Since rising to vp A&R at RCA Records in 2015, Derrick Aroh says he has been on a mission to make “weird” hip-hop mainstream. His roster includes D.C. rapper GoldLink, Boston MC Cousin Stizz and London On Da Track, one of hip-hop’s go-to producers. “Derrick is a once in a generation A&R. He was very passionate about me and he didn’t look at me like a prize, he looked at me like somebody with a lot of potential,” says GoldLink. “He believed in me when I didn’t really believe in myself.”
In 2018, the Brooklyn native — alongside Tunji Balogun (RCA’s executive vp A&R and founder of label Keep Cool) and Adonis Sutherlin (senior vp A&R) — secured the signings of two of the genre’s buzziest artists: Brockhampton and Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). The boy band’s 2018 LP iridescence debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has amassed 126 million on-demand audio streams in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music, followed by 2019’s GINGER, which peaked at No. 3 in September. Meanwhile, Gambino scored his first Hot 100 No. 1 last year with “This Is America.” Gambino debuted the defiant anthem on Saturday Night Live, and its accompanying Hiro Murai-directed video became an internet sensation.
“This Is America” later made history as the first rap song to win a record of the year Grammy (“We didn’t think we were going to get much because Donald wasn’t going to show up,” he recalls), and also took home trophies for song of the year, best rap/sung performance and best music video. All of these wins landed Aroh on Billboard’s 40 Under 40 list in 2018.
Below, Aroh reflects on the hit’s instant impact.
At the end of the day, the people who read Billboard are my peers, who have some part in my growth, and kids who are trying to get in the industry. I’m Nigerian and didn’t have family members who were into music. For me to finally get my shot as an A&R [rep], I’m showing people that if I can do it, so can they. These lists are self-gratifying, but they also show it’s possible for others like me. I want to exemplify being a good person as much as being successful. When you go higher up the proverbial ladder, you get exposed to more. It’s really important to stay grounded.
It took a year to sign Childish because it was competitive. Every label wanted him. Governors Ball 2017 was really a war day; so many label executives were on stage, watching. I’ve known Fam [Udeorji, Gambino’s longtime manager] since I was an assistant, so when Gambino left Glassnote Records, I immediately asked him: “Can we jump in yet?”
But it still was a process since Glassnote was still in the middle of working “Redbone” [from 2016’s Awaken, My Love!] and Gambino was doing Atlanta. We popped in and out when we needed to — we even flew to London when he was filming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Our success with Khalid and GoldLink crystallized it.
I remember it was the day before Coachella 2018. We knew [the team] was planning to do Saturday Night Live, but only if Childish could host and perform. After they got the confirmation, Tunji, Adonis and I went to hear some music. At the time “This Is America” was very rough; most of the guest ad-libs weren’t there yet — we helped facilitate that later — but the structure of the song was pretty locked in.
When they played us the video, every hair on my motherfucking body stood up — I had chills! I looked at one of the assistants and said, “We’re out of here!” But I’ve learned this a lot, sometimes you have that reaction and it doesn’t end up meaning anything. You think it’s more important than it is.
We still weren’t sure what was going to happen until all the top executives from RCA were at SNL to watch him perform “This Is America.” Twenty minutes later, Twitter went apeshit. That’s when I fully realized we were part of something ground-breaking.
It’s very rare when you get a video that’s so politically on point without being preachy and pandering. He’s the G.O.A.T. of this generation, and that visual proved that. Bad times create the best art, unfortunately. As impactful as this record was, things still didn’t change. But it created a voice for the people who were thinking about these things. Something as simple as him airing out the choir and placing the gun on a pillow; it’s like human life is just tossed to the side while a gun is treated with such care.
“This Is America” shifted the culture, and that’s what you want as an A&R.