From Kendrick Lamar to Black Panther: This is Top Dawg Entertainment



Liam Curran traces the history of TDE, aka Top Dawg Entertainment. As the label behind some of the most important albums in recent history, such as Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and multiple tracks from 2018's crucial superhero film Black Panther, the label shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

It’s official, the numbers are in and Black Panther is a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The second highest-grossing movie in history so far had it all; immaculately trippy visuals, sublime acting, a powerful story and one of the coldest soundtracks you’re going to hear coming from the big screen.

Taking a look at that track list one thing is apparent; it is the love-child of L.A. based record label Top Dawg Entertainment featuring Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock. All of the above along with fellow TDE artists SiR and Lance Skiiwalker are embarking on a joint run of shows, The Championship Tour, billed to be the most dumbfounding and all-out ridiculous tour of the year. 2018’s in the bag right?

There is something irresistible about a group in which you can chart their progression from the ground up to the very top, platinums, grammys n’ all. This is compounded by the fact as artists TDE vibrate on such a similar frequency. Simple acts like changing their twitter icons to the latest album cover from the label is a gentle reminder of the labour of love they’re engaged in.

The story, like so many, begins in Los Angeles, California with producer Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith. In 2003 he would stumble upon Compton-born 15-year-old Kendrick Lamar spitting under the name ‘K-Dot’. Whilst honing the talent of the mercurial MC, TDE would go to collect some of the most interesting and versatile talent the city had to offer in Ab Soul, Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q. These four LA-based rappers would go on to create the eclectic group ‘Black Hippy’ and release various mixtapes and projects to build a respectable prestige for the grassroots label.


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It was Kendrick’s first album, Section.80 that would offer an inkling of what was in store. The widely extolled debut LP was a soulful, lyrically bountiful masterpiece that garnered the attention of any and everyone in the industry, not least of all Dr Dre. It was Kendrick’s second attempt that eclipsed his first and so, so many other albums. Good Kid m.A.A.d City, released in 2012 still to this day hasn’t left the Billboard Top 200 and is quite simply monumental to any history of hip-hop.

2013 saw TDE expanding beyond California’s golden coast, reaching into the heartland of America and unearthing delicious talent in Tennessee’s Isaiah Rashad and New Jersey’s SZA. The essential elements were culminating, the stars aligning for a stream of universally acclaimed material.

Still revelling from Kendrick’s success, ScHoolboy Q dropped his second LP Oxymoron providing several of that summer’s soundtracks including 'Studio' and 'Collard Greens'. Eccentric and unorthodox, Q was placed on the map and set off on a international tour bringing with him TDE new-kid Isaiah Rashad. After dropping the exquisitely soulful Cilvia Demo EP including the wondrous tracks 'Ronnie Drake' (featuring SZA) and 'Heavenly Father', Rashad rightfully earned a spot on the XXL 2014 Freshman’s list. The theme? TDE remained incredibly insular when looking for features; a signature nobody could ignore.

Towards the end of 2014 Kendrick began dropping new singles in the run up for an eagerly anticipated follow up to Good Kid... It was the first and of a completely different dimension sonically when compared to his earlier work. Brimming with live-recorded instruments the track omitted energy profusely, was soulful, jubilant and intensely ideological. It would come to tipfy the essence of his third LP To Pimp a Butterfly released in 2015 to a America rife with police brutality, racial injustice and the degradation of social order. The track 'Alright' came to be the soundtrack of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and was a defiant celebration of African American culture in the face of turbulent hatred. To Pimp... reconstituted what an hip-hop album was or could be, earning Kendrick 5 grammys in the process.

By this point there was a stream of quality music coming from various TDE artists but clearly Kendrick had come to define the world’s perception of the label. From 2016 however, the rest of the roster began to release more expansive projects. ScHoolboy Q in July released the Blank Face LP, including a feature from Kanye West on the infectious That Part. It was a more total and musically together album which focused far less on commercial viability being more conceptually grounded. 2016 was also the year Isaiah Rashad dropped his debut LP The Sun Triade. Again it was a blissful record with a sedating lo-fi vibe throughout.

2017 marked final chapter of world domination for LA’s TDE. SZA who through releasing demos and features with artists such as Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, and of course the rest of TDE gained a respectable reputation as a talented artist. However, in June the singer released her debut album Ctrl and immediately became a force in the world of music. Tracks such as 'Love Galore' (featuring Travis Scott), 'Supermodel' and 'Doves in the Wind' (featuring Kendrick) were intimate, beautiful and honest in a way very few RnB artists had ever achieved. SZA became the most grammy-nominated female artist of 2018, however, did not win a single award igniting extreme social media fervour. Ctrl has since gone Platinum.

Of course, 2017 was also the year Kendrick released his fourth LP Damn. So prevalent this work has become it barely requires description. What should be noted however is that it stole 2017-8 in resounding fashion.

What next? Well 2018 has already seen SiR release his debut album November, an unusual but fulfilling coalescence of different sounds. The rumour mill also speaks of new albums this year from Isaiah, Q and Rock. Right now the champions are on a victory lap and there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon.

Listen to a mix of exclusive TDE material here:

Featured image: Facebook / Kendrick Lamar News

What do you think is next for TDE? Let us know!

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