How TDE's Artists Became Leaders in Hip-Hop

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2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival - Day 8
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 16: (L-R) Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul of Black Hippy pose for a portrait backstage at Fader Fort during SXSW on March 16, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)
From Compton to the top of hip-hop, Top Dawg Entertainment had a multi-decade long rise to stardom.

Top Dawg Entertainment remains a force in the music world. Kendrick Lamar's Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers was the Compton rapper's last album for TDE, signifying an end to a special era in their journey together in the industry. However, TDE still sports artists such as Isaiah Rashad, SZA, Schoolboy Q, and more. The aforementioned artists continue to label's legacy with SZA's SOS taking over the R&B world. In addition, we're still expecting a new project from Schoolboy Q sooner rather than later. Even without the star power of Kendrick Lamar, there's still a bright future ahead for TDE.

Top Dawg Entertainment's rise to the top of hip-hop helped further impose the genre's dominance on a global scale. Sculpted around the edges of Los Angeles, the label was founded by Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith. His vision emphasized the importance of artistic integrity in the hip-hop industry. Before TDE, artistic integrity and commercial success were often managed as mutually exclusive aspects of the music industry. However, hip-hop's most important independent label changed that with Tiffith's leadership.

TDE's Artists Went from Compton to the Worldwide Stage

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 05: Anthony Tiffith (L) and Kendrick Lamar attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on April 5, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)

Of course, the centerpiece of this initiative was a hungry Compton kid Kendrick Lamar. In reference to TDE, Lamar stated, "It was all ours - an independent deal from the jump. I came in at 16 years old, so it's all I know. It's a family type of environment. It's not just all about making money every day." The sentiment is a stark contrast to other record labels, who give up on an artist after an underwhelming release. Starting all the way back in 2004, TDE was created with the intention to invest in artists rather than buy them out, a move that would pay its dividends a decade later.

Kendrick Lamar's success arrived with his debut studio album, Section 80. Riding off of the hype of "A.D.H.D" and "Rigamortus," Section 80 would launch Lamar into a music-defining decade for hip-hop. From good kid, m.A.A.d city to DAMN., Top Dawg Entertainment expanded beyond the eccentric collection of California rappers to the most in-demand hip-hop label out. In the midst of their meteoric rise, artists such as SZA and Isaiah Rashad landed on TDE's radar. TDE had gone from audacious aspirations to a worldwide phenomenon.

Kendrick Lamar As TDE's Main Act

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 13: Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy-Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul of Black Hippy attend Fader Fort presented by Converse during SXSW on March 13, 2013 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

Of course, it wasn't just the uber-success of Kendrick Lamar. Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q were all doing their thing. From Q's flamboyant bars on Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron to Jay Rock's Follow Me Home and 90059, the label was becoming a consistent factory for the West Coast rap scene. Together, they formed the rap supergroup Black Hippy. With the unlimited amount of time that Tiffith provided the group in the studio, the family-like atmosphere between the members was cultivated.

There was also the underlying drive of desperation that oozed throughout the group's beginnings. With many of its members still surrounded by the bleak reality of the Los Angeles streets, hip-hop was the only out for Tiffith and his artists. In the same Billboard interview, Lamar expanded on this, stating, "I was too hungry, man. The summer I came over here, everyone was getting murdered and shit. There was a real war with my section and, like, two neighborhoods down the block. Compton is small, so n***as be warring on corners. By the grace of God, we found the studio."

A New Era Is On The Way for TDE

WASHINGTON, DC - February 27th, 2023 - SZA performs at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. during her SOS Tour. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As Top Dawg Entertainment has meandered its way onto the mainstage, the industry politics have seeped into the sense of family that was established in their early days. Ab-Soul and SZA have previously taken to social media to voice their displeasure over their respective projects facing delays. SZA, specifically, threatened retirement after TDE pushed back the release of S.O.S. However, those arguments have always been more like family disagreements than full-on threats to leave the label.

Kendrick Lamar's public announcement that Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers would be his last album with the label signifies a new era for Top Dawg Entertainment. However, Lamar leaving can be a great thing for both parties. As for Lamar, he entered a new chapter with the launch of pgLang alongside Dave Free. So far, he's inked artists like Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, who served as the opening acts on The Big Steppers tour. TDE has already positioned itself for post-Kendrick Lamar life, signing newcomers such as Doechii, Reason, and Ray Vaughn. Top Dawg Entertainment's rise to hip-hop stardom is a stark reminder for other record labels to invest in their artists. Graduating from the Compton era, it's very possible that the best has yet to come.

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