The inauspicious nerve center for Los Angeles’ most promising hip-hop movement is the back room of a residential home at the end of a cul-de-sac in a reasonably idyllic neighborhood in the city of Carson. The dimly lit studio space leaves just enough room for a tattered couch, a vocal booth and a Pro Tools rig. It’s here that the roster of Top Dawg Entertainment—Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q, collectively known as Black Hippy—first met seven years ago. And it’s here that they’ve stayed. “We’ve just been in the studio since, that same studio,” says Lamar. “Perfecting the craft.”
Craft is not a word his circle throws around lightly. On a mild winter night Jay Rock sits transfixed by the dual glow of his phone and a studio monitor. He’s playing the same beat repeatedly, writing and rewriting in his iPhone notepad, mumbling rhymes to himself in the process. Behind him, Ab-Soul sits unassumingly on a torn up couch, accompanied by a lady friend. He’s just zoning out, his bushy afro pulled back behind a pair of big black Eazy E-type Loc sunglasses. When Lamar arrives, with carryout teriyaki chicken in tow, he greets everyone with little more than a simple, distant pound and then makes an immediate beeline to where Rock is sitting. He dines and vibes, bobbing his head with a focused calm, alternately staring down the monitor and the rapper behind it, as if to form a psychic connection with whatever it is that Rock is building.
Schoolboy Q is nowhere to be found this evening, but his presence is felt nonetheless. When someone throws on his “Niggahs Already Know,” a minor anthem from his Habits & Contradictions LP, on laptop speakers, the seriousness of the room immediately cracks. Ab-Soul jumps up from his semi-comatose couch state and breaks into a set of loose, upper-body dance moves as the small assemblage of TDE artists and associates cheers him on half-jokingly. All the while, Jay Rock stays the course, playing that same damn beat, only breaking away from his digital notepad periodically to pull Lamar or TDE president/general manager Dave Free to the side to mutter rhymes in their ears in exchange for a nod of approval. After about two hours of this, Rock finally hops into the darkened vocal booth, where that whisper immediately turns into a growl as his trapped-in-the-hood lament comes to life. He blacks out, so to speak, perpetually lunging forward as he raps as if he’s about to jump out of his own skin. And then he does another take.
The next day, eating with the other three Black Hippies at a Korean fast-food chain a scant mile from their home base, Rock speaks of his dedication. At 26, he is the eldest of the posse, as well as its earliest initiate. A product of Watts’ decidedly Blood-leaning Nickerson Gardens housing projects, his earliest music is blindingly gang affiliated. 2007’s “Blood Niggaz” is a simplistic and single-minded banging anthem: I’m a Blood nigga when you see me better give it up/ Nothin’ but a B thang homie we don’t give a fuck. On last year’s Follow Me Home LP he sounds like a changed man, still tied to his affiliations but considerably more thoughtful and eloquent about them, In a matter of a second nothing matters when you reppin’ for your turf…it’s a sickness when you kill your own kind. He credits fellow Nickerson citizen, TDE’s founder and namesake Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, with pointing him in this new direction. “I was one of those young cats and knuckleheads that was hard headed, that didn’t listen,” he explains. “[Top Dawg] locked me up in the studio and I’ve been there ever since.”