A&R Spotlight: RCA's Tunji Balogun on Working With Bryson Tiller, SZA & Khalid
Tunji Balogun, SVP A&R at RCA Records, has had a career spanning 10-plus years in the music industry, beginning as an intern at Warner Bros. Records while still in college. Over the years, the 34-year-old -- who one branding executive recently told Billboard has "the best ears in the business" -- spent eight years at Interscope working closely with Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and K Camp, as well as on projects by Eminem and 50 Cent, before arriving at the Sony building in 2015. Now, Balogun has signed a roster made up of some of today's next generation of R&B/hip-hop talent, including Bryson Tiller, SZA, Khalid, Wizkid, Goldlink and H.E.R.
Tiller's manager, Neil Dominique, sings the praises of Balogun. "Tunji is a great A&R due to the love and passion for the music and artists," he tells Billboard. "Nine times out of ten if he tells you an artist is next up, he's correct. He understands the music that the artist is trying to create and also understands what it will take to help them accomplish their vision."
Now, many of his RCA signings are beginning to see the fruits of their success: Tiller scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 earlier this year with True to Self; SZA and Khalid are gaining Best New Artist Grammy buzz based off their top five debuts; while Goldlink scored his first-ever Hot 100 hit with "Crew" feat. Shy Glizzy and Brent Faiyaz, which currently sits at No. 52 on the chart.
Recently, Billboard spoke to Balogun about his rise through the world of A&R, what matters most to him and what's next.
"You know that kid when you're in college that's a good rapper? That was me," Balogun says about his first foray into music. After meeting then-Warner Bros. marketing executive Kevin Sakoda, Balogun was offered an internship in the summer of 2003, which he took as a way to gain insight into the industry he wanted to enter on the creative side. "I was just intrigued by the way the whole thing was set up," he says about the major label system. "I learned how everything fits together." While interning he met another executive in the building, Naim Ali (now senior vp A&R at Republic Records) who took him under his wing and groomed him for a second summer internship at Warner.
After graduating from Pomona College in 2004, Balogun pursued a full-time gig with Warner while working at ringtone company Def Jam Mobile. "I was just trying to be connected to music in any way possible," he says. "It was basically a curation job, similar to what the playlist guys are doing at Apple Music or Spotify, but I was making playlists of ringtones."
After a year, Balogun landed a full-time job as an assistant and worked on projects from Lil Jon, Lil Scrappy, Trillville and one artist who would ultimately provide the gateway for him to get to the next step of his career, Talib Kweli.
The Digital Marketing Guy
In 2006, Balogun started building a professional relationship with Kweli, doing digital marketing for him on the side. "I was trying to give him advice about how to support and build his business online, and I was very vocal to him about social media and how it was going to become a big platform for artists to reach their fans," he says. "I was like, 'You got to get on Facebook, Myspace. You need a Twitter, let me teach you how to run these things.'"
Kweli released his Eardum album in August 2007, and Balogun worked closely with the Brooklyn MC strategically placing his music on blogs. In addition to Kweli, Balogun also began to build a relationship with a then-up-and-coming label, Top Dawg Entertainment. "Naim signed Jay Rock from TDE, so that helped me get acquainted with them very early, when Kendrick was still K.Dot and he was Jay Rock's hype man."
After two years, Balogun was let go from Warner for reasons he says he still doesn't understand. What followed was, he explained, "Basically super broke living in L.A. for about nine or 10 months trying to figure it out. I almost moved back to the Bay. My mom was in my ear like, 'You tried this music thing for two years, maybe you should go to grad school, maybe you should go to law school."
In 2007, Balogun got a call from his old boss, Niki Benjamin, who had by then moved to Interscope, offering him a chance to temp at her new label. Balogun became known as the "super temp," working on areas such as promotion, business affairs and publicity, ultimately deciding A&R was where he fit best.
At the time, A&R executive Shawn Holiday (now senior vp A&R at Columbia Records) hired Balogun as an assistant. Balogun worked with Holiday for a year and a half before both were ultimately let go from the label. But his relationships in the building and his championing of a young Kendrick Lamar led to a phone call three days later from A&R exec Manny Smith, who brought him on as an assistant.
Smith and Balogun worked together on Lamar's first album for Aftermath/Interscope, good kid, m.A.A.d city. "I was a little more involved because I had a relationship with TDE that went back a few years," he says about his role. In addition to Kendrick, Balogun also A&R'd projects from The Game, Machine Gun Kelly and French Montana. At the beginning of 2013, Balogun caught the attention of then-new label head John Janick, who promoted him to A&R manager to convince him to stay at Interscope. Balogun went on to sign Atlanta rapper K Camp and Dreamville MC Cozz, among others.
But Balogun ultimately found himself on the wrong side of a restructuring at Interscope. "They ended up asking me to leave the company when my contract was ending because it really wasn't working out with the new leadership of the urban A&R department," he says.
Welcome to RCA Records
"I was in a studio session in Hollywood the day after the Grammys in 2015 and I got a call from my lawyer like, 'Can you be at RCA in 45 minutes?'" Balogun recalls about a meeting with RCA Records chairman/CEO Peter Edge and head of A&R Keith Naftaly led to an A&R position at RCA. He remembers connecting immediately with the two, especially praising San Francisco radio veteran Naftaly. "He's the guy who grew up in the Bay Area like me and he was the program director for the station I grew up listening to, KMEL," Balogun says. "He had, in a way, really formed and help inform my music tastes."
Balogun also admired Edge and RCA president/COO Tom Corson's ability to lead. "Peter Edge and Tom Corson are veterans that value artistry and take a creative approach to running the company," he says. "They have an understanding for cultural signings like Wizkid, GoldLink and Khalid and they're extremely supportive of their staff. They both have a strong vision for the future of music."
Within three weeks after starting at RCA, Balogun had signed Tiller and Goldlink, working alongside another young A&R named Derrick Aroh. Despite his hip-hop background, Balogun created a lane at RCA with alt-R&B artists, which he bolstered with the signings of SZA -- who was developed by Top Dawg Entertainment, which RCA partnered with for the release of her debut CTRL -- and Khalid. "R&B [had] lost its place at radio," he says about the genre's resurgence of late. "But I think with streaming becoming so much bigger, a lot of those R&B fans have been able to go back and discover new artists in a way they may not have been able to in the last 10 years or so."
The Changing Role of A&R
"I started off as a rapper so I'm very focused on lyricism and words," Balogun says about what he looks for in an artist. After building a relationship for three months, Balogun convinced Tiller to sign to RCA in lieu of taking other offers, in particular one from OVO Sound, which was also courting him at the time.
Before partnering with TDE to sign SZA earlier this year, Balogun remembers a 2015 cab ride to Brooklyn, when he told the young singer she should come to RCA. "We literally envisioned everything that's happening right now," he says. "To me, that was just a testament to the power of the laws of attraction and positive thinking. SZA is a very spiritual person, and I think at the end of the day artists just want to work with people that believe in them."
Balogun also works with mysterious R&B singer H.E.R., who he did not sign but who he got involved with after his success working with Tiller. "I have to give credit to Carolyn Williams, an amazing black woman who is head of the urban marketing crew at RCA -- it was her idea to lead with the mystery and create this 'H.E.R.' persona around an artist that had been signed to the label for three or four years already," he says. "We were able to tell this story without leading too much with an image, which also plays into a lot of the problems young black artists in the industry go through. You're judged so much on your image and the way you look in addition to the music."
Not surprisingly, Balogun recognizes the changing role of A&R in the age of the internet. "It's not about just signing artists and making records anymore; I feel like I do just as much marketing and digital and promotional stuff for my artists as much as I do music stuff," he says. "I feel like A&R is a hybrid of corporate and culture. There are some artists that are amazing at speaking both of those languages and some of them aren't. And the ones that really want to remain creative and not deal with the business stuff benefit from A&Rs."
More Than Just Music
"It's women and people of color that really drive the culture and that determine what becomes hot and which artists blow up. So it's kind of crazy that the industry doesn't reflect that," Balogun says, noting how important it is as a black executive to "replenish and keep the youth and the next generation of artists and executives healthy and strong."
That comes with mentorship, he explains. "I'm very proud of my generation, but I feel like I'm not seeing those younger kids coming out of college like I was, or those young interns that are as motivated and inspired as I am," he says, referencing his own mentors within the industry as well as his wife, who he calls "the secret behind my success." "I really feel it's important to find those kids, to nurture them and to help turn them into the next protectors of the culture."
Still, with all the different pressures and responsibilities of his position, Balogun tries to keep a clear head when it comes to the central role he plays as an A&R for young talent. "The most important connection in the music industry is between the artist and the fan," he says. "All the industry people, A&Rs, at the end of the day they don't matter. It's the artist, their work and the fans and how they experience and internalize the music."