Few labels have had such an influence on hip-hop in the past half-decade than Top Dawg Entertainment, the L.A.-based indie boasting a roster of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Isaiah Rashad and SZA. After taking their first four artists—Kendrick, Q, Soul and Jay Rock—and grooming them via a steady and consistently high-quality output of mixtapes and independent albums, TDE hit the big time with K. Dot's major-label debut album on Aftermath/Interscope/TDE, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city, which garnered universal acclaim and multiple Grammy nominations, then followed it up with their first Billboard 200 No. 1 album with Q's Interscope debut, Oxymoron, this February. With a roster of hungry artists ready to show and prove, the label is two for two on the top-tier circuit.

Yet somehow for a label with such a presence in the hip-hop landscape, TDE kept quiet in 2013 and didn't drop a single project. What they did instead was add the final two pieces to the TDE puzzle by signing Chattanooga, Tenn., rapper Rashad and New Jersey-born singer SZA and investing their time in developing their new budding stars. SZA and Rashad have already dropped projects this year—Rashad's Cilvia Demo was particularly well-received—and the buzz was significant enough to land Rashad on the XXL 2014 Freshmen cover, which dropped last month.

The Freshmen list is not new ground for TDE, of course; every rapper on the label has appeared on the cover since Jay Rock first made the cut in 2010, with Kendrick joining in 2011 and Q and Ab gracing the cover last year. That makes Rashad TDE's fifth XXL Freshman, the most of any independent label in the franchise's seven-year history, and if the success of Kendrick and Q means anything, he's headed in an upward trajectory. XXL spoke to TDE Co-President Terrence "Punch" Henderson about Rashad, the label's six projects planned for 2014 and what it means to have five XXL Freshmen on his roster. —Eric Diep

XXL: Five members of TDE have been on the Freshmen cover. What does that say about your accomplishments?
Punch: I think it shows that we're on the right path. We're doing something right to where we're getting critically accepted and somewhat commercially accepted. Still, our ultimate goal [is] for the audience, for the people. Because they are gonna keep it going. You're gonna make whatever list. There have been guys who made the Freshmen cover that you don’t hear nothing about today. It’s not just about that cover; it’s about the audience. If both of those things lined up, it only betters the situation.

Why do you think the guys move so well as a unit?
I mean, it’s just the chemistry. It’s just chemistry. Those guys have been together for so long—the first four guys—so they built like a natural relationship, even outside of music, and that translated into the music. And then with Isaiah and SZA, they came in and sat right in the fold. Because what they had in common is the lyricism, melodies, and [they are] their own people. They're individuals. So it just fit. Another piece to the puzzle added. It all flows. It’s nothing phony or fake about it. It’s real chemistry.

That’s a good point about TDE’s chemistry. Some labels opt to put together artists and expect them to work well together.
That’s the thing, though—there’s no right or wrong way to actually do it. It’s a record company, so Maybach Music is a record company as well, so they sign artists. It just so happens we are a record company, but we're actually close. We all grew up in the same general area, so I guess that’s a bonus, and it works for us.

What is your role for all the guys that have been on the cover? Why do they look up to you?
I guess my role would be more of a mentor. I’m a few years older than all of them so they can come to me for different things, like different topics that I am knowledgeable in. They know that they get the right answer, whether they agree with it or not. They get a real answer. Me and Ab-Soul have four-hour conversations on the phone arguing about stuff. Kendrick might call and get advice on something. Isaiah, he’ll rock—you know what I am saying? I guess I play the big brother role in the family.

That sounds like a good thing.
The thing with us is that we just try to be honest with each other as far as the music goes. 'Cause if something makes it to the public that’s not up to par with what we usually put out, it only makes us look bad as a unit. We want to make sure there is quality control.

Now that these guys have been on the cover and have established fan bases, how does it feel to know that their music is getting heard on a wider scale?
It feels like we're accomplishing what we set out to do. All of the artists are true artists. They want to get their art out to the world. To see that actually happen is, I guess, a great thing. It's a sense of accomplishment outside all of the praise from like getting the Freshmen cover, or award, or whatever it is. It's a sense of accomplishment being that everybody can see it.

TDE has the most artists in the Freshmen franchise. What does that mean for the growth of the label?
It shows that we are doing something right. It's as simple as that. Nobody else has that much. It’s a couple of things that play with that. It’s a matter of timing as well as talent. If we were to put out Isaiah’s work now, we wouldn’t have been on the cover. It’s a matter of how the stars align as well as the actual talents.

At this point now, does TDE have a checklist to get noticed?
We’ve got to connect to the music. That’s the first thing. After the music, we look at the work ethic. If both of those things line up, we can have anything else. But we can’t make somebody work. You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you're not producing, then it really don’t mean anything.

Everybody is anticipating a lot from the label. Do you think this is the year that you really take over?
We gonna get all six of the projects out there this year, for sure. We already three down. It’s crazy though, because we didn’t put out nothing last year. But now, to come out the gate, we dropped Isaiah first. We dropped Q, then we dropped SZA. And we got three more coming. Well, we’ll see what happens.