Then as now, Tunez was creating his own lane. Outside the Nigerian community, his first break came from New York’s Caribbean DJs. Afrobeat hadn’t yet reached hip-hop, but tracks like Flavour’s “Nwa Baby,” which sets Highlife melodies to the drums from the ever-popular “Bam Bam” riddim, were beginning to be mixed alongside dancehall hits. In 2012, Nigerian artist Timaya’s soca-influenced “Bum Bum” became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Inside the Nigerian community, word continued to spread, with Tunez’s mother originally serving as his de facto manager. “His mother’s very active in her community,” says Lohier. “It started out with ‘Let me get business with your son’ and quickly went to ‘Yo, your son is on to something.'”
New York’s African population is now the largest in the country — the 2012 census recorded more than 200,000 first-generation immigrants alone — and Tunez has become their go-to DJ, particularly for those from West Africa. And when Nigeria’s biggest stars come to America — Davido in early March, Wizkid for a show at Irving Plaza in 2013 — he is the person they reach out to. He is the only American to be nominated for Best World DJ at both the 2013 and 2014 Nigeria Entertainment Awards.
The size of the parties has grown accordingly. His biggest event, a Black Friday “Blackout” party, brought 1,700 people to Queens’ Amazura Concert Hall last November (nearly doubling the attendance at the 2013 Wizkid show) and his Afrobeat Nights series regularly draws crowds from across the region, usually including a few who were previously unfamiliar with his sound.
Lohier, being of Haitian descent, is himself a convert. “It wasn’t like what I was used to seeing growing up,” he says of the first parties Tunez showed him. “It’s not even sexual. You’re gonna get some grinding going on, but for the most part, it’s face-to-face dancing, hundreds of people knowing the same dance. For the first time, I saw clean fun.”
Tunez fills these parties with a wide range of music, but by 1 a.m., he reveals his hand. “You definitely love to throw in the reggae and the soca,” he says, “but in the peak hour, you gotta give them a good section of Afrobeat.”
“In the peak hour, you gotta give them a good section of Afrobeat.” —Tunez
This usually includes a couple throwbacks — Awilo Logomba’s irrepressible Congolese hit “Karolina” always leads sing-alongs, as does Magic System’s slow-burning “1er Gaou” — but recent records still hit the hardest. This means tracks like Skales’ Swizz Beats–style “Shake Body”; Burna Boy’s crooned “Tonight”; and L.A.X.’s “Ginger” and Davido’s “Skelewu,” a pair of bangers driven by ominous, percussive synth riffs. When Davido performs the latter at the Elizabeth show, the Dolce Lounge becomes a mosh pit of iPhone photographers and screaming foreground vocalists.
Lately, Tunez has been drawn to the slightly more traditional sound heard on two recent Wizkid singles: “Expensive Shit,” which moves under live horns and percussion, and “Ojuelegba,” which was recently remixed by Drake and Skepta. Tunez is pushing further in this direction with a band of his own: the Afrobeat All-Stars, a collection of musicians he’s met through church, the Internet and trips to Nigeria. The crew also includes a handful of DJs who followed him into Afrobeat and now open most of his parties.