Photos by Rachel Topping
Olatunji Ige—known to most as Tunji—is sitting at the mini cafe inside Rough Trade NYC, quietly sipping a coffee. He’s unassuming in a Chelsea soccer jersey and jeans, with a black knapsack strapped to his back. Perhaps it’s the way he’s hanging his head or maybe it’s his posture, but he immediately exudes a youthfulness that comes with being 19. When he sees us, he quickly finishes his drink and blurts out a hello, gesticulating as he talks. He seems a little nervous but also excited, commenting that he’s never been to this particular record store and that it’s really cool.
Tunji is a college student who works on his music in his free time, which wouldn’t be that unusual except that his music is also good enough to attract the kind of attention where journalists want to go shopping for records with you, and people want to pay you to visit New York, and brands want to use you to look cool. He mentions, too, that he’s going to Red Bull’s studio later to see if he can work on some music.
Any kind of visibility is new to the Philly-bred rapper, whose popularity kicked off last summer with his single “Day2Day,” which he describes as a combination club-trap song. Not long after he released the track, Michael Christmas and iLoveMakonnen hopped on the remix—if the original version of the track didn’t tip everyone off to Tunji, then the remix sure did.
“I feel like with the records we had tucked away prior to The Love Project releasing, there were a few songs that were intended to jump start [my] career,” he tells me. “‘Day2Day’ was a random idea that I did in an hour and I uploaded on my birthday as a random track to drop—no PR, no exposure, just uploaded it at five in the morning. And it sparked something crazy, when I woke up to my phone going off. I'm very happy about it.”
A few months later, in early December, Tunji dropped his debut mixtape, The Love Project, which he recorded and produced entirely on his own in the basement of his dorm at West Chester University. The setting’s actually a subtle motif throughout the tape, with the phrase “in a basement in Pennsylvania” cropping up on the songs “For Us,” “Day2Day,” and “S.O.T.N.” Even though his equipment was pretty standard—a Rode NTK microphone, an audio interface, and Macbook—he still amassed a collection of noise violations. But his neighbors weren’t the only ones paying attention to him.
The tape arrived to considerable hype and positive press, and it has quickly racked up tens of thousands of plays on Soundcloud. Pulling together a wide set of sounds that drift from mainstream radio rap and electronic’s party vibes to contemporary underground rap’s eclecticism to the more classic sounds of soul, funk, and Afrobeat (a nod to Tunji’s Nigerian background), it’s a project both out of time and of the times.
“I feel like this is where hip-hop culture is in two different realms and it’s all progressive,” Tunji says of the sound he feels hip-hop is moving toward. “I know like the only reason people don’t think the trap turn up shit is progressive is because it’s an oversaturated market and that’s what the bulk of the radio play, the bulk of like what’s popular music today.”
Exactly one week after releasing his tape, Tunji played his first show to a boisterous New York crowd at Webster Hall, where he opened for Rome Fortune. He came out on stage to O.T. Genasis’s “Coco,” going just as crazy as the crowd. Again, he was unassuming, wearing a red plaid shirt and one of his own merch T-shirts—Tunji could very well have been one of the kids from the audience who just decided to hop on stage. He hyped everyone up by throwing a few shirts in the crowd and launched into a rowdy version of the opening track from his tape, “For Us.” If you’ve seen the music video for the “Day2Day” (Remix), then you’re familiar with Tunji’s style of dancing: a lot of arm movement, a lot of jumping. The crowd responded in kind, and even Tunji’s slight trouble keeping up with his own words—it was, after all, his first concert—couldn’t dampen the performance.
The Love Project is above all a coming-of-age story, concentrating on Tunji’s life from ages 16 to 19. It’s a meditation on him as a young, black teenager dealing with relationships, rebellion, and the pressure to be cool. The track “Ball Is Life,” for example, uses basketball both as a metaphor for the kind of game he’s able to lay on ladies and a sly way of discussing the stereotypes that surround many young black men, who are expected to pursue ball careers and project a certain kind of cool. The project is full of these subtleties and takes on the gradations of the teenage experience, down to the way it’s ordered. The first half of the project, until “Trust Fund Chick” and “S.O.T.N” are happy songs; during the latter half, Tunji shows the darker side of being a teenager and the wrong intentions that come with that. Even the phrase “in a basement in Pennsylvania” was purposeful for the rapper.
“I used [that phrase] as a way to make the tape cohesive [because] a lot of the songs dive into different realms of hip-hop, but what I was trying to get at was just being in an environment where making music isn’t key,” he explains, referring to the area where he grew up. While Tunji was born in Philadelphia, he moved 25 minutes north to Montgomery County when he was ten, something that has profoundly influenced his music. He believes the move has allowed him to speak to all audiences. Although the tape is focused on Tunji’s story, it is an identifiable account of the shit kids go through everyday, illuminating the exterior setting of the suburbs and the interior lives of the teenagers who grow up there while also speaking to a more general experience.
“I feel like music was the place where I could expose like every feeling within, even from my insecurities to whatever—in rap, it’s not a facade, but we have a guard up,” he says. “I put it in a perspective where you can see the guard down but also [have] a hardcore rap album. It might be a track where I’m just going in, spitting bar after bar, but then the next track after it will be like yo, this is the reason why I’m down. And I’m feeling this way and I’m saying this because of this.”
Two years in the making, The Love Project came together without any set system or strict decision-making. It began as Made at 17: Music for the Soul—a follow-up to a project Tunji made at age 16 called Sixteen—but as he put together the collection of songs that made the most sense together, he “started gravitating towards making love songs” and more “emotional stuff.” What came out of that is an idiosyncratic piece of art that allowed Tunji to open up about a very specific time in his life as he was experiencing it.
“I can look back at it and [ask], how was I during the ages of like 16 to 19? Mindstate-wise,” he explains. “I used it as a reflection of myself. Even though I had matured [when] I was wrapping up the album, I had to know where I started like two years ago. I had to keep those things inside there, like literally have the lyrics like in the language I was talking with my friends and who I grew up with, all the way from the slang to like the enunciation of words.”
The Love Project is a snapshot not just of a time in Tunji’s life, but, with its varied sound, it’s also a testament to his diverse range of influences. As we walk through Rough Trade to talk about some of the music that inspired him, Tunji’s nervousness subsides, and he talks freely about the records he picks up.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality Soundtrack
“I sampled a lot of his scores before—probably with like [Jodorowsky’s] Holy Mountain, I went through that one—so I picked this one up. His movies are insane, like the soundtracks are ridiculous. He’ll have like full orchestras.
Because I sample a lot with my stuff, so like to get crazy in production, I listen to movie scores and just go on YouTube and listen to them all the way through and get ideas from them for chord progressions and stuff I can chop up.”
“This is a crazy album as well. Like it just came out of nowhere and had all these smashes on it. For my stuff, like ‘Day2Day,’ that kind of inspired it, like the progressive house.
‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’: That’s like one of the craziest second tracks to an album. For me, that sets the tone of the album. I know ‘Day2Day’ is like my second track—track listings mean a lot to me because I feel like the sequence of an album is where like people really get it, get into your work. I think that’s the craziest second track to an album, ‘When a Fire Starts to Burn.’ And then they go right into ‘Latch.’ This album is ridiculous.
Fela Kuti and the Africa 70, Confusion
“This is the stuff I grew up listening to because I have a Nigerian background. So Fela is like one of the most prominent Nigerian artists [in] Afrobeat. Confusion’s a dope track because the way it breaks down with like the drums coming in first and then it goes into like some weird like psychedelic jazzy thing. But that’s like from Afrobeat too, which [can be] aggressive music. And all his stuff had like social commentary and political commentary on the lowest of keys.”
Donny Hathaway, Extension of a Man
“I was listening to this the whole time I was making The Love Project because I feel like Donny Hathaway is like mad slept on. He should be right up there with like Stevie Wonder. He should be right up there with like any prominent R&B singer in the 70s. ‘I Know It’s You’—that track is crazy. Some classics on here: ‘Flying Easy,’ ‘Love, Love, Love’—this whole album is ridiculous. Everything from production to his voice to his range is ridiculous. This has some of the craziest soul samples also.”
“This is probably the best produced rap album of all time. One of the top three. Kanye produced this album, and Dilla was on this album. From the intro, you already know this is gonna be like probably the greatest Common album ever. They set themselves up with that one. It’s too good, [with] James Poyser on the keys, and how Kanye chopped up the strings on that. Everything from the lyricism to the social commentary. ‘Faithful,’ ‘Go!,’ ‘The Corner’—there’s so many jams on this. And then they have ‘The Food,’ the live version of it that they played on the Chappelle Show. This is one of my favorite albums actually.”
Tara Mahadevan is shopping for records on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.