WATTS, CALIFORNIA — Christmas wasn't always easy for Top Dawg Entertainment's Jay Rock.
"The worst Christmas was when moms couldn't get a n---a nothing and a n---a had to do what he had to do to get it,” the MC told MTV News. "I wanted things she couldn't get. I wanted Jordans, but I had to get Rugged Outbacks. I had to take it for what it was worth, but now I'm able to give back and it feels real good.”
As Rock said this, he was surrounded by fans at the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project in Watts. He and his label’s CEO, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, both grew up here so they know that kids -- the same ones routinely stopping Rock for selfies during our interview -- might be facing similar tough times this holiday season. So, they did something about it.
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, the label organized their second annual free Christmas concert and toy giveaway right in the middle of the projects. Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and the rest of TDE performed sets while guests like Big Sean and Ty Dolla $ign surprised fans. The concert featured several highlights (which we will get into), but the event got its start long before this day.
Last year, Top Dawg had a plan. He wanted to throw a free show in his old stomping grounds and he wanted to give back for the holiday season. He also wanted to make it an annual TDE endeavor. Looking back, the label's President Dave Free says this was a helpful resource for many of the surrounding cities, too.
"In cities like Watts, Compton and South Central, a lot of these kids don’t get to leave their neighborhoods,” he said. “They don’t get to go to these shows. They don’t have the resources, money or opportunities to be in these environments, to be submerged in music, culture and different elements. To me, that’s an important thing. That’s what I see in all these families, in their faces, that excitement."
Having it in the projects also added a different element. "If you put a kid from Watts in Beverly Hills, it’s hard for them to get comfortable,” he explained. "It’s an unfamiliar territory. For them to get something that’s high level, that’s done right and clean in their own environment where they can feel comfortable and let their hair down, that’s important too."
This year, TDE linked up with several players to make this happen again, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's office, the Housing Authority of the City of L.A., the City of Watts, Guerrilla Union, Parks & Recreation, LAPD and LAFD. In all, it took about 3 months to plan and organize the whole thing, even if it wasn’t always an easy sell.
"There's a really high liability to do shows in Watts and Compton and these places because people are scared,” Free explained. "There’s always that element in the back of everybody’s mind, but when you come to do something great, you don’t have to worry about that. You don’t have to put that energy in the air."
Instead, TDE wanted to focus their energy on exposing positive vibes in a community that some of their fans might not get to visit otherwise.
"People are so afraid of what they don’t know. It’s ignorance. This is us just trying to turn that leaf,” TDE’s General Manager, Robert “retOne” Reyes, added. "Nickerson is notorious for being one of the most dangerous places. Granted, it can be, but there’s also good that goes on there. It doesn’t always have to be a plight and the most important thing is bringing that to the light…You don’t have to be afraid of the inner city. There’s a lot of great things that come from that. We’re just trying to showcase it.”
TDE also wanted to do this during the holiday season because, like Jay Rock, many within the label understand firsthand how difficult Christmas can be. Dave Free, for example, who grew up in Inglewood and Carson, said his family often skipped the holiday altogether.
"We just didn’t celebrate it at all because it was just too much of a burden and I had both parents," he explained. "A lot of these kids only have one parent and she’s doing all she can to provide for them and she has to buy all these gifts on Christmas. It’s too much to ask. This holiday is for the world, but not everybody can celebrate it the same way."
Ab-Soul, who also grew up in Carson, didn’t face those same struggles, but he understands this event’s value.
"My Christmases were pretty straight unless my report cards were bad,” he said. "I was pretty privileged, but to come out here and to grow up in L.A. and have homies that really grew up here in the projects, they see us being able to put on events like this and have a great turnout like this, it's amazing."
Jay Rock’s one of those homies Soulo talked about so this is particularly meaningful for him. "I'm not the type to try to get fame or anything off this,” he explained. "I know how it is. This where I come from. We need to do more of this. This is what's going to bring everybody together...Despite all the bullsh-t that goes on and differences people may have, this is what brings people together within each other, as a brotherhood and doing it for these kids because they're the future.”
The Gifts For Kids (Of All Ages)
Kids were up early for this event. At around 7 in the morning, families began lining up for Christmas gifts that would be handed out in the afternoon. California sunshine was blocked by clouds for the early part of the day. Light drizzle fell as puddles formed in the cracks of the neighborhood. But none of that kept families away. retOne saw some of those families huddled in the cold.
“For them to be out there, it’s a testament to them looking forward to this,” he said. "I could see it in the kids’ faces."
Kendrick Lamar also noticed that gleam in kids’ eyes. In fact, while making his way to the stage, K. Dot stopped to talk to one of those children. retOne, who was helping Kendrick navigate through the crowd, was moved by this brief exchange.
"It was almost like they reversed roles because K. Dot stopped to talk to this little boy,” ret explained, noting that usually fans are hounding Kendrick at shows, not the other way around. "That was a trip. He wanted to stop to talk to the kid and he asked him about his toy and that was tight.
"The little kid probably didn’t know what was going on," he added. "But yo, you’ve got Kendrick Lamar talking to you. The mom and dad were just freaking out. It was such an innocent moment."
That child was one of many who received a toy at this event. According to ret, the label gave out thousands of dollars worth of gifts, including 800 pairs of shoes. Children picked out Spider-Man Snuggies, “Frozen” dolls, footballs and more. Families also received food as they walked out of the gift center.
Kids also got instruments thanks to one donor you might've heard, according to Dave Free.
"He doesn’t have much," Free said. "He works really hard. This dude brought guitars, pianos and all types of equipment and had it all shipped to the projects for the kids. He wasn’t even there or involved, but for him to do that was big for me. It was so unexpected. He asked me to keep it anonymous and low-key, but I’ma put him out there. His name’s Sir. He’s a singer who worked on Jay Rock’s ["The Ways"]. He’s a good dude. It was from the heart."
It was all part of a day meant to provide gifts for everyone, from the children to the parents.
“This right here put a smile on [kids’] faces and relief for parents who couldn't afford to get their kids something,” Jay Rock explained. "So, I know they're smiling too."
I met one of those overjoyed parents, Lakesha Clayton, whose 6-year-old son Sincere took home a Hot Wheels track set. While Sincere seemed proud to carry the gift box around, a box that was almost as big as he was, Lakesha was ecstatic about the show. "It was the sh-t,” she said. "Oh my God, I love all of them. Kendrick, Jay Rock, the whole TDE. This is the best.”
The Star-Studded Concert
Lakesha was one of about 9,500 fans who witnessed the entire TDE roster perform onstage Tuesday. The team’s newest signees, SZA and Isaiah Rashad, warmed things up as the sun hid behind those winter clouds.
Hometown hero Jay Rock played the master of ceremonies role, introducing acts and performing tracks throughout the day.
Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q had mini solo sets. Q, perhaps the clique’s most energetic performer, also brought Ty Dolla $ign out for an amped “Blasé” performance that included a Ty $tage-dive.
Then, Kendrick Lamar emerged. Dot’s had a landmark year, one that earned him 11 Grammy nominations for To Pimp A Butterfly, and this performance felt like a celebration of that. You know that live portion of “i” that appears on the album? This was that (without a fight in sight).
“King Kunta’s” funk had the crowd in a trance. “I should probably run for Mayor when I’m done,” he rapped on the track. And being at this event, with some backing from the Mayor himself, it felt even stronger than it does on record.
After running through his own hits, the Compton spitter brought out Big Sean for “Blessings” and “IDFWU,” creating a bridge between Detroit and Compton hip-hop.
Sean, like Ty Dolla and Glasses Malone, was part of the set because he simply wanted to be involved in such a positive effort, according to retOne, who helped facilitate the surprises.
"They offered up nothing but support,” he explained. "Everyone just said, ‘We’re gonna do this and give all our efforts to make this happen.’"
While Sean was still onstage, “Alright” erupted. Fans bounced and babies sat on shoulders with their hands up. Elementary school kids emphatically sang along to the triumphant chant that’s become a protest anthem: “We gon’ be alright!”
Given the day’s event, those words felt even more powerful. It was another important moment in a phenomenal year for the "good kid” MC who grew up in a nearby “m.A.A.d. city.” Good kids all around us that day felt his message. But that wasn’t even the show’s closer.
For his final act, Kendrick brought back his Black Hippy comrades. Together, they performed "Vice City" live for the first time ever. It was a significant moment and one that wasn’t really planned.
"It just happened that way and that’s what’s tight,” Free said. "We didn’t even realize it until that day, when we put the set list together. It made perfect sense. It was like a puzzle piece. It just fell into place and it fit so perfectly.”
The Impact We Saw
As each act performed, rays would periodically shoot from clouds and the sun began to poke out. Once it was all over, as fans made their way towards the exit, a beautiful sunset covered Watts with purple, orange and blue hues.
Taffney S. (who didn’t wish to provide her last name) was one of those fans. Taffney watched the show from the front row with her nephew Russell on her shoulders. He was one of those kids I saw bouncing as “Alright” thumped through the projects. She underlined the value of the event.
"If you go to a concert and you're front row, you have to pay $100 or something,” she said.
For free, she and her nephew got to enjoy one of rap’s most prominent labels and one of the genre’s most valued figures. The concert was also particularly meaningful to her because was born in Watts and raised at Nickerson. She said she knew Jay Rock when he was a kid and seeing his return in this manner was big for families in the community, too.
"I feel like this was a privilege,” she added. “People who grew up in this community are fortunate to have a free concert and also to receive free toys and to meet entertainers like Kendrick and Jay Rock. It was great...And so many people from different communities and different nationalities were here and they were really wild and I enjoyed myself."
Taffney wasn’t the only one who brought her family to the event. The show’s stars, like Isaiah Rashad, who says Christmas has always been a tight-knit holiday for his fam, did the same. "My family is out here,” he told us. "My daughter’s out here. Top's family was out here. Jay Rock's family is out here. It's just ill...It's cool to see the positivity spread throughout this.”
The Impact That’s Yet To Be Seen
It’s hard to know the longterm impact this event will have, but it’s something the label is thinking about. That’s because they’ve seen what something like this — stars coming to the ‘hood — can do. Just look at Kendrick Lamar.
There’s an often-told story about K. Dot. As a little boy, his dad took him to a 2Pac and Dr. Dre video set in Compton. It was a spark in young Kendrick’s heart, one that helped fuel his career. Could this event have a similar impact?
"It’s profound,” retOne said. "We don’t necessarily know what we’re planting. What’s the spawn of this? You take a story of Kendrick Lamar seeing ‘Pac and we don’t know who the other Kendrick is who’s out there. Who’s the other ScHoolboy Q? We don’t even know what the capacity of what we’re doing is yet.”
"Somebody is going to take something from this and do something big,” Dave added. "One of these kids can be a president of the United States and he can say, ‘I was there.’ That’s what I’m excited to see...I’m hoping that 10-15 years from now, I see a kid who saw Kendrick, Q or Jay Rock or SZA at a TDE show and that made them change their lives. That’s what makes me excited."
This won’t be the last time TDE hosts the event. According to Dave Free and retOne, they’re looking to expand it in years to come.
"It’s hard to try and fix the world,” ret added. “But if you start one neighborhood at a time, you never know what you can do. That’s really what we’re building."