The year was 2006 and at the time I operated a website that strictly focused on West Coast-based artists and producers. One of our functions was finding and showcasing new talent that was coming up in the aftermath of veterans like Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Ice Cube and others who had already established themselves as stars in the industry. That summer I received a phone call from my friend Big Wy, a veteran artist who was a part of a group called The Relativez. He told me about a new artist named Jay Rock from a start-up label called Top Dawg Entertainment.
The young man was from the Nickerson Gardens projects in Watts, CA. This area happened to be one of the most notorious in all of California as it was and still is the home of the infamous Bounty Hunters, a faction of the Bloods.
The interview was set to take place at the Nickerson Gardens but work conflicts prevented me from going so Big Wy was gracious enough to take my place as he and Jay Rock discussed life in the projects and rap aspirations. The interview received much fanfare as it was obvious to see that something special was taking place at this new little music label. Soon after, I would find myself at the Top Dawg headquarters in Carson, CA – a small studio located in the back of a living complex. Punch, who later become the company’s President, was there along with Jay Rock to greet me and to play some of the new stuff that they had been working on. Kendrick Lamar at this point was just a newly signed artist by the name of K. Dot as the company was clearly focused on Jay Rock as its frontman and future star.
“When you’re working on your craft, you have no choice but to get better.”—Jay Rock
Things were going well for the young artist as his single “Life Me Up”, an anthem to the West Coast, started gaining traction around Los Angeles and got picked up by local radio stations KDAY and Power 106. A remix was soon put together that featured other up-and-coming artists like Glasses Malone, Hot Dolla, Spider Loc, Damani, Bad Lucc, K. Dot and another new TDE signee by the name of Ab-Soul. As I went over these memories with Jay Rock at his recent Spotify concert in downtown Los Angeles he said, “Top Dawg took me out of the hood and into the studio and we’ve been doing it ever since. I always had the dream and the vision and now that we are here, we just keep staying hungry and consistent.”
The success of “Lift Me Up” led to a deal with Warner Bros. as Top Dawg Entertainment landed its first major label partnership. Warner was set to push Jay Rock as one of its bright new stars and even released a single featuring Lil Wayne, the biggest rap star at the time, called “All My Life.” One version featured fellow labelmate Kendrick Lamar on the hook, an unknown name at the time still using the K. Dot moniker, and another version featuring Black Eyed Peas frontman will.I.am. Although fans were feeling the K. Dot version more, the label chose will.I.am’s version as the song that radio was going to play.
Unfortunately, the song didn’t take off as expected and soon after Warner and Jay Rock parted ways. “It’s all love because it was a growing process. I took the bumps and the bruises for the company. It was a learning experience and we learned the business,” said Jay Rock at the Spotify event.
It wasn’t too long after this that Kendrick started to rise on the scene by coming out of the shadows of being Jay Rock’s stage hype-man to the artist that we know him to now be. Other labelmates such as Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul began to cement themselves giving Top Dawg Entertainment a rich roster consisting of four young talented individuals who also happened to come together as a super-group known as Black Hippy.
With the other TDE artists coming to the forefront, Jay Rock took a backseat of sorts although he continued to make music and release albums. The spotlight clearly belonged to Kendrick Lamar followed by Schoolboy Q. It was Kendrick though that became not only the shining star of the company but one of the world’s biggest stars garnishing praise from President Barack Obama and ultimately becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer prize.
It seemed as though the world forgot about Jay Rock and his contributions to Top Dawg Entertainment as he was the foundation the label was built upon. When I asked Jay Rock about this period in his life he said, “I was happy to see my n*ggas on the forefront and going hard. It’s what it’s about. You go hard or go home.”
As if having to adjust to being on the backburner wasn’t enough, Jay Rock was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in 2016 that almost cost him his life. This incident caused him to re-think his life and his ambitions. “When you go through something like that, you have no choice but to change. God gave me my second chance and this is my redemption,” he said.
The world may have forgotten about Jay Rock but his labelmates sure didn’t. In leading up to the release of his Redemption album, the Black Hippy crew got together in a short documentary to remind everyone of Jay’s contribution to the company being its original foundation and all. The album itself shows a vigorous and renewed Jay Rock as he raps with more intensity than the Game-like flow that we have been so used to hearing on previous works. Redemption features songs that are more layered, crafted, and catchier than anything that the Watts rhymer has recorded in the past. When asked if this was Kendrick Lamar’s influence Jay Rock said, “Everybody influences me. I get motivated every time I hear dope sh*t. Kendrick and I have had chemistry since day one – we started together.”
As for the album’s different sound from his previous works he added, ”Jay Rock is growing. What do you want? The same old stuff? I’m still the same n*gga but when you’re working on your craft, you have no choice but to get better.”
Photo: Courtesy of Spotify