Considering that I’m a lifelong hip-hop fan, I came around to Kendrick Lamar a little bit late. Section.80 had been out for a month or two, and while I’d heard the name Kendrick Lamar, I’d yet to dig into his music.
At the time, I was working as the merchandising and original content lead for Google Play. Google’s music service generally drew a younger and more hip-hop-focused audience. This may sound surprising given Google’s corporate identity, but the fact is the service’s core audience is Android, as opposed to iPhone, users and this particular demographic leans toward pop, hip-hop, and R&B.
Section.80 was one of our breakout indie releases from that year. After listening to it, I understood why. Kendrick was a thoughtful, honest and supremely skilled rapper, and he tapped into very universal themes—self-doubt, community, displacement, and family—while maintaining a very specific cultural perspective. It wasn’t hard to see how this guy could be a big deal.
Fast forward a few months. We had a meeting at Google headquarters with reps from Interscope. These sort of meetings usually go a certain way: The reps play us some tunes, give us the general timeline of their campaign, and explain why whichever random artist they’re pitching will be the next big thing. We sit by, nod our heads, and tell them we’ll support them however we can. When they cued up “Swimming Pools,” which had just been released and had yet to find an audience, I broke this protocol and announced that we wanted to make this a focus, and that we’d dedicate the necessary resources to do so.
Fast forward another few months. It’s October 21, 2012, and I’m standing in a parking lot in San Diego alongside the entire TDE Crew (sans Schoolboy Q). The next day, Kendrick Lamar will release good kid, m.A.A.d city and tonight the crew is playing a sold-out show to around 1,500 people. They’re excited, slightly raucous, and maybe a little bit nervous. It’s a little like the scene in Goodfellas when Tommy (Joe Pesci) is going to be made and Henry (Ray Liotto) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) are anxiously waiting for news in a nearby cafe, except, of course, no one gets shot in the head in the end.
Kendrick’s manager, Dave Free, concedes that there’s no way that they’ll get the No. 1 slot (Taylor Swift’s Red comes out the same day as well), but he’s expecting a solid No. 2. Jay Rock seems a little more upbeat, and (rightfully) thinks that this is going to be a landmark album. For the most part, though, they’re just living in the moment. Ab-Soul is bouncing around, getting high and explaining to us his theories about the ratchets, and Kendrick and the rest of the TDE peeps are goofing around with their friends who had driven down from LA for the show.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my career, but I’ve never seen someone with the intensity of Kendrick. Off camera, he’s really loose—friendly and cordial, but also a little aloof, as if he’s floating somewhere slightly above the scene. But once you turn on the camera and ask him about his music, he channels this fierce and fiery focus. We conduct our interview in a cramped tour bus, and it lasts about a half-hour (what you see in this short documentary is just a slice). There are times during the interview when his intensity is just too much, and I have to catch my breath and look away from him.
Of course, we all know what happened next. good kid, m.A.A.d city went on to become a landmark release, going platinum despite coming in second to Taylor’s Red. And the documentary about Kendrick Lamar and his crew that my team and I produced is one of the things that I am most proud of in my career. It was the anchor piece of one of Google’s largest and most successful promotions and was one of the first times that service really contributed to breaking a hit record. But what’s most valuable to me now is that memory of being in a small parking lot in San Diego, sharing the last day with Kendrick before he would change the hip-hop world forever.