ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Hip-hop used to be made by groups, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Run-DMC.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETER PIPER")

RUN-DMC: (Singing) Now, Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes. Humpty Dumpty fell down. That's his hard time.

SIEGEL: These days, the big names in hip-hop are solo rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, but one group is still thriving under the old model. Four men who call themselves Black Hippy and they're behind some of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop of the past few years.

NPR's Frannie Kelley went to Southern California to find out how they do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY WASSUP")

BLACK HIPPY: (Singing) They know I put it down. Now they wanna' say wassup. When you see me in town, say wassup. Roll around, say wassup. Even ones who wear the crown say wassup. That's wassup. Break it down. That's wassup. Blow a pound. That's wassup. Hey. All day every day, (unintelligible).

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: That's all of them. Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. Now, they spend basically all their time together, but they didn't grow up friends. They didn't meet at school and they'd already been working on rap music by the time they met. They were plucked from all over Los Angeles over the past decade and, one by one, installed in a tract house in a cul-de-sac right off the Gardena Freeway.

ANTHONY TIFFITH: I actually kept them locked up and kept them working together inside. They couldn't do nothing but bond.

KELLEY: Top Dawg was a street guy looking to go straight in the music industry. His real name is Anthony Tiffith and he'd already built a studio and tried working with producers, then R&B singers. But he discovered rappers can record the most songs in the least amount of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HIPPY: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

KELLEY: This is the first rapper Top signed, a guy from his neighborhood called Jay Rock.

JAY ROCK: I was one of those kids that was always getting into trouble. You know what I mean, running streets. And he just put in the studio and locked me in the studio and had me do something better with my life and I've been here ever since.

KELLEY: Rock soon had company in the studio. The rappers are mostly typical teenage types, the older brother, the smart guy, the crazy one and the heartbreak kid. They horse around and mimic their favorite rappers, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Tupac.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIPPY: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

KELLEY: But Top was still the boss.

TIFFITH: This was their job, so they need to work hard. Everything they needed was there - food, shelter or whatever. Whatever they needed, it was there and they needed to be there and work.

KELLEY: Top was there all the time, too, trying to learn how to be an engineer. He hired a relative named Punch and gave him the title of president and chairman. And a young guy named Dave Free became president and general manager.

Very quickly, they landed Jay Rock a record deal with Warner Brothers, a major label, but Top says, just as quickly, it fell apart.

TIFFITH: In our mind, once you get a deal with a major label, they take over and do everything for you and we laid back and I think we fell asleep and they fell asleep.

KELLEY: Jay Rock's album never came out and Warner Brothers let him out of his contract. Top and Punch realized they had to get serious. They contacted successful music businessmen for advice. They consolidated what they learned, especially from 50 Cent, into five bullet points. You know those inspirational posters big companies have in the hallway? Top Dawg Entertainment has one, too, except it's handwritten. It's the first thing you see when you walk in the door to the studio.

AB-SOUL: Number one, charisma, personality, swagger.

KELLEY: Ab-Soul reads some of them.

AB-SOUL: Number two, substance. Got to have substance. Number three, lyrics.

KELLEY: The musicians follow the rules mostly, but like any group of young guys that are together all the time, they're also competitive. Everybody trying to be - well, top dog. Turning their crew into a group was Schoolboy Q's idea because he says he needed the other guys to push him.

SCHOOLBOY Q: I was terrible. I just got good, like, two years ago.

KELLEY: He says he got better by listening to what his friends were doing.

Q: Everybody got to be in competition. We have to compete. We have to compete at all times. If you ain't competing, go home.

KELLEY: The growth potential of a four-member group quickly became apparent. In the mid-1990s, the Wu-Tang Clan parlayed nine musicians into many more recording contracts with different companies. All of the musicians benefited by appearing on and promoting each other's albums. And, just like that group, Punch says Black Hippy can capitalize on the unique fan appeal of each of its members.

PUNCH: Kendrick - he probably bring up the most ladies. Jay Rock, based on the music he makes, he brings out, you know, the gangsters, the neighborhoods. Q and Ab-Soul - they have a similar thing probably. 'Cause they got the whole weed culture and the druggies and all that type of thing, so that's four different groups and, when they come together, all those fan base intertwine, so it makes everything bigger.

KELLEY: Everything got big enough that the majors came calling again, this time, not just for one of the rappers, but the whole company. In March, Top Dawg Entertainment entered into a joint venture with Interscope Records, part of the gigantic Universal Music Group. Top says the deal allows them to keep creative control and their publishing rights. They also keep what they make on tour.

The first record to come out of the deal is the collaboration between Dr. Dre and Kendrick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RECIPE")

KENDRICK LAMAR AND DR. DRE: (Singing) But nothing like my hometown. I'm forever living. They come for women, weed and weather. For the women, weed and weather. From all around the world for the women, weed and weather. Got that women, weed and weather. Don't it sound clever? Come and play. What more can I say? Welcome to L.A.

KELLEY: This is exactly what Top Dawg and Black Hippy wanted. They're also facing the prospect of leaving the security of their cul-de-sac and Dave Free says that's making them all a little nervous.

DAVE FREE: Right now, this is such a fetal stage where you can't just let anybody in. We're still so fresh, this is like our baby. This is all of our infant, you know, and we don't want anybody touching our kid, you know, but us.

KELLEY: But the family's growing and Top Dawg Entertainment has to find a bigger house. Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

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