In an empty gymnasium in the Nickerson Gardens housing complex in Watts on Wednesday, Jay Rock finally had a moment of quiet.
Outside, ultramodern hip-hop rumbled from an adjacent stage. Dozens of staffers steered a curious young crowd of thousands out to the complex’s center courtyard. That’s where most of the lineup of local powerhouse label Top Dawg Entertainment would perform in a few hours.
This was the imprint’s fifth holiday concert and toy drive, which has become a year-end highlight for the Watts and South L.A. kids who have, more than anyone, a personal proximity to the scenes that gave rise to Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, SZA and Jay Rock, among many others.
It’s a reflective moment for Jay Rock as well.
Rock is coming off perhaps the biggest year of his career. He landed three Grammy nominations for tracks off his album “Redemption,” including “King’s Dead,” which was also one of the centerpieces of the multiple-Grammy-nominated soundtrack to “Black Panther.”
But today, the gilt of the music business seems very far away, and the leading lights of L.A. hip-hop are just out for a wholesome good time in the neighborhood.
“I grew up here, and for people to see us come back and give back, it’s a blessing,” Rock said. “I was one of these kids out here too. This lets them know that they can do this too. If there’s a kid out there trying to strive for something great, it’s a motivation that no matter where you come from, you can make it out if you stay dedicated.”
As the TDE staples have remade American music, headlining Coachella and playing arenas the world over, this winter toy drive and concert is a throwback to the early days of making music not so far from places like Nickerson Gardens.
Jay, dressed in an all-red uniform, finally got a breather from helping to organize the day’s events, and looked back on a pivotal year in his own career and that of TDE as a cultural force.
“It feels really good, it shows all the work and it validates that,” Jay said. The last time he was up for a Grammy, in 2013, he was laid out from a bike accident and missed the ceremony. But now his voice is all over the nominations.
“King’s Dead” and “Win,” which featured collaborators like Future, James Blake and Lamar, were shots of adrenaline to his catalog. Rock was the first act signed into the TDE stable, and he’s long been a mentor and seasoned voice in the scene as several acts hit superstardom.
But now he’s poised for a fresh look in his own right, which with a pair of ubiquitous hits that have legs well outside the L.A. hip-hop firmament.
“This is a redemption for sure. Jay is the foundation of all this, and he really buckled down with new sounds” said Ab-Soul, his bandmate in Black Hippy and a fellow TDE veteran. As the scene and label they built helped redefine a genre, a show like this is an occasion to keep that one-to-one connection with early and new fans.
“This event is really special. I grew up in a record store and saw Jay’s mix on the counter,” Ab-Soul said. “And now that we’ve come of age, it’s all come full circle.”
The sets kicked off around 3 p.m., and the Nickerson courtyard turned into a loose and cheerful backyard party. No one quite knew which artists were going to play, but everyone had a decent idea. The cameos came fast: Schoolboy Q played his own “Black Panther” hit “X” and “That Part,” though perhaps more quickly than he’d preferred: “I was stuck in traffic and I’ve really got to pee,” he said, laughing with the crowd.
Even when organizers brought a lost child up onstage — “Anyone out there lose a kid?” — they were quickly returned right where they needed to be. This is a scene that looks out for each other.
SZA, grinning ear-to-ear, swept through with a few smoldering R&B hits. She’s up for several Grammys for the “Black Panther” song “All the Stars.”
But then when she played “Love Galore,” her guest on that song — Travis Scott — turned up onstage as well. He had a headline date at the Forum later that night, but the scene at Nickerson was just as meaningful.
“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve been watching this show on iTunes for like five years,” Scott said, before stomping into his chart-topping, hard-pivoting hit “Sicko Mode.”
The day’s question — would Kendrick show up? — was answered in the affirmative, to joyful roars in the crowd. Lamar and Scott locked horns on a few verses before calling out the rest of the TDE roster to the stage, including Jay Rock, who sauntered on with the look of a returning hero.
They did “King’s Dead” together, before Jay surveyed the vast crowd in the sherbet-colored late-afternoon sunset. All of his best friends were onstage with him, looking out at all the people that built their scene and who will carry it into the future.