The “Top Dawg” Effect: What Kendrick Lamar Tells Us About the Future of Urban Revitalization
Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith approached Angel’s Gas and Mart with a confident strut, as the warm Los Angeles sun beat down on his back. Angel’s was a popular spot where Tiffith would often grab a snack and sit on a table out in front of the convenience store to talk music, sports, and movies with his neighborhood friends. Tiffith had recently turned 30, spending most of his 20s “hustling” from drugs to odd jobs to some music production for rappers such as The Game, as he would later describe in a 2017 interview with Billboard Magazine.
Turning 30 marked a change in Tiffith’s life.
Throughout his young adult years during the mid-1990s in Watts and Compton (two historically black neighborhoods in Los Angeles), he observed a community that was marginalized and troubled, yet deeply creative and vibrant. He watched graffiti art fill alleyways and street-corner rap battles grow into large and sophisticated cyphers. South Central Los Angeles had the talent and the will necessary to produce meaningful art and culture capable of transforming neighborhoods and communities. There just weren’t any avenues for creatives to truly pursue their craft. This is where Tiffith saw an untapped market.
With several of his friends pursuing a rap career on the side, Tiffith realized that they lacked the support and guidance necessary to succeed on a larger scale. If Tiffith’s friends and other up-and-coming Los Angeles musicians wanted to make their art a career, “Top Dawg” knew they needed help. In helping them make their music a reality, Tiffith saw a profitable career path for himself.
So, Tiffith began converting a room of his humble Watts home into a recording studio. It started small, with a few close acquaintances being invited to begin recording projects in Tiffith’s home studio. Rising LA artists began using Tiffith’s new space to record and produce mixtapes, selling this higher quality, more professional sound in Compton record and convenience stores. As Tiffith’s clientele grew and some of his artists gained traction in LA , his plans began to take form. Tiffith’s business now featured both a recording studio and management for music production. He could now cater to more successful artists who could use both his facilities and his growing connections in the music industry.
Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s newfound business venture was growing steadily, but it took the genius and charisma of a young high-school rapper to truly put “Top Dawg” on the map. “K-Dot” was a sixteen year old Compton emcee who attended Centennial High School. His debut, self-published mixtape, Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year, quickly became a hot album in the greater LA hip hop scene. Learning of his honest and witful lyricism, Tiffith invited “K-Dot” to his home studio. Together, they released “K-Dot’s” second full-length mixtape entitled Training Day.
With the help of “K-Dot’s” regional success and other rappers such as Jay-Rock climbing aboard, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith launched the Compton-based record and entertainment label, Top Dawg Entertainment, in the summer of 2004.
“K-Dot” would later go on to become the multi-Grammy award-winning rapper and producer, Kendrick Lamar. His lyricism has been touted as some of the most socially conscious poetry and text created in this century. Kendrick’s orchestration and production is home to both intricate jazz sampling and grimy trap beats, a sound that has gained him both critical acclaim and general popularity. Kendrick Lamar is now one of the eleven artists signed to the Top Dawg Entertainment label.
But Kendrick Lamar’s huge commercial success, defying the odds of his bleak socioeconomic beginnings and rising to the peaks of fame, is only one of the interesting facets of the story.
Anthony Tiffith was a cultural entrepreneur. He recognized that the unique and burgeoning sound of Los Angeles hip hop could be used to financially benefit the artists, his own career, and the surrounding community. Kendrick Lamar and other rappers like him began their careers as street performers—exchanging complex bars of lyrics and rhythm at tables in the school cafeteria, at park benches or on street corners. The rappers that Tiffith supported in the early days of Top Dawg Entertainment were public performers like these. They produced and performed their art in informal, uncouth settings for no pay. By allowing these artists to utilize recording studios, backing their pursuits of making full-length albums, and ultimately selling these new albums to listeners in Los Angeles and across the country, Anthony Tiffith privatized Los Angeles hip hop. People could no longer consume Lamar’s art for free on the streets. They had to pay for it in record stores and at concerts, which made Kendrick Lamar and other rappers like him a living wage as an artist and Tiffith a living wage as a producer and manager.
On a larger scale, Top Dawg Entertainment’s initial success as a record label created new markets in downtrodden neighborhoods of Los Angeles. With more rappers producing full-length, legitimate albums, stores devoted solely to the sale of CDs and records opened. As local rappers gained more popularity, demand to see them in live performance grew. Because of this increased demand, performance venues kept their doors open seven nights a week, and new theaters and clubs opened their doors. When artistic expression, such as hip-hop in Los Angeles, is promoted and fostered, human creativity can bring on cultural and economic growth that uplifts its surrounding community in meaningful ways.
It’s important to note that Top Dawg Entertainment is very unique compared to most rap record labels. Anthony Tiffith was born and bred on the streets of Compton. He had an intimate relationship with the community, its people, and their art. Tiffith’s approach was genuine—hoping to support talented and unpromoted artists who could go on to financially help him and uplift his neighborhood. Privatizing art, however, is not always a good thing. Universal Music Group (UMG) is a multinational record label based in Santa Monica, California. They have invaded disenfranchised communities throughout the US, such as neighborhoods in New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, in the hope of signing new artists and rappers to their corporate label. UMG has erected large office buildings, equipped with coffee shops and gyms, in these communities. Gentrifying local businesses owned for generations through their arrival in these areas, UMG has privatized art but has uprooted and dismantled the surrounding communities. Cultural entrepreneurship and the privatization of local music benefits the community only when existing community members are the ones supporting the artists. This is why Anthony Tiffith’s model is so special and effective.
Anthony Tiffith and Top Dawg Entertainment is not the first example of cultural entrepreneurship. In 1890s New Orleans, when jazz was first emerging, savvy bar and club owners booked street-corner saxophonists to play during dinner. This was, once again, an act of privatizing art. Music that was previously able to be enjoyed by anyone walking down a bustling New Orleans street had to now be paid for at expensive performance venues and supper clubs. This allowed for jazz musicians to make careers out of their art and for New Orleans’ businesses to flourish in a new market.
Beyond the emergence of jazz in New Orleans and Top Dawg Entertainment in Los Angeles, cultural entrepreneurship can be found in a variety of other settings. In Santa Fe, New Mexico during the 1920s, local artists sold canvas paintings in parks or on the streets. Certain innkeepers and hotel owners in the area began displaying these artists’ work in their lobbies and rooms, often for sale. As other business owners caught on, Santa Fe slowly transformed into a destination where artists could have their art displayed in indoor settings for people to browse and purchase. Nearly a century later, Santa Fe is home to a vibrant and thriving art community, boasting some of the most art galleries per acre in the entire US.
This pattern of cultural entrepreneurship has occurred across every era of American history. Cultural entrepreneurs, such as Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and inventive New Orleans club owners, are able to capitalize on artistic talent and allow this art to be shared with audiences in new settings, revitalizing communities economically and culturally. When artists are given the spaces like Anthony Tiffith’s home or a New Orleans nightclub, they have the opportunity to use their unique voices and talents in a way that benefits both themselves and the communities they call home.