The recent signing of Top Dawg Entertainment with Aftermath/ Interscope Records is further proof that Kendrick Lamar is en route to becoming one of the most prolific and respected songwriters in modern day HipHop. Although he was not at liberty to provide exact details as to the deal that was just about to be made, there was an air of assurance in Lamar’s voice when we spoke to him a few weeks ago about the direction his career was going. He gave us some great insight as to his creative process, working relationships, personal beliefs and some of the determining factors as to how the TDE/Aftermath deal would have been reached.
What do you consider your role as an artist to be?
My role as an artist is to create music that people can genuinely relate to. I think there’s a lot of music out there that feels good and is fun to listen to, but doesn’t necessarily give that balance where the people can really connect to it and understand what the artist is going through, as far as their emotions and their feelings. So that’s where I feel my responsibility is, to bring that back in to the game.
And what do you feel has been the most challenging aspect about being an artist coming from an environment like Compton, California?
I used to feel like the most challenging thing was getting past that whole stereotype around street credibility and gangster rap. That’s a sound I’m aware of. That’s a lifestyle I’m very aware of. But when people see or hear about that, they’re only really hearing one side of the story and as an artist you tend to believe that’s all they wanna hear. I felt that was a challenge early on, because I just wanted to come with a whole different side of thing, a side that hasn’t really been told. But I feel like I’ve overcome that challenge now, ‘cause the people have been really receptive to it, you know. There are a lot of kids out there similar to me who are trying to escape certain influences and getting caught up with the ills of the world.
What can you tell us about the way in which the West Coast sound has evolved over the last decade?
Well it’s definitely gotten out of the sound that everyone used to listen to, which I define more so as rider music. It hasn’t really lost that idea, it’s just evolved in to something better. You see a lot more artists not afraid to express themselves with different sounds, which I think is dope because they can go back and say that they didn’t lose the elements that made us who we are today.
What impacts do you believe Section.80 has had on the demographic it was created for? And what general ideas do you think your audience connects with the most?
I made that album basically just talking about my generation and how we’re still trying to find ourselves.
We can’t keep being blamed for the way we are when there were certain people before us that put us in this position and made us think the way we do. When I speak on the Ronald Regan era, I’m talking about kids coming up in the ‘80s whose parents were strung out on crack and had to live with their grandparents and growing up with the disability of ADHD which I feel plays a big part in us thinking the way we do and behaving the way we do today.
America sometimes tends to wonder why we are less attentive, so that’s something I feel I need to remind them of in some of these records. I think a lot of my generation can relate to that and hopefully for better or worse try to figure out how we can fix it. But on the music level, one of biggest things I think it brings to the game is not being afraid of exploring different sounds and different topics. I mean, that whole album was a concept. I think for other artists, it’s encouraged them to speak on whatever they feel at the time and not be confined to what the radio wants them to do or what their label wants them to do. They can just go out there and do themselves and that’s exactly what I did with this project. It was a success and it’s still a success ‘cause people are still catching on to it.
When you write something that is very personal or difficult for the average person to speak about, how well does that help you get through the situation personally?
Music for me is a scapegoat, period. Whenever I’m feeling a certain way, instead of dealing with it as the young wild cat I was before and taking those emotions or feelings out on somebody else or on a street level, I go to the studio and put it down then and there, ‘cause I can’t be selfish like that no more. I know that if I express a situation that even just one other person can relate to, that can potentially save their life. So whatever I’m feeling at the time I just put that down on a record. ‘Cause you never know.
Spirituality is a common theme in a lot of your music. How do you feel you came to terms with your own sense of spirituality?
Well I used to get that confused a lot with religion. For the most part it was something I had to grow in to and figure out. I’m not the super religious type or nothing. I believe there is a God and I am connected to that. But I never want to base my beliefs on any one religion and be confined to all the propaganda that you have to pertain to. So when I’m making these kind of records, I’m letting people know that I’m still trying to find myself. I’m trying to have a better inner peace. It’s not me preaching. I’m still trying to find answers myself.
Can you give us further insight in to the line in which you say “I’m just a nigga that’s both evil and spiritual”?
Wait. What song was that?
I believe that was Poe Mans Dreams…
Ok yeah. That’s just me saying that I’m human and I battle temptation like everybody else. You know, you go every day of your life saying that you wanna do right ‘cause you have that conscience in your head, but as soon as temptation jumps out in front of you, you’re back to square one. I think that’s the evils of the world, temptation. Being able to fight that temptation is how you grow as a person and become a stronger person. So that’s what I mean when I say that.
Would that be the general idea behind the title of your next album Good Kid in a Mad City? How will this coming album be different from the Section.80?
Actually, I don’t know if I’m still gonna stick with that title. That’s just me overall. My sound and my story. That’s something I threw out there, but now I feel like I have more to say. But it will still be based around that. Section.80 was more about the people around me and the people I grew up with. This next project is going to be more about myself and how I was raised and where I’m from.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception about Kendrick Lamar?
I think people pretty much understand what I’m doing. But probably that some people think they can classify me. I don’t think there’s really a genre or a type of sound that I do. Everything I do comes off as me, I’m not trying to force myself in to anything. So if there was one, I think it would be that. But for the most part I think people understand what’s going on.
What kind of hip-hop artist makes you cringe?
An artist that really has no interest in the music. One of those artists you can tell are only inspired by the lifestyles of some of these rappers on TV and do it purely just for that. That’s what I don’t like.
What appeal in music do you look for when determining which artists are appropriate for you to collaborate with?
I just look for energy really. Alotta people just expect for me to do music with artists that they feel sound similar to me or make the same type of music as me. Like J. Cole or Mos Def or The Roots in general. They feel like that’s the right thing to do or the safe thing to do. But for me, I look for the energy, man. If the energy is right and the person on the other end has the same passion for music as me, then I think there’s always a balance there for me to do a dope record. Their sound is not really a boundary for me, ‘cause at the end of the day everyone has their own unique sound and that’s what makes dope collaborations, when you get two people from two completely different worlds and finding that dope balance where it don’t sound forced.
So taking for example your recent collaborative work with Drake, whom is often regarded as more of a “mainstream” artist, you don’t see that as a compromise of integrity in any way?
Nah, definitely not. Drake is an all-round artist. People seem to forget his Comeback Season day and what he was talking about back then and even he what he talks about now. He’s just trying to explain his lifestyle the way it is now and tell dope stories. That’s no different to what I do. We’re coming from different worlds as far as the story telling, but I think everyone’s story can find a balance somewhere down the line, so that’s definitely no compromise. He’s a good artist and for him to get me doing my thing on his album is just crazy.
What has been the biggest learning experience in working with Pharrell Williams?
Oh man the biggest learning experience (long pause). Greatness… takes… time. Sometimes as an artist you feel like you know it all or you’ve been through it all. But when you look at someone like Pharell or if you’re locked away in the studio with dude, you wonder how someone can be so passionate or so good at what they do.
I have to double back and remember back in the early 90’s that dude has really been in the game for a long time and has put out so many hit records and that just shows you the longevity he has as an artist and a producer. So yeah, that has been one of the biggest lessons learned. Having the ability to knock out records on the spot back to back and having to realize that all the years behind him has affected his craft. That’s the same way I wanna continue to do things. I’ll never be able to match that level of drive or work ethic until I put that amount of years behind what I’m doing.
Some photos were circling on the Internet just yesterday of yourself, Busta Rhymes, Mac Miller and Pharrell in the studio. You guys all working on something together?
That was actually just me and Pharrell working on songs for my album and the homies came through and chilled out. Mac was in town, Bus came through. We just fucked around, cracked a few jokes. We all listened to some of the joints that me and Pharell knocked out just to catch a vibe and get that energy flowing.
Scenario. Dr Dre provides you with an instrumental he thinks you’re suited for. How do you first tackle the song?
Well I don’t want nothing to sound like anything I’ve done previously. That’s my first instincts. I’m thinking, how can I make this song different from the last one? I always have to challenge myself. I feel like if I’m stuck in a box where I continue to make the same records, I’ll stop. But with Dre’s beats it’s so easy because the concept is already there. His music is like a movie within itself. So it’s really not that hard to gather inspiration from his music. I just go from there with whatever jumps out in front of me. I’ll throw a few concepts in the air and see if he’s vibing off of them. But for the most part he just lets me do me.
Do you normally require an instrumental to go off?
Well I write 24 hours within a day. It don’t matter if I’m walking down the street or getting on a plane, I’m writing. Sometimes an instrumental might match the idea I already have or sometimes I just go from scratch and get inspired from whatever the beat is telling me at the time.
What is your understanding as to why so many big names are so eager to work with you so early in to your career?
Overall, I’m a person first and foremost. They know the music ain’t no hype. What got me here was the music. It wasn’t no publicity stunt or who I’m hanging with or none of that. They heard the music first or their people heard the music first and they checked in to it.
There’s a whole lot of music out there today that has a much bigger buzz than what I got. But when the OG’s like Rza or Dr. Dre wanna fuck with you, you know that it’s because they really respect it and I think that’s been one of the biggest blessings about what I’m doing. It lets me know that what I’m doing is appropriate. It’s what the game needs. They tell me this all the time. And all that does is it lets me know that I should have been sure about myself from the jump.
So what is the latest with your label/ distribution situation?
We got some situations on the table. But it’s really about the best situation and who can continue the vision that we have as Top Dawg Entertainment. A lot of artists go to these labels and they don’t really understand what the artist is trying to do and the type of vision they have and that’s when everything crumbles.
We’ve sat down with different people just to hear the kind of direction they see for us and what kind of marks they can put in the game for us. But for the most part we want to keep it Top Dawg. If anything stands out, it’s not gonna be one of those situations where the people aren’t gonna understand what we’re doing. It’s gonna be them having to see our vision, not us knocking on their door begging for a situation. I’ve been there before and I know that’s what happens when you don’t go out there and create a buzz yourself.
And at what point in your career did you realise that is the way to go?
Basically, when I started taking too many meetings, tryna shop one of my demos. At that time the Internet started popping, Youtube really started popping. I started creating my own buzz. I knew my music was good, but at the end of the day if you don’t have a name for yourself they’re not gonna buy it anyway. That’s how most labels work. The streets tell you it’s hot and I had to learn that for myself. So I got back to working on my sound and I put out the Kendrick Lamar EP.
Where do you see Top Dawg ten years from now?
Top Dawg Entertainment will be… Death Row [Records], without the mistakes! A powerful label running some powerful artists without all the bullshit behind it. Yeah, it will be Death Row for real.
What would you tell an aspiring artist that is working his ass off but still needs to break through to that next level?
You gotta have a vision man. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have a vision nothing will fall through, you’ll just be rapping your ass off all day. You gotta know what you want your sound to be and how you want to be presented. You gotta pace yourself too, otherwise you’ll just be rapping all day. Another thing you gotta have too is work ethic. 50 Cent told me this: when talent is not working, hard work will. And that’s probably one of the craziest things someone told me, ‘cause it’s true. You can have all the talent in the world, but if someone’s working ten times harder than you he will override that talent that you were born with. You gotta have records upon records and know exactly what it is you want to do with them.
Did you have a concrete vision for each of your projects before you started? Or did the records come first?
All my projects had a concrete vision first. All of them. And they all did exactly what I wanted them to do. And I definitely have a vision for this next one.
And what is that vision?
I think it’s gonna create a whole new sound and perception as far as what the West Coast is. I’m gonna put it all on my shoulders with this album and that’s what it is. It’s really no pressure though, cause I know the people are really gonna be in tune with it.
How did Black Hippy come about? And how do you best explain your relationship with each member?
Everyone just fell in the studio at the same time. It’s really no crazy story behind it. It’s just four cats that fell in this dungeon studio, working on songs together. Me, Jay Rock, Ab Soul and [Schoolboy] Q. Those were my real day to day homies. It wasn’t no big artist situation thing. That’s just four homies in the studio doing their thing. And that’s why we’re not really rushing the whole Black Hippy thing. We’re just waiting for the right time to just fuck everything up.
I’ve heard you say before that smoking weed is not something you partake in for your own reasons. But I’m interested to know if you believe that weed should be legalized or criminalized?
Hell yeah it should be legalized. Fucken cigarettes are legal and that’s the one of the biggest killers in the world. I don’t smoke weed for personal reasons, but I don’t think it’s harmful for anyone that does do it. I am super anti-cigarettes and shit like that though. If cigarettes are legal then weed should definitely be legal. All weed ever did was make my pops happy and watch his karate movies (laughs). Just ‘cause I don’t do it don’t mean he can’t keep doing his shit. If that’s what keeps him happy, then be it!
What is your understanding of the legacy of Marcus Garvey and why do you feel it necessary to reference him in your music?
The reason I put these types of names in my records is ‘cause for so long I went through school and I never knew about these people. So I get to a time where I’m 23 years old and I don’t really know who these people are and when I do a song like Hiii Power, it’s not me preaching to the audience what they should know. It’s me asking questions, just like the listener is doing and that was my point. So when I’m out in the street and meet people who know about these people a lot more than I do, they can tell me about them. So if I’m at a show or if I’m at a meet-n-greet I usually ask people what they like about Hiii Power and they tell me exactly why.
So it’s kind of like the Laws Of Attraction principle for you?
Well one final question on that note, do you believe that the philosophies of Malcolm X are still relevant today?
Oh definitely, everything. Everything that him and MLK laid down for us. All of that is relevant today. It’s given me the certain attitude to come out here and do things the way I do. They set the tone for individuals to go out there, open their mouth, say what they feel and represent what they believe in.