A Rational Conversation: The Sound Of TDE's Success
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
One of the biggest and developing stories in hip-hop is the success of Los Angeles label Top Dawg Entertainment. At the center of TDE are the rappers in the Black Hippy crew: Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. Earlier this year ScHoolboy Q released his major label debut Oxymoron, which debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and last month Ab-Soul put out his latest indie release, These Days.... All of this comes on the heels of the phenomenal success of Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city from 2012 and the hunger for his follow-up, promised by the end of this year.
While the Black Hippy MCs are best known for their lyrics because of their hyper-detailed storytelling and confessional approach, they don't ignore the beats side of the equation. And rarely do rappers who only focus on their words reach the level of commercial success that they have. Each of the rappers in Black Hippy has a distinct identity, and that's reflected in the differing sonics on each one's albums, but there is a cohesion to their sound — individually and collectively. A major reason for this is TDE's reliance on a group of in-house producers called Digi+Phonics, comprised of Dave Free, Sounwave, Tae Beast and Willie B. One of their trademarks is the sampling of indie songs like Beach House's "Silver Soul" on Lamar's "Money Trees" and Portishead's "Undenied" on ScHoolboy Q's "Prescription/Oxymoron." These largely behind the scenes figures, who work either in teams or on their own, are responsible for some of the label's best and best-loved songs.
Ducker talked to Brendan Frederick, the Vice President of Content Operations at Complex who is also a music writer and editor, about how TDE's in-house producers break from hip-hop traditions, but also are part of a larger legacy.
One of the aspects of TDE that makes them unique in hip-hop right now has been their development of an in-house and multi-component team of producers. What do you think has been these in-house producers' role in the rise of the label and its artists?
Having Digi+Phonics as an in-house production team definitely gives the label's artists an advantage. They don't really need to be chasing the hot sound of the minute, or relying on an A&R to find them beats. They've got a crew of guys who are on the same wavelength as them, always ready to be creative.
How is that reflected in the actual music they put out?
Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q each have their own personality, but all the TDE releases have a common sound. Not to say that every beat sounds the same, but there's definitely an aesthetic point of view that they all have.
How would you characterize that aesthetic?
Generally speaking, their music has a moody sense of seriousness to it. They're clearly trying to be progressive and do something different from other young rappers, but not so out-there that their music isn't rooted within the confines of traditional rap.
In terms of rap's landscape in 2014, how novel is TDE's in-house producer setup?
Most labels and artists these days rely on an in-house producer or crew of producers for at least the majority of their music. It just doesn't make financial sense — or creative sense, really — to cobble together beats from a laundry list of big name producers like they did on rap albums in the '90s. Everyone needs to be able to work really fast, and everyone wants creative control. The most successful crews have someone in house who creates their core sound. Drake has 40, Cash Money has Detail, YG has DJ Mustard. Making your own beats has also made a big comeback.
I think of those cobbled together albums more of a hallmark of last decade, where labels where praying for a hit and chasing whatever or whoever was popular. The examples you just listed aren't teams though, those are one central person. That was kind of the deal in the '90s with Dr. Dre for Ruthless/Death Row/Aftermath and RZA for Wu-Tang, who then spawned younger satellite producers who made variations (or just copied) the main figure's sound. With TDE, we're talking about a group of individuals, sometimes working separately and sometimes working in tandem, with none of them as the standout architect of "The Top Dawg Sound."
Great point! It is a pretty unique situation. And it's really harder to say there's one clear "sound" that they all represent. If there is a common element amongst all four of the Digi+Phonics guys, I would say it's that they all seem to be really into digging for interesting samples.
Can you give me some examples of samples that they've used that have stood out to you?
So many great samples. It seems like they're either flipping well-known indie pop from the last 10 years, or going for pretty obscure crate-digger stuff like prog rock or jazz fusion. And then occasionally they'll throw in something totally random—I loved the synth sample on Ab-Soul's "Terrorist Threats," which comes from an XBox game. In terms of older stuff, the gorgeous piano line on Ab-Soul's "Double Standards" was taken from a two-second loop of "Islands" by '70s British band King Crimson. But with the exception of flipping Woodkid's "Iron" for Kendrick or remaking Chromatics' "Cherry" for ScHoolboy, they're not going for obvious, recognizable samples, even when the source is modern — they're digging for little gems that they can manipulate into something new. The way they filtered and chopped up Portishead's "Undenied" on ScHoolboy's "Prescription" is pretty creative.
Which is a somewhat outdated thing for a hip-hop producer to be into in 2014 and it's an approach that's going to give you problems when you're trying to place a beat on a major label-released album because of sample clearance issues.
Yeah, crate-digging is definitely a lost art. It's impressive to me that they've managed to make it a central element of their music while still sounding current. It doesn't feel like they're making "retro" rap, despite the fact that it doesn't have much in common with the 808 turnup music that dominates today.
Do you know what kind of input or role some of the Top Dawg executives and label guys have in the development of their sound? I've heard that co-president Punch plays a substantial role.
From what I've heard, it definitely sounds like Punch has always been a big part of the creative process. It seems like he has a lot of input on the big picture. I'm sure these guys are recording tons of songs, so it helps to have someone experienced whose ear they trust help pick the right ones, give feedback, sequence them ... It's similar to what a great A&R would have done back in the day.
How important do you think it is that they have a resident engineer in Mixed by Ali?
It's always tough to tell what comes from the producer vs. the engineer, especially when producers are actually in the studio with the artists like Digi+Phonics are [which isn't common in rap these days]. But clearly having an engineer like Ali who's engaged and who the artists trust is a big asset. The engineer can help get great vocal performances out of the artist. They can sprinkle great details on the track and add interesting processing to the vocals. Take "Swimming Pools," for example — it sounds like a lot of T-Minus beats, but there's a lot of interesting stuff happening, especially with the vocal processing. Ali seems like he's there every step of the way, and having one engineer work on all their projects certainly gives their sound a common thread, especially if you have beats coming from different producers. It's like Instagram: take photos of anything you want, but you add that Lo-Fi filter on it and it all looks great.
Do you think all of this has to do with TDE appearing to have an interest in making albums rather than singles? And I'm not saying that as a way of passing judgment on singles-oriented artists/communities.
TDE seems more interested in dropping cohesive albums and letting them speak for themselves than being on the radio and in the conversation 24/7. Singles seem like more of an afterthought. It's also interesting that they aren't really doing mixtapes anymore. They just stay in the studio until the album is perfected. You don't hear the outtakes or the works in progress like you do with a lot of artists.
Why do you think they've taken this approach? What does it earn them?
My guess would be that they're looking at the long-term play, rather than the short term wins. TDE's record is pretty flawless because they've only released well-thought-out albums and haven't muddied the waters with a bunch of half-baked stuff or trend chasing. They have a reputation for quality, and Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul are set up to be career artists, rather than flash-in-the-pan hitmakers. Their brand has become "real hip-hop," but not in a corny kind of way. They've updated it for a new generation.
Let's talk about the "real hip-hop" stuff, because what that often translates to now from purists is supremely lyrics-focused songs. The beats side of hip-hop has often been the kryptonite to hyper lyrical rappers — the Curse of Canibus you might call it. You could say that the TDE rappers seem to be more focused on lyrics, but the beats don't seem to be afterthoughts. Do you think their beats are on the same as the level as their lyrics?
Their production is overlooked, probably because it's not really on-trend with what's happening everywhere else in rap, and it's hard to really describe in one succinct way. No one would ever say that these guys are amazing rappers but their beats are meh, like you would hear about the Canibuses of the world. These guys are modern songwriters, not just bar-for-bar MCs. They've got personality, they can write hooks, their flows are diverse, they sing sometimes. And their production feels like something they're invested in, not just something for them to spit over.
Have you heard anything in either your own reporting or from contacts about what their beat selection/discovery process entails?
I don't know much, but on Complex we ran an interview where Sounwave was talking about the making of "B--- Don't Kill My Vibe," and he said it started basically by him and Kendrick nerding out over a song they loved by the Danish electro pop group Boom Clap Bachelors. They loved it so much that Sounwave chopped it up and made it into Kendrick's signature song. I like to think that's how a lot of their stuff happens, the rappers and the producers nerding out together over some obscure record that becomes the foundation of a new song. That's the type of thing that can only happen when the artist and producer have a really close relationship.
On Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q's major label debut albums, they did use a lot of TDE producers, but they also brought in outside producers, some of whom are pretty big names, like Pharrell, Just Blaze and Mike Will Made It. How has incorporating those figures into their albums affected the sound and cohesion?
Yeah, it's always interesting when that happens. I feel like it's kind of hit-or-miss. Like, with Pharrell, he did "good kid" for Kendrick, which had a perfect jazzy vibe that fit in with the album, but then he did "Los Awesome" for ScHoolboy, which sticks out like a sore thumb and sounds so obviously like a Neptunes beat that Snoop could have been rapping over it in 2004. I wasn't crazy about Just Blaze's "Compton" for the same reason. But generally, I think they do a good job of getting well-known producers to contribute stuff that sounds unique and fits in with the overall vibe. Mike Will's stuff has been sinister and good for ScHoolboy. T-Minus gave Kendrick a great record with "Swimming Pools" that sounded current but still fit with Kendrick's POV. But my favorite example is "Grooveline Pt. 1," the record that Lex Luger did for ScHoolboy's Habits & Contradictions album. I was expecting "B.M.F." and he gave me a soul loop with no drums.
Do you mean the beats are unique compared to the well-known producers' other stuff? Or are they unique compared to everything else that's out there?
I mean it doesn't sound like a cookie-cutter version of what you would expect to get from the producer. Like the beat Lex Luger did for Schoolboy that I mentioned — it's an R&B loop with no drums, and it doesn't sound anything like you'd expect a Lex Luger beat to sound, which would be big synths and 808s. The beat Mike Will gave Schoolboy on "What They Want" has an ominous, downbeat vibe that sets it apart from most of his production.
What do you make of "Hell of a Night" from Oxymoron? That felt even more pandering and sound-chasing to me than "Los Awesome." It's produced by DJ Dahi, who is more of a journeyman producer, but one who has worked with other TDE artists and isn't really known for that kind of bottle service club rap. He actually produced a song also called "Hell of a Night" for Travis Scott last year, but that sounds like more of a TDE song than this one.
It definitely has some EDM flourishes to it, and the chorus is a pretty boilerplate party hook, but the beat doesn't sound too out of place to me. It's still got a dark, spooky vibe over some 808s, and Dahi is still doing some interesting crate-digging. I'm pretty sure he sampled an 1980s Czech punk band on this (I won't snitch), but it doesn't seem that far from "Man of The Year," which flips a Chromatics song and has a similar party hook. Q was definitely looking for a hit on this album, but most of it is in line with his sound enough that it didn't bother me.
Of the TDE in-house producers, do you have a favorite or one that you are most interested in seeing how he develops? What is it about him that specifically connects with you as a listener?
I definitely think of them as a unit, so it's hard to separate them a lot of times, but looking at their credits, Sounwave definitely stands out to me. He works with Kendrick the most, and he's done a lot of his best songs: "m.A.A.d city," "A.D.H.D." and "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe." He can do an 808 turnup song like "Michael Jordan," and then he'll do something like "Closure," the really sad, downtempo song from Ab-Soul's new album where he sings about his late girlfriend. Sounwave seems like he's up for anything, and the results are always consistently good.
What do you think of the THC production team? They're not officially in house, but definitely closely affiliated. They've done some of my favorite, most far out stuff, like Lamar's "Cartoon & Cereal" and ScHoolboy's "Collard Greens."
Yeah, along with Terrace Martin,THC seem to almost be like honorary members of the team. I'm impressed with what I've heard from THC, although it's hard to pin their style down. "Cartoon & Cereal" is a great example of how a producer can use the ever-popular 808s and stuttering hi-hat framework without sounding formulaic. That might be the hardest beat Kendrick ever had, but then they also did "F--- Your Ethnicity" and "Collard Greens" [with Gwen Bunn] which are much brighter, happier beats. And then ScHoolboy's "Oxy Music" has an industrial, abrasive vibe. They're doing interesting stuff.
How would you describe the differences in production choices on the newest ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul albums? How do these differences connect or boost the personas of each of these rappers?
Ab-Soul's album is definitely moving in more of a spacey, avant-garde direction, whereas ScHoolboy's album generally has more of an accessible hardcore rap feel. Both of these directions reflect the personalities that they've developed on previous releases, but it does seem like they're focusing them a bit more. It was cool to hear Ab-Soul rapping over a beat from Purity Ring on "God's Reign." ScHoolboy made a pretty conventional R&B song with "Studio," and it looks like it might be his first real hit. I don't like either album as much as their previous records, but they're both respectable evolutions.
How would you characterize the beats that are selected for Kendrick Lamar and how they are particularly suited to him?
To be honest, I wasn't a huge Kendrick fan when I first heard Section.80. There were a few great songs, but overall it had a kind of jazzy, neo-soul vibe that turned me off. I was definitely more of a ScHoolboy fan. But Kendrick won me over on good kid, largely because the production is more hard-hitting and fun. It's interesting that good kid has the fewest contributions from the Digi+Phonics crew of any Black Hippy release — only a few Sounwave beats, really. But hearing him over Hit-Boy and T-Minus beats proved he could tackle zeitgeisty sounds without seeming like he was pandering. Stuff like "Real" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst" didn't resonate with me as much, probably because they have the same jazzy vibe I didn't like on Section 80. But even if it's not my cup of tea, that vibe is also a part of what makes Kendrick, Kendrick.
Have you heard any talk about the sonic direction that Kendrick is going on his next album?
He's kept a pretty tight lid on it, so I have no idea. Maybe he'll actually get a beat from Dre this time?
Do you think the reason SZA's Z EP didn't seem to really connect has to do with its production direction?
I thought the SZA project was pretty great! I guess it's hard to sell what is basically an indie electro pop album to TDE's core audience of rap geeks. Everyone seemed to characterize her as "TDE's R&B singer," which I thought set up a weird expectation for the album. She's even less of an R&B singer than the Weeknd or Frank Ocean — she has more in common with Little Dragon or Beach House. I was a little surprised that the Pitchfork world didn't embrace it more. It seemed like people wanted to criticize her for not having powerful vocals like an R&B singer, when they would never criticize a chillwave artist for having soft vocals — that's kind of the point. I thought it was a smart move for TDE to sign an artist like her, rather than an accessible R&B artist like Tinashe. It just reinforces their image as a home for progressive, album-focused music.
Do you think that's doubly strange that rap geeks aren't so into SZA considering how many TDE rap songs flip other modern indie electro pop songs?
It is kind of ironic, but I think it's just a testament to the fact that the most TDE fans in the hip-hop world aren't really aware of where the samples are coming from. People who are up on indie rock might know that Kendrick's "Money Trees" flips a Beach House song, but the average rap fan just thinks it's a dope beat. They probably don't even know who Beach House is. And for the most part, even when they are sampling indie pop stuff, they're layering more traditional rap drums over them, so it doesn't sound too out-there. SZA's production doesn't have that layer, it's straight up indie/electro pop.
How crucial do you think it's been that a lot of TDE artists' major singles or trademark songs come from TDE producers? They do a lot of the songs that people actually know and are hyped on.
Yeah, the "in-house" producer does have a reputation for being "the guy who makes the album filler," so it's cool to see them making what are in most cases the most memorable songs. This is super important for the way that an artist's success is perceived. If Kanye West had produced "B---- Don't Kill My Vibe," the narrative would have been, "Kanye gave Kendrick a banger!" But since Sounwave did it, the narrative is "Kendrick made an amazing song." Maybe that will change as the Digi+Phonics guys get more notoriety, but for now, they play a humble position that lets the artist shine more than if they had collaborated with a well-known outside producer.
How are TDE's beats different from the ones used by other contemporary LA hip-hop artists?
Is this a good time to talk about the fact that "Twact" from Ab-Soul's new album sounds exactly like a DJ Mustard beat? Okay, good. HOW WEIRD WAS THAT? But really, if we're talking about contemporary L.A. artists, we're really talking about two things: DJ Mustard's production for YG, and Odd Future's largely in-house production. Mustard's ratchet sound is much more indebted to the g-funk legacy or Bay Area music — it's cleaner, more up-tempo party music. Odd Future's stuff is avant-garde, weirder, nerdier — probably more indebted to Dilla or Madlib. TDE occupies that sweet spot in the middle — accessible but not obviously so, progressive but not obtusely so. But really, I was hoping for a DJ Mustard beat on ScHoolboy's album, he sounded great on YG's "I Just Wanna Party."
How do you think TDE's sound acknowledges or breaks from the traditions of Los Angeles hip-hop?
When people think about L.A. rap, they usually think about g-funk, or hardcore gangsta rap, because of Dre and Snoop and Ice Cube. But TDE doesn't really follow that blueprint, especially from a sonic perspective. Remaking Ice Cube's "A Bird In Hand" beat on "m.A.A.d city" is probably the only time when they've consciously nodded to that scene. But overall, they have a pan-regional, try-anything type of approach like most modern rappers — they're not purposely trying to sound like L.A. rap is supposed to sound, even if there are some common elements that you can trace back. They're just trying to make progressive hip-hop music.
Do you think there's an era or crew from L.A. hip-hop's history that TDE's production seems particularly indebted to?
They have a lot in common with the stuff DJ Muggs was doing in the '90s, or the first two Xzibit albums, or the first Ras Kass album, or the Alkaholiks' stuff. Melodic g-funk got the most attention on a mainstream level, but there was definitely an undercurrent of lyrical, sample-based boom-bap in L.A. throughout the '90s that TDE seems indebted to. Their music is similarly serious and hardcore, and brings back that crate-digging sensibility. Although I'm sure it's not totally conscious, they're definitely following the L.A. tradition, just not the streotypical P-Funk and Zapp sample tradition.