It’s 12:20 p.m. and an assistant at the downtown Los Angeles offices of Top Dawg Entertainment emerges in the building lobby and apologizes for the wait before whisking this writer up the elevator. A text from TDE management’s retOne comes shortly after suggesting that he’ll be arriving soon and Jay Rock will follow for his scheduled sit down to discuss his long-anticipated sophomore album, 90059.
Apologizing for being 20 minutes late is not very rapper-like at all. But everyone at TDE operates differently from hip-hop industry standards, which is why the label has found great success over the years with megastar Kendrick Lamar, superstar ScHoolboy Q, indie darling Ab-Soul, and the emergence of new family members Isaiah Rashad and SZA.
Next up is ironically the rapper who started it all for TDE, Johnny Reed McKenzie Jr., a.k.a. Jay Rock, a.k.a. Big Bro.
After settling into the confines of the TDE office, which is more like a luxury apartment than an actual office space, retOne enters, with Jay Rock making his entrance shortly after, and motions to follow him upstairs into a loft area where hundreds of Reebok shoe boxes line the walls and will later be donated to children in the Los Angeles area.
With Jay Rock rummaging through boxes, Ret pops open his MacBook and fumbles between that and his iPhone to make sure that MTV VMA tickets for TDE President Dave Free are ready for pickup later this afternoon. In between texts, casual conversation, and emails, he connects a Beats by Dre pill speaker and, without warning, launches right into the opening track of 90059, “Necessary,” produced by Black Metaphor and JRB for the Coalition, where the first half serves as the opening credits for the cinematic album while the second half folds into neck-snapping viciousness as Jay Rock attacks the beat with gusto.
Of course, like all things TDE related, the wait is always worth it.
As the elder statesman of the Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith-run label, Jay Rock’s career liftoff has been deferred for the betterment of the business. He was a crash-test dummy of sorts who ran through the industry door with his head down and eyes closed as they collectively tried to navigate the labyrinth in search of success.
Rock inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records in 2007, dropped the Lil Wayne-assisted single “All My Life (In the Ghetto)” in late 2008, and landed on the cover of XXL’s annual Freshman issue in 2010 before finally releasing Follow Me Home on July 26, 2011. But all the doors Rock opened were less about him and more so for his little brothers to step through with a blueprint and flashlight in hand.
“I was the first one off the leash who got a deal,” Rock says about the early years of TDE. “I went through the doors, took all the shots for the team, and continued knocking shit down. But my bros came through and fucked it up right behind me. I had to take some time off to heal up from all that damage, but now big bro is back!”
Jay Rock has decidedly operated in opposition to most rappers today. While many artists look to set it off by being the star of the label, Rock’s family-first mentality allowed the label to learn through trial and error and construct the industry monster Kendrick Lamar is today.
Although he possesses an intimidating exterior, Jay Rock is as selfless as they come. He refuses to take credit for the label’s success and instead shifts the recognition to his mother for instilling the mindset that allowed the label to flourish.
“My mom used to always read Bible scriptures to me and constantly say, ‘Charity starts at home,’” Rock explains. “I always kept that in my mind and watched how it came to reality. I didn’t get it then, but now that I’m older it lives with me.”
For those reasons, Jay Rock’s tardiness today was understandable. He has recently returned from a quick New York City promotional run, where, for once, he focused squarely on himself in order to prepare fans for the release of his follow-up to 2011’s Follow Me Home, with a title that doubles as the zip code of his hometown of Watts, Los Angeles.
“I want people to smell Watts with this album,” he says of the 11-track project that, at the time of this interview, lacked a release date and would only drop once it reached an undisclosed amount of preorders. “You always hear about Compton, but everyone overlooks Watts. It’s the motherland, and I’m confined to this box with my zip code. This album is about the life and struggles that go on in this box and with me eventually stepping out of the box.”
In the midst of playing select songs from 90059, the Nickerson Gardens rapper who is responsible for the music that is bouncing off the apartment walls can be overheard downstairs having an animated conversation that is punctuated heavily by the very “na’mean” that was said 205 times in the now-infamous interview with Power 105’s The Breakfast Club.
Once upon a time, using a “na’mean counter” to poke fun at Jay Rock’s way of ending his sentences might have drawn the ire of the MC, but today he talks it all in stride.
“I ain’t even gonna lie, I was one of them serious niggas, man,” he says while suggesting that he’s going to take advantage of the na’mean wave with a song and a T-shirt. “At the end of the day, I had to learn that it’s all about having fun…na’mean?”
The 30-year-old rapper, dressed in a white T-shirt, shorts, a fresh pair of sneakers, and colorful socks, finally settles into a chair and joins the listening session as the Black Hippy posse cut “Vice City” is blasting from the speakers. It’s the first time Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar have all been on the same song since 2012, but the chemistry is absolutely undeniable.
“We haven’t had fun like that in a long time because everybody is all over the place,” Rock says over the Cardo-produced song that finds all four MCs trying to outdo each other with bars laced with ridiculousness. “When Dot came with ‘I got big money, big booty bitches’ I was like ‘Oh man!’” Rock says with his hands waving animatedly. “Every time I hear ‘Vice City’ it cracks me up with the shit we said because that’s us!”
Things have changed drastically for the collective in the past few years. Jay Rock’s “little bro,” who he still affectionately refers to by his early rap moniker of K Dot, has taken the industry by storm while both Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q have found individual success that has led to some distance among the tightly knit labelmates due to their respective schedules. Rock isn’t concerned though as he remains in Watts while his brothers are spread across the world. He maintains that they are as tight today as they were when they were sleeping on studio floors dreaming about the heights they would eventually reach.
“I talk to everybody all the time,” Rock says. “Dot might be in France, Soul may be in New York, and Q could be somewhere else, and I’m at home working. But we are always texting each other.”
While everyone has been doing their own thing, Jay Rock has focused on perfecting his craft. His evolution as an MC has been pronounced and steadily improving over the years. Eyebrows were collectively raised when he arguably stole the show with his verse on Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” off of 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and he followed up with notable appearances on the remixes of Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.” and Isaiah Rashad’s “Shot You Down.” The steady progression has led to 90059’s heightened expectations, which are unequivocally met with this offering.
The difference between the gruff-voiced Jay Rock whose straightforward approach dotted his debut album and the one on 90059 is pronounced. There’s the eccentric Ol’ Dirty Bastard flow on the title track, the laid-back storytelling of “Fly on the Wall,” and the experimental stumbling rhyme pattern of the aforementioned Black Hippy collaboration. All of these are new things Jay Rock has tried under the advice of a Bay Area legend and master of unique rhyme patterns and hood slang.
“E-40 taught me a long time ago to try different things with my voice, experiment, and only roll with it if it feels right,” Jay Rock says.
“Your voice is an instrument more than anything, and I’m really just getting more comfortable with mine,” he continues. “If you listen to the old Rock I always had one tone of rapping, but now I’m learning how to stretch out my voice and use it in different ways.”
TDE has come a long way since Jay Rock’s debut sold a paltry 5,300 copies in its first week back in 2011. Today, the out-of-print Follow Me Home fetches a pretty penny on Amazon. The Watts rapper’s eyes nearly pop out when he’s shown a copy that has an asking price of $4,512.17. “Shit, we were struggling with trying to get people to buy that album for $15,” he says while shaking his head in disbelief.
Jay Rock states that he’s already knee-deep into working on his next album that he describes as “the big one” and that 90059 is an appetizer of sorts that is meant to stick to the ribs of fans until the full course arrives. Rock admittedly has a fondness for metaphors from the kitchen, as a food theme is prevalent throughout the album on songs such as “Gumbo” and “Easy Bake.”
I’m trying to get successful enough to come back to get people like Top Dawg did for me. —Jay Rock
“I still have work to do,” he says when asked if he believes he has finally made it. “I still have family in the hood. I’m trying to get successful enough to come back to get people like Top Dawg did for me. There are a lot of talented people in the hood, and I want to give niggas jobs so they can have the same avenue to make it and get their people out of situations too.”
Jay Rock stares at the TDE logo on the floor like a proud parent. But he shakes off any satisfaction with TDE’s accomplishments, lowers his head, and says both slowly and deliberately.
“But we’re still gonna hustle like we’re broke...na’mean?”