My Interview with Top Dawg Entertainment on the Making of Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly"
Hello, Reddit. I'm a music journalist working independently since 2013, covering all things in the hip hop world. I've kept my nose to the ground on up-and-comers in the industry and helped provide a small boost to new artists by interviewing them and posting their interviews on my blog.
This time around, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down with the executives of hip hop's favourite label, Top Dawg Entertainment. For this interview I focused on asking about To Pimp A Butterfly, my favourite release from the label and personal hip hop classic.
It was an honour to ask them questions pertaining to such an important album. I hope you guys enjoy reading the interview just as much as I enjoyed conducting it. :)
This album touches on a lot of social issues that are sadly still present in modern America. Black citizens still face extreme discrimination and racism despite the advancements made in this country for equality. How did you decide on this message for the album?
ScHoolboy Q (Rapper): I pitched the idea to Kendrick years ago. I remember telling him that as a black man in America, I am systemically disenfranchised and discriminated against. Didn't think he'd do anything with that. He just ran with it, though.
Kendrick Lamar (Rapper): Yeah, Q gave me the idea. I thought of the name beforehand and figured I could shoe-horn the message and keep the name the same.
Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith (CEO): Thank goodness Q came around with that idea when he did. We were stuck on the message for a solid three weeks. Nobody slept in that time. We were just thinking of ideas for the album. Kenny's first ideas were all related to Greek mythology.
Kendrick Lamar: The Greek mythology stuff didn't pan out. Wasn't my best idea, but not my worst either. After Top shut down that idea I considered rapping about my youth and growing up in Compton, but Punch put that on the backburner for another album.
Terrence "Punch" Henderson (Co-President): "To Pimp A Butterfly?" Dope name, but wouldn't work with anything Greek mythology related or youth related. Told him to think of something else. I thought of the name "I'm Just a Small Boy in the Great, Big World of Compton" for that project about being youthful and shit. Guess it didn't fly.
This album is easily one of the most dense hip hop releases in at least a decade. The message, instrumentals, tone; there's a lot to unpack. What was it like creating such a project?
Kendrick Lamar: Like any other project I make, I put my heart and soul into it, ya know? I'm glad that the hard work put into this was easy to see. It was pretty manageable, though, because I only worked on it once a week for an hour, maybe an hour and a half during the busier times. But no more.
Top Dawg: I kept telling Kendrick, "Kenny, brother, if we want this album out by the summer of 2012, you gotta put in a couple more hours every week. He never listened.
Punch: I remember Kendrick was telling me how badly he wanted this album to come out and be an "essential summer album", like, right after Section.80 came out. I told him at the rate he was going, it'd be out by Halloween of 2012. But that was also not accurate.
Top Dawg: We probably had all the production done and completed by spring 2012. I dunno, around there. It would have been done sooner but there was some disputes within the label.
Sounwave (Producer): I just thought jazz was stupid and I didn't want to be involved with an album with jazz in it. Top calling it a "dispute" is blowing it out of proportion. I learned how to play the accordion for this album but a week after I finished my classes, Kendrick said he wanted to do jazz for the album.
Kendrick Lamar: Once the summer of 2012 passed, I figured I could just make the album whenever I want and it'll be out when it'll be out. But because I still hadn't done anything in 2012, Top and Punch got pretty mad, so they shortened the time they gave me to make Good Kid, m.A.A.d City from four years to a week. I think it'd have been better if I had the four years.
Ab-Soul (Rapper): I never got an invite. Every time I asked for help on making an album, Top and Punch said they had no money. But then Kendrick dropped Good Kid and Q dropped Oxymoron and I'm seeing all these albums come out and I'm told they have no money. These Days was made on a $45 budget.
Jay Rock (Rapper): Kendrick told me to drop a verse on the project but I said I was busy on my album. I spent my one hour of music making time per week on 90059. I couldn't spend eight weeks on Butterfly. Crazy shit.
Punch: I remember telling everyone "You are artists. Make music! You know you can spend more than one hour a week on music, right?" They didn't care. Nobody cares about Punch, I guess.
Snoop Dogg (Rapper): I don't have an honest answer. I do a lot of stuff. What album was this?
As important as the rapping is, this album has some superb production. How was that process?
Thundercat (Musician): I was excited to work with Kendrick and the whole gang on this. I got mad respect for the group. Punch approached me and offered me $20 a day to continuously play the bass guitar. 24/7 for, what, three years? Sounds good to me.
Punch: Yeah, $20 a day for that? Practically free.
Flying Lotus (Musician): I kept saying to Thundercat that $20 a day is worse than minimum wage. That's less than $1 an hour. He was getting chump change. $25 would have been my starter rate if I was him.
Thundercat: I didn't have anything meaningful to do. Like yeah, I played bass, but if you play bass for three years every single day all day long, you're bound to get a section that'll work in the song. They just took various bits of my three year long bass stint and added it wherever was appropriate.
Pharrell Williams (Producer): I spent many long nights working on the beat for Alright. I was so proud of it. When I played it for Kendrick and the team, and they said "that beat's alright", I practically lost it. Like, that's my magnum opus.
Kendrick Lamar: Big misunderstanding with Pharrell. I literally meant to tell him that the beat was "alright;" nothing amazing, nothing horrible. When he started flipping out, I had to save face and change the song's title. It was originally going to be called "Do you hear me? Do you feel me?" Sometimes you just gotta make compromises on your artistic vision to make people happy.
Sounwave: Working with Flying Lotus was pretty difficult. Nice guy and all, but his choice in music making is beyond me. Jazz is stupid. I kept telling him that within earshot of Top, hoping I could be delegated to work on Jay Rock's project, but it never came about. Just had to deal with it.
Flying Lotus: Sounwave is a huge dick. Huge.
Ab-Soul: Still nothing from me on here. Kendrick even sent me a handwritten note asking me to make beats for this. I was professionally trained in jazz instrumentation, so I was a perfect fit. He never sent me the address to the studio, though, so I could never find it.
Knxwledge (Producer): I was trying to work more with Earl Sweatshirt and Anderson Paak at the time but they imprisoned me until I made a beat. I didn't have my beat-making shoes on so I gave them a beat I already made, said "Here you go, Mr Dawg. There is your new and original beat for this album." Then they let me go. They haven't figured it out yet.
Terrace Martin (FBI Agent): The instrumental to For Free? was me interrogating and torturing a suspected domestic terrorist. That's why it's so loud, because I'm beating him with the instruments. They always fail to credit me on this album and give ittTo Terrace Martin, the musician. I mean, I can't blame them. It makes sense that they'd credit a black jazz musician with the same name. I don't have any musical background, I was just an FBI agent trying to save his country.
Dr. Dre (Executive Producer): I'd say it's not every day that Kendrick Lamar asks you to be the executive producer on his album, but it actually is every day. Every morning, I get an email from Kendrick asking me to executive produce a new album of his. Like, he must just think of them in the shower, and then he emails me asking to executive produce them. I'm like, executive produce what? Like, it ain't even an idea yet, and he's telling me all about Zeus and shit and how he's Zeus in his next album. Way out of my league. I only executive produced this joint because it had a name.
Kendrick Lamar: Without a good name, you don't get Dr. Dre on your album. That's the power of a good name.
Working with such big names in hip hop and in other genres must have been exhilarating. What was the energy like in the studio while recording?
Top Dawg: I got this theory, it ain't studied or anything, but music comes out better if you make it in a room powered by renewable energy.
George Clinton (Singer): Top Dawg will pass the theory off as his own, but I just made up the renewable energy theory. People will believe anything if you're George Clinton, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Ab-Soul: Kinetic? I dunno. I told you I wasn't invited.
Kendrick Lamar: Every time I was in that studio for an hour, it'd be really weird. Thundercat's legs had atrophied after standing for months on end without moving. George Clinton would have a long discussion about wind turbines with Top Dawg. Knxwledge was in the beat-making cellar. Flying Lotus was really the only one putting in good work. Wish Ab was there, but I don't think he returned my letter.
ScHoolboy Q: Those studio sessions were good times for me to apply to various funk bands online. Who knew that right in front of me this whole time was head of Parliament-Funkadelic himself, George Clinton? I felt like such an idiot.
Punch: I don't know if you've been in a studio before, but the ones we were at were really small. I don't know why, but they were just ridiculously small. Once all the equipment is brought in you can only have maybe 5 people there comfortably. Considering Kendrick always travels with fifteen look-alikes, it got extremely cramped.
Jay Rock: Imagine my disappointment when fifteen dudes are just walking around that all look like Kendrick, and I can't even find one motherfucker who looks like me all across the country. I'm a bald black guy. How hard is that to find?
Kendrick Lamar: There was no running water in the studio. I thought that was weird. It made me extremely parched during the hour I was in there. I refuse to drink bottled water.
Punch: Now that I recall, yeah, running water was extra. We just didn't have it in the budget. Despite the costs we saved with Thundercat, they added right back up with the full-time Kendrick look-alikes.
This album has earned widespread critical acclaim and despite its limited mainstream appeal, it still sold very well and earned some Billboard Hot 100 placements. What was the reaction to such a positive response?
Kendrick Lamar: I thought the album would sell 13 units first week, so selling a few hundred thousand was pretty cool.
Sounwave: I told Kendrick that analysts predicted it would only sell 13 units first week because jazz is stupid. Like, how can there be a lot of people who like jazz? 13 sounded pretty accurate at the time.
Top Dawg: Before the album came out, I was hoping to buy out Billboard so I could fudge the numbers and put Kendrick at #1 all the time. I even set aside funds for this but it was all gone and I had no idea where it all went.
Ab-Soul: Yeah I guess it sold well. It would have sold more if I was on King Kunta, though. Oh well.
ScHoolboy Q: I told Kendrick every day that to sell well, he needs to be Drake. Like, actually become Drake. He didn't take that advice but he still sold pretty well. Colour me surprised.
Kendrick Lamar: The idea of only 13 units being sold first week worried me, because I had the notion in my head that the album was only good if I sold a lot. Luckily, a ton of white kids on Reddit assured me that commercial success doesn't make an album good, so I was covered there. But the album was really good anyways, because I sold a ton of units in the first week.
Jay Rock: I'm a Rhodes Scholar. I'm a Harvard graduate. I'm a philanthropist. I volunteer in my spare time. I know eight different languages. Kendrick tries to hold his commercial success over my head as a flex, but I still think I'm cooler than him.
George Clinton: I took that Billboard money from Top Dawg. Swindled it from him. It's easy to do that when you feed a man full of lies about renewable energy.
After the album's release and hype died down, what was the next move for Top Dawg Entertainment?
ScHoolboy Q: Punch made a good point that we could make more music if we just spent more time working on music. It's that kind of logical thinking that led me to make Blank Face in a fifteen day period.
Kendrick Lamar: I considered retiring from music after that, just because the album was so good that I could retire. But my Greek mythology album was just getting started with Dr. Dre behind the wheels of it, so that kept me in the game for longer.
Dr. Dre: Nah, I don't plan on doing that. I told Kendrick to think of a name for it. Until then, we're doing [Redacted], which is his album on the dangers of driving on icy roads.
Top Dawg: I made Dawgboard, which was my version of Billboard. On there, the top 100 just consists of King Kunta. It's a dream come true. I'm just working on that website for now.
Punch: I told Ab-Soul we can work on his album and he got extremely excited. But I forgot that we had to focus on Q, Zay, and SZA, so I just ghosted him again. I'm sure he understands. That's the music industry for you.
Ab-Soul: We're going solo now. Or like, "Soulo." Haha. Get it? I wish I had money.
Jay Rock: Everyone at TDE doubled down on 90059 just so we could release it on September 11th and maybe draw attention away from the anniversary of the terrorist attack on U.S. soil which killed over three thousand American citizens. It was my final "suck it" to Osama Bin Laden in my eyes.
Final question: What was the most important thing you learned while making this album?
Top Dawg: Definitely spend less money on look-alikes. I mean, ffiteen? Really? It's excessive. Five would basically send the same message.
Punch: Get a bigger studio. When recording 90059, our studio was the Boeing Everett Factory. It was pretty good, but just a little too big. So I guess finding something a bit smaller would be better.
Ab-Soul: Find a new studio for TDE to go to. Something more reasonably sized that I know the address to.
Sounwave: Making Butterfly reaffirmed my hatred for jazz. Just play the instruments correctly. Idiots.
Thundercat: I think I should charge more for my services. Flying Lotus told me to charge $25/day, so I think I'll go with that now. Gotta remain competitive in the market, though.
Knxwledge: I keep an extra pair of beat-making shoes on me, so if I ever get falsely imprisoned again, I can at least make an original beat to escape. This time around I was lucky they didn't check my discography, but who knows about the next time?
Kendrick Lamar: Probably keep in touch with Ab-Soul. I missed him. Brought a good energy to the studio.
submitted by shawtywantarockstar