—by Kemet High
Starting a record label is like building a basketball dynasty; it takes an office full of people who are omniscient to technicalities, a demographic that will both love and support and, of course, the right pieces to get the franchise going before its reign to the top. Rap, like basketball, is naturally competitive in nature. Yeah, you have friends and associates who you respect and have probably came up with but, at the end of the day, there's only one spot for royalty and there are certainly no limits when it comes to knocking others off along the way. They say that the West Coast is for "showtime," right? Well, they've always come to play.
Death Row in the 1990s was like the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s; a franchise that was elite in both their presence and skill. No matter who was on the polarizing side, they would go on to acquire plaque after plaque, solidifying their name in history as some of the greatest to ever do it. The fire did simmer quite a bit after a couple of decades, but a new unsung hero would rise to the surface and take over the West Coast with banners: The Golden State Warriors. And if we're talking basketball and rap, let's not front like TDE aren't the Golden State Warriors of music right now.
About 15 years ago, Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith created Top Dawg Entertainment, signing Compton native, 15-year-old Kendrick Lamar who had California buzzing with his debut mixtape Youngest Head Nigga in Charge. Just one year later, TDE would sign another California king on the rise, Jay Rock. In 2008 and 2009, they added two more figures that would both expand and magnify a growing franchise that was just years away from dominance. As it stood, the collective of Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q would serve as the Mount Rushmore of the record label, and musically, boy, did they start cooking up. On each and every one of their individuals projects, was an appearance from one another. The unrivaled skill of all four California natives served as motivation and inspiration for the art, causing them to form Black Hippy, a rap group that came with that cassette tape and boom box rawness.
Seven years down the line, after condensed years of releasing solo mixtapes and fabricating musical chemistry between the Black Hippy coterie, TDE upped their weight class and signed a new joint venture with Interscope and Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment. Taking this back to the court, the best way to describe how they approached their competition was with complete and utter mismatches. The most attention was diverted after the label's first project release since the new joint venture. After going triple-platinum, good kid, M.A.A.D. city precedingly earned five Grammy nominations, and solidified Kendrick Lamar as hip-hop's new Rookie of the Year. Top Dawg got a steal with this one because the West Coast started hanging banners once again.
The early 2010s was a time where interactive dance music was fading out and hyper-focused content was returning. When we look at what was so significant, the answer lies within the fact that Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q were successfully able to put gangsta rapping and storytelling back on the radio across the country. TDE was solid, to say the least, but their next couple of signees would take their team from impressive to elite.
All you had to do was sit back and watch. In 2014, Tiffith went on to sign yet another poetic rapper, Chattanooga native Isaiah Rashad, and a new neo-soul singer who went by the name of SZA. From there, the TDE cypher was born. The foundation was seasoned, meaning they were no strangers to the feelings of worldwide success and the constant expanding of their artistry. Isaiah Rashad and SZA were the brother-sister collective that has arguably had the biggest "sixth man" effect rap has seen on an intimate record label. Top Dawg Entertainment keeps getting better.
After being named as a 2014 XXL Freshman, Isaiah Rashad released his debut album The Sun's Tirade, adding that flavor of the South that TDE was previously missing. As of then, they were a label full of rappers with one singer and sole woman who would prove to hold her own in each project she touched. After years of frustration and fighting to make her mark, SZA released her debut album CTRL which went on to receive five Grammy nominations, the same as Kendrick's GKMC. Serving as one of the best R&B albums of 2017, CTRL was also certified platinum, taking SZA from her mixtape days to the face of neo-soul and R&B.
Typically when you see a franchise achieving this much success, you begin to think that at some point, the success will die down; when it comes to TDE, I think we're decades away from that. SZA pried open the door beyond the limits of rap, further influencing the signing of Chicago native and singer Lance Skiiiwalker, who released his debut album, Introverted Intuition back in October of 2016. TDE's next two signees are both visually and audibly notable. Just last week, we saw SiR take the stage at the 2018 BET Awards, performing music from his second studio album November, and last year we heard the spiritual voice of TDE's Zacari featured on Kendrick Lamar's 4x-platinum single, "Love."
The most important thing to note has been the balance of both individual and group success. Individually, each one of TDE's artists could go head-to-head with whoever, literally. Among the label, TDE has combined for hundreds of millions of album sales and streams, 17 studio albums, 17 mixtapes, over 30 Grammy nominations, and 11 Grammy awards. Not to throw any shade, but unlike MMG who have consistently been thriving on a mid-major level, Dreamville who have been patiently waiting for their artists to pop, or even OVO which rides on the coattails of R&B, TDE has prospered past all thoughts of potential and competition.
They have become 2018's Golden State Warriors in the sense that the entire label's talent is seamlessly in every conversation as to who, and which label, owns the throne. It's almost unfair. TDE is that super team that has established, and continues to aggressively carve, their name into hip-hop history. I guess this is why they say that the West Coast is the "best coast" right? Top Dawg Entertainment to music is what the Golden State Warriors are to basketball: stacked with talent, certain to make history and, frankly, cannot be defeated. You can catch them on The Championship Tour as they begin to close out on their last few dates. But whether you actively search for it, or it comes across you, TDE will be in your headphones, taking over your playlists. That's just what they do.