Sometime around 1997, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, a resident of Nickerson Gardens in Watts, Los Angeles, decided to build a record studio as an add-on to a house in Carson, California. “I said, Shit, everybody doing music—let me build me a studio,” he recalls. He stocked the studio with everything one would find in a major studio: two-inch tape reels, a full-blown Pro Tools rig, Cerwin Vega speakers, the works. Then he more or less forgot about it. “It was inactive,” says Tiffith’s cousin Terrence “Punch” Henderson. “Top Dawg was doing Top Dawg things.”

“I was beating the streets up for a while, and shit got kinda hot and crazy out there,” says Tiffith. “The streets was everything to me, and that’s all I was doing. Then I saw that one of my uncles was actually doing music and he was winning in it. I said, Shit, this might be something I wanna do one day because I know I’ll probably never work a 9-to-5. After the streets got kinda hot, I needed something to fall back on.”

Tiffith named his company after himself—Top Dawg Ent.—and began working with producers, including Demetirus Shipp, who had done some work with Death Row Records. The producers began attracting rappers. “Game came through before he really kicked off,” recalls Tiffith. “Juvenile came through there, and a couple of other rap dudes came through. We were just trying to sling tracks to them.”

His business model came to fruition in 2005, when he signed a local rapper named Jay Rock—a more street-oriented, less name-dropping version of Game—and landed him a deal at Warner Bros. Records. Major-label bureaucracy moved slowly, but after four years, things were looking up. Rock’s single “All My Life,” featuring Lil’ Wayne, was getting radio play. “It was like to 700 to 800 spins,” says Henderson. “And we were just going to impact at urban radio.” But then, in March 2009, Warner Bros. merged with Asylum Records and all forward momentum stopped. “We couldn’t impact, and that killed that whole record.”

TDE bid their time on Warner for another year before obtaining a release, free and clear. They took Jay Rock’s completed record, Follow Me Home, to Strange Music, the Kansas City–based independent home of rock-rapper Tech N9ne. “When we seen Jay Rock stuck over there and they eventually got away from it, we thought it would be a good marriage to bring Jay Rock over here and do a deal with him and TDE to get a record out,” says Strange Music co-founder Travis O’Guin. “As a matter of fact, we’re the first ones that really gave TDE the opportunity to get a record out.”

The deal put Jay Rock on the road for almost 11 months straight, and allowed them first right of refusal on all TDE acts—a right O’Guin waived when Dr. Dre’s Aftermath expressed interest in TDE’s second signee, Kendrick  Lamar. “I’m not the kind of guy that doesn’t acknowledge how incredible the opportunity that Kendrick had was,” says O’Guin. “I would never stand in the way of him being able to hook up with Dre and do all the fantastic things that he’s done with Dre and with Interscope. I endorsed it 100 percent, kinda stepped aside and said, ‘Man, do it.’”

“We respect their business so much,” Henderson, who now serves as TDE’s president and chairman, says of Strange Music. “We try to model what we do now after their business model, and we added our own little seasoning to it. We’re trying to go on and be listed with the great empires: Death Row, Roc-a-Fella, Bad Boy, Cash Money. We want to be listed with those guys and at the same time bring our own flair to the game.” —Kris Ex (@fullmetallotus)

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