Last week, Kendrick Lamar added to the illustrious 2013 he has enjoyed by being named GQ’s “Man of the Year”, complete with cover story and a party/performance in his honor. What should have been a landmark event for the Los Angeles MC instead turned sour after the “Top Dog” of Top Dawg Entertainment (Kendrick’s Label), Anthony Tiffith, pulled Lamar from the performance at the party, citing problems with the way the story was written and going as far as to point to “racial overtones” in the article as a reason for the cancellation. While on the surface, the move may be viewed by many as a bad one by Tiffith, looking further into the reason why he made such a bold statement at such a traditionally celebratory moment demonstrates the growth of a genre not only in the product, but in the way it is marketed.
Seventeen years ago, Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas. Under a year later, Biggie Smalls followed suit in Los Angeles. Those two deaths forever changed hip hop music from top to bottom in ways that we are now just realizing, as the youth that lost their heroes become the artists in the spotlight. It is something that has been discussed at length throughout the year, the new state of hip hop in which “beefs” have been replaced by sub-tweets and everyone is friends for the camera. It’s the world of hyper-manicured personas and multi-million dollar endorsement and marketing deals. The interesting thing about Kendrick Lamar and TDE is that he came from a typically Gangsta Rap locale spitting stories seemingly written in a diary about how to cope with the world around him. He wasn’t marketed as a gangster, a thug, or someone to be afraid of. Instead, Lamar has been ushered to the public eye as a true lyricist and artist to be reckoned with. It is because of this difference that Tiffin was enraged at the antiquated aesthetics with which GQ’s Steve Marsh penned his cover story on Lamar.
TDE is easily one of the most carefully manicured outfits in hip hop today. The crew of Jay Rock, Ab Soul, Schoolboy Q, Isiah Rashad and SZA is a tight-knit clan, hungry and eager. They have been groomed by Tiffith and established a sort of team mentality that has in turn produced a sort of family atmosphere among the group. They are artists from different backgrounds, with different stories. Kendrick, Ab, Schoolboy and Jay Rock are all from the LA area, but possess myriad different stories of their experiences there, while SZA hails from St. Louis and Rashad from Tennessee. TDE has slowly and steadily made their rise to the top of the hip hop game in a way that forewent selling an image to potential fans, instead opting to pitch a story, an art-form. It is much the way individual back stories drive the narratives of individual sports like golf or tennis as opposed to the big hits and shiny lights of basketball or baseball. They’re selling intellect, not brawn in a genre that has long leaned toward the latter.
In his article, Marsh described his “surprise” at the discipline of Tiffith’s stable of artists, projecting TDE to one of the darkest times of West Coast hip hop by calling the label the “baby Death Row Records,” and referencing Tiffith as “basically TDE’s Suge Knight.” The rest of the article is certainly complimentary of the job Lamar and Tiffith do, but even just those small mentions were enough to expose Marsh as a writer out of touch with today’s hip hop climate. The reason for Tiffith’s anger and eventual pulling of Kendrick’s performance was explained in an open letter from the CEO, explaining: “Instead of putting emphasis on the good that TDE has done for West Coast music, and for hip hop as a whole, he spoke on what most people would consider what’s wrong with hip hop music.”
Hip hop has changed. It is no longer a fringe genre with colorful characters and off-the-wall personalities. Today, it is a real business, perhaps the most influential genre in the pop culture lexicon, and the people involved with the music and the artists that populate it understand this and have followed suit. The issue with this change is that it has happened somewhat suddenly; it’s just under the past 9 years since Kanye West’s College Dropout came out and pink polos became okay in the game. What has been slower to change, however, are others’ views of hip hop. Marsh seems to have a cerebral grasp of hip hop culture, but is unable to let go of the idea of the West Coast as a “gangsta’s paradise”, is too focused on how Kendrick doesn’t drink or smoke to spend the necessary amount of time talking about his team’s headiness or poetic lyricism. It is because Marsh chose to look backward in telling the story of a forward-thinking star that Tiffith found issue with the article, and rightfully so. By putting Tiffith and TDE in the realm of Death Row is to truly play your hand in how to decipher the rap game today.