2017 MTV Video Music Awards - Roaming Show
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TDE's Dave Free On Maintaining Authenticity, SZA's Stardom, and Kendrick's Pulitzer

The Top Dawg Entertainment president shares how TDE maintains its authenticity, keeps all of its stars on the same page, and ascended from the underground to the top.

If there was ever any doubt that Top Dawg Entertainment was the best crew in music, the past two years should dead any arguments. Kendrick Lamar was already considered one of the best rappers in the world with classics like good kid m.A.A.d city and DAMN., but his star shined even brighter after the latter album earned him a Pulitzer Prize. K. Dot also spearheaded the music for Black Panther: The Album for 2018’s record-breaking and cultural tentpole Marvel Comics film. R&B singer-songwriter SZA dropped a potential classic album with her debut LP Ctrl in 2017, and Jay Rock released a strong album of the year candidate, Redemption. The TDE squad celebrated their success as a team with the Championship Tour, which brought all of the label’s stars–Kendrick, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, SZA, and SiR–together under one roof for an international string of shows.

The artists are the stars of the show, but TDE’s executives deserve their just due. The triumvirate of founder/CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and co-presidents Dave Free and Terrence “Punch” Henderson have created an environment where creativity comes before the plaques and critical acclaim. And the squad keeps working: after Dave Free’s interview for this story, Kendrick Lamar landed a memorable role on Power and their new signee REASON dropped There You Have It, a stirring collection of West Coast gangsta rap musings. Dave Free spoke to VIBE about how TDE maintains its authenticity, keeps all of its stars on the same page, and ascended from the underground to the top of the food chain. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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VIBE: At one time TDE was the bubbling underground crew, but what has it been like to really work your way up to being a powerhouse?

Dave Free: In the middle of the process, it looks the same, just the resources changed. We get more resources to do bigger and better things but it feels and smells and looks the same because it's rooted off the same concept of repetition. So for us, we haven't even gotten to the celebration point yet, because there's still so much more to do. When I talk to friends and I talk to buddies, and even just hearing you say everything you're saying right now, that's when I get kind of pulled back into the perspective that “damn, it's been a long time. We were just that. We were that underground crew that was trying to figure out how to get our feet in the game and now it's the total opposite.” It's really hard to say in a few words ‘cause it feels exactly like when we were in Carson just grinding in the studio. It feels exactly the same.

How long do you think it took for you guys to really find your groove?

I would say about eight years 'til we figured out what not to do. The earlier stages when we were just really grinding through. It's not about what you do right, it's about what you're doing wrong. We were doing a lot of right, but the wrong stuff sets you back. You don't have to do everything perfectly, just don't do anything that [sets you] back.

What would you say you were doing wrong that you had to correct?

Not so much doing wrong, more like just the knowledge of not knowing things––not knowing who to talk to, not knowing the next steps in being in the game that's forever changing. This whole system of hip-hop is a forever changing system. You can't replicate the system, so as management we're working and trying to figure out how to get our artists out there more and how to get them more notoriety or how to maybe not go so broad with it at first. Start it off slow and build up a pace where we can sell consistency. Consistency is built into a career, just like Kobe practicing in a gym, Steph Curry working on his dribbling skills. [It’s the] same concept from a managing perspective, or a boss' perspective, and then the artist hops on to that same concept just through their artistry, depending on what type of music they want to make, depending on what type of beat, depending on what they wanna say, who they want to talk to. Both of those things are happening at the same time and then you meet up. It meets right in the middle, perfect timing where I'm perfectly ready and equipped to manage what this artist has right at the perfect time. It wasn't so much the wrong things, it was just the not-knowing part like, you know, growing in the business and having to learn how to go up in the business. Learn how to be nimble, don't have your mindset to one way of doing things. You have to have multiple ways of doing things.

It's a trip just how much the game can change in a certain amount of time. good kid, m.A.A.d city just came out in 2012 and it feels like that was a lifetime ago. What are the differences between breaking an artist like Kendrick back then and breaking an artist now?

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. 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. Back in the day, if a blog posted a bunch of stuff, it was no hurt no foul. For streaming, they centralize. They have to post what works for their system too, it's kind of back to a radio format a little bit in a sense.

And the single is back. The single wasn't as important when Kendrick was coming up, it was more about the quality of an album. Now, the single takes you back into to the album. When Kendrick was coming up it was more about... the album [would] take you into it and then hopefully you get a single in the middle of that. It's a totally different game, totally different system.  It's forever changing. 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.

One thing TDE has a really strong reputation for is authenticity. Very few moves come out of your camp that don't feel real. How do you maintain that despite being at the level you’re at? Many artists will seem authentic early on, but the bigger that they get—

It gets more watered down after time.

Exactly.

The biggest thing for that is our family structure. Everybody in the company has a voice. When albums come out we bring everybody in. We don't create yes men in our camp, and that plays a large part in why the artists can stay true to themselves. You're competing with your brother, you're competing with the guy next to you, and if he's rooted and grounded because he has a good support system, then you're more likely to be just as rooted and just as grounded. Two, we tend to sign really hard working artists. I've worked with artists that are so talented but didn't work hard, and that can mess up the authenticity because now you have to counteract that with bringing in people to help the equation. Then the artist gets further and further away from themselves. But we've been able to sign artists that understand that this is a blessing beyond belief. When you appreciate something that God doesn't have to bless you with and you are around people that treat it the same way, it tends to rub off and it becomes a situation where you value it. So you spend a crazy amount of time perfecting it, and that works with the music and even with the plan of just how you live your life and how your music dictates your life.

What you said about the family structure stands out. “Ab-Soul’s Outro” on Section.80 truly summarized the whole album, so it felt like Ab was a part of the process. And in the video where you guys played Jay-Z's verse on "B***h Don't Kill My Vibe" for Kendrick, that scene is preceded by the crew mobbing out to ScHoolboy Q’s "Yay Yay." How do you maintain that family structure when everyone is doing so many things?

It's hard, I won't act like it's not hard and it's different remnants of that in today's time now, too. For example, Jay Rock’s “Win” video. Getting all the artists in one place at one time was literally the hardest thing ever. If you look at the video, you won't see ScHoolboy Q in there because he just got there a little too late. It is a hard thing but when you care about what your brother is doing and what your team is doing, you'll make the time. You just try to figure it out. When SZA is touring, she's traveling all over the world; you know, if we can't get her right at this moment, we'll figure out the best way. She was traveling, we needed her on Jay Rock's album, she went and got in a studio and knocked out the feature. It was already people waiting for features at the time, but that's something she ain't gon' miss out on. We just support each other, man.

The Championship Tour was a long time coming, it took so long to get us to that point where we could take all the artists out on one tour together. When all of 'em got on tour, it was like a high school reunion––they see each other but they hadn't seen each other together in one space, from the guys that are artists and the guys that are just in the background as management and staff. The energy was so great on that road. Everybody is working but we all care, we all want to see each other win and grow. If I can be there, I’ma be there. Kendrick literally flew off his tour from Japan to South Korea. He only had four days off and he spent 2 of those days shooting videos–one for Jay Rock and one for Anderson .Paak. Anderson .Paak is not signed to TDE, he’s signed to Aftermath, but it's the same concept. It's still family, it's still people that we support and we love, and we’re gonna do whatever we have to do to support them.

How did you guys react when you heard that Kendrick was getting a Pulitzer Prize?

I got a call that morning and we have a group chat––me, Top, Kendrick, Sounwave, a few other homies. I got a call from my publicist and he was like, “Did you hear anything from the Pulitzer people? You’re winning a Pulitzer for DAMN.” I was like, “Man, stop playing.” I just thought it was a rumor going around. I dropped it in the group chat and I was like, “Word on the street is, your name is in the mix for the Pulitzer.” It was just shocking. You never think in a million years that they would understand the concepts enough to award a boy from Compton that honor. It still is a big moment. I wear the hat all the time, Kendrick changed his whole stage name to Pulitzer Kenny. It's showin' that we're breaking barriers. There were people that came before us that did this so we can get to this point, so we make them proud, and we showed another kid that's sitting in his f**kin' room wherever he is that these things are possible.

It’s less about the award and more about the concept of people that came before us and the people that's gonna come after us. That's what you do it for. It's about shaking up the system and showing people it doesn't have be the way it's supposed to, the way you think it's gon' be. Sometimes you might be shocked, you might see the guy that's not supposed to be the winner become the winner. That's very important for our youth to see that.

You guys already have a working relationship with Interscope Records, but for Black Panther: The Album, you also worked with Marvel. What was that process like?

It's different because you have to put yourself in a place where you have to understand their deliverables also. It was actually a great experience because it was an experience that we definitely wanna get more into. So for our first step to be Marvel, which is the cream of the crop in the film space, it was like that final quiz but it was a crash-course on the first day. They understood that Kendrick is a true artist and he had to stay true to his artistry and we understood that this is less about it being our thing and more about it being a [collaboration]. It worked out great, we were against time but everybody stepped up and it became something we're really proud of. We're very proud of the accomplishment and to just be right there, hand in hand with a movie, was so powerful. Ryan Coogler and all the cast, something that's so powerful for our kids to see and understand that we got our own superheroes we can look up to and be proud of. I don't wanna make it seem like it was easy, but it wasn't difficult either when you have people who want the same concepts.

This past year also saw SZA become a star––Ctrl may go on as a classic. Last year, she was calling out TDE execs on Twitter about the album not being out. What has it been like to see her rise to prominence, and how difficult is it to make sure that everyone on the roster feels valued at all times?

To answer your first question, every artist goes through that point where––when you make music you're creating a child, and it's hard for artists to put their child in someone else's hands. Business and artistry have to collide in order for greatness, and we just have a proven track record. Give me your child, and I’ma help raise him, nurture him, help him grow. And that concept developed into wanting to get her music out there. No, let's take our time and make sure it's perfect: let's get the videos done, get the concepts done, then look at her now. It's a testament to the artist pushing themselves to deliver a concept and management staying firm on how we do things as a brand and as a family.

I would say the first part [in making artists feel valued] is to keep them working, keep everyone moving. 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. I shoot videos a year in advance, literally. Some of the videos you see from Jay Rock’s album is a year in advance. 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. The fans don't know our schedule and we try to update them as much as possible but we know our schedule and the artists know the schedule. For the most part, the artist knows, “after so and so, it's my time,” and we give everybody their time. When it's their time, you know because it's gonna be an onslaught of rollouts, materials, contents. So the artists are in a system where they know how it works, it's really just people on the outside that don't understand the process.

You guys just announced the signing of REASON. What expectations do new artists have after signing to TDE?

If you sign to TDE or if you want to sign to TDE, I think the expectation is just for [the] quality of work. That's why most people would wanna be with this label because it's definitely quality over quantity and it's a system of helping your brother, showing up for your brother. You have to have both of those characteristics if you really looking over this way. Most people that are trying to be with us have those characteristics: want to be a part of a family, want to be a part of a concept, not just out there creating by themselves. I think the biggest thing for new artists is the competition level. You’re coming into a fold of Kendrick, ScHoolboy, SZA, Jay Rock. There's less expectation about what the brand can do for you ‘cause the brand is proven, we've proven that if we develop time into our artists we can turn our artists into something. You got to compete with Kendrick Lamar, he's not gonna go easy on you on the track. He gon' tap that a** on the track for sure so you better come with it. The same thing with SZA, she gon' get on the track, she gon' serve it up so you better be ready. Same thing with Jay Rock. Jay Rock holds the crown for the most destroyed tracks from TDE, getting on with artists and destroying everybody on the track. He's the highest competitor in the camp when it comes to each other. He's gonna pull the best out of you. So I think the artists are focused more on that. “Sh*t, how do I come in and make an impression on the guys that are killing it already?"

That's what I noticed the most and that's probably the most pressured situation for them. SiR is like, "Man how do I even show these guys I'm tight, how do I even get them to pay attention to me?" The first time I brought SiR to the studio with Kendrick, Kendrick was like, "Go in the booth," and it literally reminded me of the time that Top told Kendrick to go in the booth. The first time Dot came, Top was like “go in the booth and rap.” Dot was in the booth for two hours. Dot did the same thing and I felt the energy that I felt when Top said that with Kendrick. I bring SiR in to [see] Kendrick and I'm in the same position I was in back then. It's like, “h sh*t, I hope he kill it in front of Dot. I hope Dot sees what I see."

What are you planning for this next year? What haven't you done yet?

'We’re getting heavy into the film game. I'm trying to get heavier into it. Kendrick’s trying to get heavier into it. A lot of the guys want to get more into the content creation game. We got a lot of new artists, we got REASON, we got other new things coming. To us, it's about replicating the success but also stretching our hands into as many fields as humanly possible. So all those big investors and all those big guys that wanna be with a winning team, come talk to TDE ‘cause we’re looking into a bunch of different fields. There's no label on what we can do now. Top literally just left my house and we were talking about everything else that we have to do. It can be real estate to just investments, we have to do more. Music is the driving force to create the opportunity, but we have to do more and we're inviting anybody that wants to do more to come speak with us.

READ MORE: TDE's REASON Hopes To Marry Real Rap With Community

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Katie Spoleti

How Dinah Jane Shed Her Pop Coating And Bloomed Into An R&B Butterfly

With just 21 years around the sun, Dinah Jane has accomplished more than most. Her star initially rose alongside her pop sisters Fifth Harmony in her teens but in between chart-topping hits like "Work From Home" or "Worth It" was a longing for something more.

The "more" arrived this spring in the form of her debut collection, Dinah Jane 1, three tracks that play to her power vocals and confident nature. Leading single "Heard It Before" gives listeners the feels of the aughts with the help of producer extraordinaire, J. R. Rotem. Jane's accompanying tracks like "Pass Me By" and "Fix it" are just as alluring given her honey coated vocals. Instead of jumping from genre to genre, the songs are in the vein of Jane's R&B language, a move that transpired after a reflection into her musical identity.

The journey included experimentation with her first solo effort, "Bottled Up" with Ty Dolla $ign and Marc E. Bassey. The song was a bop by nature due to its similarity to her work in Fifth Harmony, which left Jane determined to find her sound.

"Being a solo artist now made it hard to define who I was because I was singing so many different styles before," Jane tells VIBE. "I had to take time for me to really cope and understand what it is that I really want to come out as my true identity. When I dropped my first record "Bottled Up" it was more me transitioning from Fifth Harmony to myself, I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be."

After a session with a producer in Atlanta, Jane arrived at the realization that the artists in her phone (Monica, Mariah Carey), was a sign for her to dig up her soulful roots. It's hard to deny Jane's vocals helped to build her former group and now, her own career.

"The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest," Jane said. "I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. I was always afraid to portray them as something that people didn't know about and so my thing is like, 'Oh, I don't want them to think of my family like this or my friend who's not my friend right now.' I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic, real and raw I have to be honest not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good."

With a new attitude and direction, Jane is ready to fly above her worries. Check out our chat with the singer-songwriter below.

***

VIBE: When you were putting your three-pack together, what was going through your head? Was there a particular sound or moment you wanted to catch?

Dinah Jane: It was more like a certain direction. I felt like there was a part of me that had not been exposed yet as far as style. I really love that I took some down time to understand who I was and who I want to be. I started listening back to records where I was like, 'Wow, this is something that I wish was mine.' Some of Monica's records, Faith Evans or Mariah Carey, by the way, she followed me on Instagram [Laughs].

Congratulations!

She followed me on Instagram so I kind of got that verification that I should definitely do R&B. Those are artists that I've always been inspired by. I remember I went back to when I did my first audition on X Factor, and I said, "Who is that I want to sing and showcase my talent?" It was Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy."

I felt like if this is a perfect time for me to throw in a bowl of my favorite artists that I've always looked up to and mesh it into who I am now. When I did "Fix It," I felt like it was so organic for me to go that direction and lean towards, so, when that happened the song became what it is now. I love the message behind it, I didn't realize it would empower so many people.

"Fix It" is actually my favorite out of the three. You just referenced your identity. Do you know what that is now? Or is that sonically or personally?

I think more so sonically, that's where I was lost the most because I had to put myself in a drawer for seven years. Now that I'm here, being a solo artist like I said, I was lost. Sonically I had to redefine who Dinah Jane was this whole time. I remember being in a session in Atlanta and this guy at the time asked me, "Who do you have on your phone? Let's look through it."

He's going through my phone and it's all R&B, not even that much pop, just singers from back then. And he's just like, "I was not expecting this, I thought you'd be the hype girl listening to all trap music." I have that personality trust me, but musically this is me. That clicked in my head that I was heading somewhere else and I needed to jump back to my old ways.

I love that. "Heard It All Before" has gotten so much love from your fans. I know you're not supposed to look at the comments but one that stood out was "I love this sound, leave pop alone." Do you ever feel trapped in one genre since you started within the pop bubble? 

It's funny that you say that. I feel like people or fans they kind of want to box you into who they think you are. I was telling someone, my fans they sometimes think they know me better than I know myself and it's kind of scary. There are times where I'm like, "No I don't have to be one way." It's crazy cause when I go to the studio I feel like I can be so versatile. I can do R&B easy but there are sometimes where I want to do those pop records, "Always Be My Baby" is that pop record to me and some people are good with it, some aren't but I think it just comes with your fanbase.

For me, they know my potential, honestly, they saw me on X Factor or even my YouTube days when I was 11 or 12 years old. They're like, "No Dinah, this is you, this is you, I want you to keep doing more of these." Eventually, I'll want to do some other things as well. But as of right now, it's truly R&B.

When it comes to creating you're always challenging yourself. What were some of the challenges that you've been facing this year while making music?

The most challenging part about making music has been me being honest. I have a tendency of holding back but keeping people's image safe. It's always been my challenge and I felt like if I wanted to create something authentic and real and raw I have to be honest to myself as well, not only to myself but to the public and stop putting a front that everything's good. My Mom always told me, "You've got to be real with yourself."

For sure. All three of these songs are super straightforward. What was it about keeping that energy while you were making these songs?

I was just trying to balance it. Like I said it was the most challenging part balancing that and I feel like with "Heard It All Before," it was the most fun, relatable song to write because my best friend was going through something. I was like "What?! He said what?!" We were literally having a full on group chat about it. When I did the music video, I wanted it to be about the situation that I was in with my girl. We were like, "You know what we've heard that all before." I just want to make this bundle relatable, sexy but then also swaggy and just not try so hard. So, when we put these three songs together, it felt so organic and true to who I was.

Even in the video, you exude so much confidence. What does confidence mean to you?

I think it's self-love. When you truly love yourself, you can see it in your face. You can see it in the glow and the energy you're giving to people. I wasn't always this confident, I would definitely say I was never this confident but, thanks to my mom, she always expressed that to me.

She said, "Dinah, I know you don't feel that beautiful today but you need to pick on the little things that matter. What's your favorite feature? Your lips. What's your favorite outfit you got going on? Pay attention to your best qualities other than that one negative thing you're picking on."

The confidence was never there but when you have people that are around you always encouraging you to love yourself and realizing your truth and worth, that's when the confidence kicks in. It's not something that's overnight, it takes time. It took years for me to realize that. Like I said, you have to surround yourself by honest, real people who can definitely make you see what you're not seeing.

Facts. Have you become that vessel for your friends as well? Like passing all of that on. Your mom passed it to you, you pass it to your friends, are you that person?

Yeah, it's like a telephone game. I have a younger sister who's 17 and she's always been insecure about her weight or her breakouts and I'm like, "You're a teenager, you're supposed to go through that phase. If I went through that you've got to go through it too."

In a way, I have to guide her through the stages. I was just talking to her last night and she's telling me about her friends and how she feels like she doesn't fit in, or certain cousins where she feels like she has to be a certain way. I was like, "Don't be a certain way, the way you carry yourself will vibrate and you will be so much more vibrant, it'll grasp more onto you. Just be your true self, you don't have to be anything else. I know who you are and you know who you are."

I feel like kind of being that older sister I feel like her mom sometimes. So I always feel this responsibility that she always feels 100.

What are some other plans you have for yourself, with your music for the year?

This is the first bundle. People wanted it to be named an EP but I was like, "Nah. It cannot be an EP because an EP is at least five to seven songs top."

This bundle is like a mini-project, it's the anticipation for the actual album. So, I want you to keep getting the feel of who I am, keep giving you these sneak peeks and then boom, hit you with the album. That's in the works, we'll see what happens. That's what we say now but sometimes things change, so don't get too excited.

Have you've been working with anybody? Any featured artists or any producers who are really understanding of who you are as an artist?

As far as features, I have one and then I'm working on another one.

So you can't say who they are?

I can't say. As far as producers and writers, J.R. Rotem is literally my dog. We walked into the studio and all of his plaques are all over the wall, plastered everywhere and we were like, "We get it, you're a legend. You're going to make me a legend," is what I felt in that room. I feel this great connection with him where we can be friends but also have that chemistry musically where he can connect with me instantly.

I love how we did  "Fix It," he brought out all of the live instruments and he made it feel like you were actually on stage, he made it feel bigger than what it was. So, I give him so many props for that because I've never felt that way in a session where I felt like I was onstage and it was just me by myself, no one else, well of course with a whole a** band, but I just felt the topic and the song, the musicality behind it is what meshed so well because of him. He is my dog for sure and my therapist because if it weren't for him this song would have not been made.

Stream Dinah Jane 1 below.

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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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Mike Coppola

The Cast Of 'SHAFT' Talk Family Traditions, Power And The Film's Legacy

Back in 1971, Richard Roundtree became the face of the legendary crime/blaxploitation film SHAFT. His influence in the role paved the way for a new generation of black detectives filled with a gluttonous amount of swag, clever one-liners, and action-packed scenes. Samuel L. Jackson followed suit in the franchise’s 2000 installment as he took over the streets of Uptown Manhattan and Harlem filling in for Roundtree’s original character.

Fast forward to 2019, and SHAFT’s legacy has risen to higher heights, incorporating Roundtree and Jackson together with an extension of their detective prowess. Director Tim Story created a familial driven movie centered around three different generations of SHAFT men. Roundtree plays the grandfather; Jackson plays the dad—and Jessie T. Usher plays the son. All three embark on a mission that’s laced with dirty politics, Islamophobia, and highflying action in efforts to solve a seemingly homicidal death.

The dynamics between all three are hilarious and dotted with lessons learned from past paternal influences. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon at Harlem's Red Rooster, the trio shared some of the traditions and virtues the paternal figures in real life have taught them. Most of the influence passed down to them was centered on working hard.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you work so much?’” Jackson said. “Well, all the grown people went to work every day when I got up. I figured that’s what we’re supposed to be doing—get up, pay a bill, and take care of everything that’s supposed to be taken care of.”

“For my family, it was cleanliness and masculinity,” Usher added. “The guys in my family were always well put together, very responsible especially my dad.”

In spite of the SHAFT men's power, the film's story wouldn’t be what it is without Regina Hall and Alexandra Shipp’s characters. They both play strong women caught in the middle of the mayhem created by the men they care about. Both are conscious of the power they exhibit as black women off and on screen, yet are aware of the dichotomy of how that strength is perceived in the world.

“It’s very interesting because I think a lot of times as powerful black women we are seen as angry black women,” Shipp says. “So it’s hard to have that voice and that opinion because a lot of times when we voice it; it becomes a negative rather than a positive. In order to hold that power, it has to be poised. It has to be with grace, I think there is strength in a strong but graceful black woman.”

“People have an idea of what strength is and how you do it and sometimes it’s the subtleties,” Regina adds. “Sometimes our influence is so powerful and it doesn’t always have to be loud I think a lot of times how we navigate is with conviction and patience.”

VIBE chatted with the cast of SHAFT about holding power, their red flags when it comes to dating, and why the SHAFT legacy continues to live on. Watch the interviews below.

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