- Label: Rap Caviar
- Major: Spotify
- Industry: Digital Streaming
- Experience: 20+
Tuma Basa—global programming head of hip-hop at Spotify—is arguably the most important tastemaker in hip-hop music today. Personally choosing every song that goes onto the Rap Caviar playlist is a particular kind of power. With over 5.7 million followers, the service’s second most popular playlist has been partially responsible for the overnight success of artists like Lil Uzi Vert (whose daily Spotify streams leapt from 442,000 to over one million after strategic Rap Caviar placement), Rae Sremmurd, Migos and, more recently, Los Angeles’ very own Kyle.
“There’s so many but the one that comes top of mind is ‘Black Beatles,’” Basa says when asked about a song blowing up as a result of his unique programming touch. He sits in an office in the music streaming giant’s Flatiron District headquarters and thinks back. “It went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and it was added way back in August when SremmLife 2 came out. I’m proud Rap Caviar was there from the get-go.”
Basa joined Spotify in April 2015 after serving as VP of music programming for Revolt (the music cable network owned by Sean Combs) for over two years. Within weeks of his new gig, Basa blew up subscriptions to the pre-existing Rap Caviar hip-hop playlist and it gained over three million new followers. Originally curated internally at Spotify before Tuma started, the playlist now features the most need-to-know rap music every Friday.
Born Tumaini Basaninyenzi in Democratic Republic of Congo, he moved to the U.S. at the age of 5 and back to Africa when he was 13, which is where he really discovered hip-hop. Over the course of his career, he converted his love and awareness of hip-hop into longtime music programming positions at BET, MTV, and eventually Revolt. Basa—tall, husky, clad in all black everything while continually hunched over his laptop—speaks about coming up in Iowa as the son of African immigrants who initially frowned on his career in entertainment. He was around during BET’s expansion from Washington, D.C. to Spanish Harlem’s 106th Street and Park Avenue in 2000; his industry experience began in D.C. after a brief stint in entertainment law.
“BET is where I got my first job out of college, in the music programming department,” Basa says. “The year before, I interned for entertainment attorney Theo Sedlmayr, when he and his former law partner were just starting out.” Sedlmayr now represents Drake, Rick Ross, 50 Cent and other rap luminaries. His stint with Sedlmayr came about mainly from the need to convince his parents he was headed for law school after graduation from the University of Iowa. But BET and MTV became corporate bedfellows after media giant Viacom bought out Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson in 2000, cementing Basa’s path.
Back in May 2015, in the wake of Apple announcing DJs for their 24-hour radio station Beats 1, Spotify hired a trio of their own music curators in response: Mjeema Pickett, global programming head of R&B; Austin Kramer, global programming head for electronic culture; and Basa. After creating more than 2,500 hours of unique music playlists in various roles at MTV, Spotify installed Basa to balloon Rap Caviar’s subscription base. He also puts together the Gold School golden-age rap playlist, the party music playlist Get Turnt, the “voice of generation” next playlist Most Necessary, and over a dozen others.
The big refresh for Rap Caviar is every Friday morning but “anything could happen at any time,” he says. “There’s a flexibility.” On Thursday nights, when new music hits the internet, Basa thumbs through dozens of new tracks. Last year’s ubiquitous “Panda” was Basa’s biggest early success with the playlist. In February 2016, Basa added the Desiigner track at a point when a little New York City buzz was the song’s only claim to fame; the 19-year-old MC had yet to even sign with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. By April, “Panda” rocked the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Then there was Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” which was added in early December 2016 and hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 on January 9. Most recently, there’s Kyle and Lil Yachty’s collab “iSpy” which was added to ‘Rap Caviar’ in mid-December and just hit No. 20 on the Hot 100 last week.
When even the White House releases Spotify playlists featuring the likes of Talib Kweli and Nappy Roots, the significance of playlist curation as a cultural commodity of the new millennium is clear. But at a time when even Obama wants in on the action, what separates the novice from the qualified expert is, arguably, inspiration. One wonders what sparks Basa’s own personal palate for music, and how he gets exposed to the latest music.
According to Basa, he still peruses the rap blogs like HotNewHipHop, HipHopDX, Rap Radar, DJBooth, HypeBeast “for certain vibes,” he says. As for playlists, checks for Pigeons and Planes‘ selections and HotNewHipHop’s Fire Emoji Spotify playlist, and keeps mixtapes off DatPiff and Spinrilla in constant rotation.
“Stimulation informs my personal tastes,” Basa says. “If music stimulates me somehow, I mess with it on a personal level. I keep up through people whose tastes I trust or whose knowledge base I respect—mostly in real life, but sometimes on social media—and that’s all we talk about! I’m blessed with the ability to listen to music before it comes out through dope people in the music community. Spotify also gives me tools to see what people in different cities are streaming, so I like to hop city to city on those tools and listen.”
As for how he sees the future of streaming and music curation? “This is like the Atari era in video gaming. It’s just gonna get bigger and bigger. This is only the beginning.”