Since its inception in 2004, the TDE imprint has solidified itself as a powerhouse in hip-hop. The label's killer roster of talent has delivered some of the most critically and commercially successful projects over several years: there was Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize-winning Damn, SZA's hit debut album Ctrl, Schoolboy Q's Blank Face LP, and, of course, the wildly successful Black Panther soundtrack.
It's impressive that an indie label has not only retained but increased its relevancy for more than a decade. According to Top Dawg co-president Dave Free, he and his team have been able to accomplish this by recognizing the ever-evolving shifts within the music industry.
Free addressed the label's marketing approach in a recent interview with Vibe. He explained that the label has recognized the fast-changing business' dynamics and the ways they've had to change their formula to ensure they weren't left behind.
"Oh man, the approach is totally different. I was actually telling a buddy of mine because he just thinks we just have all the cheat codes, we just hit a button and they could just be famous the next day," he said. "None of the tactics we used back in the day to break Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock or Schoolboy would work now, none of 'em. It’s a whole new game. Blogs were very influential back then and I’d have to build a lot of relationships with blogs and now it’s just more about streaming. You have to have the relationships with the streaming sites and it can’t just be a fake relationship. It has to be a relationship of understanding."
He went on to add: "We’re just trying to be nimble and change with it, pay attention to what’s happening. I’m even back in the situation where I’m making business—I don’t even go to the club and party, but I’ll go to the club, go sit in there and pay attention to what’s happening. I never get jaded and never get stuck in my ways."
Free acknowledged the importance of a hit single, and how, in some ways, it has become more important than the full-length project. He explains that these records are what hook audiences on an album, rather than the other way around. He also spoke about TDE's emphasis on consistency and taking time with releases. He revealed that it's typical for certain projects to be completed months—sometimes a year—before their actual drops. But despite the extended delays, Free insists the Top Dawg artists are always busy.
"I would say the first part [in making artists feel valued] is to keep them working, keep everyone moving," he said. "An idle mind is the devil’s playground so we don’t let the mind be idle because even though you’re not dropping music, you’re still working, you’re still recording. [...] That keeps the artist in the place where even though music is not coming out right away, they’re busy, they’re active, they got something to do and they’re in the fold of the family vibe."
You can read Free's full interview, in which he also discusses K-Dot's Pulitzer win, here.