How Nigeria’s Tunji Balogun is turning Def Jam into destination for global black music after becoming CEO

Abu Mubarik May 16, 2024
Tunji Balogun. Photo: Universal Music Group

Tunji Balogun runs the iconic Def Jam record label. He took charge of the company in January 2022 after a career working with stars such as Kendrick Lamar at Interscope; Khalid, Bryson Tiller, H.E.R. and Wizkid at RCA; and Normani at his own Keep Cool imprint.

He told Billboard that he took over the label at a time when it had “a lot of question marks” and instability. In the five years prior to his reign, the record label had been in continuous chaos. The CEO Steve Bartels exited the company in 2018; Paul Rosenberg, co-founder of Shady Records, managed the label for only two years.

And until Balogun was hired, Jeffrey Harleston, executive VP of business affairs/general counsel of the label’s parent company, Universal Music Group (UMG), ran Def Jam on an interim basis. Balogun took charge of a company in need of serious restructuring.

“It felt like there was an overreliance on the existing roster and not as much of a focus on what comes next,” the A&R veteran and former rapper told Billboard. “The current roster was strong, especially at that time. You still had Kanye [West], and [Justin] Bieber was releasing a lot of music; Jhené [Aiko] had a big album. But the reality is, you always need that next wave of artists that’s going to continue turning the page, and I put the focus on that from day one.”

One of his earliest decisions was to rework the label’s roster, signing Muni Long, Coco Jones (in partnership with High Standardz) and Armani White. He also expanded into dancehall with Masicka and into Afrobeats with Adekunle Gold and Odumodublvck, in partnership with Native Records. And it worked as Muni Long and Jones were nominated for best new artist at the Grammy Awards in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

Balogun is not stopping there. He is laying out his big plans for the future of the iconic record label and how he will turn it into the premiere destination for “global Black music.” His mission is to continue with the legacy of Def Jam, which has been home to iconic artists such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, and Rihanna, by reshaping its future.

As the label celebrates its 40 years of history, Balogun said the label is driving forward once again.

“I want to get to a place where we’re not defined by nostalgia; where nostalgia is just a part of the magic,” he said. “I do think we’re heading there. But it’s a heavy task.”

“Def Jam, to me, has always stood for forward-thinking, cutting-edge Black music,” he told Billboard. And I’m careful to say ‘Black music’ and not just ‘Black artists’ because if you have something special like a Beastie Boys or eventually a [Justin] Bieber, it belongs on the label as well.”

“I want Def Jam to be the destination for the next generation of global Black music,” he stressed. “That is my mission statement. In many ways, it reflects what the label has always been, but it brings in all the new scenes and sounds and strains of music — everything from U.K. R&B, to Nigerian drill, to amapiano from South Africa, to a really special country act from Missouri, the next incredible lyricist from New York or the next really special female MC from Atlanta. All these different worlds and sounds need to exist within this label.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 16, 2024


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