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We wanted to talk to Tunji Balogun, an executive vice president of A&R at RCA Records and the co-founder of Keep Cool, a label that’s a joint venture between him and RCA which was announced in April, because we wanted to have a convo about the current state of the music industry. We think Tunji is uniquely positioned to go in on this topic with us because he’s been doing A&R for long enough to see a number of trends, both in terms of business model and creativity, come and go.
And because in his work with Normani, Khalid, Goldlink, Bryson Tiller, Brockhampton, TDE, especially SZA, and Childish Gambino, he demonstrates an understanding of the way actual people listen to hip-hop and R&B, which is everything all mixed together. Try not to make a record company people are shady joke here. Yeah, and I mean given the embarrassment of riches that we have here on Microphone Check, in the form of one Ali Shaheed Muhammad, when we talk to Tunji we can talk about the industry as it existed in the late 80s all the way into today. So yeah, that's what we did.
TUNJI BALOGUN: I'm Tunji Balogun.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What's up, Tunji?
TUNJI BALOGUN: Man. I'm just happy to be here. Seriously.
FRANNIE KELLEY: I'm so glad you're here. The second I heard about Keep Cool from our mutual friend Vlad –
TUNJI BALOGUN: Shout out to Vlad.
FRANNIE: – I was like, "Tell him we want to talk to him. Tell him to come by." So thanks for making time.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Of course. Shout out to Vlad. Shout out to the whole Keep Cool squad.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that's actually where I wanted to start. Was if you could kind of break down, who you're working with but more particularly why you hired them to do the job that they're doing?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I've been working at labels for – major labels for about 12 years now. Basically when I was in college, I started interning, and when I stepped out of college, I walked right into a job at Warner Brothers. I kind of, in a way, grew up and came of age in that system. But I –
FRANNIE: Can you stay with the interning for a second? Cause –
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yes.
FRANNIE: – I interned, like, everywhere for a long time, and I don't think that's really quite as common. Cause you and I are the same age.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah.
FRANNIE: Did you do a lot of internships or –
TUNJI BALOGUN: I did two before I graduated. I did one at Warner Brothers Records, which just came up by chance. And another one that I ended up just walking into at Virgin.
And basically when I was in college, I was making music. I was an artist. I was rapping, and I had a radio show on our local college station. And there was a guy who had a show as well who had graduated from my school like eight or nine years earlier than me, but he worked at Warner Brothers Records. And he just was really really into hip-hop, and he just noticed that I was a kid that was really into it.
And he was like, "Hey, you should be my intern this summer and learn more about the industry." And I'm thinking, "Oh, I'm going to go and get signed, and this is my ticket to being a rapper and stuff." And it just kind of started from there. That kind of led to me being in the major label system for the last decade plus.
FRANNIE: What did you learn as an intern? Do you think that was a valuable thing or do you feel like it was cheap labor?
TUNJI BALOGUN: You know what? What I learned was how everything kind of broke down, from a major label perspective. And it was always very interesting to me, because I'm really a kid that grew up in the underground and came up listening to non-mainstream music. I mean, I listened to everything that was out, but I would say that at that time in my life I would define myself as an underground listener. But I was still just fascinated by it, cause I was like, "Oh, there's different departments. There's A&R. There's marketing. There's publicity. There's business affairs." It was interesting to me to kind of see how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
And from the very beginning I was skeptical of it, because I came from the underground. And I was sort of trying to figure out ways to make it make sense. And that's kind of the mentality that came with the Keep Cool thing. It's like, how do you marry the major label muscle with the ingenuity of an indie underground kind of mindset. And I think that's a part of the reason why I've been able to find success in the major label world, is cause I sort of have an underground mindset, and I kind of come from that world.
The first artist that I really connected with in the major label world was Talib Kweli who's kind of more representative of where I came from. And we just became super good friends when I was at Warner, and basically that was during the blog era where getting posted on a blog was the equivalent of getting added to a playlist now. That was how artists were getting on. And Kweli was someone who just wasn't really at the time really into the digital stuff, even though now – it's crazy – cause he's all over Twitter and he's, like, a master of it.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that is my question. Did you sign him up for Twitter? Do we have you to blame?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I literally signed him up for Twitter.
FRANNIE: God dammit.
TUNJI BALOGUN: I'm the one who told him, "You need to make a Twitter. You need to make a Facebook. You need to send your music to these blogs. This is how people are discovering new music now." And because I had the Kweli music, the blogs started to trust me, and I became a trusted sender of music.
And then because I was in the L.A. rap scene as an artist and that was my daily life, I kind of became one of the plugs for the local L.A. rap scene to get their music posted on these blogs. So I would help out anybody that would hit me up, anybody who I thought was dope, that is.
And then coincidentally, at that same time at Warner, Jay Rock from TDE got signed to the label by Naim Ali. I became close with their team and sort of helped them with some digital stuff and just became a trusted source for them as well. And that was a major pillar of my career, cause not only the credibility of being associated with TDE, but that's what led to stuff like SZA getting signed and all this other stuff. So it all kind of started with that first internship.
Now that we've started this label, which is a joint venture with RCA, again I just really want to marry the ideals of an indie or an underground label with the power of the major. Cause you kind of need both in order to have a career that really lasts. You kind of have to mix and match.
FRANNIE: You as an exec or an artist?
TUNJI BALOGUN: Honestly, I would say both. I was thinking more on the artist side. But for me, personally, I know that's a big reason why I've been able to survive. It's cause I think both ways. I still consider myself, like, that fan, that young underground kid that was downloading every album and listening to it and studying it. And it's ironic now that I'm here. But it's a blessing.
FRANNIE: What do you mean that you're here?
TUNJI BALOGUN: That I'm now, you know, this quote unquote executive in the music industry, because I'm still that kid that was listening to Tribe and listening to Atmosphere and Brother Ali and Little Brother. That was my world. That's where I came from. So I always kind of consider myself to be a bit of a rebel within that system, and also kind of it was my job to represent for the artists who didn't necessarily make sense in that system and to make it make sense, to translate the label speak into artist speak and translate artist speak into label speak.
That's kind of what A&R is. It's like, you're the go-between between creative and corporate, and you have to understand both, but I think have the ideals, really, of a creative and protect the artist and protect their vision and help them make their vision something that's real.
FRANNIE: Is that at all reflective of your experience with A&R?
ALI: My experience as an A&R, it's interesting hearing your story and your experience, because I'm sitting here mentally matching. And I think for me it was similar, however because I was definitely a successful artist and, I was going to say, somewhat a rebel, a rebellious artist in a sense – and seeing and feeling some of the struggles of being on an independent label – it, I think, hardened my spirit. So when I was working inside of a major label – I was in the Warner system – I was just disenchanted with some of the things that happen. And you have to be, I think, diplomatic in order to be able to speak both languages and to see things from both sides.
FRANNIE: What about before that, when you were an artist? I mean, I'm kind of – what are the similarities and differences between early '90s A&R role and now?
ALI: A Tribe Called Quest was really in a very special situation. I say that because on our first album we had Sean Carasov. He was our A&R. But he left New York, moved to Los Angeles, so there wasn't the day-to-day sort of thing happening. We released the first album and after that we were never A&Red again. I mean, they had A&Rs that would come but it was just – we locked everybody out of the studio.
FRANNIE: But that's a little bit similar to people, I think, who basically enter a deal having already been developed outside, right?
ALI: Yeah, it is, but we were still trying to find our voice I guess, but we also knew where we wanted to go. And we didn't think that any exterior voice was going to help shape us better than we could shape ourselves. I can't say that about every artist. Sometimes you need something with experience to understand who you are and where you want to go and say, "OK. This is the root." And not necessarily from a traditional perspective, cause I'm sure you've dealt with artists that don't want to do the traditional –
TUNJI BALOGUN: Right. I would say most of my artists are in that space.
ALI: Yeah. So it's a matter of finding someone that you feel speak the same language and that you can trust. For us, I don't know, we were in a different space.
ALI: Like, we were saying, "We're trying to be The Beatles" to a record company that's just like, "Can you just be Queens and New York?"
TUNJI BALOGUN: Right.
ALI: I mean, it's just that simple.
FRANNIE: Have you ever had something like that happen? Something like somebody tell you something that sounded – would sound outlandish from an outside perspective, and you're like, "Got it. Got you."
TUNJI BALOGUN: Honestly, that's the type of stuff that I love. I want to do outlandish stuff, and I want to push the boundaries of what an artist is supposed to do or not supposed to do.
In this era, I think it's a little bit different than it's ever been because of social media and streaming. And I think artists can kind of create their own wave much earlier and much easier than ever. And it all comes down to how's the music made and how's the music going to be consumed. So that – what are the artists doing and what are the fans doing? And I feel like right now it's so much easier than it was when I was trying to make records, you know, to just create music. You can literally make a song in your room and upload to the same place that the biggest artists in the world put their music.
Whereas when I was trying to make music or maybe when you were starting to make music, Ali, it was just very different. It was much harder to get noticed. It was much harder to get your name out there, and even to create visuals and have a creative visual brand around your artist. All those tools are there now. So like you said earlier, a lot of the artists are more developed when the label start to notice them. There's also more artists than ever.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Because there's just more –
FRANNIE: It's insanity.
TUNJI BALOGUN: The ability to make records is easier than ever.
So personally, I've always just been driven by that tingly sensation you get as a fan. It's never been about analytics or numbers or anything like that, in an era where a lot of A&R is driven by that.
ALI: From a major label perspective, knowing that's usually the mode that they operate on, how do you help the company to get past that kind of stigma of, "OK. What are their followers? How many – what's the Facebook?" All of that. All the socials. How do you help the company see the greater potential of the artist?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I think it goes back to what I mentioned earlier about credibility, and I think because of the artists that I worked with earlier in my career, I was seen in a different light than a lot of A&Rs. It wasn't really about like, "Hey, are you going to go sign this popping new thing?" It's really just about, "Hey, what are you into?" Because I'd worked with artists that came up in a nontraditional way. Specifically Kendrick and ScHoolboy Q would be the ones that adhere most to that. And I think they really developed very organically – they built a fanbase. They used the Internet really smartly, I think, sort of at the end of the blog era into the streaming era. I think the TDE thing kind of straddles both of those eras.
But because I think I came from working with those guys, it was sort of like, "Oh, he's the good music guy. So he's just going to sign dope stuff." And I kind of had that protective bubble around me. So when I signed GoldLink, who I signed with my boy Derrick Aroh in 2015, who's a very different kind of left-of-center rap artist who combines electronic house music with hip-hop and R&B and go-go from D.C., it was a very different kind of signing at the time, but they trusted that we were going to create an environment around him to push him creatively and also add culture to his story so that when it came time, he could have a bigger moment.
So the song "Crew" that we put out in 2016 just grew and grew and grew and became a double platinum, Grammy-nominated song, and he stayed the same, but we've been able to very carefully and artfully grow the artist. So that's an example of taking the time to do what's right for the artist, not forcing anything, and letting them be themselves, but amplifying that vision.
Yeah. I guess that's kind of been my story, and the other thing that I've personally been very passionate about in my career is just R&B in general. I feel like the music industry was kind of underestimating R&B until very recently, probably until streaming really took hold. And I have my theories about that.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Well, here's my theory. I think hip-hop became so powerful and such a huge cultural monolith and that in a way it kind of choked out R&B, because – hip-hop is more than – hip-hop is clothing and style and slang and art, and it's just a lot more than music, whereas R&B is kind of more – it more lives in the musical space and the performance space. It's not like people can really dress R&B. I guess sort of, but it's a little bit –
FRANNIE: But there's gotta be a way. Somebody make it happen.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah. It's less defined.
So I feel like because hip-hop became so big in the 2000s, a lot of radio stations maybe stopped playing R&B because they were just like, "Well, hip-hop is dominating at this point." And I feel like a lot of R&B artists got lost in the radio space and didn't have that platform to really grow, and I think those fans were just underserved, especially women I think. Cause hip-hop is so male-dominated. And it really will take ten years for a big female mainstream rapper to break. I think the female audience was sort of being ignored.
But I feel like when streaming took hold around 2014/2015, the dynamic changed. The artist-to-fan interaction changed also with social media, and I think R&B artists were able to figure out a way to reach their fans and an easier way. And you can see that there's just a lot more going on, and the scene is a lot more healthy now than it's been in recent years and there are dozens of great artists that are doing well.
So I'm excited about that.
FRANNIE: Do you think that that whole concept of alternative R&B or whatever was useful in that making it healthier process, or was that a weird moment?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I would say it's kind of both. I mean, I think you have to give props to a handful of artists in this era who were really really important in the resurgence of R&B. I would say, like, Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd, I would say Jhene Aiko, and a few other people were sort of the first ones to kind of come with this new energy, and I guess people labeled it alternative R&B, but it's just R&B. And it's mixed with the hip-hop stuff. Hip-hop is sewed into it, because hip-hop is, again, so dominant.
FRANNIE: Yeah, what felt weird about it to me was like there's this – when people are snobby about R&B, they think of sort of the classics as being performative in some way, that it's too perfect. It's too whatever. It's not really real. But that this alternative, because it was in some ways – had a more casual appearance and used more vernacular and wasn't so florid in its emotions, it was like, "But that's OK."
So like, it sucked for the ways that people were dogging on legends and heroes of that genre. But it does seem like somehow – because the artists didn't feel that way about their forbearers – that it made sort of a more open playing field. But I don't know. Fucking writers, man.
And that seems to me to be a really important part of the rise of Khalid, was the way that his music incorporates so many different genres, which is the way that people actually listen to music.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah, I mean, he's the definition of a millennial. There's no moment in his life where he didn't have the Internet and didn't have access to listening to all these different genres. So he's equal parts hip-hop, folk, pop, R&B. His mom was in an R&B group when she was growing up, and she almost got signed. She was like this close to making it, so he grew up listening to all '90s R&B. But he was around a lot of kids that were listening to indie music. He's just as big of a fan of Father John Misty as he is of Future. So he's kind of just in the middle of everything and just synthesizing all these different influences, and that's kind of what he became.
When I met him, I was like, "Oh, this is a new kind of pop star." Of course, he's rooted in R&B because his vocal is so soulful and so, you know, just rich. But because of his ability to switch between genres and musical languages, he's a new kind of pop star. You can see from all the collaborations he's been doing. He's, like, working with Billie Eilish and Future and Calvin Harris and H.E.R. He's kind of able to slip in and out of genres.
I think that's something that's unique to this new generation of kids because of the Internet. No pun intended. Shout out to Childish Gambino. Just cause they're able to speak these different languages and that's really – that's an important currency in this era.
ALI: Yeah. I think so.
TUNJI BALOGUN: And he's just the hardest-working person. That kid is hungry.
FRANNIE: Since you mentioned Childish Gambino and, you know, I don't know how much is public record about his Glassnote deal and sort of what happened with dropping that album, how long they held it, and how much his frustration with that independent label led him to RCA and through somebody like you.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Gambino is such an interesting case, because he kind of exists in these parallel worlds as an actor and as an artist. And he's had this really interesting career that's had ups and downs on both sides. It got to a point where he realized he needed more resources to get to where he wanted to be musically, and I think he felt a little bit underestimated. And I think we created an environment at RCA that's just very healthy for left-of-center black artists. I think we had – when we started really having the conversations, we had just broken Khalid. We were in the middle of SZA – and just a lot of artists that I think spoke to what he means and what he wants to do as an artist.
And I think one of the things that's really important about what we're doing at RCA is just creating safe spaces for black artists to be themselves and grow and be amazing, and I think a lot of our new signings are aware of that. That's part of the reason why we were able to sign Brockhampton as well. Just like, they understand that we're going to let them be great, and we're going to give them the resources to just grow and be better.
ALI: I'm hearing this, and it's hard for me to really contain. I think that for what you're saying and by proof of the success of some of those artists, you can speak to that. But then for an example I know personally, SMSHNG HRTS was a group that RCA signed and they completely I feel don't know what to do with that group.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Right.
ALI: And knowing that they operate I think in the same space as some of the notable artists that you are speaking about and to know that they're not getting that sort of support. And that's not to say anything negative towards what you're talking about and the ambition I think that the company aspires towards, but knowing a talented group like that that can't get the support and the shine, it makes it go, "Well, is it the artist or is it the label?" What's the missing element to help them find the successes that some of the other artists that are on RCA have. I know – I'm not expecting you to speak –
TUNJI BALOGUN: No, I would like to speak about that actually.
ALI: OK. Go ahead.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Cause I actually like those kids a lot, and I spent a little bit of time with them. I think every artist's journey is different. And some people pop immediately like a Khalid, and some people put out seven mixtapes like a Kendrick Lamar. And I think everybody kind of has their own path, especially in this era where anything can happen at anytime, where you can literally go from nobody to the biggest artist on the scene in six months.
I think that the SMSHNG HRTS kids and Dylan, they've sort of been going through a soul search in terms of who they're going to be as artists. And I feel they started in this sort of wavy R&B/alternative R&B kind of space, and the last time I checked with them, they're like, "Actually we're doing this post-'90s kind of grunge rock-type shit," which is super dope. And I think it's important to just sometimes let the artist discover who they want to be. And I don't know all the details about how they got signed or whatever, but it seems to me it's sort of like, "You guys figure out where you're trying to go, but then when it's time, let's go."
ALI: Yeah, I think there's a lot of that, but also there's – I'll call it – well, interference may have a negative connotation, but it's just like, well, you should maybe sit with these guys over here. So it's like, let's try and make you guys fit into a mold that's actually not you. And I think that maybe the record company didn't know and may have been not as enthusiastic to let them find themselves and to support them.
Cause that's the other thing. If you're going to sign a group and they know who they are and they're trying to tell you, but you're like, "Well, we don't really understand you, and we don't really want to say that, but we have you bound to this agreement. And your dreams and aspirations are tied to your dreams of continuing to be who you are but you're hearing like, 'Well, maybe you should try this.' And you're open to that, because you're young. You don't know any different." And it doesn't work out. And so fast forward. Their story's still being told also. Time will tell.
TUNJI BALOGUN: That's what I think is sort of the most important thing, is that the story is still being told. For example, I know Dylan came up in the same circles as Gabi Wilson, H.E.R., which I think everybody knows that that's her. And that's –
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah, exactly. And H.E.R. was in that group too.
FRANNIE: Oh, I didn't realize that. Oh shit.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah, they were all in the same group. And it's like, Gabi got signed when she was 14, and it's now six years later, and now she's starting to become one of the most important artists in the scene. And she was – I would imagine that there were times during her journey where her team had those same kind of questions. And it's sort of like, I think sometimes stuff just needs to kind of coalesce and a moment needs to come together, and everybody has to be on the same page for those things to happen. I think their story's still being told though, and obviously they're amazing. I think time will be friendly to them.
ALI: I think so too. Yeah.
FRANNIE: I just want to point out for people who might not know that Dylan Wiggins is who we're talking about, and he's also Raphael Saadiq's nephew.
TUNJI BALOGUN: He is.
ALI: Dylan, Jaden, and Martin.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Super talented producer, artist, writer.
FRANNIE: So this question has nothing to do with that previous conversation, but I would like to talk about the concept of the key man clause.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Right.
FRANNIE: So essentially what that is it's really hard to get but you can say I want to stay with the person who brought me into this situation, and if that person leaves, I do too. So have you ever been involved in something like this?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I'm closing a deal right now that I wish I could say the name of cause I'm really excited about it, and there's a key man clause in there for me. It's kind of rare because it's like, not only does the label who's doing the deal have to feel like the artist is worthy of that, but they also have to feel like the executive is worthy of that. So it's sort of –
FRANNIE: Right. Hard to get.
TUNJI BALOGUN: It's hard to get. But I think certain artists feel like they need that specific champion. "I'm signing here because of this person, and if this person is not there, this isn't necessarily the right place for me."
And I think in this new era of the music business, we need to be open to all kinds of situations and agreements and new ways of working with artists, because the artists are only going to become more and more independent and more and more self-sufficient. And if we don't find ways to do better business with them, then what's the label really going to be here for?
TUNJI BALOGUN: I think it's important for everybody to innovate, the artist, the fans, the way that they find their music, listen to music, and connect with each other, and the labels. Everybody has a responsibility to grow and do a better job. I think that's really important.
TUNJI BALOGUN: We owe that to the fans. We owe that to the kid versions of ourselves that we're dreaming of being here.
FRANNIE: Is that a factor at all in what you were talking earlier about – I do want to get back to my original question about staffing and building a team.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Oh yeah!
FRANNIE: And whatnot.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Cause yeah, we got a label.
FRANNIE: But I was thinking about when you were describing making a safe place for left-of-center black artists, I imagine that you can't really even write a mission statement and hope that people adhere to that. You're actually going to have to hire people that are committed.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah, I mean, when we started the label Keep Cool, the little motto that we came up with was, "the creative safe haven."
TUNJI BALOGUN: Which just sort of epitomizes what I was talking about earlier. And I just wanted to work with people that think and move the way that I do, which is people that are really in the culture, people that actually – when you speak their name, people know who you're talking about and they ring bells, and people who not only know how to socialize and connect with other great executives and young executives and artists, but people that are actually a part of the community, that artists respect, that have great taste, that have knowledge of more than just whatever their role is specifically. I want everybody that I work with to be a Swiss army knife.
For example, Vlad who we were talking about, who's our head of creative, he could be an A&R. He could be a marketing person. There are people on our team that can do multiple jobs, but it's sort of like, "Hey, this is your quote unquote position, but you can do whatever you think is going to benefit our artists and benefit our team." And I remember one of the first meetings that we had, I said, "Yo, I know we have people that are designated as A&Rs, but anybody here that wants to sign something, great. If it's great, bring it in, and we'll do it."
I don't want anybody to be bound by a title or a certain role. Cause really what's most important is: tell these artists' stories. Get their message and get their vision to the world. It's not about us being selfish and being – having an ego about what we get out of it. So yeah, I really just wanted to work with people that just gave me the same feeling I felt when I'm around a great artist or any great creative, someone who inspires me and people who actually matter.
And it ended up being eight or nine people that I really respect and people that I'm really proud to call my team. We got four founding partners and six or seven other great folks, and we're about three months in, but good things are happening. Our first artist is Normani from Fifth Harmony, her solo stuff. It's going to be amazing. And then we've signed two or three other things that we're going to reveal to the world when the time is right in the next few months. Definitely a lot of great music coming.
And I'm just super proud and grateful for the opportunity to even do this, cause I know how rare it is. I know how rare it is for black executives to be given opportunities like this. I know how rare this little run or whatever that I'm on is. I've done my research. I know this doesn't happen very often, so I know that the next great executive, his opportunity or her opportunity hinges a little bit on what we do.
TUNJI BALOGUN: And, you know, we don't take it lightly. We take it very seriously. And these artists are trusting us with their dreams. It's like we were talking about earlier. I don't take that lightly at all. Cause I'm a kid that had dreams of being a rapper, did those shows, went on those tours. I did all that stuff. So I know how hard it is. I know how much people sacrifice for their dreams.
ALI: I think that there is the difference. And not to say that other A&Rs or other people working within the confines of a big corporations, they don't realize that, but when you operate from that, you wake up and you go to sleep with that in your heart, not just your mind but your heart, I think it allows you to represent and even take the hits, weather the hits. Because you know you're intention is to protect the artist and to make sure that they're dreams are realized by whatever sacrifice you as an individual inside the company, as a representative of the company, have to suffer to make sure that happens.
And again, I've been there, so I've seen people – their hearts get snatched, great people working at labels, but then it just becomes, "Man, I'm just working. I'm here. My body's here." But their spirit is no longer there. And it's a sad thing, and unfortunately I'm not just going to say that the artists suffer. I just think humanity suffers, because these stories are important.
TUNJI BALOGUN: So important. They inspire people around the world.
ALI: They inspire people around the world. Yeah. And if –
TUNJI BALOGUN: I think people really underestimate how powerful music is sometimes.
TUNJI BALOGUN: And I'm somebody that – I'm a living testament to that. I was raised by this music. Obviously I come from a family that I love and a great family, but I define myself a lot by these musical moments that I've lived through. And I take it very seriously, and I'm always going to operate from the sense of being a fan. That's why I'm still hungry. That's why I still wake up in the morning I'm excited about this. Because I'm still a fan. Before we started this interview we were talking about the Nas album.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Like, "Yo, what'd you think of it? What's your favorite track?" Whatever. This is like – I live and breathe it. And I only want to work with people that operate the same way, whether that's an artist, an executive, any sort of creative. I want people that are inspired and that are searching for inspiration, and they understand how important that is.
FRANNIE: Yeah. It's funny – it's not funny. Can we just like – I hesitate to say this, cause I don't want to turn the attention to an older white dude or whatever, but can we just take a second for Keith Naftaly?
TUNJI BALOGUN: Oh yeah, he's a legend.
FRANNIE: Especially you being from the Bay. For people who don't know, he was the program director at KMEL when KMEL went all urban.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yes.
FRANNIE: I believe it was the first station in the country to go all urban actually. In '93?
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yes. He invented a radio format.
FRANNIE: He also invented Summer Jam, I think.
TUNJI BALOGUN: He did.
FRANNIE: So to me, that's a really inspiring thing, that you guys are working together. Because that's a lineage of, yeah, inventing things, of ways for people to listen. Because KMEL was – it was super multi-genre. It just had the label urban.
TUNJI BALOGUN: And I grew up in the Bay, so the first time I met Keith, which was February of 2015, when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after things weren't really working out at Interscope. I sat down and – and you know, I'd read this book The Big Payback, which is a legendary book.
FRANNIE: Right. Shout to Dan.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Shout out to Dan Charnas. And I knew all about Keith's story, and when I sat down, I was like, "Yo, you raised me." I grew up in the Bay. I grew up listening to KMEL. I called in. I won stuff.
FRANNIE: I used to tape off that shit.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Yeah, I used to like – I was the classic kid. And I don't – I really think it was a super important part of my upbringing, because the music selection on that station was so amazing, and it was such an eclectic mix of – they would play '70s soul music, but they would also play the newest R&B, the newest hip-hop. And they were forward-thinking. They broke a lot of artists. We're sitting in Raphael Saadiq's studio. Like, Tony! Toni! Toné! broke off KMEL. A lot of other things, but that was a big part of their story.
And when I met Keith, there was an instant bond, cause it was like, "Listen, dude. I wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for the stuff that you did when I was a kid." And Peter Edge who's the chairman of RCA is really an R&B guy as well, so it was an instant connection for me.
And I've learned a lot from working with these dudes. They've given me a lot of perspective. Cause again, I'm the scrappy underground rap kid. And I've always, in a way, shunned a lot of the ideals of the major label system, but there's actually a lot of things that benefit these artists if they're utilized and rolled out in the right way.
So I've learned a lot about timing and also just how to work the building, how to make sure that your artist is a priority at the right time and that people who don't necessarily speak the creative language as well as an A&R might, so that they understand and that they know what they need to do and that they're invested in the project. And a lot of that communication/conversation stuff that was a bit foreign to me, I learned from these guys.
So yeah, Keith's amazing. He's the man. And he, like, A&Red the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. Just, like, wow stuff where I'm just like, "What? How did you" – so that's part of what I was talking about about staying inspired. I need to be around people like that. I need to be around people that have done great things, so that can just be inspired to try to dream that big.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean, I'm really really glad you came by. Cause I feel a lot better about what might happen in the future. I think it's really important that people like you are where you are. I think we're sunk if we don't have that.
TUNJI BALOGUN: I'm doing my best, and I'm trying to pull up more people with me, on both sides, the artist side, executive side. Trying to create opportunities for as many talented creatives as I can. I feel like that's my role. There was a reason why I didn't end up becoming an artist. It was so that I could go into the system and clear a path for more people. And that's super important to me. I don't take it lightly. I know I've said that a few times in this interview, but I know it's a real responsibility. This music matters. There are kids out there around the world that depend on this music to get through their day, to have a better sense of themselves, and to just stay inspired.
ALI: Yeah. And keep living for some people. We have been told straight up, "I wanted to take my life, and just heard some bits." And so just even recently with the record that we just put out, that's what someone had written to us. And I can't even put to words the feeling it is that you just got a feeling and you just put it down on keys and drums and spoke your piece, and someone heard and it kept them breathing.
So I'm definitely passionate about it, and it is really important to have people like you who are as passionate from the inside helping to guide people, to guide these voices, to get these messages through. So thank you.
TUNJI BALOGUN: Of course. Thank you guys for having me. Honor.
FRANNIE: Thanks, man.
TUNJI BALOGUN: For sure.