MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves Music Group.
Across the course of the past 20 years, Gaba has risen through Atlantic’s ranks from her first job as A&R Administrator.
It was her early work on the creative side of the business – starting with assisting Craig Kallman on CeeLo Green’s 2010 hit albumThe Lady Killer – that earned Gaba the role of running Atlantic’s urban A&R department in 2016 as Head of Operations.
At that time, streaming was beginning to dramatically change the shape of US popular music, as its pendulum – and those coveted Billboard chart positions – increasingly started swinging towards hip-hop.
Responding with typically sharp A&R instincts, Gaba helped reimagine Atlantic’s creative output to improve the label’s closeness to this new music business landscape.
“For a while, our business was focused on pop and rap and I wanted to focus on culture and authenticity, which is where the kids are, versus this more glossy or Disney-fied version of hip-hop,” she says.
“In that time, we cleaned house, signed a bunch of artists, got a bunch of new A&Rs… and we killed it.”
She isn’t kidding.
In her past few years at the company, Gaba has signed and/or worked closely with artists such as Cardi B, Roddy Ricch, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, Burna Boy, Kodak Black, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, FKA Twigs and many others.
“We went on a really incredible run,” says Gaba. “In the last couple of years, other labels have jumped into hip-hop for real but we’ve been at the forefront of that.”
Unsurprisingly, Gaba’s impressive achievements have seen her quickly rise through the ranks at Atlantic. Before landing her current role, she was named Head of A&R at the label, and was then elevated into an EVP position.
Even at these heady professional heights, however, Gaba has refused to be siloed, to the betterment of the label and its artists.
She’s helped establish a new cohesiveness between Atlantic’s A&R operation and its marketing team – while also encompassing strategic planning, finance, and Atlantic’s own recording studio operations into her role.
“Prior to the way I thought about things, we’d have A&Rs who were like, ‘Cool, we’ve made a record, here you go.’ It’s like no, the world is changing and it all starts from day one. It was about making sure we’re all working together from the beginning with an artist.”
Impressing her influence across multiple divisions has helped solidify New York-based Gaba’s influence at Atlantic, which led to that latest promotion – working alongside her fellow Co-President of Black Music at the label, Mike Kyser.
Prior to Atlantic, Gaba decided she wanted to work in music early on after watching a Puff Daddy performance on BET. “I was like, whatever that guy does, I want to be a part of it,” she remembers.
“He had found and developed Mary J. Blige, who at that point was one of my favourite artists, and I was a fan of everything they were doing.”
First, Gaba, whose Nigerian parents initially didn’t consider music a viable career choice, tried her hand at journalism while studying, before realizing her spirit wasn’t in it.
After leaving school, she called around music companies asking for an internship and eventually found a job as an assistant at Fugees label, Ruffhouse Records.
She arrived at Ruffhouse in the late ‘90s when Lauryn Hill was working on The Miseducation of… album and got a crash course in the music industry. “It was a small team so we did everything,” Gaba remembers.
In less than a year, the partners of the label split and Ruffhouse was bought up by Columbia, which is when Gaba landed at EMI Music Publishing.
After a few years spent building relationships with writers and producers, she was ready for a change; that’s when she discovered the role of A&R Administrator and joined Atlantic.
Gaba explains: “When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, I wasn’t like, ‘I want to be an A&R’. I knew I wanted to be in and around music but I never had the A&R aspiration, per se.
“When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, I knew I wanted to be in and around music but I never had the A&R aspiration, per se.”
“I wrote down all my skills, all the things I want to do, and then started researching jobs at record companies. I came across this job called A&R Administrator and said, ‘I think that’s what I want to do next’.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Upcoming projects Gaba is working on at Atlantic include FKA Twigs, who recently signed to the label outside of the UK (where she’s still with Beggars), a new Cardi B album, as well as Nigerian superstar Burna Boy and emerging talent CKay (also from Nigeria), whose single Love Nwantiti recently topped the Rhythmic Radio Airplay Chart in the US.
In addition, Gaba has a few new artists under development that she hopes will ramp up the label’s R&B output.
“We are doing incredibly on the hip-hop side and I’m trying to become very competitive on the R&B side, too, and bring that legacy back to Atlantic in full force,” she says.
Here, we chat about her career trajectory, lessons learned along the way, approach to A&R and much more besides.
As you know, there’s still not a lot of women in senior A&R positions although there are quite a few in A&R admin, which was your entry point. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to follow the same trajectory?
If you’re able to add more, work well with talent, bring ideas to the table and get to a place where your voice can be heard and help with the creative process, that’s what worked for me.
I’m super optimistic about the fact that I’m seeing so many really talented young women out there, either managing artists or trying to get in the A&R field directly. I feel like I haven’t seen that before, which is super encouraging. Even for me, I didn’t consider A&R because it wasn’t something I entertained. It just felt like this ‘other’ thing.
What are your ambitions in your new role at Atlantic?
For us, our ambition is always how we can be better, faster and more competitive. That means we’re constantly having to look at how the world is changing and that what worked yesterday, doesn’t work today. One of my favourite things is experimenting and not getting set in our ways. There’s no wrong answer.
“we’re constantly having to look at how the world is changing and that what worked yesterday, doesn’t work today.”
Right now, the transition from the pandemic is a whole other era of the music industry. Getting our artists back on the road is a really important thing because we believe that touring is a major pinnacle of artist development. We’re also figuring out how to encourage artists to be a bit more fearless when it comes to embracing TikTok, find their authentic voice there and understand how important the platform is for music discovery.
The whole NFT conversation is a big one and trying to figure out Web3. That’s what I love about the music business — there’s always a new challenge. When the streaming era hit, we were one of the leaders in that because we got in and really started to try to understand those spaces super early.
So now, we’re trying to be several steps ahead of understanding how music will be affected by all of this stuff happening on the technology front. It boils down to always finding every single opportunity and never leaving a crumb on the table that could help benefit our artists.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned across your career to date?
I’ve learned a lot from Julie [Greenwald] by just watching how she works. She will never take no for an answer, she is so fearless and fights hard for artists and what she wants to make happen.
Something that I was really impressed and inspired to see from both Julie and Craig [Kallman], which has made me want to stay at Atlantic as long as I have, is that they really get down in the cut with artists. My expectation was that the people at the top of the company are all the way up there, in their ivory tower, peering down, and stop in from time to time.
“Something that I was really impressed and inspired to see from both Julie and Craig [Kallman], which has made me want to stay at Atlantic as long as I have, is that they really get down in the cut with artists.”
But [Julie and Craig] are so hands on, from big artists to smaller artists. That’s definitely informed even how I operate — the expectation is, no artist is too small to take their call, no artist is too small for them to go and see their first show. I think that makes a big difference in how we relate to our artists and the company culture.
Beyond that, I’m someone who thinks big about all of our ambitions for artists and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that your ambition for an artist has to match their ambition for themselves. You can have so much expectation for what you want to see happen, but so much of it ultimately depends on the artist and how hard they’re willing to work for those things.
What’s your personal approach to A&R? How do you work with artists to get the best out of them?
Successful artist development starts with building trust with the artist and the team. That’s number one. A lot of times, that means spending time trying to understand what the artist is trying to accomplish and then figuring out who we’re bringing in to help support that. It’s about elevating everything they’re trying to do while keeping the thing they came in with intact.
“Successful artist development is about elevating everything they’re trying to do while keeping the thing they came in with intact.”
A lot of times when we’re working with an artist, I’m already thinking about culturally where the conversation is going to go. Who are we talking to? Who is this music for? Who are the early champions going to be? And then it’s about what’s going to be the best representation for that artist live and finding opportunities for them to be performing as early as possible.
I have a couple artists now in Atlanta making R&B and they’re not yet ready to be touring in an official way, per se, so it’s about getting them out every night, going into the right open mic nights and getting that piece of their artistry developed while they’re still developing on the studio side.
Do you have a most memorable signing or campaign you’ve worked on?
Cardi B was an incredible run all the way from signing her. At that point, she was a stripper who’d become a reality star. My sister put me on to her on Instagram and at first I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s a lot.’ But the more I watched her, the more I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really smart woman.’
When we met her, she had such drive, ambition and passion. She had already funded a tour off of her first mixtape and seeing people packing out those shows, girls singing every word, you knew there was something really special there. But it was a real challenge. It took a long time for gatekeepers and tastemakers to take her seriously. On the hip hop side, a lot of people didn’t take her seriously for a very long time. We had to fight to get songs on the radio.
Bodak Yellow changed that trajectory and then there was the whole process of making the Invasion of Privacy album. It definitely took a village to finish that and in that period of time, she got pregnant with Kulture so we were trying to keep that under wraps.
I watched Craig make I Like It, which took maybe eight months to finish from the idea in his head to the sample to trying to get it produced — he had so many producers working on that with him — to getting the top line correct, to getting Kuk in to vocal produce Cardi 10 different ways.
That was probably one of the greatest A&R lessons I’ve ever got — just watching Craig barrel through that and get the song to the finish line and then to see that record be classified Diamond and what it took to get J Balvin and Bad Bunny on it.
“cardi b opened the doors for a lot of other young women to believe they could do this rap thing by themselves.”
I think it’s one of the best female rap albums of all time and it opened the doors for a lot of other young women to believe they could do this rap thing by themselves.
Up until that point, and this was the other thing we ran up against, no one believed that a female rapper could come in the game and do her thing without having a co-sign. That’s how most female rappers got put on — they had to have a crew. Nicki [Minaj] is so talented but she had to have a crew to come in the game and be taken seriously.
So for Cardi to have come from where she came from, without that co-sign from another rapper and a crew, to then do it to the level she did and win the Grammy… the whole thing was an incredible ride.
As I’m sure you’ll know, major labels have been accused of lacking grassroots artist development in recent years, especially with the rise of independent success stories (or at least seemingly ‘independent’). What’s your take on that?
I hear that and it’s such an easy conversation for people to throw around. Yes, it’s probably true at a lot of labels but another reason why I’ve stayed at Atlantic for so long is that artist development is something we absolutely believe in. For the most part, we’re in it to sign artists who we believe can be here in 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 20 years from now.
We signed most of our biggest acts early before they had major success. Roddy Ricch is an artist who we signed with very little going on and took two years for him. Lizzo took three years and Cardi B also took a second. Our DNA is built on artist development and that’s the thing we get excited about.
How do you see the role of a major label evolving in future?
Streaming and the ease of artists being able to get their music out to fans has allowed for a much larger pool of artists and we can’t sign all of them. So for us as a major label, our DNA stays very much intact, which is long term artist development, trying to build career artists and take them from their bedrooms to Madison Square Garden.
Technology is what’s always been the thing that’s reshaped our industry and the role of a major label. So for me, as long as we’re keeping our eye on how technology is shifting engagement, culture, and how you break artists, we’re just going to adapt to that.
For us, the strength of our expertise, the amount of people that we have driving everything for artists, and our connectivity around the globe, is how we’re bringing extra value. Being independent, a lot of artists can get from zero to a certain point but when you’re talking about trying to take on a large globe, you need the might and force of an institution to help you get there.
You’ve been recognised for your advocacy efforts for racial justice and social change and there does seem to have been progress made in both those areas in the music business, especially in recent years. Do you see any gaps remaining?
I think we still have a way to go as far as leadership and leadership opportunities in the music industry are concerned. I’m trying to change that. There’s still the perception that, as a black executive, you have to work 10 times harder to get twice as far so I think that’s got to change, especially at the highest levels of record companies.
In the last couple of years, I’ve had to live through a number of my artists having issues with the law. And yes, there are legitimate reasons for that, but I also think there’s been a bit of an attack on rappers and an unfairness in how they’ve been handled.
“There are artists who, at their prime, are now stuck in the criminal justice system, stunting their career growth at a time when they could be changing their lives. It feels like something should be done about that.”
There are artists who, at their prime, are now stuck in the criminal justice system and spending half of their fortunes trying to get their way out of those situations, stunting their career growth at a time when they could be changing their lives. Jay Z doesn’t get to be billionaire Jay Z if he’s been locked up for two years at the cusp of his career. It feels like something should be done about that because I see the impact it has on people’s lives.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in the music business today?
There’s so much opportunity in so many different corners of the industry.
When I was getting in the door, there were three or four companies if you wanted to be in the music industry. Now, it’s so exciting to see 16-year-old high school kids who are managing artists or throwing shows and want my opinion, or kids in college starting labels.
If I were to encourage anything, it would be to go for it. I think this is the lowest that the barrier to entry has ever been in the entire history of music.
Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide