Top Dawg Entertainment, founded by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith in 2003, has become one of the most influential record labels in music over the past five years.
TDE’s growth has been as meteoric as it has bene organic, growing out of Tiffith’s home studio to the most successful indie label in hip-hop, if not all of American music.
Tiffith has built TDE up by watching his predecessors, including Dr. Dre and Puffy. Jimmy Iovine, CEO of Interscope, which has a distribution deal with TDE, spoke to Billboard in 2014 about how Tiffith studied those that came before him:
“Top Dawg’s direction is based on a lot of stuff Interscope has been a part of for the last 20 years. Top has been a great student of what Dre has done with classic labels like Death Row and Aftermath, and now he’s taking that game plan with modern music and approaches.”
Anthony Tiffith grew one of the most successful labels in American music out of a garage in Watts, California. Here’s how he did it, in his own words.
On learning from mistakes
TDE hasn’t gotten to this point without some trials and tribulations. Previous distribution and marketing deals with bigger labels have failed. But Tiffith has spoken about using failure as a lesson.
When a deal with Warner Bros fell apart over an attempted restructuring of distribution of Jay Rock’s debut album, Tiffith and co. took the experience as an opportunity. He told VIBE in 2013:
“Really, just hard work, learning lessons as we go and our whole situation at Warner Bros. with Jay Rock. Jay Rock is pretty much our guinea pig. When TDE first got signed to a label, I thought we was on our way. Going through all that bullshit taught us how to really win.”
Tiffith spoke to Billboard in August about how that early experience with Warner Bros. changed their idea of the necessity of bigger labels:
“Then, the bullshit happened at Warner Bros. So now, we have to regroup. I sit down with everybody and say, ‘Yo, it’s time to go hard. Fuck chasing these labels. We’re going to make these labels chase us.'”
On showing the youth “something different”
Almost the entitreity of TDE’s roster is from the greater Los Angeles area. Tiffith has known many of his artists since they were kids and his own past in certain activities has motivated him to provide an alternative to gang life.
He told Billboard about showing his artists “something different”:
“Growing up in the era of the gangsta shit, a lot of my friends were getting killed, a lot of friends were in the pen, I got shot. When I got with the [TDE artists], it was up to me to show them something different — to lock them in my studio and make them build a bond as brothers, and struggle a little bit.”
Tiffith didn’t just provide a career alternative, but a familial one as well:
“I had the money to do whatever I wanted, but they weren’t going to appreciate shit if I just handed it off to them. So they were rushing to McDonald’s to look at what’s on the dollar menu, or going to get a River Boat special from Louisiana Fried Chicken. But I was showing them family life because my family lives in this house, too.”
On young Kendrick
Ultimately, a label’s success is determined by the talent on their roster. It doesn’t matter how interesting or unorthodox the business model is if they don’t make good music, but TDE has found massive success despite a roster that holds only eight total artists.
Their transcendent talent is, of course, Kendrick Lamar, and Tiffith recalls a 16-year-old Kendrick coming into the studio. Despite Lamar’s clear talent, Tiffith tried to act like he wasn’t interested… it wasn’t easy.
“I put him in the booth and put this double time beat on, trying to throw him off. He went in there and started going off! So I’m trying to play like I’m not paying attention. He notices I’m not moving and starts going crazy. So I look up and I’m like, ‘God damn. He’s a monster.’ So the next day I had a contract for him.”
You gotta be able to recognize talent, but also act on it quickly when you identify that diamond in the rough.
On being lowkey
Many have compared Tiffith to Suge Knight, the embattled former Death Row head. It’s a comparison that Tiffith doesn’t seem to enjoy. When Billboard brought up the comparison, Tiffith responded,
“Have you seen any of [Suge’s] qualities in me? You’re not seeing me go crazy, beating on anybody, arrested every week. If they were talking about success, I would’ve been cool with that because he had great success. But they judge us brothers like that. They put us all in the same box.”
Suge Knight’s style, abrasive and omnipresent, is a far cry from Tiffith’s own managerial style. He told Billboard that his uncle [former gang leader-turned-community activist Mike Concepcion] taught him to stay out of the spotlight:
“I learned from my uncle. When I got in the streets, he was always like, ‘Be low-key. Don’t be no loud n—a.’ And just watching, like, JAY-Z and Puff. I don’t dance. I can’t jump in no video.”
With TDE, it’s the artists, not the label heads, making the headlines.
On wanting to see the whole team make it
With the massive success of Kendrick, and now SZA, Top Dawg can basically rest on its laurels, but Tiffith told VIBE that he wants to see his entire roster see just as much success and become moguls within the industry.
“I want to get Jay Rock, Soul, Q these platinum records and just sit back…Those are the four dudes that I been with forever and these are the dudes I want to see rich. Eight to ten years is a lot of time to be messing around with these n****s man. [I want] each of them to get they own label, branch out limbs from TDE.”
On advice from Dre and doing it ‘for the love’
Dr. Dre is a clear inspiration for the braintrust at TDE. Dre’s a man from similar circumstances who has become one of the most successful figures in American music history.
But it takes a special mindset to continue to work after achieving virtually everything there is to do. Tiffith told Billboard about a special meeting with Dre and being inspired by his love of the music:
“When we first went into the situation with Interscope, I told Dre, ‘We do shit different, and I have to maintain that freedom.’ He said, ‘Yo, I love what you’re doing – I just want to be part of it. Keep doing y’all.’ Dre’s smart. He took me to his house. When he showed me his backyard, I was like, ‘What the f-?’ You could see the whole city from there! Looking at that view, Dre said, ‘Man, you can get this. I came from Compton, you came from Watts; work hard, and this can be yours.’ But it’s not about money with Dre: He just does it for the love, which was the most inspiring thing of all. When you do shit for the love, that’s when you get your best shit.”
Success is cool. Making something you believe in and love is truly special.