TDE President Punch: ‘I Understand the Backlash’

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You either respect Terrence “Punch” Henderson, or you hate him, depending on which stage of development your favorite Top Dawg Entertainment artist’s upcoming album is in at the moment. As president of the label that molded the careers of Kendrick Lamar, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, and so many others, Punch is your line to all the stars on the roster whenever they’re off the grid living their lives and fine-tuning new songs. It has been a prickly position this year: Demand for a new project from SZA reached a fever pitch, a devastating hack led to Rashad coming out as sexually fluid during a sit-down with Joe Budden, and Kendrick released Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his final album with TDE before departing for pgLang, his new endeavor with Baby Keem (the cousin whose platinum-certified 2021 Kendrick team-up “Family Ties” marked pgLang’s first hit record) and Punch’s former co-president, Dave Free. All the while, Punch is promoting a new hip-hop collective — aroomfullofmirrors, featuring an intriguing cast of characters including battle-rap provocateur Daylyt, rapper-singers Lyric Michelle and Billymaree, rhyme technicians Nick Grant and Jrias Law, and beat-makers Hari and Ichiban Don — and trying to find a good time to drop his own solo album. I spoke to Punch last month to figure out where SZA’s record is and gauge how the front office feels about a star player developing his own franchise.

We don’t hear enough about your life before TDE.
I grew up in Watts, California, Nickerson Garden Projects, along with Top Dawg. Top Dawg is my blood relative. We grew up in the same area with Jay Rock. But Jay Rock was young; we didn’t really meet him until later on. The values that you see in the neighborhood, they translate over to your business and to your whole mind-set. Certain principles stick with you.

How’s working with family?
It’s always been good. Top was always the cool cousin, you know what I mean? He always had the money, cars, the whole thing. So as a kid, you looked up to that because you wanted to be cool like that. It translated over to our working relationship. I was trying to start my own record company, and this was at the same time he was just getting moving in the music business. I would always go over to him and talk to him about what I’m doing. At a point, he was like, “You should just come over and work with me. We’ll do this thing together.” It’s always been great chemistry, great team atmosphere, especially being family. You really know this person, and he really know me, so it works out.

Has the arrangement changed since Dave Free left?
I pretty much move the same way. We just fill in the voids if somebody leaves. It’s a machine at this point. So if one part leaves, you just fill it in with another piece.

For fans who don’t really understand the business side of hip-hop, can you explain what the president of a label does?
I mean, it’s a lot to it. You basically preside over everything. Everything has its own department. You have music, you have A&R, and you have the administrative side. Every artist has their own ecosystem, and you make sure everything is running properly. That’s the simplest I can put it. It changes from day to day. It’s about relationships. You have different relationships with different artists. You can’t do one-size-fits-all. You gotta tailor things to the artists’ needs.

You do something that a lot of label executives don’t. You make yourself available, to a certain point, to feedback on social media. You take heat when the crowd wants things it’s not getting. A few years back, when I asked Pusha T about running G.O.O.D. Music, he made it sound like a defensive position. You take hits, you account for everything.
You definitely have to take a lot of hits because people don’t understand the inner workings of the music business. They feel you could just record a song and put it out and that’s that, but it is so many different details that go along with it that the general public don’t get. I understand the backlash, and I take that on to make sure the artists have as much peace of mind as possible so they can continue to create and do what they do. I learned when YouStream was popping. When we got on there to talk to people, to the fans, to the family, they appreciate you much more. They would get on and say, “Man, my favorite artist would never get on and talk like this.” Even though I’m president of the company, it’s the same thing. I’m representing the artists directly, so they feel like they’re closer and can reach out and touch the artist and communicate.

Is there a specific frustrating audience misconception about the work that you do?
It’s not really frustrating like that, but the common misconception is that we hold albums back. And it’s weird because why would we hold an album back? We can’t make money if we hold an album back. That doesn’t really register with certain people when they want something so bad, which I get it too.

But isn’t there something to it? You might need to reach out to someone to shoot a video or clear a sample. Another way to frame it is that you need to nail the timing and make sure a release does the best it can.
Well, yeah, that’s the whole thing. You want to get an artist the best opportunity possible, where they can maximize in sales, exposure, etc., etc. But like you mentioned, it’s samples, it’s positioning. It’s not even having a song done sometimes. You could be waiting on a feature. It’s just so many things that go into it.

And you can’t tell people you’re waiting on a video or a feature and ruin the surprise.
What happens, though, is once the music comes out, everything is fine and well.

Until then, fans are playing position, same as you. They’re applying pressure in order to get a product out, and you’re on the other end trying to make sure it’s great.
It’s a disconnect sometimes with certain fans, not all fans. It’s a sense of entitlement that comes with it. The artist’s relationship with fans sometimes gets skewed a bit to where certain people feel that they’re owed. I posed the question the other day on Twitter. I asked, “What do you feel artists owe you?” One person responded, “Friendship.” Once the artist creates the work and you buy the work, that’s what you’re owed.

People get their transactional and parasocial relationships all mixed up. When I spoke to ScHoolboy Q around Crash Talk, he wasn’t enjoying social media.
The lines get crossed sometimes. Again, this is not with all of the fans. You know who your true fans are; they show respect. But it can get a little strange at times when you’re seeing certain comments and people going back and forth with you. Like, be patient. Relax. Music is coming. I get it. It touched you. It’s coming. We working on it.

What kind of work goes into assembling a once-in-a-lifetime roster?
It’s all about the chemistry and everyone being individuals and having a vision of their own. That has to be first and foremost. Once you have your own vision, you can see where it fits with other artists’ visions. Then you mesh together, see what works, and see what don’t work. It takes time, though. You can’t just go, “I want you, you, you, and you,” and then we good. It’s the same thing I’m going through working on aroomfullofmirrors. We’re trying to find the right vibes, the right chemistry, the right people to work together to make the collective successful. So it takes a lot of time and patience.

I’ve seen some people reminisce about the 2018 Championship Tour. What would it take to make another one happen?
It usually works when everybody is on or around the same album cycle.

What I’m hearing is that we’re not getting one for a while.
I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s possible.

TDE never made an official label compilation the way Dreamville, G.O.O.D. Music, MMG, and Young Money have. Did you ever discuss it?
We spoke about doing it a few times. Everything has to be aligned and work out the right way. We don’t want to do something just for the sake of doing it. It really has to make sense with us and with the artists. That’s one thing we pride ourselves on is never jumping into something just because we can do it or it might be hot or whatever. It really has to make sense.

So going back to holding up albums, it looks like there are different impressions about SZA’s new record. In the past, she has told fans to ask you about it. Last month, you said it’s in the pipeline but still a little ways off. Is everyone on the same page?
We know exactly when it’s coming out. But on the internet, you only get a certain amount of characters. You don’t have time to really go into a full explanation of what’s going on like that when you’re in the moment and tweeting something.

You did post a statement, but then you deleted it. What happened there?
I looked at the response, and the statement wasn’t good enough for a lot of people so I just pulled it back. It’s cool. I’ll keep silent.

Is she happy with the situation? That’s what people want to know.
Is she happy? I’d say so. Last album, triple platinum. Very successful. I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking. Do you feel like she’s happy?

To someone not involved in your day-to-day, it looks staticky between you two. It’s not clear that she’s cool with the album not being out.
But I’m trying to get exactly what you mean. Is she happy with what, exactly?

I don’t want to make anything seem more contentious than it might be, but SZA has said the relationship with the label has not always been a peaceful one.
Context is super-important. And you have to know the person, how something that reads online can be different from how somebody said it or meant it; it could be lighthearted. What happens is people put a story into their own narrative and create a situation that’s not really there. I’m not going to say there’s never been contention. There’s always contention, especially when you’re dealing with creative. Difference in opinions, it happens, but that doesn’t mean somebody is unhappy or anything. It could’ve been a conversation in the moment. Then a lot of speculation happens. I get it. We have to remember that context is important and you never get the full story through tweets.

Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for REVOLT

That’s why I asked. I’m curious how you feel about the response to Mr. Morale.
I think it was polarizing. I think that’s what good art does: It creates conversation, it gets people going back and forth. So I think it did what it was supposed to do.

Was there a sense that it would be polarizing before it came out?
No. It wasn’t really no conversations on that. I wasn’t really involved in the creative process, so I sat back and I got it the same way the fans got it, personally. In early conversations that I would have with Kendrick, his goal was to turn things on their head and dive deep. The psychoanalysis of the human, the complexities, the dualities, the difference of opinions. I think he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. At this point, he’s a legend. He’s top five MCs to me. He’s had a crazy career so far. Whatever he wants to do is up to him. I have no opinion. Like, “Do your thing.”

You were usually more involved with his albums, right?
Yeah. Early on, for sure.

Did it feel different hearing a new Kendrick album after it’s finished, as someone who has been more hands-on with that process in the past?
No, not really. This was my intention: I want to see what you bring. I wanted to be surprised with everybody else. Of course, I could have went over and listened and did the whole thing, but like I said, at this point, he knows what he wants to do as an artist. He don’t need my guidance and my coaching like he did when we were younger.

But you could’ve heard it early. Interesting. The House Is Burning was one of my favorite albums last year, and I think a lot of labels would be nervous about giving Isaiah Rashad five years to sort things out to get to that record.
We always set the tone of a family environment. While he was going through whatever he was going through, we were patient and trying to support in whatever way we could. You don’t want to be too overbearing in those situations, too, because that can cause a person to rebel. We was just there for whatever he needed, just trying to be helpful. That was the main thing. Everybody knew he was going through things. Sometimes it’s bigger than music. We actually care about artists as people, so we want to make sure that’s straight, and then we can get to these songs.

More recently, he had an unthinkable breach of privacy happen, a situation I don’t think many hip-hop labels have ever really navigated. If you can speak about it, I’d appreciate hearing about how the label mobilized behind him this year.
When that initially came out, the thing was to make sure he was all right. Somebody invading your privacy like that is wild. So we just wanted to make sure he had his head on straight and was doing okay. That was the main concern. Everything else is nonsense.

Is he good? I don’t think we’ve heard too much.
Yeah. It just happened to hit at a time when he was off tour and it was time to start back going in on another album. He was going to be quiet anyway. But he’s been good. I saw him maybe three days ago at the studio. He was in good spirits recording and laughing and joking as usual.

What was the thought process behind having him go to Joe Budden to talk about sexual fluidity?
I think Joe is a great interviewer. He understands the artist; he understands what an artist goes through. And he’s media now, so he can bridge those worlds a little bit better than a lot of other people can because he know both sides of the fence.

I feel like he doesn’t understand the queer stuff, so I was intrigued by that choice.
It wasn’t about queerness or sexuality. It was about Isaiah Rashad, and that just happened to be one of the topics. They discussed a lot of things.

That’s fair. Talk about building aroomfullofmirrors while TDE is going through changes.
It’s been a super-dope experience for me personally because I get to get off my creative stuff. I love to write and record and do that. And then to do it with such genuine people is amazing. It’s a great feeling. It just came at a perfect time, too. We started working on it when SZA was done with her tour, so she was quiet for a second. I had a bit of extra free time. I called everybody to the studio. We were vibing and decided to make a record, and the record came out dope. The chemistry was crazy, so we kept going. That’s where we are now with aroomfullofmirrors.

What’s up with your album?
Man, my album is actually done. It has been done for a while. But I wear a couple different hats. There’s other people coming, and I want to help them and do this whole thing. So I haven’t had time to focus on exactly when I’m going to release it. But as of now, I’m completely locked in. I’m trying to have that out ASAP because it’s just sitting and waiting.

What’s on the horizon that you can tell me about?
Sheesh.

I didn’t think I would get much out of you.
It’s not really a secret. SZA’s coming very, very soon. We pretty much have the album done. We just dropped the record with her and Doechii.

Barack Obama had Doechii on his summer playlist.
Yeah. I seen that. That’s tight. That’s a good look. But it’s the same old thing, man. Soon as the artist is finished recording and we get it to where they want it, we’re going to put the album out. There’s no real mystery to it.

So a superstar has left the label after repeat classic albums and a Pulitzer. These are big shoes to fill. Do you feel pressure?
Kendrick is a once-in-a-generation artist, so I don’t think it’s about trying to fill his shoes. I think it’s about just continuing to move forward and cater to the artist. It’s about the artist’s vision and what they want to do and where they want to go. Our job is to help facilitate and enhance it. And that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we going to continue to do.

As the closest person to it that I’ve spoken to this year, can you explain what pgLang is?
No. You have to check with them. I’m sure they’d rather answer that.

Did you ever have an opportunity to sign Baby Keem?
I personally never had that conversation. I’m not sure if Kendrick and Top spoke about it, but I never had that conversation.

What was that stuff with DJ Vlad about?
You know what it was? I didn’t like what Vlad said about why I would rap when I’m the president of the label. To me, he was trying to pigeonhole me to just doing one thing. We so multitalented and smart in so many areas. We don’t have to be held to one thing. We can do whatever it is we want to do. I just wanted to make sure that was understood, which is why I responded.

You’ve maintained a killer roster of artists and producers for over a decade. How do you find new music?
Personally, I don’t look. I wait and see what sticks out and what comes to me.

How does it find you? Do people hit you up? Are there playlists and shows you follow?
People hit me up all the time. I could be surfing the web and something original jumps out, and I’ll be like, Oh, okay, let’s look further into this. It’s never, like, All right, let me find a new artist.

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