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Hip-hop used to be made by groups like Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Run-DMC. Not anymore. Twenty-first century hip-hop is dominated by solo rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem. (Time the transition to the release of Outkast's split double album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below). It makes sense financially. No more splitting the check, fewer egos in the room. But some of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop of the past few years has been made by four musicians who call themselves, collectively, Black Hippy. Based in Carson, Calif., the group and their management are making a new model for hip-hop that sounds like an old one.
These days, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul spend basically all their time together, but the quartet didn't grow up friends. They didn't meet at school. They'd all been working on rap music by the time they met. They were plucked from all over Los Angeles one by one, and installed in a tract house in a cul-de-sac right off the Gardena Freeway.
"I actually kept them locked up and working together inside there," says the man who gathered them. "They couldn't do nothing but bond."
I spoke with Top Dawg, as he's known, in another house on the same cul-de-sac. Once a street guy looking to go straight in the music industry, his real name is Anthony Tiffith. And before he signed a single rapper, he'd already built a studio and tried working with producers, then R&B singers. But he discovered that rappers can record the most songs in the least amount of time.
The first rapper Top signed is a guy from his neighborhood, called Jay Rock. "I was one of the kids that was always getting into trouble," says Jay Rock. "He just put me in the studio — locked me in the studio — and had me do something better with my life. And I been here ever since."
Rock soon had company in the studio. The rappers were mostly typical teenagers — the older brother, the smart guy, the crazy one and the heartbreak kid. They horsed around and mimicked their favorite rappers, like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Biggie and Tupac. But Top was still the boss.
"This was they job," he says. "Whatever they needed was there: food, shelter. Whatever they needed."
Top was there all the time, too, trying to learn how to be an engineer. He hired a relative named Punch and gave him the title of president and chairman. And a young guy named Dave Free became president and general manager. Very quickly, they landed Jay Rock a record deal with Warner Bros., a major label. But just as quickly, Top says, it fell apart.
"In our mind, once you get a deal with a major label, they take over and do everything for you," he says. "We laid back. I think we fell asleep and they fell asleep."
Jay Rock's album never came out, and Warner Bros. let him out of his contract. Top and Punch realized they had to get serious. They contacted successful music businessmen for advice. They consolidated what they learned, especially from 50 Cent, into five bullet points. You know those inspirational posters big companies have in their hallways? Top Dawg Entertainment has one, except it's handwritten. It's the first thing you see when you walk in the door to the studio. Here are the five:
The musicians follow the rules, mostly, but like any group of young guys that are together all the time, they're also competitive. Giving their crew a name, Black Hippy, was Schoolboy Q's idea, because, he says, he needed the other guys to motivate him.
"I was terrible," he says. "I just got good like two years ago." He says he got better by playing off of his friends' ideas. "Everybody got to be in competition, you know what I mean? We have to compete. We have to compete at all times. If you ain't competing, go home."
The growth potential of a four-member group quickly became apparent. In the mid-1990s, The Wu-Tang Clan parlayed its nine musicians into many more recording contracts with different companies. All of them benefited by appearing on and promoting each others' albums. And just like that group, Punch says Black Hippy can capitalize on the unique fan appeal of each of its members.
"Kendrick — he probably brings out the most ladies," says Punch. "Jay Rock brings out the gangsters, the neighborhoods. Q and Ab-Soul, they have a similar thing because they have the whole weed culture and the druggies. So that's four different groups. And when they come together, all those fan bases intertwine. So it makes everything bigger."
Everything got big enough that the majors came calling again — this time not just for one of the rappers, but the whole company. In March, Top Dawg Entertainment entered into a joint venture with Interscope Records, part of the gigantic Universal Music Group. Top says the deal allows them to keep creative control, and their publishing rights. They also keep what they make on tour.
The first record to come out of the deal is a collaboration between Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar. Which is exactly what Top Dawg and Black Hippy wanted, but it means they're facing the prospect of leaving the cul-de-sac they know so well. Dave Free says that's making them all a little nervous.
"Right now it's at such a fetal stage," he says. "You can't just let anybody in. We're still so fresh. This is like our baby. This is all our infant. We don't want anybody touching our kid but us."
But the family's growing, and Top Dawg Entertainment has to find a bigger house.