Stewart Copeland made his name as drummer of The Police and is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished sticksmen of all time. Currently hosting BBC Four’s Adventures In Music series, here, he shares a few life lessons...
It could have all been so different for Tuma Basa.
He joined YouTube as director of urban music in June 2018, scoring one of the most high profile jobs in the music business, but if his nascent rap career as a teenager in Zimbabwe had worked out, his path might have taken another course entirely.
“I wanted to be a rapper, to be Tuma B,” Basa tells Music Week, grinning and planting his fists on the table for emphasis inside one of the vast canteens inside Google’s New York headquarters. It’s icy outside, and we’re here to discuss Basa’s life in music, which began as a hip-hop obsessed school kid and has taken in stints at BET, MTV, Revolt and Spotify, where he turned RapCaviar into arguably the most influential streaming playlist ever conceived. Among its biggest success stories under Basa were Rae Sremmurd, Migos and Lil Uzi Vert, whose daily streams rocketed from 442,000 to more than a million thanks to one placement.
We’ll cover all that and more during a lengthy conversation (the cleaners are the only ones still kicking around once Basa’s done) but first, back to Tuma B.
A DJ named Kimble Rogers used to play local artists on Zimbabwean radio, and he span Basa’s music a few times back in the day. “My boy Leroy literally walked up to the station and gave them my music and then it got played, so I know how it feels. He played my song a few times, but I never caught it because I was in church!” Basa explains, pounding the table again. Fortunately (and perhaps tellingly) his coffee cup is empty.
“I don’t think I had much hope at that time, because we didn’t have the technology or the tools,” he continues. “There was no YouTube at the time, so the pipeline, or at least the realisable pipeline to this dream, did not exist.”
But Basa is not lamenting the fact that his current employer wasn’t around to boost his chances, far from it. He’s been radiating good vibes all day, dancing into our photo shoot at the YouTube Space around the corner (which is complete with its own facsimile of an American diner) and pulling poses like a rap god in a Kangol hat against the city’s skyline on the roof. If this is the person charged with bringing YouTube closer to the artists he’s been championing for pretty much his entire life, then it seems they made a decent choice. As we’ll find out later, artists love Basa, and he has some brilliant stories (involving Chuck D, RZA, Aaliyah and more) to prove it.
“Now, anyone can upload, anyone can build an audience and tell their story,” he says, returning to his story. “Anyone can master platforms and get better while they’re doing it. Let’s say I wasn’t such a good rapper, but if I had the opportunities, the tools, if YouTube had existed at the time, maybe I would have had the chance to develop my skills and actually become a great artist. Who knows? We’ll never know. But with these kids [today] we do know, it’s a different generation.”
Basa is plotting playlist brands for YouTube Music, and there’s a glint in his eye when we ask if he can build one even bigger than RapCaviar. “It’s a hope,” he teases. “I’m not counting anything out.”
He certainly has the backing of the man who hired him. Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, tells Music Week that Basa is “only about positivity and music”.
“Because of that focus, he moves culture forward,” Cohen says. “We are in an era where music can remind everyone that there is way more that connects us than divides us. I am so proud of Tuma, and I am honoured to call him my friend.”
We see the two of them in action later that night, across town in a basement bar on the Lower East Side. YouTube has gathered the great and the good of the hip-hop world to celebrate 45 years of the genre. Cohen and Basa spar engagingly, you imagine they’d light up an office meeting room.
Basa knew of former Def Jam exec Cohen thanks to his years at the forefront of hip-hop, of course he did. “I watched Lyor operate from a long distance for years, way before I ever got a chance to work with him,” he says. “I used to deal with him, he was a very high-level guy when I was younger, so I wasn’t on his radar. We would be in the same room sometimes.”
Now, they’re in the same room most days, as Cohen seeks to harness Basa’s energy to tighten YouTube’s grip on music, to unite the burgeoning scenes across the globe, from UK rap and grime, to Afrobeats, French rap and the new wave of US R&B.
Born in the Democratic Republic Of Congo, Basa has long been a keen student of more genres than he’s got time to name today, first getting into music via his academic father’s record collection, which ranged from Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and The Commodores, to Fela Kuti and Congolese music such as TPOK Jazz. After breaking off to sing a few lines from Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother and dance in his seat, Basa proudly says his dad was ahead of the curve. After the family moved to Zimbabwe, having temporarily relocated to America for eight years when Basa was five, his obsession gathered pace. His father would get turned on to all kinds of sounds from his “hipper cousins” who lived in Zaire, while the young Tuma would often visit friends in Swaziland, where there was access to the music videos and magazines that were pushing early hip-hop. All the while, the friends he’d made in America would send him cassette tapes.
“I was able to be ahead of the curve in school, too,” says Basa, referencing old favourites including Das EFX, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Too $hort and DJ Quik. But it was when he was given Tupac’s 2pacalypse Now on cassette that his world truly shook.
“I didn’t even know how to say his name. I had no context, but I felt him,” he says, excitement rising in his voice. “I didn’t even know if it was two people or one person because Money B was on all the records. I was so far away, but I felt the realness of what he was saying.”
Basa’s parents returned to America, this time for good, and he went to the University Of Iowa, studying business. But he wanted to chase the electricity music had instilled in him, and managed to convince his parents to allow him to pursue an internship with leading hip-hop lawyer Theo Sedlmayr as a way to get into the business. What was to come was the unveiling of one of the most powerful figures in modern music culture, and Basa, a totemic presence buzzing with excitement and energy, can’t wait to tell the story…
Why did you move to YouTube?
“It’s [about] staying close to the zeitgeist. My previous experience was with a domestic US audience. Then, at Spotify, all of a sudden, you’re getting information from all over the world. So your point of view changes from national to global. And that has very much influenced my activities at YouTube. This is global. YouTube and social media are making the music world smaller. If I’m an artist in Sri Lanka, if I’m hot enough or good enough, I can reach wherever. If I’m Jus D in Barbados or Tinashe in Orange County, or Kizz Daniel in Nigeria... Those are three artists that came here [to YouTube] yesterday! I can observe all this activity and cross-pollination, how people outside of their core market are being received. It changes the scope of the audience, and YouTube does that the best. The world is becoming smaller. And music is becoming borderless. Back in the day, if I had a record in the US, my UK label staggered the release date so that was available for promo radio in the UK. You don’t do that anymore. Everything comes out at the same time. Breakfast Club does the interview, it goes on YouTube and then the whole world sees it at the same time, whenever they want. It doesn’t matter if they’re in Zimbabwe, or if they’re in Iowa.”
And how’s it going so far?
“Right now, it’s early still. We have YouTube Originals, YouTube Music programming in the States. We have marketing campaigns, the big billboards, label relations, artist services, press. YouTube is so multi-dimensional, and there’s so much going on that you can work with. Take Sherrie Silver, for example. She choreographed Childish Gambino’s This Is America video [635,458,807 views]. A Rwandese woman, raised in England, doing an African dance in a song about America. And all that connectivity happens because of a platform like this.”
You left Spotify around the time of the IPO, did that have anything to do with your decision?
“It was time. It was more of a life thing. Sometimes you just know. It was just time to go. The word got out, I knew the IPO was happening, everyone did. It was the same as when I went to Spotify, like, ‘OK, this digital cable is cool, but the audience you want to speak to and have a relationship with is doing something else’.”
You helped so many artists with RapCaviar, how do you look back on it?
“That was the mission, that we were friendly to the culture and we reflected accurately what was happening in the culture. And it worked. That was our promise. It was a blur, it happened so fast. I could feel that things were changing, and playlists weren’t really branded yet. So part of what we did was put life into the playlists, create personalities, identity. RapCaviar already existed; it was called Hip-hop Monsters and had about a million followers. But, what is a hip-hop monster? That was literally my question. It doesn’t speak to a hip-hop audience. So RapCaviar was supposed to be aspirational, elite, the crème de la crème. I learned how to operate on a global scale and how to pay attention.”
Did its success change things for you?
“Before, I had benefited from anonymity. It forced me into the public eye. And I’m glad it happened at a later stage rather than when I was unprepared for it. So I sacrificed my anonymity. It ended up being a good thing. We were trying to humanise the brand, we did shows, merch, and community service… We did these things so that people knew we were part of the community, that we were real.”
Closeness to artists was a big part of that. Have you always been at ease around them?
“I was entry-level in the music department at BET, so I didn’t interact much. I carried luggage for Destiny’s Child one day, and met Busta Rhymes and Fat Joe. Then Chuck D had a meeting with my boss and ended up sitting on the floor by the elevator with me telling me about the internet! Then, in 1999, RZA came to meet with my boss, Gregg Diggs. RZA’s real name is Robert Diggs so he wanted to meet Gregg; they have the same last name. Gregg was in a meeting and didn’t want to disrespect RZA. He told me to keep him company. I had soup with RZA, we connected so well. I’m anonymous and he’s RZA! He said, ‘Yo, I’m gonna send a jacket over and some panties for your girl’. And he actually did it! When I moved to New York in 2000, he picked me up in a Hummer and we went to get spaghetti, we went to the 36 Chambers studio, he was playing me some music. I was a young kid; I’d never been in a Hummer. We have the same birthday, too. That jacket caused problems, though, I was lower level and there were senior people who didn’t get one… Fast-forward to 2000 and I had a picture with Aaliyah, I gave it to someone. I don’t have the physical photo anymore, I gave it to someone and regretted it.”
It sounds like you were pretty comfortable early on, then?
“I’m a fan. Luckily, I had mentors who taught me about being professional, staying out of the way and remembering that these artists are working. I learned how to keep a healthy distance so that they could be comfortable and in their safe space. Now it’s a bit different, because I’m older than a lot of the artists. I view myself as responsible to make sure that they’re getting human information, so when I see that an artist is receptive, I will share as much game as possible, just life skills. I’ve been blessed with longevity. So it’s about blessing back. I have to embrace the OG status that has happened through time. I’ve seen artists pass away, that hurts. This is real life, so there’s the professional part, but there’s also the real life part. If I’m one of the few people who gets their attention, I will share whatever I can that can help.”
What’s the most important thing artists need to know nowadays?
“One day I’m going to write a book on curation, and this is a quote I was going to save for that: work hard, work smart and work art. Work art means work artfully. Even when you’re marketing music, when you’re promoting, doing photo shoots, have fun with it and be creative at all times. Because everyone is working hard. There are a million artists. Everyone is working smart. They have teams, every team has strategies, some work and some don’t. How do you decommodify? You put your own flair, your own energy into it and do something unique. You start with the art and you make sure that’s dope. So that when you work smart and you execute with your team, your vision energises and people buy into it. It’s not enough to work hard anymore. It’s not enough to work smart; you have to have all three. And you have to go rigorous and then start again. If you’re an artist it doesn’t stop.”
How have you approached the changes in technology in your time in music?
“When I was at MTV, the blogosphere was really building. It was getting aggressive. Even within MTV, you were the underdog if you were a specialist in hip-hop or R&B, so my philosophy was to use technology to my advantage, for early indicators and signals. I never looked at it as a threat. At Revolt in LA, there were a lot of kids there and they gave me energy, they put me on to things like Snapchat, Spotify, Vine... It kept me so digital. They were digital natives, so they made me a digital native by naturalisation. I’m an ambassador to the culture. Working at YouTube is not only about representing, but making sure that we share knowledge and don’t let anything slip through the cracks. We’re in London just as much as Sydney, Chicago or Lagos. We’re really in it, making sure those connections happen.”
What did you make of YouTube when it first got going?
“It just emboldened [everyone]. You had to perform at a different level, the competition was real with video premieres, when YouTube was coming up you had Yahoo Launch, AOL Music, WorldStar, On Smash… People used to hack. Drake’s Best I Ever Had video was premiering on MTV.com and MTV and somehow found itself on On Smash an hour before. It took the bang out of it. Twitter was starting, so people were on their BlackBerry tweeting this shit.”
Now you’re at YouTube, how’s life with Lyor Cohen?
“I love working with him. I learn from him. He’s fun, interesting and very generous with his knowledge. The other thing about Lyor is that he’s into all kinds of higher art, hip-hop, keeping up with what’s going on in the streets, in Africa… So we’re very similar in that respect, soaking it all up and enjoying it. He’s also big on quality. Oof. He’s big on quality. Even speakers that don’t have good sound!”
Finally, how do you define your role at YouTube?
“However you define the parameters of the culture, whether it’s hip-hop, urban music, African or pan-African culture, I’m a representative. I have citizenship and I have a duty as a citizen. It’s hard to define what urban is anymore, it is growing every day. You want a quote? Urban is mainstream now. You might as well call me the director of mainstream music! I’ll get in trouble [for saying that]! [Laughs]. But it is mainstream, that’s the reality. The question is what do you do with that, the visibility? That’s a question that requires discussions and leadership. Hip-hop is 45 years old. What about the next 45 years?
Eminem scores his 10th No.1 album with Music To Be Murdered By, and his 10th No.1 single this week with Godzilla but it is the very first time he has ever managed to synchronise them and score the coveted double.
While Music To Be Murdered By enjoyed a substantial 46.83% advantage over its runner-up on the album chart, Godzilla - which also features late rapper Juice Wrld - had to work for its singles supremacy, emerging just 0.18% (93 sales) ahead of its nearest challenger The Box by Roddy Ricch. The last time the gap between the top two was smaller was more than 12 years ago, in chart week 30 of 2007 – the chart for Music Week issue dated 4 August - when Timbaland's The Way I Are (feat. D.O.E. & Keri Hilson) topped the chart on sales of 33,578, just 16 more than Kate Nash's Foundations.
Despite its title, Godzilla isn’t exactly a monster hit. Its first week consumption of 52,633 units (including 50,618 from sales-equivalent streams) is the second lowest for a No.1 in the last year, surpassing only the 50,468 copies that Tones And I’s Dance Monkey achieved 16 weeks ago, on the first of its 11 weeks at No.1. Dance Monkey falls 10-14 this week with published consumption of 31,672 units – though it would still be No.1 on consumption of 59,051 units were it not on ACR.
Moreover, Godzilla’s less than stellar total comes at a time when the rest of the top five is relatively strong, with sales differentials minimized. The Box (5-2, 52,540 sales) by Roddy Ricch and Blinding Lights by The Weeknd (8-4, 48,461 sales) both make substantial gains with the former up 20.72% week-on-week and the latter 29.51%, while Own It (1-3, 49,802 sales) by Stormzy feat. Ed Sheeran & Burna Boy and Before You Go (2-5, 44,426 sales) by Lewis Capaldi make loses of 10.11% and 6.44%, respectively.
The top five are thus separated by 8,207 sales, with the No.1 only 18.47% ahead of the No.5. The last time the top five were separated by fewer sales was 128 weeks ago (17 August 2017). In the 1,047 weeks that have thus far elapsed in the 21st century, the only time that the No.1 had a smaller percentage lead over the No.5 was 231 weeks ago (31 August 2015), when Fight Song by Rachel Platten exploded 68-1 (58,581 sales), finishing 16.54% ahead of the No.5 title, Marvin Gaye (50,268 sales), by Charlie Puth feat. Meghan Trainor.
Blinding Lights remains No.1 on paid-for downloads, shifting 7,893 units in the week.
We should, by the way, qualify last week’s assertion that Own It’s paid-for sales were ‘the lowest ever for a No.1 single’ . I should have inserted ‘generally available’ into that phrase – the actual lowest paid-for sales for a No.1 being the 153 that Ellie Goulding’s River managed in the 30 December 2019 chart, being available only from Amazon.
While London rapper DigDat’s first album, Ei8ht Mile, falls just short of the Top 10 (at No.12), the title track (feat. Aitch) powers to a No.9 debut on consumption of 36,078 units. It is DigDat’s eighth Top 75 entry, and his first to make the Top 10. It is also Aitch’s eighth Top 75 entry and his fourth Top 10 hit.
The rest of this week’s Top 10: Life Is Good (3-6, 44,008 sales) by Future feat. Drake, Don’t Start Now (4-7, 43,224 sales) by Dua Lipa, Roxanne (6-8, 37,862 sales) by Arizona Zervas and Someone You Loved (7-10, 35,827 sales) by Lewis Capaldi.
Aside from Godzilla, two other songs from Eminem’s new album, Music To Be Murdered By, debut inside the Top 20. They are: Those Kinda Nights (feat. Ed Sheeran, No.12, 32,479 sales) and Darkness (No.17, 27,690 sales). Eminem has now had 58 Top 75 entries, 45 Top 40 hits and 33 Top 10 hits. Those Kinda Nights is Sheeran’s 53rd hit.
With primary artists concurrent hits capped at three, 15 other tracks from Music To Be Murdered By are ‘starred-out’ of the Top 75, the three most popular being Unaccommodating (feat. Young Ma, 26,417 sales), You Gon’ Learn (feat. Royce Da 5’9 & White Gold, 24,053 sales) and In Too Deep (20,316 sales). They help to bring cumulative consumption of Eminem tracks to 39,475,369, with a further 1,617,426 for his former band D12.
The Jonas Brothers’ ninth chart entry in total, and fifth Top 40 hit, What A Man Gotta Do debuts at No.33 (16,949 sales).
Two previous excerpts from The 1975’s upcoming (fourth) album, Notes On A Conditional Form, peaked at No.54. The third, You & Me Together Song, fares better, debuting at No.35 (15,970 sales). It is their 19th Top 75 entry in a shade under seven years, and their ninth Top 40 hit.
Also new to the chart: Black Swan (No.46, 13,831 sales), the ninth hit for South Korean band BTS; Better Off Without You (77-63, 10,811 sales), the 10th hit for Becky Hill, and the third for featured guest, Shift K3y; and High Fashion (83-74, 9,608 sales), the fifth hit for Roddy Ricch, and the fourth for featured guest, Mustard.
While Manic becomes Halsey’s highest-charting album, debuting at No.6, its third single, You Should Be Sad, advances 37-26 (21,020 sales).
There are also new peaks for: Good News (49-45, 13,969 sales) by Mac Miller, Suicidal (71-50, 12,686 sales) by YNW Melly, Power Over Me (60-53, 12,114 sales) by Dermot Kennedy, Roses (72-55, 11,895 sales) by SAINt JHN and Say So (65-60, 10,996 sales) by Doja Cat.
Singles sales are up 1.14% week-on-week at 20,803,814, 20.35% above same week 2019 sales of 17,286,395. Paid-for sales are down 1.57% week-on-week at 536,826 – 30.96% below same week 2019 sales of 777,599 and below same week, previous year sales for the 338th week in a row.