“I know what we did to get here. No matter how far we get, we’ll always have that bond, period.”
More than just an independent record label (arguably the best known in hip-hop at that), Kendrick Lamar told Billboard in a 2017 interview that he considers Top Dawg Entertainment a “brotherhood.” In 2004, TDE’s CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith discovered and signed the 16-year-old Compton, Calif. native. Almost 15 years later, Lamar is a global phenomenon, with 12 Grammys, 2 No. 1 hits and a Pulitzer Prize. Kendrick, 30, heads into Sunday’s 2018 Billboard Music Awards with 15 nominations.
Without question Lamar is the label’s most lucrative act, but there’s no shortage of talent within TDE. In hopes of capitalizing on the MC’s standout year, TDE just embarked on its first-ever label tour with Lamar, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, SiR and Lance Skiiiwalker.
Check out the all-star roster of performers and playmakers who stand beside Kendrick in TDE’s mission to maintain artistic integrity while expanding upon their commercial success.
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Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith
TDE’s founding father was hoping to escape his crime-riddled Los Angeles neighborhood when he established the House of Pain in 2004, a modest recording studio in Carson, Calif. and “boot camp” for prospective artists. Of meeting Lamar for the first time, Tiffith recalled, “I like to make rappers spit over double-time beats to try to stumble their ass up—but he was rapping like a motherf–ker! I tried to act like unimpressed, but that made him go even harder. He stepped up, and we’ve been rocking together ever since.”
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No introduction needed—Lamar is widely considered this generation’s greatest rapper alive. His 2012 debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, premiered at No. 2 on the charts, laying the groundwork for two more critically-acclaimed studio albums and the Black Panther soundtrack, which Lamar produced. His advice to new TDE artists? “Always do something that you feel good about,” he told Forbes. “Don’t do it because you want to get signed or you want a distribution deal or something, because at the end of the day that doesn’t last. What lasts is something that is 100 percent true to yourself.”
As TDE’s first female signee, the alternative R&B songstress proved she’s a force to be reckoned with after the release of her breakout studio album, 2017’s Ctrl. Her four nominations at the 2018 Grammys, including Best New Artist, made her the ceremony’s most-nominated woman. SZA is fast becoming music’s “It Girl,” with a plethora of famous fans including James Franco, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae.
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The rapper-producer was TDE’s first recruit. Over the years, Jay Rock has released several mixtapes and two albums, in addition to landing a prominent feature on Lamar and Future‘s smash hit “King’s Dead” from the Black Panther soundtrack. A motorcycle accident sidelined his music career for some time, but the Watts native is expected to drop a new album later this year.
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TDE signed the rapper in 2009 as a member of Black Hippy, a group made up of Lamar, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. His major-label studio album, 2014’s Oxymoron, debuted at No. 1 on the charts. Of his meteoric rise to the top, Lamar told Billboard, “It’s crazy-we actually imagined this moment together in that little studio years ago, and now that day is here. Seeing Q come up right behind me and smash in real life is great. If my success gave him more security to do what he does, I’m happy.”
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The rapper became an official member of the TDE family in 2007, and has released four albums between 2011 and 2016. The Los Angeles-based MC wears sunglasses almost constantly to protect his eyes from a light sensitivity caused by Steven-Johnson’s syndrome. The album art for Do What Thou Wilt featured Ab-Soul without his signature lenses, a shot he told Fader took hours to get.
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TDE continues to expand with new additions like this Tennessee native. The hip-hop star signed to TDE in 2013 and released his first studio album, The Sun’s Tirade, three years later. Rashad told Complex that the label has taught him how to maintain the “common ideals” of hip-hop, explaining, “While you’re changing the landscape of music, keep the principles in your pocket. I think that’s what TDE should do at all times.”
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Don’t miss E!’s Live From the Red Carpet: The 2018 Billboard Music Awards special Sunday, May 20, at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT!