environmental portrait of Tuma Basa
February 19, 2018
Tom Snee

Tuma Basa was a master of the mix tape while attending the University of Iowa in the mid-1990s—choosing songs by acts such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest, and one of his all-time favorites, De La Soul.

It seems that mix tape obsession was a precursor of things to come: Basa’s job now is to create hip hop playlists—digital mix tapes of a sort—for the music-streaming giant Spotify. He’s the curator of the service’s largest hip hop playlist, RapCaviar, which has more than 8.8 million listeners, and he curates 25 other hip hop playlists as well.

“I love the work,” says Basa, surrounded by the commotion of Spotify’s open-office headquarters in New York City’s Flatiron District. “My goal was to have a career in the entertainment industry, and here I am.”

The 1998 UI graduate is a major player in the music business. He knows all the big and not-so-big acts in hip hop, and he’s been profiled in Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, and other entertainment industry and pop culture publications. He receives dozens of songs every day from artists both famous and unknown looking for a spot on his playlist.

They have good reason to curry his favor. Basa’s musical touch is such that acts like Migos and Lil Uzi Vert became multiplatinum stars after receiving Basa’s endorsement and earning play on RapCaviar.

“…Basa has built RapCaviar into the type of hit making platform once exclusively the domain of powerhouse radio stations, in the process growing its base by more than 3 million followers in a year,” Billboard wrote in 2017.

But Basa adamantly rejects titles like “kingmaker” or “gatekeeper.” His own personal musical tastes don’t necessarily reflect those of his channels’ listeners.

“It’s about the audience,” he says. “You have to respect their tastes, for what they want to listen to. And sometimes they know better than I do. I may not like a song at first, but after a while, I get it. Sometimes it takes some time to sink in and the listeners are ahead of me on that.”

Basa was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to Iowa City in 1980 as a 5-year-old. His father was a doctoral student in English at the UI, and Basa spent much of his childhood living in Hawkeye Court and a Coralville apartment. He has fond childhood memories of eating at the Ponderosa restaurant and Happy Joe’s, and picking up something to eat the Hy-Vee deli after finishing his paper route every day.

He moved to Zimbabwe when he was 13 after his father got a job teaching at a university in Bulawayo. He returned to the United States in 1995 to attend college himself, first at Brigham Young University and then a homecoming with the UI.

“It was comfortable coming back to Iowa City,” he says. “Growing up in Coralville, I knew the campus, I knew the community. It was a safe bet. It was home to me.”

Basa majored in economics and minored in business administration in the Tippie College of Business. As the son of academics, he took his studies seriously. He considered going to law school, at his parents’ encouragement. He spent a lot of time just picking people’s brains at Pat’s Diner, the cafeteria in the then brand new Pappajohn Business Building. “I learned a lot at Pat’s Diner,” he says.

He joined the Minority Business Student Association and Phi Beta Sigma, where he learned how to network and collaborate. He came to understand that if you treat people with respect and help them achieve their goals, they’ll treat you with respect and want to help you achieve yours.

He worked at Fries’ Barbeque and arranged for internships. Lots of internships. EMI Records; law firms in New York City and Washington, D.C.; Black Entertainment Television (BET) in Washington, D.C., arranged through the university’s Washington Center partnership.

But music was his passion. He first fell in love with hip hop living in Zimbabwe and grew to love it even more when he moved back to the U.S. He went to every hip hop show in Iowa City—Goodie Mob, Fishbone, Run DMC, and De La Soul all played at the UI when he was a student—and would drive for hours to find a good show somewhere else. He listened to the hip hop shows on KRUI every Friday night and vividly remembers driving back from Kansas City when he heard Tupac had been killed.

He wanted a career in the entertainment industry, he knew that, but he wasn’t sure how to make it happen. His internships showed him the way. The D.C. law firm where he worked represented LL Cool J. And the internship at BET turned into a full-time job in the network’s music programming department.

After establishing himself as someone who knew something about music, he moved to MTV as director of music programming initiatives. Then it was on to Revolt TV, the cable music television network founded by Sean “P. Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs, as vice president for music programming.

“The guy is incredibly talented and he works incredibly hard,” says Dave Collins, a lecturer in marketing in the Tippie College who knew Basa as a child—they lived not far from each other in Coralville and Collins helped fix the frequently broken-down bicycle that Basa rode around the neighborhood. They’ve kept in touch, and for several years now, Basa has talked with students in Collins’ marketing classes via video most every semester.

“He tells them that they have to create value to be successful, and he gives great career advice,” Collins says. One piece of memorable advice defined the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor shows you where the “gopher holes” are, Collins says, and a sponsor helps you take that information and move on in your professional life.

“He’s always willing to talk with our students, whenever they want to,” Collins says.

Basa joined Spotify in 2015 as global curator of hip hop and has become one of the key figures in helping break new acts in the genre. Few people beyond the outer boroughs had heard of Brooklyn rapper Desiigner until Basa added his song “Panda” to Spotify’s playlist in 2016. It quickly became a national sensation and eventually reached the top spot on Billboard’s flagship Hot 100 music chart. “Black Beatles,” by the Atlanta-based Rae Sremmurd, followed a similar trajectory after Basa deemed it worthy of Spotify’s play.

But Basa says his success is not because of some mystical connection with hip hop fans. He says the only formula he has in determining what might be popular is just that, a formula, plugged in with reams of data available at his fingertips.

“The amount of information I have, I almost feel like I’m cheating,” Basa told Billboard about Spotify’s data analytics operations that are so advanced they can show playlist makers exactly what subscribers are searching for, what songs they’re saving, how many times they play it, what songs they give up before finishing, and what they’re ignoring entirely.

“What the audience wants is all right there,” he says.

But Basa acknowledges a certain gut instinct is also needed, an innate understanding of what songs will move listeners and keep them tuned to Spotify. He frequents clubs, reads taste-making blogs, and listens to dozens of songs sent to him over the digital transom to see what directions the art and the audience are going. That’s one reason he and his peers at Spotify are called curators, not programmers. Basa likens the difference to that between a cook and a chef. A cook can put together good food that’s nutritious and filling, but it takes a chef to create a delicacy.

“Curating is about the touch,” he says. “It’s about the sequencing, what song makes sense next to another song, and it’s creative. You’re taking other peoples’ music and making it dope and telling a new story.”

Just like those mix tapes he made when he was a student.

Black in Business events

Tuma Basa will be the featured speaker at several events during the Tippie College of Business’ annual Black in Business series Feb. 23 and 24. (A news piece following the event appeared in The Daily Iowan on Feb. 27.)

Basa will participate in a panel discussion about the intersection of music and style at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, in room C20 of Pomerantz Center. His co-presenter will be Courtney Rhodes, owner of a Chicago-based marketing, advertising, and brand strategy firm. Rhodes will also meet with students who identify as women to discuss business and entrepreneurship.

Basa will present closing remarks at the invitation-only Black in Business Dinner on Saturday, Feb. 24.

He will also meet with English and marketing classes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Tippie College of Business.

“I hope to leave the students with the understanding that I’m no more special than any of them,” Basa says. “They just have to figure out what they want and how to get it, just like I did.”

For more information about the Black in Business events, contact Tevin Robbins at tevin-robbins@uiowa.edu or call 319-335-3785.