Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, an imposing figure at 6 foot 1, tends to wear a stern look under his signature red baseball cap. It’s a face sculpted on the streets of Watts, Los Angeles, during the drug-infested ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But on this September afternoon, climbing a set of stairs to the lounge of a Hollywood studio, the 47-year-old founder/CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, known to his friends as Top, is in a jovial mood. Read more…
He just spent a few private moments trading jokes with TDE’s co-president, Dave Free, that left the two doubled over with laughter. And after that, in between stone-faced poses for cameras, he was cracking up with Kendrick Lamar, TDE’s MVP — or, as some would argue, simply the greatest rapper alive.
Lamar’s in a fine mood, too, as he follows Tiffith up the stairs. You’d never know from his calm, coiled energy that only four days before he wrapped his 36-date North American tour, DAMN. (And, less than a week before that, put on a riveting, pyrotechnics-filled performance that opened the MTV Video Music Awards.) It’s Tiffith who takes the seat at the head of the conference table — Lamar, 30, sits to his left — and starts the conversation off by smiling and saying, “I’m on the cover, so I decided I’ll speak a little bit. Not a lot, just a little bit. I like to stay behind the scenes and let my artists do their thing.”
Letting his artists do their thing, Tiffith — who rarely gives interviews (he last spoke to Billboard in 2014) — has seen TDE grow into arguably the most important independent label in hip-hop. The company he founded in 2004 and runs with Free and co-president Terrence “Punch” Henderson has captured 4.72 percent of the overall market share in R&B/hip-hop this year to date (up from 2.22 percent this time last year), Billboard estimates based on Nielsen Music sales and streaming data. More importantly, TDE now provides the model for how to balance artistic integrity and massive commercial success.