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Def Jam CEO Tunji Balogun joins Leading Vibe Radio with Tems

Photo: Courtesy of Apple Music

On the new episode of Leading Vibe Radio, Tems, Tunji and Muyiwa are joined by their first special guest—Def Jam CEO and celebrated A&R Tunji Balogun. They discuss Tunji’s career, his Nigerian heritage, how he first discovered and eventually signed Tems and his history with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Doja Cat, Khalid, Bryson Tiller, Wizkid, HER and Davido.

Tune in and listen to the episode in-full this Saturday (April 30) at 3 PM UK / 7 AM LA / 10 AM NYC or anytime on-demand at this link.

Tems on Why She Chose Tunji Balogun to join the conversation

Tunji is… he’s the person that signed every artist, he’s the person who’s the best type of A&R there is and he’s very passionate about music and it’s more than making money or being financially successful. It’s really about impact. It’s really about the important things. It’s about really helping people, really being there on a real level with people. And I think he’s perfect because I feel like he’s someone that a lot of people need to hear from and this episode is going to be really exciting.

Tems on the theme of Episode Three: Good Soil

What does “good soil” mean to me? I really feel like “good soil” means something that life can grow out of. I think it means something that opportunities can be realised from. I think it means something that heals, something that is loving, something that is warm, that creates a conducive environment. So when someone says, “Are you good soil?”, it really is about, are you a person that something can grow out of? Are you someone that can provide the environment for something magical, something great, something miraculous. And that to me is what good soil is.

Tunji Balogun on how he discovered Tems

The first person who told me about Tems was Bizzle actually. He sent me ‘Mr Rebel’ the week it came out and I was blown away by the vocal and the writing and the presence and I did what I always do, which is I just followed her and I DM’d her and I said, ‘Your music is amazing.”

I don’t know what the hell I said, and I could probably pull it up right now. I was like, “You’re incredible.” And just every now and then we would chit-chat.

I remember going out there and I was really excited to meet her and we had a very intense meeting at a restaurant where she interrogated me, but it was great. She asked really, really amazing questions and she was just so serious about her mission and her vision, and just wouldn’t accept anything but an excellent partnership and a great team to add on to the team that she already had, which was great. And it just felt like family from the very beginning.

I think we did a very progressive, innovative deal and luckily we found success, and it’s crazy because we started with the EP and so much has happened since the EP, but there’s still records off the EP that are reacting. Her story is still being written. There’s so much more for her to do and I’m just honoured. Honestly, I’m honoured that I even have been a part in anyway, but I mean, she’s special. She’s one of those artists that will change the planet, will change the way people listen to music and the way people dream because of how incredible her talent is.

Tunji Balogun on his favourite African artists

I love what Lojay’s doing. I love Ayra Starr, she’s amazing. I love what Ladipoe is doing just as a MC. I think he’s super, super dope. Victony, I think is super special. I think his story is amazing. His tone is amazing.

There’s obviously all the guys who emerged on 2019, like the Rema, Fireboy, you know the Joeboy, Oxlade, they’re all incredible. They’re all incredible, incredible artists. Some new people, I mean, there’s an artist named Bloody Civilian that I just heard about who feels really special. She’s a producer and a songwriter, and I think she’s really, really special. A lot of the stuff coming out of SA too. All the Amapiano stuff is really amazing, the production. There’s a singer from down there that I like named The Big Hash who’s an R&B guy from SA that’s super dope. I knew I was going to start forgetting people… I forgot to say Azanti!

Black Sherif is insane. Black Sherif is crazy. He’s hard.

Yeah, but I mean, there’s so many man, it’s overwhelming. It reminds me of rap in the ’90s where I’m like, “Wow, everybody is amazing.” Everybody’s dropping fire and they’re all different and they’re all bringing something new to the table. So yeah, as a fan, I’m just always looking.

Tunji Balogun on his time running Def Jam so far

It’s been amazing so far. I mean it’s still really early. I’m still learning and I’m still putting it all together, but the support and just the willingness and the want for me to win, and for the label to win has been overwhelming. I feel like so many of my relationships and so many of the good things that I’ve done in my career are now re-manifesting themselves through this new opportunity.

So I’m just trying to serve everybody the best way that I can. It’s a little overwhelming, because everybody wants to work, which is amazing, but I have to organize all that into a plan and into a workflow. So that’s the challenge. But the best part about it is people want this to work, people want me to win, people want Def Jam to win. People see the alignment and how much success can come from it, and people believe in the vision of where we’re trying to take it. That’s all I could really ask for.

It’s all been positive energy. And coming into the company, I feel like I was welcomed with open arms and I’m really grateful for that because nobody owes me anything. I’m just coming here to try to prove myself again. I feel like my whole career I’ve been an underdog, and I think I like being in that position.

I think I’m a person that gets motivated from being challenged. So I’m excited for the challenge, and it’s also something where I’m taking over a label like Def Jam, that actually means so much to the culture. There’s a responsibility in it to me that’s deeper than just taking a job. It’s way more than just like, “Oh, okay, this is my new job. This is where I go to work every day.” I’ve been entrusted with something that really means something to so many people. It’s a cross-generational story as well. I’m only a year older than the label, so I literally grew up on the entire label catalogue, I know it all.

So, there’s all these opportunities that I’m trying to align into a story, very similar to how I would approach breaking an artist. Obviously, I’m trying to break multiple artists, but also bring energy and story back to something that really matters to the culture. It’s a responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. I take it very seriously. I’m obsessed with figuring it out. It’s like a big Rubik’s cube. You know what I mean? I’m lucky that I have the support and the energy around me to succeed. So I’m just trying to manifest it and bring it home.

Tunji Balogun on meeting Kendrick and his involvement with Kendrick’s signing

I got a job at Warner and here’s the part where I got lucky. An A&R there who I now actually work with at Def Jam named Naim Ali signed Jay Rock from TDE to his first deal. This is in 2006. He had a song called “Lift Me Up.” He had another record that was with Wayne, and Kendrick was actually on the hook. That was his single, but Jay Rock got signed. And if you remember Game was really on fire at the time, The Game that is.

It was that time where like labels would go chase after a sound and Jay Rock was like that next, real lyrical blood with a deep voice out of LA. So he got a deal and Kendrick was obviously a part of TDE at the time. He was called K.Dot at the time, and I just became really close with them because they would come into the office and while they were setting up the Jay Rock project. And I just became super close with, with Punch and with Dave Free from TDE and with Top Dawg and just that whole crew, just very organically because I was the marketing assistant on Jay Rock’s project.

And they would come in sometimes to have meetings and everybody would go into the office to have a meeting except for me and K. Dot because I was the assistant, and he was the hype man, so why would we be in the meeting? So we became really close and we would talk about music and talk about rap and like, “Yo, you heard that in Lupe tape or you heard what Wayne just did?” Or whatever, and we just became really close friends and just music buddies.

So, I initially met Kendrick, I met him four or five years before he even got signed to Interscope. It was a relationship, and basically when I ended up at Interscope a few years later as a temp, by that point I realized, “Okay, I need to be in A&R, this is what I know how to do.” So eventually I finally got a job in the A&R department at Interscope in 2010. A dude named Sean Holiday hired me as his assistant in the A&R department at Interscope in 2010. And Kendrick had started putting out solo projects and he was always good.

He was always incredible. He was always nice, but he was becoming the best young rapper. And he had changed his name from K.Dot To Kendrick Lamar. He put out a project called ‘Kendrick Lamar EP,’ which was amazing. Then he put out a project called ‘Overly Dedicated’ in 2010, which was like a leap forward again, artistically. And that’s when I started to tell everybody an Interscope about it. And I started to go to all the A&Rs and say, “You got to meet this kid. My boy Kendrick, he’s so fire,” whatever, whatever, whatever.

And eventually what really ended up putting it all together was, I was helping out an A&R that was looking for some fresh voices and fresh talents. And I sent a bunch of LA rappers to this A&R guy, because I was in the scene organically, as an artist. And I came up with a lot of these guys. So I sent them an email and it was all the really amazing new talents coming out of the West Coast at the time from Blu to Kendrick, to Dom Kennedy, to Tyler, to Earl, to Schoolboy Q, Pac Div and U-N-I, this was the scene at the time.

And the A&R ended up really taking a liking to Kendrick. He just really liked him, and his name is Manny Smith, by the way, we still worked together actually to this day. And Manny ended up really liking Kendrick and wanted to meet him. I brought him in to meet with him and I couldn’t sign anything because I was an assistant, but I put it in motion. And then what ended up happening is Kendrick got signed, Dre got involved.

And then all of a sudden I’m in, I can actually work on the project because now I’m working with that A&R. So I was able to put my fingerprints on the album and I’m not going to say… I got to give credit to Manny because he actually let me get involved and I had a long standing relationship with everybody in the crew already because I’d known him at that point for five, six years.

So I was able to contribute and bring a couple of producers in and a couple of samples and ideas and stuff. And knowing that Kendrick was going to be an important artist. And I can’t sit here and take the credit. I could never do that because without TDE, without Dre, without the people at Interscope, it wouldn’t have happened. But I definitely was a part of the story and that was what started the energy around me in the industry of like, “Oh, that kid’s got a good ear. He was a part of the Kendrick stuff, and he helped up with the album and stuff like that.” And then Manny ended up signing Schoolboy Q and we worked on that. And then they gave me a couple projects to do.

Tunji Balogun on how working with Kendrick early on would impact his career

That Kendrick story gave me my own story as a young executive. And that was about 10 years ago. The first album’s going to turn 10 this year, which is crazy. It came out in October of 2012 and I’m not going to say my life changed instantly, but it changed the course of my life because it changed me from like, “Oh, that kid’s got a good ear,” or “I heard that kid could rap,” to like, “Oh, that kid’s a really good A&R.” And then being associated with an artist that’s so credible and so cultural and so important and is more than just a guy that makes hits or a guy that sells out shows, he’s the full package of an artist, it gave me credibility as a young executive.

And I never felt like I had to chase anything that wasn’t authentic because I was associated with authenticity from the beginning of my career as an A&R. So most people wouldn’t take the chances on some of the artists that I ended up taking chances on because they’re so left of center and they’re so different, and they’re so unique, but I started with an artist that is the epitome of that. So I never had the fear. I always felt confident to take risks on things that felt new and fresh and different. And Tems is a perfect example of that. And so many of the other artists that I was lucky enough to work with. And then eventually I ended up at RCA, which is where my career really took off because I was more in the driver’s seat and I was allowed to sign more and I was given the keys and they were like, “Just go crazy, just do what you do.” And that’s when Bryson Tiller, Khalid, Caesar, HER, Doja Cat…

Tunji Balogun on his appetite for discovering and sharing new music

I feel like I was always the kid that was trying to put people on to new music. Like I remember being in college telling everybody about Kanye West and how he was going to change the game. It was crazy because ‘College Dropout’ dropped my last year of college ironically, but I remember going to the El Rey Theatre and bringing 20 of my friends from college, like, “You got to come see, you just got to trust me. It’s a $12 ticket, you got to come see this guy because he’s the future.” So, I was always the person that was championing new artists from when I was a kid. And I was such an obsessive fan and I still am.

I’m still such a huge fan of music that I get validation from making somebody happy with something new that I know that they’re going to like.

So, when it came to being a young executive, I already had it in me to want to be the champion and want to be that person that was putting people on the stuff. Remember, this was the blog era, right, where the blogs were everything. And that was the primary way for people to get on and get discovered. And getting on a big blog was almost like getting on a big playlist now, it was like a coveted placement.

And I was in that mix. I was always sending new music to blogs because I was in that interconnected place between being an artist and being in the industry. And that game was all about putting people onto something early. It was all about being the first to discover something. So I’ve always just taken pride in it, to this day.

Tunji Balogun on how his relationship with African music developed

It starts from when I was a kid, just like everything else did in my whole story, starts from being a fan, a young fan, a young hungry fan. And it started with my dad and my mom playing all the classic stuff. The King Sunny Ade, Barrister, Shina Peters, all that stuff. Stuff that I heard growing up in the 80s in America, 80s and 90s, and it just was a part of my DNA as a fan. And then, what re awoken that was my little sister was always going to Nigeria. There was a time where I couldn’t afford to go to Nigeria because I was just working and trying to figure it out. But somehow, my little sister was going all the time.

So, she would come back with music and she was like, “Oh, you got to hear this guy Davido, you got to hear this guy Wizkid, you got to hear.” And actually, another thing that happened was I took a trip in 2004, right after I graduated from college. And that was when it was like Styl-Plus and 2Face and it was that era. So I got into that stuff and I was like, “Oh, this is fire.” They’re taking American R&B, and they’re taking a little bit of the Dancehall, Reggae stuff and mixing it with all the classic stuff I grew up on listening for my parents.

But then around 2010, ’11, ’12, my young sister started going to Nigeria all the time and coming back with music. And she knows I’m a hungry music fan. So, she’s like, “You got to hear this, you got to hear this. You haven’t heard that? You’re slacking.” There was a couple of years where she was like, “You need to catch up, you need to catch up to what’s going on.” And then I really dig in and watch the videos and I just started to get it. It took me a minute to really understand and get it. I always loved the music, but I think I had to start to understand Pidgin a little bit more, Pidgin English and understand the slang and the swag and the fashion and everything.

And then around like 2013, ’14, I started to really understand like, “Okay, this is eventually going to take over the world and I’m in a unique position.” I wasn’t anybody that could have shifted a global scene at that point, but I saw, I was like, “This is going to be a thing.” And I’m in a very unique position because I’m Nigerian American, and then I actually understand this. And I just started reaching out to people, and I just started following people and following the artists and just trying to understand the scene a little bit more. And by that point it had come online and now this was now the blog era for the Nigerian stuff. So then I would just start going to those sites and listening to everything and figuring out who I liked and like, “Oh, this producer’s crazy. Oh, who’s this Sarz guy, man, he’s insane,” and just learning. And like, “Okay, wait, who’s legendary. Oh, it’s two of them.” Just putting it together as a fan. The same way somebody who just discovered rap would be like, “Oh, Reasonable Doubt,” whatever. And I just tore through it as a fan and just educated myself and listen and listen and listen and listen, and started to meet more people. And then the next thing that started to really help me was I started going to London.

Tunji Balogun on how visiting London helped him connect with Afrobeats

When I started going to London, I started meeting more people from the diaspora who were more connected to Africa than I was, because the UK’s closer. People in the UK can go to Nigeria and go to Ghana and go to Africa way easier than it was for me as a up and coming A&R to get home. And it was the first time that I would go out and go to a party and hear the music. And that’s different than sitting at your laptop and listening to it, right? When you start to see people move to it, I was like, “Oh,” it added another layer of understanding for me.

And then, I started to meet more producers and meet more artists, and then the afroswing sound was coming through the UK stuff and all these things were kind of converging culturally. And I started to make friends. And around that time is when the Davido conversation started at Sony and I was able to be involved in helping to sign him.

And I’ve been chasing Wiz for years at that point. I’ve been chasing Wiz. I probably was chasing Wiz for four or five years before I actually met him. I was just determined to work with him. I was like, “This has to happen. He’s so amazing.” I just really felt connected to his music and we have the same last name too. So I was like, “Yo, we’re both Balogun, we have to do this.” So, eventually, I was able to work with Wiz.

And then that working with Davido and working with Wiz, you’re working with two living legends and having that be my introduction, I was able to meet so many more people and learn so much because I was walking in with giants, you know what I mean? And by that point, my name started to pick up too. So, it was all timing, but to answer your question, it starts with my mom and dad. And then, it was a trip in 2004, and then it was my sister, and then it was London. And then it was actually working with some of the artists.

Tunji on what attracts him to new artists and scenes

I think I’ve just always had this weird sixth sense of where it was going to go next. With the R&B thing, I remember having conversations with people at labels and they said that, “This R&B thing is dead. It’s all about rap now.” People would say that to me. And I would just think in my head, “That makes no sense. All these genres are based off of R&B. So, how can R&B not be a thing?” And that was just me feeling like the right artist at the right time is going to crack the code on this. With the afro stuff, it is a little different. That to me felt more like a duty, like a cultural duty to be the person that was a part of this. But really, I just see it, man. I hate to sound mystical, like it’s voodoo or something. It’s not that serious, but somehow I just know, I just always, and it’s crazy because every time I think that I’m losing it, something happens that revalidate me.

I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s still working, somehow I was still correct about it.” And the thing about it is everybody has their own path and I’ve worked with artists that blew up immediately, and I’ve worked with artists where it took eight years, you know what I mean?

But the uniform thing that unites them all and connects them all is just that otherworldly talent that feels special. And that ability for the artist to tell a different story than has ever been told before. I feel like anytime I’m able to identify that it works. It’s like a plant, you just have to water, you just have to give it the right love and the right energy and whatever is appropriate for that person, that artist or whatever that they do. And as long as you can fill in the blanks and support people, they’ll find success. And then when it comes to just like scenes and stuff like that, I don’t know, I love the new, I love discovering something that I feel like can take over and then adding my little spin to it or whatever.

Tunji Balogun on ‘Good Soil’

I grew up in the Bay Area and there’s a rapper from the Bay Area named E-40 who we all love. He’s a brilliant genius of a man, and he always talks about being “loyal to your soil”. It’s like a well known phrase of E-40. He has many well known phrases, but “being loyal to your soil” is about staying true to the things that made you who you are, you know what I mean? And I think that relates heavily to the topic of “good soil.” When it comes to me trying to contribute back to music, like I said earlier, I’m just trying to put in what I got out of it because I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for all the artists that was lucky enough to be raised on and across many genres, like R&B to rap, to African music, to dance music, to pop music, all those different strains that make us who we are as fans and people that want to be creatives and work in the industry and actually create opportunities for the next generation.

Written by Manny King John

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