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Kendrick Lamar and Anthony 'Top Dawg' Tiffith on How They Built Hip-Hop's Greatest Indie Label

The TDE family sat down with VIBE's Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas.

Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, an imposing figure at 6 foot 1, tends to wear a stern look under his ­signature red ­baseball cap. It’s a face sculpted on the streets of Watts, Los Angeles, ­during the drug-infested ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But on this September ­afternoon, climbing a set of stairs to the lounge of a Hollywood studio, the 47-year-old founder/CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, known to his friends as Top, is in a jovial mood. He just spent a few private moments trading jokes with TDE’s co-­president, Dave Free, that left the two doubled over with laughter. And after that, in between stone-faced poses for cameras, he was cracking up with Kendrick Lamar, TDE’s MVP—or, as some would argue, simply the greatest rapper alive.

Lamar’s in a fine mood, too, as he follows Tiffith up the stairs. You’d never know from his calm, coiled energy that he'd wrapped his 36-date North American tour for DAMN. only four days before. (And, less than a week before that, put on a riveting, pyrotechnics-filled performance that opened the MTV Video Music Awards.) It’s Tiffith who takes the seat at the head of the conference table—Lamar, 30, sits to his left—and starts the conversation off by smiling and saying, “I’m on the cover, so I decided I’ll speak a little bit. Not a lot, just a little bit. I like to stay behind the scenes and let my artists do their thing.”

By letting his artists do their thing, Tiffith, who rarely gives interviews (he last spoke to Billboard in 2014), has seen TDE grow into arguably the most important independent label in hip-hop. The company he founded in 2004 and runs with Free and co-president Terrence “Punch” Henderson has captured 4.72 percent of the overall market share in R&B/hip-hop this year to date (up from 2.22 percent this time last year), Billboard estimates based on Nielsen Music sales and streaming data. More importantly, TDE now provides the model for how to balance artistic integrity and massive commercial success.

Lamar, of course, has been central to this. In April, his latest album, DAMN., debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, becoming the top-performing album of 2017 so far (it has earned 2.25 million equivalent album units) and winning Lamar the ­greatest critical praise of his highly acclaimed career. But Lamar’s just one part of a roster that includes, among others, original signee Jay Rock; cerebral lyricist Ab-Soul; ScHoolboy Q, whose last two albums debuted in the Billboard 200’s top five; and singer SZA, whose debut, CTRL, released in June, has her pegged as a contender for best new artist at the next Grammys.

“The thing with TDE,” says Lamar, “is it was all ours—an independent deal from the jump. I came in at 16 years old, so it’s all I know.” TDE patiently grooms all of its artists, building their careers until they have their pick of major labels to help take them to the next level. Lamar released five mixtapes and one independent album, 2011’s Section.80, before cutting a deal with Aftermath/Interscope, and SZA put out two mixtapes and an EP before TDE partnered with RCA for CTRL. “It’s a family type of environment,” says Lamar. “It’s not just all about making money every day.”

The relationship between Top and Kendrick, confirms Tiffith, “is like father, son, partner,” and the two are relaxed and respectful in each other’s presence, interrupting one another only to double down on a point or get a laugh. Tiffith, who refers openly (although not in detail) to his previous life as a ­“hustler,” built TDE’s recording studio in his home, years before recruiting Jay Rock and, in 2004, meeting Lamar. “When shit goes bad,” figured Tiffith, “I’m going to do this.” And when his name eventually “got hot” with the ­authorities, it was Tiffith who ­actually recorded his artists in the studio. “The mixes was terrible,” he admits. “Terrible!” echoes Lamar. Now, TDE is about to launch a film division. “People really don’t know that Kendrick owns a percentage of TDE,” says Tiffith with no small measure of pride. “The movie, the TV shit that we’re working on, Kendrick’s going to be executive producer on whatever we do.”

Top, how did you encourage creativity in your artists early on?
Anthony Tiffith: Growing up in the era of the gangsta shit, a lot of my friends were getting killed, a lot of friends were in the pen, I got shot. When I got with the [TDE artists], it was up to me to show them ­something different—to lock them in my studio and make them build a bond as brothers, and struggle a little bit. I had the money to do whatever I wanted, but they weren’t going to appreciate shit if I just handed it off to them. So they were rushing to McDonald’s to look at what’s on the dollar menu, or going to get a River Boat special from Louisiana Fried Chicken. But I was showing them family life because my family lives in this house, too.

What made you trust these kids?
Tiffith: Me being in the streets all my life, I judge people pretty good. Jay Rock is from my hood, Nickerson Gardens. I was chasing him around, and he hides, thinking I’m trying to discipline him about some bullshit. I finally catch him while he was getting a haircut: “Yo, you rap. I’m trying to do this shit. Let’s go.” Dave [Free] was a computer dude, he came to fuck with my computer and played [Lamar’s] music.

Free told me he broke it more, though.
Tiffith: (Laughs) My computer was in a thousand pieces. He was trying to figure out which screw goes where. These dudes, they were hungry. They wanted to win.

How hungry were you, Kendrick?
Kendrick Lamar: I was too hungry, man. The summer I came over there, everyone was getting murdered and shit. There was a real war with my section and, like, two neighborhoods down the block. Compton [Calif.] is small, so n---as be warring on corners. By the grace of God, we found the studio.

And Top’s studio was free.
Lamar: You hear about homies going to studios and they’ve got to rush their verses, hurry up before somebody else comes in. I got to actually do a verse, scrap it, do it over and just perfect my whole shit. And that gave me the upper hand among other artists. All of us at TDE, that gave us an upper hand. Everybody [else] was just trying to get a hit record.

Top, why did you turn to music?
Tiffith: My uncle, [gang leader-turned-­community activist] Mike Concepcion, did music. I watched him. He had a bunch of ­producers, and then he wound up working with artists like Rome and Sylk-E. Fyne.

He put together the 1990 West Coast Rap All-Stars anti-violence song “We’re All in the Same Gang.”
Tiffith: Yeah. Watching him while I’m in the streets, I’m like, “That shit looks super easy. When this goes bad, then I’m going to do that.” I built my studio seven years before I even fucked with music. Once this shit got super hot, they swept my neighborhood. And I had that plan ready, to go from here to there.

So it could’ve went either way?
Tiffith: They made me do this. (Laughs) When I built my studio, I was looking for equipment—I’m not going to name where I got it from. When we picked it up, this dude told me he could help put it together. [Later] I go and pick the dude up and I say, “Yo, I got to blindfold you.” He’s like, “What?” I’m like, “Lay down back here. I’m not going to do nothing to you. You don’t need to know where you’re going. I don’t want you coming back, stealing my shit.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, I understand.” I get home, pull into the garage, and my girl’s there. So when I was like, “Come on,” he pops in with the blindfold, and she thought I had kidnapped the n---a. Like, “What the fuck is going on?”

Lamar: This dude got stories like this all day.
Tiffith: The next day, when he got in the car, he was looking for his blindfold. (Laughs) All that was just the beginning, man. When [the artists] first came, I’m trying to learn how to work the ­equipment. So I’m recording and all kinds of shit. This is me, though. Anything I deal with, I need to know something about it. So I was like, “Let me figure this shit out.”

Kendrick, what was your goal recording the early mixtapes and the Kendrick Lamar EP?
Lamar: That shit was like boot camp. Getting in there and learning how to rap, put words together, freestyles and bars and shit. As time progresses, you develop. I remember coming to Top like, “Hey, I want to change to my real name [from K.Dot].”

What did he say?
Lamar: He’s like, “Man, that shit sounds hard.” He was with it. “Man, that shit sounds like a cologne.” (Laughs)

Tiffith: That was the first thing that came to mind.
Lamar: Like, that sounds like cologne—we can sell that shit! I’m thinking, “What’s the [musical] approach?” It’s got to be real, it’s got to be my story. It’s got to be some shit that not only I feel, but everybody else can feel. That was the initial idea: I’m going to give a small piece of my backstory before my debut album. Because Good Kid was already prepped.

You were already working on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City?
Lamar: Yeah, we did Good Kid about three, four times before the world got to it.

Meaning new songs?
Lamar: New songs, new ­everything. I wanted to tell that story, but I had to execute it. My whole thing is about execution. The songs can be great, the hooks can be great, but if it’s not executed well, then it’s not a great album.

Top, who did you look to as an example once you found success?
Tiffith: I learned from my uncle. When I got in the streets, he was always like, “Be low-key. Don’t be no loud n---a.” And just watching, like, JAY-Z and Puff. I don’t dance. I can’t jump in no video.

People have compared you to Suge Knight.
Tiffith: Have you seen any of his qualities in me? You’re not seeing me go crazy, beating on anybody, arrested every week. If they were talking about success, I would’ve been cool with that because he had great success. But they judge us brothers like that. They put us all in the same box.

What do you miss about the early days?
Tiffith: I miss the grind. That uncertainty about everything, but knowing that I got some talented motherfuckers that can actually take over this game. Then the bullshit happened at Warner Bros. [TDE’s deal with the label soured after a restructuring there.] So now we have to regroup. I sit down with everybody and say, “Yo, it’s time to go hard. Fuck chasing these labels. We’re going to make these labels chase us.” Going with Dr. Dre [at Aftermath/Interscope] was a plus because we all love Dre. Kendrick remembers Dre from when he was hanging on his daddy’s neck. He come from what we come from. To be able to walk out in his backyard and see the whole fucking world, point to your neighborhood—that’s inspiration, bro. And he’s like, “Top, y’all can have all this.” He never tried to interfere with what we do. Like, “Y’all came in winning. Do what y’all do.”

Kendrick, how have your relationships with the other TDE artists changed?
Lamar: Being a fan of groups and labels, you hear stories of motherfuckers fighting, this one jealous of the other. Those cats never had brotherhood from the jump. I still can look in [ScHoolboy] Q’s eyes, and he can still look in my eyes, like, “N---a, I know.” Or Rock. I know what we did to get here. No matter how far we get, we’ll always have that bond, period.

The crowd was so eclectic at the DAMN. Tour stop I saw. What are people gravitating to?
Lamar: It’s a personal connection and the experience of freedom. When I say “freedom,” it means creating, being able to do what I want, to where you feel liberation from it. They already have a personal connection, because I’m talking about issues in my music that not only I go through, but the audience is going through.

Who gave you that feeling ­before you were an artist, when you would go to a show?
Lamar:
I didn’t even get to go to a show. Back then, we didn’t have the money for it.

What was your first concert?
Lamar:
When I went on tour with The Game [and Jay Rock, in 2006]—that was my first show.

Growing up, you never saw a show?
Lamar:
Mmhmm. That shit cost money. Gas money. Me being onstage is me fulfilling two ­different things: performing, and getting to enjoy it like the people enjoying it.

On “Duckworth,” you describe how, years ago, Top almost robbed a restaurant where your father, Ducky, worked. Did you play the song for Top?
Lamar: Yeah. It’s a story that we both knew. But I think he was kind of blown away by the fact that it was executed within three, four minutes. I didn't approach it right the first two times. And I knew these were my three favorite [9th Wonder] beats. I just wrote, wrote, wrote until the idea finally came.

How was it putting some of the tougher things in? Like, about Top’s family?
Lamar:
He can tell you about that part. (Laughs)
Tiffith: I got a phone call from my momma: “What’s going on?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Your brother just told me Kendrick called me a crackhead!”(All laugh.) She was just fucking with me. That’s a story I told [Lamar] probably 10 years ago, and we hadn’t talked about it since. When Kendrick first came around, I didn’t know who his pops was, but I saw him when we went to the swap meet one time. He was security, so he had a big-ass gun, longer than his leg. When we got back in the car, [I started] telling Kendrick all my struggles growing up. But he just kept all that shit locked in his head for like 10 or 11 years. And when I came and he played that shit, it touched me like a motherfucker.

How would you two define your relationship?
Tiffith: I trust his judgment, he trusts mine. Some shit I’m tripping on, he might call me and change my whole mind about it.
Lamar: You don’t get too many people like him this side of the neighborhood. A lot of motherfuckers want you to see them down just like them. Or don’t want you to come up like them. If it weren't for him, I’d probably be sitting around with this motherfucking money and face and platform and not doing shit because I didn't have the proper guidance to know exactly what to do and how to inspire the next kid.

Dave Free & Punch On Taking TDE To The Next Level

Tiffith’s seconds-in-command, TDE co-presidents Dave Free and Terrence “Punch” Henderson, reflect on building the business.

Henderson: Kendrick and me have a similar vision. I’m from Watts, he’s from Compton—that’s the city next door. We both had both parents in our careers at all times. Those life experiences were instrumental for me.
Free: I was the first one to focus all our energy toward the internet. I worked with technology for the school district; I went from producer to DJ to that.
Henderson: He probably won’t admit it, but Top didn’t get Kendrick early on. That’s why I think my relationship to Kendrick was so interesting: I got what he was doing.

ENTER KENDRICK

Free: The first meeting [with Top] was Kendrick saying, “I’m ill,” and Top saying, “All right, prove it.” Kendrick got into the booth and rapped for an hour straight.

Henderson: I remember Kendrick coming straight to the studio from his graduation ceremony, and another time, with his security uniform on. This rap stuff wasn’t bringing in no money [yet], and his pops made him go get a job! He took his jacket off and went right in the booth.
Free: Top’s always been the same person: The strategy is the same, just magnified.

A LEADER'S EVOLUTION

Henderson: He always had the business acumen, but comin’ in, he ain’t know nothing about music except for oldies and gangsta rap. To see him learn the music, that’s where I’ve seen the most growth in him.
Henderson: I always love to learn. That’s why working with SZA has been so refreshing for me; working with a woman is completely different.

THE NEXT EPISODE

Free: I put in my 10,000 hours. Everything that we’ve ever done was to get to this point.
Henderson: It’s like a family. If [ScHoolboy] Q irritates me, I go in on Q—that’s cool. But if somebody outside the family goes in on Q, they going to have a real problem with me. I guess I’m like the older brother. Top is the top.

This article originally appeared in the September 23 issue of Billboard.

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Nicky Jam: A Love Supreme

Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.

What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Courtesy of Neon

Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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Courtesy of Management

Meet Wande Coal: The Afrobeats Pioneer Who’s Ready To Reintroduce Himself To The World

Before Wande Coal discovered that singing was his true calling, he had dreams of being one of Missy Elliott’s dancers. The artist, one of the few who laid the foundation of the buzzing musical movement we know coming out of Nigeria today, is ready to make another shift of leveling up his global appeal on the heels of his latest release, “Again.”

The 34-year-old Lagos native, born Oluwatobi Wande Ojosipe, is the multifaceted mind behind afrobeats hits we all know so well—including his 2015 collaboration with Patoranking, “My Woman, My Everything,” his prolific linkup with DJ Tunez in “Iskaba,” as well as the groovy track “So Mi So” produced by Juls. Prior to his steady rise, Wande’s musical foundation began in church, where he picked up the piano and learned how to sing.

Nigeria's innovative take on its pop music scene emerged in the 2000s, and it was in 2007 where the singer, songwriter, and producer would join Mo’ Hits Records after its former founders Don Jazzy and D’Banj noticed him as a dancer in his music videos. He then became a fixture at Nigeria’s top record label at the time, penning some of the biggest hits to come out of the label including D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist”—the single that caught the ear of Kanye West, a moment that contributed to the imminent hype that surrounds the genre today.

In 2009, Wande stepped out with his debut album Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits. The classic LP is home to his timeless singles “Bumper to Bumper” and “Ololufe,” where it was also an indicator of afrobeats being well on its way of going global. A year later at the 2010 Headies (the Nigerian take of the Grammys), Wande would then take home a record five awards for that album. Six years later, Wanted, his second LP dropped and it did not disappoint—with “Baby Hello” being a single of note, produced by Maleek Berry. Since 2017, Wande has consistently dropped solo singles and features that showed growth in his sound and would reveal his continued relevance in afrobeats’ global expansion.

REALMS, due this March, is Wande’s first project in five years, as well as his debut under a new partnership between himself, producer Screwface’s Starstruck Management and indie distributor, EMPIRE. The five-track EP is stacked with solid collaborations with producers including Sarz, London’s Lekaa Beats and Melvitto—who produced “Again” with Screwface.

“His process is crazy,” Melvitto shares. “He'll just go in a room and lock the door and just be in there. You'll hear him singing but you don't know what he's doing in there. Then he'll come back with his laptop and there are 30 voice notes in there that are two minutes long, of just song after song. He'll tell me to take them and find something that I like.”

Melvitto and Wande began to consistently work together after they met while “Iskaba” was in production. The producer also adds that “Again” was recorded in New York in August 2018, with parts of the track recorded in London and Nigeria.

“It's definitely a different record,” he continues. “For me, as a fan of Wande Coal, as a fan of music and as a fan of making great music, I always try to push artists to go beyond what they normally do outside of what they know. Wande's voice is so crazy—people don't get to hear it that often since he does more uptempo things. But with giving him the opportunity to have him sing on a slower song, you have to pay attention to his voice.”

Tina Davis, EMPIRE’s head of A&R, wholeheartedly agrees. “It's infectious,” she says. “When you're in A&R, you're hearing [a track] in its rough stages. I love it when I can hear a record from that point and see or know where it can go. Every time I listened to the record I wanted to hear it again—no pun intended. I love what he's saying. I think we need more records about women that are supportive of women, positive and records that show love. I think the world needs a lot more love today.”

Although Wande Coal is renowned, there are still pockets of the pop music market that have yet to get to know him. For Davis, that’s why EMPIRE couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him to build a higher platform that reflects where he started as well as his contribution to music. “He’s extremely talented and I feel like he hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves,” she adds. “And people are stepping up for him.”

As much as his collaborators sing his praises, Wande, in turn, does the same for them. He’s one who says so much using few words. His humility is one folks can learn from as it truly takes a village—in conversation, he amplifies those around him in lieu of bigging up himself. Admitting he’s a gentle soul and a loverboy at heart, the crooner pulls from life’s experiences, especially moments of heartbreak, to pour his reflections out in a track like “Again.”

When asked when he truly knew music was the right path for him, he mentions fervently, “I feel so, and I know so.” It’s evident that Wande Coal is in tune with his calling and his purpose. It manifests in his music.

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VIBE: How has linking with EMPIRE been for you as you begin to engage with a wider audience? Wande Coal: It's a great move for me because I never had that—this is a first for me. At first, I thought it was a joke, but now, it's becoming a reality. I'm really blessed and grateful.

"Again" is a standout track in your upcoming release. Your vocals and how you approach melodies are a marker of your impact to afrobeats all these years, and it's a track where the focus is on you. What was your creative process putting the song together? My surroundings, what I go through, my environment, my feelings, my relationships—everything around me inspires me. For "Again," I was going through a lot emotionally. I lost a girl and I'm trying to tell her that I want her back, I don't want to lose her and I want life to change and it's never going to be the same [without] her again.

With the REALMS EP, what inspired you to come out with new music now? It's my first time ever having an international major establishment back me, so it's a good look because it's been long overdue. Now I'm just ready to drop that and show the entire world that I got something in me.

You're an OG in the afrobeats game, but for a lot of folks, this will be their first time realizing that they should've been hip to you long before now. Just looking back on your career from your Mohits days to stepping out on your own, what else should new listeners know about you? Besides all of that, I was first a writer. I wrote, "Why Me," "Oliver Twist" [and] I developed Wizkid and Davido. I wrote songs with Wizkid, I gave Davido the name "OBO"—they both used to live in my house. Davido left school in Atlanta and came to my house [in Nigeria] twice using his school fees. Wizkid came by often too because I had three studios and I was inspiring them. I'm glad I was able to be a role model for them. They're big artists now, alongside Burna Boy and Maleek Berry, and the feelings are mutual. I'm glad they're doing so well.

How have you been able to balance being so multifaceted in Nigeria's music landscape? To me, everybody uses the same type of template, so I decided to always create new sounds to stand out and be different. When you check out songs like "Iskaba" and "So Mi So," it's a different vibe to what everyone is singing. I'm glad that people appreciate it and I'm glad to lead the change since I was there from the start. I stay ready to always change the game and create new sounds. I don't like to sing what I sang before and avoid singing the same lyrics.

When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine Nigeria's pop music scene would become as big and recognizable as it is today? Yes—see, I had a vision. When I met Mohits in 2006 they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was trying to take this music global. Because I listened to the likes of Usher, Akon, T. Pain, Michael Jackson—they inspired me to be what I am today [as an artist]. I decided to fuse both my culture and American culture together. That's why I sound the way I do.

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