Punch on TDE’s transformation, SZA’s growth, and Kendrick Lamar’s swan song
Top Dawg Entertainment’s president shares game on developing relationships with his artists, his regrets over not releasing a Black Hippy album, and priceless advice from Jay-Z.
Top Dawg Entertainment has been relatively quiet lately, but they’re coming off a decade as the loudest, most creative team in rap. In the 2010s, the label — led by CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and co-presidents Terrance Louis “Punch” Henderson and Dave Free — showcased the grit and togetherness of an independent company with the polish associated with major budgets. The Los Angeles-based crew spent years as an indie before inking a joint venture with Dr. Dre’s Interscope Records, and it paid off big time. Kendrick Lamar became the greatest rapper alive, with a track record that proved it: one classic album after another, streaming records, Grammy Awards, the leading name of the wildly successful soundtrack to Marvel’s Black Panther, and the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize. But the label’s success was built on more than K. Dot. The rest of its starting four — ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul, collectively known as Black Hippy — earned their own sales plaques and die-hard fan bases, with most of their music handled by TDE’s elite team of in-house producers. TDE later added other artists like SZA, whose confessional 2017 LP CTRL is one of the definitive R&B albums of the past 15 years.
But these days, the label is going through changes — and not just the pandemic-prompted audibles that plagued the entire industry. No one from its original lineup has released new music since before 2020, with more focus going toward building new acts like REASON and Lance Skiiiwalker from the ground up. Fan-favorite Isaiah Rashad released his third album The House Is Burning in 2021, but substance abuse caused a five-year gap between that and the Chatanooga, Tenn. rapper’s previous record. Dave Free left the label and started a multimedia company called pgLang with Kendrick Lamar, signing a new artist named Baby Keem and producing films. Lamar, the resident GOAT, announced that his next album will be his last with TDE.
In December, Mic spoke with Punch, the TDE’s president and an impressive rapper in his own right, about the label’s future plans. The company had just released Money Bags, an EP from a collective he assembled called aroomfullofmirrors that includes respected artists like Daylyt, Nick Grant, Ichibon Don, and others. That’s a harbinger for a much louder year after a bout of relative silence.
Which TDE artists will we see new albums from in 2022? “Hopefully everybody,” he says. “The pandemic gave us time to go deeper into the studio.”
Punch spoke candidly about his regrets around not completing a Black Hippy album, helping artists through personal troubles, and preparing for Kendrick’s TDE swan song.
Mic: Firstly, congrats on Money Bags. How long was the idea for aroomfullofmirrors kicking around in your head?
Punch: It came across naturally. I was working on my album, and everybody from the collective would come around at different times to just hang out and listen. I [finished the album], and we was all just sitting in the studio, so we decided to make a song. “Mirrors” came out so crazy, so we just kept going.
I knew everybody's music, and the combination of them together was intriguing to me. I'm like, if we do this, we gotta do this where it’s a real album with real songs, not just everybody getting on there and rapping. That may mean everybody can't get a verse on every song. People have to be creative and do hooks and somebody can do adlibs, bridges, fill the whole thing out like a real song.
In the video, you said, “we're gonna do it exactly how I drew it up.” These are all artists who have their own visions and their own work. How difficult was it for you to get everybody to follow one plan and to take your guidance?
It was a bit exaggerated [in the video], but yeah. It wasn't difficult. It was fun in the resistance. As you said, everybody has their own way of doing things. So when you're doing it together, you gotta compromise a bit and think about what's better for the record as a whole. ‘I know you're comfortable doing 24-bar verses, but we need you to do eight right here.’ It was just a challenge like a puzzle, putting all the pieces together, making sure everything fits.
Fans wanted a Black Hippy album for years — and despite all four of them loving each other and having creative chemistry, it never happened. How much of a goal was that when everyone was there?
We definitely wanted to do a Black Hippy album. But it was such a learning experience for us, everything was new. The timing never really panned out. When one guy would be recording his album, another guy would be on tour. Everybody was never in the same timeframe. So we didn’t want to hold back; we wanted to keep going and just push further into their individual careers. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve pushed the Black Hippy album more. That was always my goal, personally. You would have to ask everybody individually to see if that's what their goal was.
Is there anything that you learned from trying to make that happen that you could apply to this aroomfullofmirrors project?
What I learned was, let's make aroomfullofmirrors the umbrella, and then have everything spread out from under that, where everybody has that platform to start from. I didn't do that with Black Hippy; we established all the individual careers first. But this way, we got the whole album done and out the way. Actually, even more than the whole album; we had a lot going. We got the foundation down, and we can just spread out further individually. We’re branding aroomfullofmirrors in as many different ways as possible, to where everything comes back to that brand and that name, so that's always the home and the foundation. It’s similar to what we did with TDE, except aroomfullofmirrors is the collective of artists, it’s not necessarily a record label. Everybody's filmmakers that’s part of the collective, so it's so many different things that can go under that particular umbrella.
So many artists boast about or strive to be the greatest ever, but you work with artists who have a genuine case for that claim. What is the motivation behind your own artistry? How important is that as an outlet when you work around so much music as an exec?
My motivation for rap is simply the words. The sentences. It’s a puzzle putting together phrases that make sense and then eventually moving someone else to do something. I see a word and think, ‘how can I use this word to create something that’s going to inspire? How can I use it so you see it different?’ The words are my basic motivation. There are others of course, but the words are important.
What's been your favorite experience of someone not realizing you rap, then recognizing how nice you are?
Watching the transition from “oh he’s nice for an exec” to “oh, he’s just nice period.” [laughs] And then to see them confused and question why I haven’t dropped an album.
One thing that always impressed me about TDE was that whenever it’s time for an album to drop, every artist corralled around that album, both creatively and publicly. After all that the label has accomplished, how realistic is that?
It's tough to maintain that now because of the size of everything. Artists change and grow, so they're not gonna continue at the same pace as if they're factory robots. It was easier back in the day. Even on the behind-the-scenes stuff you guys don't see, everybody was literally focused on one project. Like somebody might be coming up with a hook, giving it to Q [for his album]. It was full focus on whoever was coming out next. Now, it's so many artists, and it's such a bigger machine, that each artist has their own individual teams around them, as opposed to all the artists around each other. Everybody got their own support system.
… ScHoolboy Q did the font, the writing (on the album art) for good kid, m.A.A.d city. Myself, Kendrick, and (TDE producer) Sounwave did most of the sequencing for the album. Ab-Soul did the outro for Section.80, and if you listen closely to (Ab-Soul’s 2012 album) Control System, you got Kendrick doing all types of adlibs. Everybody was literally focused on one album at a time. But then, let's say an artist gets super motivated, and he starts recording more and more and it bleeds into the other one’s time. Then the focus gets split. So that model was good for a time, but you have to evolve and change. … That's the beauty of it. If you don't grow, you die.
One thing that's always interested me is how execs have to manage artists’ expectations and day-to-day lives. Leading up to CTRL, SZA had posts talking about wanting to quit music. But that album ended up being one of the most important records of the past 10 to 15 years. How have you guys learned to manage artists as people, instead of just overseeing the music and the business?
You’re entering into a real relationship when you manage an artist and you’re developing an artist. It's not just “make this song and here's a beat.” You gotta learn these people, and they’ve gotta learn you. I always give the example of the change when SZA came. With the first four guys, it was pretty simple: I understand that I can get them up 30 minutes before an interview, wipe your face and go do it. I tried that with SZA, and she had a fit. “I need at least two hours.” That was a part of the growing, so now I know.
Artists talk about quitting all the time. What do you think is the closest you've actually had an artist to really quitting?
Never, actually. You gotta understand, we get most of this information from social media. So it's tough to gain context of what's actually being said and talked about. During (the planning for) “Hit Different,” she made a comment. I think it was about putting her music out. Now, the context was, we had to wait the extra week to drop this song because it features Ty Dolla Sign, and he had just dropped a song last week, so he needed a second to breathe on his record. So I'm gonna hold you up for his one week, and then we'll go. But people took it as I'm holding up her album, because they didn't have the proper context based on what she said. I don't mind playing the villain or the bad guy. You can blame me all you want, long as my artist is given enough time to do what they need to do.
It's funny that you phrase it that way — a lot of the time, the label is seen as the bad guy and the artist is the protagonist. But TDE is one of the only labels I can think of that is mostly seen as a good guy. What do you think you guys have done to preserve that reputation?
I guess it depends on what seat you’re sitting from. [Fans] have been pretty hot lately because they think we’re holding up everything. But I think they respect our legacy and what we brought to the table, and they trust that we’re putting our best foot forward. What happens after that is up to the fans and a bunch of other stuff. But once we put it out, it reaches a certain standard that they usually approve. We always try to have a plan and think things through.
“SZA was saying things that transcended gender. I'm playing CTRL for men, and I'm seeing them tear up, trying to hold it in.”
What's also fascinating to me is to see an artist build off of their potential and create the album where their promise has been realized. SZA’s EP Z didn’t get the most critical acclaim, but CTRL showed that she had fully developed her own sound and that she had something to say. How do you get an artist from point A, where the talent is there but the vision isn’t clear, to that fully realized record?
I kinda get what you mean, but I don't view it in those terms. I view each project as a timestamp in history to where this person was at this time. So even if it might feel underdeveloped, this is where this person was. So the next one, you can see the difference and the growth. That's what it's all about to me, the growth from one project to the next. Even if you didn't grow, that's still a part of the human experience. Maybe you backtracked, but it's still a timestamp to where you were at that time.
With CTRL, she was deliberate. Leaving Z, she said, “I want to be clear and concise with what I'm saying.” We dropped a lot of the effects and reverb and heavy metaphors she was using in her bars, switched that, and went more direct. She was intentional about that, and it struck a nerve.
Do you hear projects like this and realize in real-time that it’s going to be the one that changes things for an artist, or do you not see it until it drops?
Nah, I realize it in real-time. With CTRL, good kid m.A.A.d city, and To Pimp A Butterfly, in particular. SZA was saying things that transcended gender. It was super honest, and it was something that people wanted to say but didn't have the proper words for. I'm playing it for men, and I'm seeing them tear up, trying to hold it in. I’m like, ‘yeah, we’ve got some stuff now.’ Certain things are said that touch those nerves, you just know that this is going to resonate with people for a long time.
When you strike with something like that, how do you move on to the next record, knowing the impact that that previous one had? With SZA for example, how important is it for her next record to be different from CTRL?
I just think it has to be honest. The common thread is the honesty. If that's there, then I'm happy with that, personally. There’s a stark contrast between good kid m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, sonically at least. I remember having a conversation with Jay-Z. I said, ‘we're gonna drop this album that’s gonna piss off our whole fan base.’ His words were, “good. Do it now, so they never put you in a box.” That makes perfect sense. Now, you can't do that with [Kendrick]. You just gotta wait and see what he comes out with. People want to grow with you, but they also don't want to stray too far from what they fell in love with. So you gotta keep all these things in mind, to a certain degree.
TDE also released Isaiah Rashad’s album this year, which is incredible just like his previous ones. But he also shared his battles with substance abuse. What kind of involvement does TDE have in terms of providing support for something like that? Are you guys involved hands-on, or do you sorta take a hands-off approach and sort of feel it out?
It’s a little bit of both; you gotta be super cautious. When you’re dealing with those things, you can't just go in and take over somebody's life. But if somebody is spiraling out of control, you can't just sit back and let him do it. So each situation is different. You gotta count the costs each time somebody is going through something. We were involved in it at a certain point. At a certain point, we wasn’t. We stepped in when we felt we needed to step in, and it turned out pretty good so far. It's a constant struggle. But to see the difference in him from where he was after his last album to now, it makes me smile to see footage of him running around stage happy, or at least in a happier state.
What does that involvement look like? Does it look like helping him find rehab? Does it look like giving an artist extra time to turn in an album?
It ain’t got nothing to do with no album at that point. When you're going through that, it's about whatever it takes to help them to get better. Top was instrumental in that, he helped get him in rehab. Isaiah spoke on it in depth during his promo run, so I don't want to say anything that contradicts that. But he spoke about it in-depth, and Top was super instrumental in helping him get in.
Ab-Soul has been a little quiet; Q hasn’t dropped in a while; we know Kendrick is coming but we don't know when. Fans always talk about what a label is doing when it comes to rollout time. But how do you manage that quiet time when artists aren’t constantly recording?
We just monitor if the artist is working, keep the communication alive, and check in on them occasionally, as much as needed. You can tell when somebody is fully focused and in there every day, or when they're trying to get their groove. You just monitor to see what they need, see if you can help. But my biggest thing is not to pressure anybody to put out music. I don't want to pressure anybody to put out anything that they're not comfortable with. When you’re ready, we’ll go.
How is building up new artists now, like Ray Vaughn or Zycarri or REASON, different from the way that you guys had to build up Kendrick or ScHoolboy Q?
It was different personally with me because I'm not as hands-on as I was with the first generation. With those first guys, I'm in there with them every single day, engineering. We started together and came up together. But a lot of the new artists now are coming into a situation that was already built. They have their own teams, and I just come in when they need.
“I remember having a conversation with Jay-Z. I said, ‘we're gonna drop this album that’s gonna piss off our whole fan base.’ His words were, “good. Do it now, so they never put you in a box.” That makes perfect sense. Now, you can't do that with Kendrick. You just gotta wait and see what he comes out with.”
When you describe it that way, that’s how I always perceived it with Interscope: that TDE has its own in-house system, and Interscope supports what they're doing.
Yeah, that actually was one of the key reasons that helped us sign. We went and met with Dre at his house. One of the key things he said to me, was, “I want to sign you guys. I don't want to change anything you're doing. If you need me, I'm here. I can add a little seasoning. But other than that, keep doing what you’re doing.” That was his word. So from there, I was sold. That was the model that we went into Aftermath/Interscope with.
Kendrick’s next album is his final record with TDE. When did you guys realize that he was ready to leave?
I don't even know if I would describe it that way as ready to leave, as more so ready to build his own thing. That’s a grown man right now. We watched him grow from a teenager up into an established grown man, a businessman, and one of the greatest artists of all time. So how long do you actually be signed up under somebody? It's been almost 20 years. So it's time to move on and try new things and venture out. He’s doing a great job developing Baby Keem. It's always been there, but now it’s just time and space where he can actually do it. It’s a beautiful thing to watch because that's something that started with what we built in the beginning. To see it blossom, it’s a full-circle moment.
Does this make the stakes feel different for his last album at TDE? Does that make anything about the creative or planning process feel different?
Yes, and no. It's different now just because it's different, not because it's his last project. It’s just the evolution of where we are. Kendrick doesn’t need anybody in the studio to coach him and help him make an album anymore. He’s well capable of doing everything on his own. It’s just the timeframe that we’re in.