one, “Woah,” is more of a frantic pace. It’s a lot of moving around. So it’s kind of like that scene when the robbery happens, dude gets shot in Reservoir Dogs and they’re in the car, so it matched. Then the cool-down after, which is “West Side,” riding out. Chapter-wise, I love how Tarantino breaks up some of his films, and even how the stuff is not in chronological order. We even did that in [Kendrick Lamar’s debut] good kid m.A.A.d city.
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Do you feel like the collective is filling a void in the musical landscape that you’re not hearing from other artists right now?
I think what happens in music is the business. Like I said before, smart business is to duplicate what was successful. We’re doing what was the same principle at TDE: We don’t try to follow what’s popular. We follow what we feel, and that’s the only thing that dictates what we put out.
Are you keeping the collective separate from your TDE duties?
It’s tough to answer that, because I’m literally the same person in every single thing. So it’s really no separation with me outside of whatever the specific project is. I don’t have an alter ego.
It’s really one job for me, which is to learn and then to teach. So whether it be a business plan, rollout plan, creating a song, writing the song, it’s all the same thing. I’m learning and then I’m giving it back.
TDE is in a space now where the name is so recognizable that people know the type of quality to expect whenever Top Dawg releases a new project. With Kendrick producing his final TDE album, what does it mean for your partnership with Kendrick moving forward?
It’s a great thing, because he’s been signed to us for almost 20 years and we took it to heights to where he got a Pulitzer Prize. So it’s like, where do you really go at this point? He came in as a young man, and now he’s a grown man — and he has his own vision, his own dreams, and he has stuff that he wants to create. So that’s what he’s doing now. It’s how it’s supposed to be.
I think we paint it in our culture as a bad thing, but you raise your children to leave the nest so they can create their own and that’s how you continue. As far as the TDE side, we still doing what we do. We bringing in and developing new artists as we speak, and going to release [new projects]. So everything is positive and moving forward.
As far as everyone else on the roster, when will the new albums drop?
You’re going to hear from everybody within this next year coming up, for sure.