Interview: Kendrick Lamar Talks 'Section.80,' Major Labels, & Working With Dr. Dre

The Compton rapper explains why he doesn't smoke weed, the making of "HiiiPoWeR," and what he learned from Dr. Dre.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Kendrick Lamar is on a hot streak. He’s fresh off the release of his acclaimed independent album Section.80, he’s gotten co-signs from legends like Dr. Dre, Nas, and Snoop Dogg, and he recently linked up with Pharrell.

To top it off, he’s got a busy schedule ahead. He’s got a mixtape in the works with J. Cole, another project with his Los Angeles-based rap group Black Hippy (composed of himself, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, and Jay Rock), and let’s not forget all the work he put in on Dr. Dre’s Detox.

With Kendrick and members of his label Top Dawg Entertainment visiting New York City, we caught up with the artist formerly known as K-Dot and talked about the Odd Future namedrop on Section.80, searching for that hit single, and the time he got high and had a bad trip.

Interview by Eric Michels (@Eric_Chance) & Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)

You’ve gotten a great reception for your latest mixtape, Section.80. What was the recording process like?
I started working on Section.80 like four months prior to it coming out. There’s a point in time where I was doing a lot of shows and I had to really make the transition to find the balance between recording and doing shows.

I’m a studio writer. That’s how I was raised, locking myself in the studio and working on my craft. That’s what I love to do. So by the time I dropped OD it was getting to the point where I was on the road a lot. I had to find time to lock myself in the studio for a good three months and gather all my thoughts.

I was doing a lot of writing while I was on the road. Sometimes when you’re not in that vibe and that presence of the actual studio feel, your best material is not going to come up. It’s whatever makes you comfortable.

What made me comfortable was going back to the same small little studio in Carson, California, 20 minutes from Compton. I’ve been recording there since I was 16. It’s called Top Dawg Studios, but House of Pain is what we like to call it. It’s our little dungeon. I had to go back there, sit down, and come up with the whole process of Section.80.

How did “HiiiPoWeR” come about?
That was one of the first beats that I picked out of the batch [that J. Cole gave me]. I was coming from the XXL freshman shoot and I had the beat in my e-mail. I had the beat for a while, I was sitting on it. We were flying back and [the President of Top Dawg Ent.] Punch was just throwing all these names in the air like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey.

Punch is a mentor [to me], he can teach you knowledge that you can relate to and that you’ll want to hear. So he’s throwing these names in the air, names you know, but you never did your research on. I thought it was crazy that you’re in a school district your whole life in Compton and they never really gave you the proper history on these people that’s monumental to your life.


They always telling you the typical, like he’s an incredible man. They never really sat down and said, “Yo, he did this for you.” [These are] individuals that’s made sacrifices for your life, of black males in general.

When I approached that record, I didn’t want it to sound like I’m preaching. I wanted to approach it just like what I heard when Punch was telling me these names that I didn’t have an understanding of. So when I attacked the record, I attacked it as a boy searching for answers and trying to figure it out. Asking you to tell me. I got the inspiration from Punch and recorded it the next day at Top Dawg Studios.

One of my biggest things that I didn’t want to do for “HiiiPoWeR” was just make it a race thing. I wanted to make it for a bigger goal in mind and that’s to stand above all the bullshit, that’s what those people did. So when I say “HiiiPoWeR,” I’m representing everybody that’s trying to escape the negatives in the world and do something positive with their life and stand for something bigger that’s going to live forever, just like they people did.

Ab-Soul: I’ll tell you something else about that record too. Originally it was called “Black HiiiPoWeR.” But we were like, we don’t like that attitude of HiiiPoWeR. It’s got to be larger.

I heard you had 25 different mixes for that song. Is that the Dre in you?
[Laughs.] Might be. That’s [my engineer] Ali mixing all them records. We sat down for a minute trying to get it right because we knew what it was going to do when it hit the masses.

[It was like that for] probably like 80% of the project. I always sit in with the mixes, there’s a certain sound that I be looking for. Not only with the instrumentation, but with my vocal performance. Sometimes you gotta get it over a few times to get it right to your likings.

MC Eiht once had an album called Section 8 and has been on a label called Hi Power since 2006. Does that have any relation to your movement?
I might’ve been aware of it. [Laughs.] That’s dope. That’s good research. You know your stuff.

One of the songs on the album, “Ab-Soul's Outro," has a reference to Odd Future. I had to listen to it a few times to get it.
What did you get out of it? [Laughs.]

Well, it sounded like he was rapping about aliens and the Mayans, and the world ending, so it was like, “Odd Future’s aight but our future’s not.” So I was like, “Oh the rap group is cool but we’re doomed because the world is going to end next year.” But I don’t know for sure, I wanted to get that clear.
That’s a line that I still don’t know. [Laughs.]

Does someone want to help us out here?
Ab-Soul: You’re gonna need an Ab-Soul interview. [Laughs.] Yeah, you gotta get that Ab-Soul interview. You can take that line in so many ways but I think it’s just a tight line.

But seriously guys, what does that Odd Future line mean?
He’s saying that they’re dope, but our future’s not.

So my original interpretation is correct. How much deeper can I read?
No deeper. [Laughs.]




Jay Rock—who is managed by Top Dawg just like you—is on Strange Music. Strange Music is Tech N9ne’s company that he built from the ground up. Is Top Dawg trying to do something similar to Strange Music?
As far as a company and a team, hell yeah. I went on tour with Tech N9ne and I’ve seen the damage that he’s done, the fanbase he built up just by going out there to these small cities and building up his supporters one by one. I think that’s the stuff that a lot of artists should follow instead of trying to go after a hit single.

When you go after a hit single and you actual get that hit single, it can be a make or break for you. And most likely a break because after you get it, you have to get another hit single right after that. So everything is basically downhill. But when you actually build up an organic fanbase from the jump, like Tech N9ne did, they’ll be with you forever.

Are you not interested in making hit singles?
Of course [I am]. But I can’t go wrong because if I get that hit single and I live with it forever, it’s not going to matter because I’ve always had this base that I started out with from the jump. That base believes in me and will buy the same album that I made 20 years ago and see the progression of that. They’re not going to buy my music off of a hit record.

I think a lot of artists fell victim to that. They’re not going out here and doing their legwork and making people actually believe in the message of the artist and the human being. They’re not making people feel you.

But you’re at that point now. You do have this consolidated fanbase who believes in you. It seems like the logical step for you is now to get that big hit.
Right. But I’m not going to go into it where I’m forcing it because it’s not going to feel organic. The first people that’s going to hear it is the people that love the music. Even people that don’t really fuck with my music like that, they’re going to know that I went out of my way to get a hit single and it didn’t work. If it feels right and it makes sense, so be it. I’d love it. It’s all about doing something that feels right for you and not losing the people you started out with. Who wouldn’t want a big record?

I think that Wiz Khalifa also followed that concept of building a base. He had the Taylor Gang, then he had a big record with “Black & Yellow.”
Exactly and it made sense. It wasn’t far from what he was doing already. It was still in his lane and it worked.

But the thing for Wiz was that he was on Atlantic, a major label. Do you think you can get that big hit and just be on Top Dawg?
I think it’s possible. Of course it takes money, but that’s the gamble you have to take when you’re an independent label. You have to take the dollars out of your own pocket and push a record that you feel strong about. That’s what the labels are doing anyway, [putting] money behind these records and giving it to the stations. I think with the independent side of thing, we just have to take that gamble.


So you’re not pursuing a major label deal?
If it’s right. When I say if it’s right, it have to be fitting to the needs that we already started with, as far as the creative aspect, as far as the business end. When you build something organic from the bottom, you don’t want nobody to come in and try to alter it. You want [them] to come in on the same ride that you’ve been moving to and hopefully they can help and better it. I think that’s the best thing about it. But at the end of the day, we’re independent. I’ve been offered plenty of record deals.

By who?
Probably all of the labels you could think of.

What about Aftermath? You were seen with Dre, he stood closer to you than any artist he has actually signed in ten years.
That is because Dre and I have a personal relationship. In the first studio session, we clicked so crazy. It was more like a uncle-nephew kind of vibe. Because everybody sees Dre as just a gangsta rapper, but he shares the same story that I have, a good kid in a mad city.

When we sit in the studio, we talk about these different streets that we both lived on and experiences he had that I can relate to being two generations younger. I think that’s why people attach it so strongly because of the chemistry that we have outside the studio.

Dre has signed other guys, like Joell Ortiz and Slim Da Mobster, but he never appeared with them anywhere. He went to the Lakers game with you, he went on stage with you. He never did that for anyone else.
It’s the relationship, truthfully. And the music making is that much better though. When you are able to create and click in the studio and outside the studio. I respect Dre 100%. He gave me so much game just in this past year that I’ve known him, it won’t only make me a better artist, but it makes me a better person.

What did he tell you?
Just about life in general. About having passion, setting goals, and having a vision. I never understood vision to that pedigree until I sat in that studio and he wrote down everything that manifested in his life—he’s seen it before. You can’t really grasp that concept that people have because they can’t really justify it because they can’t touch it.

Everything that has manifested in his life in the past year, he’s seen it at the start of N.W.A. People can never justify that because they can’t grab it. They can’t think that heavy on that type of level. That was the coldest shit he told me because he was telling me the steps on how he’s seen this album and this record doing this and seeing his label doing this and they actually did that.

It’s basically about believing in yourself and having the dedication he has. Being under him and watching the passion, the same type of feel he has since the first early days of N.W.A., it’s crazy. It makes me go harder.

You talk about learning to believe in yourself from Dre. On “I Need A Doctor” Eminem talks about Dre second-guessing himself all the time. Have you ever gotten that same sort of impression? That Dre is second-guessing himself?
Nah, what I got was that he knows he has the world on his back, as far as the music. I’ve gotten more of the passion than anything, just making sure everything is right. He’s like a scientist in there. I think that’s something that all artists have to develop within themselves. His is just at a point where it’s unmatched.




I mean, ten years...
[Laughs.] Right, when I say that it’s really unmatched, everything has to be right. He is real critical and he has a passion for the music so heavy where he can’t go out unless he feels it’s right, so I feel him.

Did you put in any work on Detox?
I did a lot of verses. To be in there and see the quality of music it is, the shit that he just has in the cut, waiting. It’s unmatched.

You seem to know, is Detox coming out this year or what?
I can’t give no date. I’m not even about to throw a date in the air. When it comes, he’ll have the whole industry shut down.

I was so convinced it was coming when the video came out...
The video definitely tells you it’s about to come out. He ain’t put out no video [before]. The leaks and that shit don’t count. When you put out an actual video and spend money, it’s coming.

You’ve said before that Section.80 wasn’t the right time for people to first hear you over a Dre beat. When do you think you will start releasing music that you have worked on with him?
I wanted to save that. I wanted to give a beat by Dre its own light. I didn’t want to put it on Section.80. I want Section.80 to have its own light, its own entity. I didn’t want people to want to purchase the project because I had two or three crazy ass Dre beats. I think I made the right choice because once they hear the shit that I’ve done with him, they’re going to appreciate it a lot more.

Did Dre have any contribution toward how you put together Section.80?
Nah. Y’all heard the album just the way I played it [for Dre]. I wanted to get his perspective on it and see what he thought about it. He loved it. He said it was different. Different as in different-good. Everything that’s different is not good. [Laughs.] He loved it. That studio footage of me and him in there, that’s when I was playing the joints.

Another video that was released with studio footage is of you working on “Ronald Reagan Era” with the RZA vocal. How did that come about?
My man DJ Friction overseas, he worked with RZA. RZA liked my music, he liked the rawness and the feel of it. I been talking back with my dude DJ Friction and he said RZA was sitting on some vocals over there and that I could flip them motherfuckers. I’m like, “You’re telling me I could take some RZA vocals and I could flip ‘em?” [Laughs.]


He gave me authorization for that and I’m finna run with it. I been sitting on this shit for a long time. I was just waiting on the right time to find the right record to put it over. And I didn’t want nothing too plain, I just wanted something real subtle. And that’s how I used it. It came out dope and I got his blessing. So it was ill. And my dude Dave Free told me that [RZA] loved the record.

What’s up with your mixtape with J. Cole?
We definitely gotta finish that up. I know the people have been really in demand for it. But at the same time, I have to get on the road and work Section.80 because it’s going to please the people more to see those songs come to life.

It’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learned in the past year; recording a song and putting it on CDQ is dope. But when you’re actually out there touching the crowd and performing it, it’s a whole other energy. It takes your artistry on a whole other level as far as having a supportive base. I just gotta find a balance as far as going on the road and recording.

So have you guys been getting in the studio together and working on that?
As of late, no because we’ve been so busy. He’s on a tour right now and I’ve got Section.80. [We got in the studio] like at least ten months ago. So we’ve got a few of the songs in the stash. Once we really lock in, I know it’s not going to be hard to bang out [the records].

I saw [Ab-Soul’s] tweet a couple weeks ago that you were in contact with Nas. How did that happen?
My management got in touch with a friend of his that liked the music from the jump. I don’t think Nas was familiar with the music yet until he introduced “HiiiPoWeR” to him. I think he heard “HiiiPoWeR,” liked it, and said it was a crazy record. That’s been in the air since, I don’t know what’s going to happen after that.

Did you guys meet or talk on the phone?
No, straight through friends.

I saw on 2dopeboyz, on the post about you and Pharrell, Meka said that you and Drake had linked up in Toronto.
That’s a good rumor. I would like that to happen.

On songs like “Celebration” and “Determined,” you rhymed about the idea of getting a co-sign—specifically from Snoop, Ice Cube, Quik, and Dre. Now, it’s almost two years after the release of that project, you’ve actually gotten praises from Snoop, Quik, and Dre. How does it feel?
It’s a beautiful thing to get the stamp from the pioneers. It’s an even more beautiful thing to know that they heard the actual line from the EP and gave me credit for saying that I’m going to push myself.

I’m not going to go out here and complain like every West Coast artist and say, “Why are the OGs not helping me?” I’m going to go out here and do it myself and get the attention just off the music itself. That’s the drive they’ve seen in me from the jump.

When I go back and somebody plays that for them, they think it’s incredible that I think like that because you don’t see young cats today trying to do the legwork. Everybody’s looking for a handout. I wasn’t looking for no handout.

When the West Coast [artists] were in that space where they felt like they were mad at all the older cats for not helping them, I thought that was the stupidest shit in the world. I hated that. Like, what are you talking about? Go out here and do some fucking good music and shut up. That’s the mentality I have.




Speaking of cosigns, you recently got one from Pharrell. How did you end up working with him?
He reached out. He called my people and we got in the studio. He showed love on Section.80 and was telling me how much he appreciates the sound we went for and how we weren’t scared to push boundaries.

Listening to Section.80, it was a feel that I don’t think a lot of people can jump on as soon as you hear it. It’ll probably take a few times to listen, but when you do you get the whole gist of it. He said that’s a big leap that he can appreciate because that’s the same type of feel he was going for in the early Star Trak days, pushing the limits. We got to work on like four ideas [for songs]. It’s a good start, I will tell you that.

You have beats from Dre, beats from Pharrell. These are pricey guys to get. How do you afford beats from them?
That’s off the relationship.

Are you getting a discount?
[Laughs.] Hopefully. I make that record and we try to release that motherfucker, then they try to charge me five hundred racks for it. Fuck! Nah, I’m just fuckin’ around. But yeah, hopefully. If they love the record that much and they believe in me, hopefully, because I definitely don’t have that type of money.

So you guys have never had that type of discussion?
Nah, that’s what you don’t want to do. That’ll ruin the artist and the producer. I wouldn’t want no producer telling me, “Let me talk to ya folks first about this record.” I don’t even want this shit anymore because I can’t even put my all into it and be creative without thinking about numbers that I don’t have.

You’re one of the few rappers who doesn’t drink or smoke. Did you ever do it at one point?
I tried, but it never gave me the stimulation I needed because I think so fucking much. Of course, I got drunk, got high, and had a bad trip. I was scared as fuck, I thought I was gonna die.


Off of weed?
Nah, this was some other shit.

Did you smoke some laced shit?
Nah, not no laced shit.

What happened to you?
I just had a bad trip where you think you’re about to die. That’s all I know about bad trips, you think you about to die.

After that trip, you never smoked again?
I smoked a few times after that. I smoked. I’ve been high before. I just never got the gist of it, of the feeling what everyone else was telling me about. It never hit me. I don’t smoke period. But I’m surrounded by crackheads.

You said that you wrote “H.O.C.” because of [ScHoolboy Q]. Do you ever actually get high off contact?
You know what’s crazy, though? I made a song about “H.O.C.,” but I’m around the Wiz Khalifas of the Wiz Khalifas. Wiz don’t smoke like these cats do. But yeah, “H.O.C.” is real.

In “The Heart, Part 1,” you talk about meeting J. Cole, and about all these young guys that are getting recognition. Who are you feeling right now that is in the position you were in two years ago, or even last year?
That’s crazy, because I still look at myself in the same position I was in two years ago. [Pauses.] Damn, that’s ill. I done learned something by myself. I still want to prove myself because I have a lot to fucking prove. Some people think I have two feet in the door, I think I have a shoelace in the door.

I can’t really speak on a lot of artists other than L.A. dudes. But I think we’re all on the same line. I don’t look at it as, “I’m ahead of them,” or, “They’re ahead of me.” Neither one of us are ahead of nothing until we’re able to put out music that we want, on our own terms, on a major scale, and able to change the motherfucking torn ass industry.

What other projects are you working on?
I’m just working on a bulk of music right now. Not really focused on an actual project, unless it’s my album. That’s actually the only thing that I’m really going in on. Black Hippy, of course we’re finishing that up.

Do you have a timeline for it to be released?
[The Black Hippy project should be out] this year. But I’m not going to put out another solo project. I’m gonna let Section.80 breathe for a second.

Your next project is going to be a big one. Are you going to try and get a distribution deal for that if you’re not going to release it through a major label?
I’m not focused on that, I’m just focused on music. I’m not really thinking about the business end of it. I’m focused on Section.80 right now and getting the visuals done. I need to be seen. We’ll just continue to push that because it’s still new, it’s still breathing. We gonna push it all the way to the limit.

Latest in Music