Tunji Ige is quietly making hits at a state college in the middle of nowhere.
West Chester, Pennsylvania is a midsized Philadelphia suburb that's known, from a pop cultural standpoint, for two things. It's the home of MTV's Jackass franchise—Bam Margera and his CKY skate crew lived there—and the place that inspired Asher Roth's 2009 frat-rap anthem "I Love College." When I was growing up there, local music thrived but was limited in a way that felt decidedly small-town: fledgling hardcore and emo scenes sprouted in fire halls, jam bands played open mic nights, and coffee shop CD players were always spinning Radiohead. These days, when I visit and drive through, a new crop of kids is perched on the same corners, wearing the same ear gages and fingerless gloves, listening to the same kinds of reggae and pop-punk. It's a place that feels stuck in time.
So when I learned that one of my favorite new artists, a 19-year-old producer/rapper/singer named Tunji Ige, was a student at Roth's alma mater, West Chester University, I was surprised and excited. The idea that someone could be making his music—a high-quality, forward-thinking but current-sounding blend of rap and R&B—in a place like this felt like a testament to the internet as a force for good. I've known for a long time that geography has become irrelevant to the way music changes and pushes forward—all it takes is a special sort of creative person and a laptop—but Tunji brought this idea into perfect focus for me for the first time.
I meet Tunji (full name Olatunji Ige) on the day of his school's homecoming, while swarms of college kids are roaming around campus, half-drunk and wearing purple and yellow. Tunji, too, is sporting a purple WCU shirt, but he's sober and mild-mannered. In his four-person dorm, he's working on the finishing touches of his first big project, a free album that he produced and recorded with his Macbook and a mic set up next to his desk. There are Weeknd and Bob Marley posters above his bed.
Tunji lives a double life: one in which he's a typical sophomore at a state college majoring in communications, and the other in which he's privately working with a crew of friends, on SoundCloud, Twitter and Logic, to create the kind of music that suburban college kids might worship. Whereas Roth—whom Tunji describes as a "legend around here"—made a name by broadcasting a performatively narrow picture of a state-college experience, Tunji is trying to draw elements of the outside world into his relatively small life at school. He has a big imagination; he likes the word "cinematic."
Tunji was raised by Nigerian parents, who moved the family from Philadelphia to the suburbs, where he was "fortunate enough to grow up in an area where none of us cared about racial tension. My best friend is Asian," he says. For his parents, who often played him traditional Nigerian music as a kid, Tunji's education is more important than his music. "But I don't think they, or anybody, knows where I'm trying to take this," he says. "I have friends who say it would be cool to catch a low-key indie buzz. I'm like, Nah." Later, he says that he "wants one of the best hip-hop albums of the year to come from a dorm."
Tunji clicks rapidly around his computer, speaking excitedly and toggling between song sessions and his Twitter timeline. He plays me a few tracks from his new project, which he hopes will offer a strong first impression to any powerful people in the industry who might be paying attention. And they're starting to, particularly in the time since he released a remix of the song "Day2Day" with two of his fellow buzzed-about friends, Michael Christmas and iLoveMakonnen.
When Tunji talks about record labels, he says just that he "has options" and is beginning to line up meetings. He envisions himself in the "lanes that Kanye and Cudi and Drake opened up," aspiring to "make hit records that have integrity." A consummate internet kid with omnivorous taste, he samples artists like Bibio, King Krule, and The xx. He switches easily between rapping and singing, between aggressive, pitched-down vocal tracks and soft, breezy ones. Any gruffness is hedged by sensitive confessions and strong melodies. He often sounds like Kid Cudi, if Cudi were launching his career today. "I want to meet him," Tunji admits. "I don't listen to Cudi as much as people might think I do. Sometimes I'm like… Oh my god, this sounds too much like Cudi."
He plays me one of his new songs, an especially gentle track that samples Air's "10,000 Hz Legend." Titled "Trust Fund Chick," it's a quintessential ode to the college girl. I ask him if it's about one person in particular, and he shakes his head and gestures toward the window, toward the roaming hordes of co-eds wearing shorts that say "RAM THIS" on the butt. (West Chester's mascot is the ram.) "You see?" he asks. "It's everyday life." As if on cue, his cracked iPhone starts ringing and when he looks down at the screen, he lets out a grumble: "Oh, godddd." I encourage him to answer it. "No, it's just gonna be, 'Oh my goaddd!'" he imitates a high-pitched squeal, before answering the excited girl on the other end of the line. "I'm not caught up in anything right now," he assures me later. "Thank god. Too much music."
Most of Tunji's friends on campus, where parties are heavy on EDM, aren't fully aware of the music he makes. He doesn't play shows yet, and there's not exactly a community of like-minded creatives at West Chester the way there is on his computer. "After one year of college, you realize what type of person you are. There are people who have regular lives, and people who are in the creative realm," he says. "Being here lets me know my demographic—what demographic I'm appealing to." When we head outside, we cross paths with several kids who greet him enthusiastically, affectionately calling him "Tunj." Out of their earshot, he makes a confession. "Low-key, I don't even know their names."