In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Abou “Bu” Thiam owes a lot to his brother, Akon. “I was Akon’s A&R before I even knew what an A&R was,” recalls Thiam, who handled the singer’s 2004 debut album Trouble as his first industry gig. But the music manager has also since built his own legacy: He discovered and signed T-Pain in 2005, signed Jeremih and shepherded the instant hit “Birthday Sex,” and became, at 28, Def Jam’s youngest vice president of A&R. After working with the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna and helping pair Jay-Z and Kanye West for their record Watch the Throne, Thiam also set up his own company, Bu Vision.
For the last two years, Thiam has been working quietly with West through Bu Vision. The usually under-the-radar Thiam — who declined to answer questions about West’s presidential run, focusing only on the artist’s messages to the music industry about ownership and record contracts — spoke with Rolling Stone about his trajectory through the business, his musical childhood with Akon, and what it’s like to be West’s manager.
Has Kanye ever not tweeted something because you asked or told him not to?
Um, I can’t say what it was about… Yes, there have been times when I’ve been like, ‘Ye, you just can’t.’ But for the most part, he speaks his mind. Ye does what he wants to do, and I think he should. I think it’s important for him to say how he feels.
He’s allowed me to be in his world, in that space — to be a part of his think tank. I’ve gained his respect and his loyalty. I like to think things through, so, at times, he’ll run things by me and we’ll make decisions together. He’s been right way more than he’s been wrong.
Sometimes he’s already gotten his point across and it’s just time to move on to the next subject. I would never muzzle Ye, though. The voice is his strength. The moment I take his voice away, I take him away; I’m very thoughtful of that.
Where do you work from?
I’m based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Kanye is also building a dome now in Atlanta, so he’s shifting a portion of his company, Yeezy Enterprises, here. It’s perfect for the company and me at the same time, because I can focus my time and energy in one location.
Did you just say “dome”? What does that even mean?
Yes, he’s building a 100-foot dome. That means: Next level. He’s doing some amazing things in Atlanta, and this is just the beginning.
Do we get to know what goes in the dome?
Not yet. He’s still building it out. His mind is still putting the pieces together, but this is going to be Steve Jobs next-level.
You must be busy.
I can’t complain. I get to wake up to a genius every day. I’ve never met another human being like Kanye. God has put something on this guy; he sprinkled extra greatness on top of him. He has a vision and a drive like no other. We can all make money, but making history, doing something that’s going to be around for hundreds of years to come — that’s what I’m excited about.
What can people expect from West’s upcoming music?
It’s some of the greatest music he’s made. And everything that’s happening now is making the music better. He has more to talk about, more to say.
Are there other artists you are currently working with?
I’m working with an up-and-coming artist named KayCyy Pluto, who’s also on Kanye’s [as-yet-unreleased] album. And Kanye and I are in the process of doing some other stuff with him. There’s also two young men out of L.A. called The Image. They’re amazing. We’re building it up.
You’ve worked with a handful of huge names, but you’ve flown relatively under the radar in the industry. Why is that?
When I came into the industry, I entered the game with a brother who was an artist. I’ve always had to be second to someone. And I didn’t mind being second in command to my brother, because in my mind we were one. That’s how I was made up, so when I found myself around all these other artists, I generally felt that it was what I was supposed to do; my job was to just push everyone else around me and just play my position. For so many years, I thought it was the artist who was supposed to be up front. They’re supposed to speak; they’re supposed to do interviews.
This year, Ye was like, “Man, you’re smart, educated, and great at what you do. You need to start to speak up. Your opinion and your story will eventually spark someone else’s brain and will give courage and hope to a kid that wants to be like you.”
Why did you pick music? Did Akon inspire you? Was there ever a Plan B?
Our father came to America playing drums. Katherine Dunham, a famous dancer from East St. Louis, came to visit Africa on a trip one summer. She went to the villages in West Africa and recognized my father Mor Thiam — who’s from Senegal — out of 50 drummers. She said, “This guy’s amazing. I want to bring him back to America.” On her first visit, my father said no; he said, “I just got married, I’m starting a family. I don’t want to go to America.” She came back a second time and convinced him. That time, his response to her was, “I’ll come if I can bring my best friend and my wife.” She said, “no problem.”
He went to St. Louis and played for her. Every summer, she’d have the Katherine Dunham seminar. From there, he built his own jazz group and toured the world as a jazz player. Then he started to bring musicians from Africa every summer to perform at the Epcot Center in Orlando. We got our musical blood from our father. Akon and I would play African drums when we were kids. It all started with my dad, and then my brother took the pole and ran with it.
As a little brother, you always want to be like your big brother. I just naturally followed him. I wanted to be an artist too, but I didn’t have the patience to be in the studio every day and write a song. I decided to support him instead. And then I was picking his singles. When he got his deal with [Universal record label] SRC, he told the company, “I’m gonna do my deal, but my brother has to pick all my singles.”
Overall, what are you most proud of in your career?
Finding and working with T-Pain was very fulfilling, because it was something I believed in when nobody else did — and it actually worked. His sound changed what music is today. I remember, when I first signed him, everyone said it wasn’t going to work because he was auto-tuned. There was backlash from a lot of artists. Jay-Z did a song called “Death of Auto-Tune” and I was like, “Man, he’s gonna kill us” — this was Jay-Z at his prime. We surpassed that, and now when you look at all the major artists — the Travis Scotts, the Migos — it’s a thing. They all rap with auto-tune. I sit back and think, “Fuck, we literally changed music.”
Second, when I was the vice president of Def Jam, I was the youngest-ever vice president of a music company. To have such a high position at such a young age, wow, I was excited by it, and as I got older I further realized the significance.
Managing Kanye West is the third. We’ve been friends for 15 years; we met at Def Jam and I A&R’d his and Jay-Z’s album Watch the Throne. I just never thought we’d work together at this capacity.
Do you prefer working as a label executive or as a manager?
As an executive, you have the power to sign things, you have all the tools to try and make it work, and you have the company’s money to back it. But you don’t have any ownership as an executive. You work for a company, your job is to find talent, maintain the talent, and grow the company.
As a manager and entrepreneur, you eat what you kill, but you’re also betting on yourself. There’s a high reward that comes with that. Also, as an executive, I found myself working on things that I didn’t always love, but I had to because of the company’s bottom line. When you’re on your own, you can sign what you love.
What do you think is the most overrated trend in the music industry right now?
Maybe research. The research side of the business has definitely helped grow the business, but it also hurt the business. There was a time when only the best of the best actually had a shot, but now if your song is blowing up in fucking Kansas and it just happens to pop online, the labels will sign it. But that person might not be talented; he may just be a one-hit wonder.
Instead of developing new talent — like they used to do back in the day — many executives just sit behind a desk and look for what’s popping on TikTok and all these other platforms. I’ve never been that guy. I’m not going to say it’s overrated. If that’s what your thing is, it works for you, but it’s not my thing. It’s a gift and a curse.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Honestly, no. And that doesn’t mean I did everything right, but everything that I did led me to who I am today. Every mistake is a learning curve. You have to do things wrong so you can right those wrongs.
What would your advice be for newcomers to the music industry?
You’ve got to have tough skin. People aren’t always going to see it how you see it — especially in the beginning. When you haven’t yet accomplished anything, the whole world’s going to doubt you. You have to believe more than anyone else. You have to know that you’re going to hear way more no’s than yes’s, but you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to have tunnel vision. People are going to be hurtful. They will turn you down, they won’t answer your phone calls, and they’re going to make you feel really insecure. It takes a different type of drive to get through all of that.
In this industry, we’re all guessing. No one is 100 percent. You can go into the studio with the best producer and the best writer and think you’ve made a smash — and it comes out, and it flops. You’ve got to keep shooting your shot.