Lanre Gaba, Co-President of Black Music at Atlantic Records, Gives Insight on Working With Gucci Mane, Cardi B and More
Humanity, humility and hustle. Those three words have been the recipe for success throughout the storied career of Lanre Gaba, the newly appointed Co-President of Black Music at Atlantic Records. That simple philosophy has taken the hip-hop exec from her former stomping grounds in Nigeria to her current position in the music industry.
Music provided comfort for Lanre when she was uprooted from Nigeria at 10 years old when her family moved to New Jersey. The sounds of her parents' vinyl collection, A Tribe Called Quest and Mary J. Blige kept her from feeling isolated in her new surroundings. Unbeknownst at the time, this was all the catalyst for her entry into the music industry. Since then, she's experienced a 20-year career at Atlantic Records, a label with one of the most robust talent rosters in the game.
Before she landed her very first position at Atlantic 20 years ago, Lanre planted her roots in the industry for the first time when she scored an internship at Ruffhouse Records in 1998. At that time, she had just come to the realization that the music business was her true passion while studying journalism at Syracuse University. Less than a year later though, Ruffhouse was acquired by Columbia Records and Gaba's time at Ruffhouse came to an end. In short order, she found a new gig at EMI Music Publishing in 1999, where she began to experience the full scope of the music business. A couple of years later, once she developed the ever-important relationships and skills it takes to be a record executive at the very top of the game, Lanre was ready to flip the script and explore a different side of the music industry. That’s when she found herself working within Atlantic's A&R department in an administrative position—her first role at the label—in 2002.
Now, the new Co-President of Black Music has gone on to climb the ranks at Atlantic Records for two decades, holding positions such as Manager of A&R Administration, Vice President of A&R Administration, Head of Urban A&R Operations and, her last position as Atlantic's General Manager/Senior Vice President of Black Music A&R.
Alongside fellow Co-President and XXL Awards Board member Mike Kyser, Lanre and her team at Atlantic’s Black Music department have become the “rap whisperers” largely responsible for helping to elevate the careers of label artists Gucci Mane, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Cardi B, Lil Uzi Vert and Roddy Ricch, among others.
Lanre spoke with XXL via Zoom for a deep dive into her new role, her roots in the rap game, how she serves as an inspiration for rappers as they build from the ground up and the latest on what Atlantic’s hip-hop artists have cooking.
XXL: How did you first develop your passion for hip-hop culture?
Lanre Gaba: Moving to New Jersey from Nigeria at a young age was a very isolating time for me. Music was like a refuge for me, and I grew up in a very musical household. But I think, for me, it was A Tribe Called Quest who felt like they were “my artist” for the first time. Then, Mary J. Blige was the first artist that I fell in love with. I just wanted to be like her, dress like her, everything. Then, one day after school, I was watching BET and Puffy was on there. At the time, he was still at Uptown, this was before Bad Boy, and he wasn’t an artist yet, but he was there as an executive, and he was such a big part of the artists I liked, and his energy was so crazy. I was like whatever that is, whatever that guy is about, this feels like something I want to be a part of.
What led you to land this current role as Co-President of Black Music alongside Mike Kyser?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve really worked very closely with the marketing team because it was one thing to just sign artists, and make the records, right? But I saw that the seamless connection between A&R and marketing, more than ever, was a need and was a very important factor in how we were breaking artists. So, as I was getting pulled and pulled more into really working closely on an artist with the marketing side, it kind of bridged the gap between the two, and so the next iteration was me being brought in to partner with Mike Kyser, who's been the president Black music for a long time, and we bring both sides together. So I’m running the A&R side and then I'm running, with Kyser, the marketing side of the department, too.
Why is the marriage between A&R and marketing so crucial?
Most of our artists we sign very early in their careers. One of our main goals is how are we going to break this artist in the smartest possible way? And so, it’s really important to bring people together to really make sure we're thinking big for our artists, accomplishing the things we're saying we're going to accomplish for them, and making sure that each time we're putting out more music, we're growing them, and growing them, and growing them.
It is really a journey, and it can take a couple of years, but you can't take a day off on that. If you take a day off, you could really mess up someone's career and that's something that I take seriously and all of us take seriously.
If an artist is on tour, and we’re paying for that artist to go on a really big tour, I want to make sure that marketing is thinking about, OK, we're now having an opportunity for an artist to be in all these cities, so, it’s a great thing that they’re on stage, but what are they doing after they get on stage? Are they going into the crowd and taking pictures? Are we making sure that happens? Are we making sure they're posting the right social content while they're on the road and promoting the music they just came out with? Should we be sending this artist to college campuses and doing meet and greets? It’s important to bring all sides together and not be on auto-pilot with it so we are making sure we are programming to win on all of our artists.
What are some of the things that you feel are necessary to earn an artist’s trust so that you can continue to inspire them?
I think you have to show an artist, and also their team, respect. Where I've seen it go wrong sometimes is if you've been in the game a long time, you have a lot of experience, and it's easy to want to maybe talk down to an artist, or act like you know better because you're the label person. That’s why I always try to meet people where they are and understand that it's so important to like put in the time with them and have that personal touch. Whether it’s going to their house or going to the city they're from, just keep spending time with them, period. Not even on some business stuff, just getting to know them as human beings, and I think that's the one thing we try to do so much is just really earn that trust through respect.
I include managers too, that's always so important, because a lot of times, a lot of our artists come in with inexperienced managers. But the second you try and play them or treat them like they’re dumb or whatever, you could potentially lose that artist because that person is the person who's next to them. The person they trust and respect. So, it's so important to lean in, and as much as we believe in artist development, I also feel like there are a lot of young managers that I've really helped to show the ropes, teach, and let them be vulnerable with me.
That is something that I'm really proud of because I think it takes a village to help an artist grow, and you need everyone in that village feeling good and feeling like they're in it with you. It's important and if you don't realize that, you're not going to win.
Having been around so much talent and their teams, and helping develop them, too, what are some of the things that you identify in people right away in regards to whether or not they're going to continue to develop and flourish, or if that's just where they're going to be as an artist?
I'm a big believer in mindset. I think that you could be so talented, but this is a hard game to play, and if that mindset isn't right as far as work ethic, as far as the way you approach life, as far as the way you approach people and relationships, because this game is all about relationships and artists have to know that, too. If you don’t have the ability to be so self-disciplined, if you don't wake up every day like, "OK, cool. I want to win, I'm competitive, I understand how to play this game, I understand that you really have to work very hard to make it to the top,” it doesn't matter how talented you are sometimes. Now some people make it by, but it's tough for sure.
What artists have you worked with that have also been great mentors to others?
Gucci [Mane]! Oh my gosh, Gucci. Oh, my goodness, hands down. And it's so funny because I saw Gucci as an artist early on because he was signed to Asylum, which was through Atlantic. So, now, to see Gucci on the executive side with 1017, It's been really great watching and helping him build the label.
He really taps into his vision for how he wants to run his label, and how he wants to really motivate his artists. He does these things where once a month, he brings them all together and they go in the studio, they’re shooting videos, and they’re really getting to absorb his energy.
Honestly, the way this guy moves, I’ve never seen anything like it. He’ll find an artist today, by the nighttime, he's already spoken to them. He’s signing them tomorrow, they're flying out to Atlanta or Miami, they're getting their chain, and they'll be in the studio with Lil Baby making their first song. The video is shot by Friday and in a couple of days, their first single’s out. He does not play and he makes it happen.
What role did you have in launching 1017?
I’ve worked very closely with Gucci for years and that was something that he really wanted to do, to launch a label. And so, Julie Greenwald and I were really supportive and we put the infrastructure in place. We got on board, we gave him the resources he needed, and it's been a small team. It's been me, him, Carla Pagano on the marketing side, our digital team and publicity, and then I've got a couple in A&Rs, Brian Johnson, who’s been working on Pooh Shiesty and he's doing BigWalkDog, and a young A&R, Joi, who's doing Enchanting for him, and we have a nice little small village around him.
What’s next this year for 1017? Who's the current priority for that imprint?
They're all priorities in their own way. Big Scarr just dropped his [Big Grim Reaper: The Return] deluxe for the tape that came out last year and it did really well. It was just an experiment. We were like, “Hey, we’re going to put some more songs on this project, but it did really well out the gate, and a lot of people are really gravitating to him."
BigWalkDog is coming into his own, people love WalkDog. Again, he’s another one that lights up the room, same with Scarr. And then we've got other young artists that we're going to be in it with like Hotboy Wes and BiC Fizzle. Fizzle is still in high school, so he’s got to finish that.
Then, my heart is Enchanting. She was actually a singer in Texas and J. White, the producer who worked with Cardi on a bunch of stuff, introduced her to me and Gucci, and Gucci was like, “I think she's a rapper,” and signed her. Now he has her doing rap stuff, so she's been on the come up off of that, but now we're going to be dropping some R&B stuff with her, and I’m really excited because I think it's really good and I think there's no other R&B chick like her right now.
Obviously, Foogiano. We're going to put out music for him this year. He's still trying to fight his case and we’re trying to help him with that, and Pooh Shiesty we’re praying for. He has a hearing soon and we pray that all goes well. So, they all have their own little lanes. We've got a real roster.
When is Cardi B’s album coming?
Soon come. She's working, she's working. She’s finishing up a single right now, but soon come. She wants to make sure it’s right, you know? That first album did so incredibly well, and with such a game-changing album, we want to make sure it’s right.
With an artist like Cardi, who's blown all the way up primarily due to music but has so many other things going on personally and professionally, how do you keep someone like that focused on creating music?
When an artist becomes that big, there are a lot of things competing for their attention, which, by the way, are great opportunities for them. Whether it's opportunities to level up other parts of their lives or their careers, it really comes down to just looking at her calendar 24/7. As a team, we’re making sure the time is not getting away from us and so, she might be on a set, doing this or that, but when that last day hits, cool, we got the studio from this date to that date, because if not, you can look up and nothing's gotten done.
Then, obviously, it’s just making sure that our whole team is doing that ahead-of-time work. We're making sure that by the time she's ready, we got the right beats and the right plans to make sure the time is effective because she's a businesswoman. She has so many incredible opportunities to really grow herself as a multi-hyphenate in whatever direction she wants. We love that and we support that, but it's always about just making sure we're looking at that calendar and snatching that time for recording.
Coming off a couple of great years for Roddy Ricch in 2020 and 2021, what's next for him following the Live Life Fast album?
Roddy is back in the studio working on making new music. He definitely is back to creating and I think you guys will start to see some new music on him soon.
Which other artists are you most excited about working with this year?
YoungBoy’s working on an album that will be coming out this year. I mean, all the 1017 stuff. Right now, the artist I'm super excited about in the next chapter is Kali, a female rapper from Atlanta. Her new EP [Toxic Chocolate] is fire. She can rap her ass off. I love her point of view, she's going to be a great performer, the whole thing. So, I'm really excited to see her come into her own.
We also just wrapped up the NoCap album. That's coming soon as well, and I love him. I'm just really excited about him because a lot of people haven’t gotten to know NoCap yet, so we’re looking forward to more opportunities for him to talk more and interact more, and people are really anticipating that music.
Also, there's an artist that we signed, his name is Gang51e June, that I'm really excited about. Kevin Gates is another one of our artists that I really fell in love with. We took him out on tour and really put our arms around him.
So, for you, what success in this game really all comes down to are three big points: humanity, hustling and hard work, right?
Yeah, and humility. The biggest thing for me is that there's no “I” in "team.” That's why, even now, this role as Co-President of Black Music, I cannot stress enough that the reason why we win is because of our team. I am only as good as my squad. The only reason why we're all successful is that we really do rally together. It’s the team. Nothing special about me.