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Def Jam’s Future is with New CEO Tunji Balogun

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Tunji Balogun (via Ro.Lexx)

by Dan Runcie

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Last week, Universal Music Group announced that Def Jam Recordings’ new CEO and Chairman will be Tunji Balogun, who currently serves as EVP A&R at RCA. The move is effective January 1, 2022.

Big move for UMG. In a January 2021 webinar, Cabbages’ Gary Suarez and I did a deep dive on Def Jam’s Past, Present, and Future. Here are the things Def Jam and UMG had to address with this hire:

-Improve upon Paul Rosenberg’s tenure. Eminem’s manager led Def Jam from January 2018 to February 2020. But Paul spent a lot of that time focused on Em, who dropped 2 albums, went on tour, and had a big rollout for Slim Shady LP’s 20th anniversary. During Rosenberg’s tenure, the label did not breed new stars, Def Jam’s 2019 Rap Camp came and went, and it didn’t lean into trends like drill. Def Jam needed a CEO whose main job is CEO of Def Jam.

-Consider hip-hop’s big names who wanted in. Ever since Jay Z served as Def Jam CEO from 2004 to 2007, hip-hop’s big names have eyed the position. Former Murder Inc. CEO Irv Gotti once wanted it. DJ Khaled likely wanted it after he was named president of Def Jam South. Jeezy might have low key wanted it at one point, which may have led to his recent consultant role.

The two most iconic labels in hip-hop history are Def Jam and Cash Money. Birdman is never letting Cash Money go and isn’t the type to hire advisors. Def Jam is the best chance that past artists have.

-Elevate Black leaders. After George Floyd’s murder, the major record labels committed to hire and promote Black execs. That’s been the underlying focus for #TheShowMustBePaused and the Black Music Action Coalition. The last three Def Jam CEOs were white men. How would the label respond?

-Build an identity. Def Jam was once synonymous with New York hip-hop. It was a whole vibe. Outside of music, Def Jam was still known for dope apparel and memorable video games. But since the 2000s, each CEO has taken a different turn. In the past few years, its biggest acts have been Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and Logic. Will Def Jam prioritize revenue-generating acts (regardless of genre), or focus on a particular sound?

Tunji checks several boxes. First, Def Jam will be his full-time job. He’s risen through the major record labels ranks at RCA, Interscope, and Warner. In 2018, Balogun did launch Keep Cool, an LA-based record label under RCA. But that’s nowhere near the commitment of managing Eminem.

Balogun also worked as an A&R helping big R&B acts like H.E.R., SZA, Wizkid, Khalid, and worked closely with Top Dawg Entertainment. He has a track record and proven ability to attract new stars to the label, which Def Jam has struggled with.

The Nigerian-born exec’s hire is also a true “promotion,” not a lateral move from someone who was already a label head. This was an opportunity for someone who wasn’t yet reached that level but was arguably overdue.

Plus, Def Jam found a way to include the rappers who still wanted in. It has Jeezy’s advisory services and now has Snoop Dogg as an executive consultant. These fractional roles are perfect for influential artists who can’t commit to running a label. Snoop is having too much fun with his sports commentary, and Jeezy is too busy building up that real estate portfolio.

Read more about Tunji Balogun’s becoming Def Jam CEO in Variety by Shirley Halperin.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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