By Tim Larew
I met Tunji Ige by chance on a beautiful Saturday in early May. There were maybe ten of us running around Brooklyn from sunrise to sunset that day working on Michael Christmas’s “Y’all Trippin” video including video production duo Goldrush and someone I knew at the time as simply their friend Tunji. Once we finally had a chance to stop and kick it for a bit while Goldrush reviewed the day’s footage, Tunji mentioned in passing that he made music after sharing that he was a then 18-year-old who had just wrapped up his first year of college. And that was the extent of it. He didn’t need me or anyone else to know anything more about his music career. We followed each other on Twitter the next day off the strength of a genuine human connection, and that was that.
Fast-forward two months—I’m scrolling my timeline and stumble across a Soundcloud link for a new song Tunji had apparently released two days prior called “Day2Day” featuring Chicago rapper Wonda. I recalled Tunji had mentioned he made music—I hadn’t thought about it since the day we met—and opened it up and pressed play. What I heard immediately became one of my favorite songs of the year, a track that I listened to on repeat for most of a four-hour drive from Boston to New York City the next day. I wrote a few words about how it was the quintessential summer anthem that arrived without hype or fanfare, a rare feat delivered by an unlikely subject, and spread it around to everyone I knew. One thing led to another, Christmas and iLoveMakonnen joined Tunji for a remix of the self-produced record (which premiered on Pitchfork weeks later), and suddenly all eyes were on the college kid who—unbeknownst to most—had been “in a basement in Pennsylvania” quietly crafting one of the most impressive debut projects of 2014.
Tunji’s music is deep, heartfelt and sonically captivating, but what makes his rise so compelling is the fact that he’s been doing it all—vocals, production, mixing and mastering—with little resources beyond a Macbook, a mic, and a small yet exceptionally dedicated and passionate team. This week, the Philadelphia native released The Love Project, a meticulous, melodic and conceptual body of work he’s been working on for the past year. It’s a 13-track collection that serves as not only a last-minute entry for hip-hop project of the year, but a surefire sign that Tunji is undoubtedly one of the top all-around talents that is all but guaranteed to have an enormous impact on the music world in the very near future. The skills are undeniable, but after getting to know him over the course of the past six months, it’s become clear that Tunji Ige is one of the more genuine, good-hearted people as well—deserving of all the inevitable greatness coming his way.
We caught up with the rising star—just days before he performs in NYC for Pigeons & Planes’ No Ceilings show—to chop it up about The Love Project, everything that led him to this point, and what we can expect from the ever-promising future.
Where did you grow up? Talk about your background a little bit.
I grew up half of my life in Philadelphia, half in Blue Bell, which is a suburb outside Philadelphia. Basically, my childhood was pretty good. My dad worked in a child and adolescent clinic so I got to see different environments and how people really lived, people who were living well and people who were going through the struggle. I saw what gentrification does to neighborhoods, I saw all that stuff, and I was fortunate to be able to travel a lot when I was younger, to go to Europe and see different places that impacted me as a person. I saw the world for what it really is.
What’s your nationality?
I’m Nigerian. I was born in the US, but it’s definitely a big part of my culture.
When’d you first get into music on any level?
Around the time I was 10 or 11, just making beats on the computer. I’ve always been rapping, like forever, but I never wanted to go on other peoples’ beats so that’s how I started. And I wanted to be better at that, have string accompaniments, Kanye and Hov level shit, so I wanted to learn music theory, all that stuff.
So it’s something you always took seriously?
I’ve always taken it seriously, it’s just that my music used to be trash before [Laughs].
Who were you listening to that influenced you, whether for your production or otherwise? Who did you want to emulate?
Definitely wanted to emulate Kanye in terms of production. As far as from a lyrical standpoint, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot is the big album that really got me into hip-hop, that and early Rocafella stuff. I listened to the whole spectrum of hip-hop. Kanye could influence me here, Cudi could influence me there, Jay could influence me here, but then again, I could also listen to something like James Blake—all different realms of popular music. It’s way too many to list.
What’s the college experience been like the past couple years, being there and handling music?
It’s… it feels like school’s in the way if I’m being completely honest. But it keeps me grounded, I love it. Because it’s like, yo bro, you need to work your ass off and make sure this album blows the fuck up so you don’t have to be here doing regular stuff. I feel like that’s how all artists stay consistent through our crafts. Every day at school I see the demographic that I’m reaching out to, I’m reaching out to the youth so I know how they move, act, talk, all that stuff. I know where I can take it, I know where I can help them out, I know where I can solve these problems, doing it through a medium such as music. So that’s what college is right now.
You started off the year by releasing two tracks—“Bitches In A Sports Car Pt. 2” and “Kingdom”—then “Day2Day” which really got the ball rolling. Over the summer you told me you had 50-plus additional songs stacked up by the time you released “Day2Day.” Was that always the plan?
Yeah, that’s always been the plan—just keep cookin’. I’d ask [my manager] Chad—I wanted to release The Love Project like a year ago, and he was like, “Nah, hold it, keep cookin’, keep working on these songs, make ‘em better. Make 20 to 40 different versions of the same song until it’s the best song possible and then we’ll put it out with the resources that we have.”
But yeah, we were like lets just keep releasing singles, I know one of these is gonna pop off eventually, and then when it does, we’ll be ready. The “Slow Dance” video was done last year, we have another video that was done last year. We’ve just been working. It’s taken a lot of patience. A lot of patience. But it pays off.
How did you and Chad, Josh [Glassface, of Goldrush], and the whole Brain Bandits collective come together?
Oh, so basically with Brain Bandits, we all met through mutual friends. It’s a tri-state thing. I met them through mutual friends in Philly. I met Josh through my friend Ben, then Chad through all them, then basically we would just get together since the time I was in high school from time to time. I’d go to the city and link with Josh and talk about our plans for the future, how we’d take over with videos and music and just create ideas, and it just worked perfectly. It completely worked perfectly. I care about all of them, they care about me, we’re just people that want to make the best shit possible.
Yeah, I think that’s happening more frequently lately. Small, independent collectives are starting to really make waves after putting in work for two or three years. It’s the people who’ve been working and are prepared to come out on top that do.
Exactly. We don’t really try to talk too much. Even with the whole press thing, like, they say, “You should talk more about the album,” but we’re doing it. I’m one of those people that just likes putting it out and seeing the response. It’s about doing things in an organic way. That’s why Makonnen is so successful right now. You can’t knock Makonnen. If you knock Makonnen you hate life [Laughs]. He says the realest shit ever.
Yeah he’s just speaking his mind with beautiful melodies.
And even the pitchiness of it, people be like, it’s not on key or whatever. But that’s the whole aesthetic of it. It’s real. It’s real as shit! There’s nothing realer than it.
Talk about “Day2Day” and the remix and how that track got rolling. You probably knew it was gonna do well, but talk about the process.
So basically Michael [Christmas] and you guys and Makonnen heard the record, I think CL (Chad) told me Makonnen knew he was about to blow when he got on the record, so shouts out to Makonnen for real for believing in us. But it was friends before anything, that’s what the dopest part about it was. We had all chopped it up before they got on the record, it was organic, it was real. You see the video, we’re all having fun, it was a great day to shoot that video, and it’s popping off. Mike got on it sent me the stems, Makonnen got on it sent me the stems, I mixed it down, we put it up and then boom.
How’d you make that song? Was it a hook idea that you crafted the beat around it, or what was the process?
Check this out—so the ending part of the song, the progressive house part, that was originally in the beginning of the song, and it was originally called “Trampoline.” It was gonna be something about going up and down like a trampoline. I sent it to Chad and he’s like, this shit pretty hot. It started off progressive house then it transitioned, and I guess I was bored so I was just like let me make a funny ass hook real quick, and I was like, “I could fuck your bitch,” and Chad was like, “Yo, the ending part of that song, the trap part, make that the main hook that the song revolves around and write some verses.” I did that, sent it back to him, and he was like, “We gotta get Wonda on this.” Fast forward, remix comes out, and then boom.
Talk a little bit about The Love Project. What are people hearing on there?
A lot of soul, a lot of me actually rapping instead of just melodically singing. Straight bars. A lot of crazy ass production. I handled the production. A lot of unexpected stuff. I want it to be rap album of the year. I tried with the resources I had, so I’m looking forward to seeing the response.
You produced the whole thing?
Yeah, mixed and mastered the whole thing too.
Where were you working out of studio-wise?
Out of my home basement, and my dorm. So basically just a Macbook and a microphone.
Is there one track in particular you think is gonna really pop or resonate with people in particular?
I feel like “Red Light”—I feel like every fucking rapper in the game’s gonna hit me up to be on the remix of “Red Light.” My favorite song as of now is the last one I finished called “Ball Is Life.” It’s a whole song that equates balling and flexing on a girl and just comparing that to basketball, but the way I did it is just ridiculous, funny and stuff, but crazy in terms of the way I structured it, so I’m looking forward to that. There’s a song called “Trust Fund Chick” which is the A-side to “Song of the Night,” which is the B-side, the darker part, the boys’ story, and “Trust Fund Chick” is the girls’ story. That could be a single, I could see people liking that a lot. And the intro, I’m not gonna talk too much about the intro, but I feel like the intro is better than some people’s albums.
And thematically, it’s obviously a lot about love and dealing with that while transitioning through life.
Yeah, I feel like love and relationships is a medium everyone can relate to, so that’s what I ended up talking about. Girls can connect with it too.
Any major collabs in the works people can look forward to or anything in the future people can look out for beyond the project?
Yeah, there’s a song on the album—we don’t know who’s getting on it yet—but there’s a snippet of a song on the end of the intro that’s gonna be the next single, and that’s gonna be a big record. We don’t know who we’re gonna go with, but we’ve been talking to people’s camps that have been rocking with us.
You’re 19 now, where do you wanna be by 21?
By 21… I wanna have a mansion. I don’t know. You know, I don’t even wanna have a mansion. I just wanna make music. That’s all I wanna do [Laughs]. That’s really all it comes down to. I wanna make dope stuff for a living. Music, art, videos, clothes, crazy stuff. But mainly music for a living. As long as I’m doing that and able to maintain a lifestyle and have fun, there’s nothing more I can ask for.
What’s one thing you’ve learned this year—you know, when you look back on 2014 it’ll be the first year things really got started for you, so what’s one thing you’ll look back on in five or ten years and be like, that got me on the right path?
Being patient. You can ask Jacob (founder of P&P). I used to spam his inbox all the time saying, “Check out my new record, blah blah blah.” And he’d be like, “Yo, you need to work on your stuff, it’s not good” [Laughs]. So just being patient and working hard and working on your craft and getting used to disappointment. Because you might have a million L’s, but as soon as you get that one W, it replaces those million L’s.
There’s no better feeling than success. So being patient, working diligently and being honest with yourself, and being around honest people who will tell you your shit is trash if your shit is trash—and being able to take criticism. And good vibes too. I feel like a lot of good stuff is happening because I surround myself with good people, I have good energy, I have no malice, I have no evil thoughts. Being grounded and remembering who you are and who you represent.