When Moe Bah and Kilo Jalloh started managing J Hus almost a decade ago, they had no idea that they would become high flying execs. Now, the pair run 5K Records and 2K Management and are basking in the glow of chart success for Hus and viral star Libianca, while their roster of artists and producers is making in-roads around the world. Here, Music Week meets the brothers to pick their brains on Black music, developing markets and the secret to making hits that last…
PHOTOS: RICHARD KATTAH
In October 2017, Moe Bah and Kilo Jalloh told Music Week that their ambition was to “be the greatest”. The half-brothers and 2K Management founders were speaking in the wake of Common Sense, the platinum-selling, Mercury Prize-nominated debut studio album by J Hus, their childhood friend and first management client. They starred in our Rising Star column and, six years later, are now the first executives to graduate from that slot to do The Music Week Interview.
“Blessings man, thank you for having us, we appreciate it as always,” begins Bah, 28, settling back into his seat while nursing one of Sony Music UK’s signature coffee cups at the major’s new King’s Cross HQ.
“That was one of our first interviews, so doing this now is nice,” smiles the 33-year-old Jalloh, who’s sunk deep into the sofa alongside him.
“Yeah, it feels good,” Bah says, reflecting the idea that the London-based pair – who both recently became parents two weeks apart – represent a new generation of execs rising to the upper reaches of the industry.
They grew up separately, as Jalloh lived with his father in Clapham and Bah was with their mother in Stratford. They went to university in Portsmouth, Bah studying business while Jalloh did civil engineering before dropping out and working for EE. Wages from that job would help keep the nascent 2K afloat, after Bah talked J Hus, a friend from primary school (the pair used to pose as Usher and 50 Cent in the playground), into taking music seriously.
“I was always the type of guy that was like, ‘Let’s just do things, just try,’” Bah remembers. “Growing up, I’d go to Sierra Leone where my parents are from, I grew up in Essex for a bit as well and I just tried a lot of things.”
“You had your own clothing line!” chuckles Jalloh.
“Yeah, then at uni I saw a Sneakbo show, asked the promoter how much they paid him and it was something like £300 for 20 minutes,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s crazy.’ Hus was a good freestyler and that was the motivation to be like, ‘Yo, I think you should do it.’ When he makes his mind up, he [goes in] at 100%, so that was that. From that day onwards, he didn’t look back.”
Since our 2017 interview, the brothers have overseen two more J Hus albums, both of which debuted at No.1. Big Conspiracy (which has 198,584 sales to date, according to the Official Charts Company) came first in 2020, with Beautiful And Brutal Yard (50,523 sales) following in July this year and earning another Mercury nod.
“We wanted to have three iconic, classic albums, back to back,” says Jalloh. “That was the main thing, making sure the music and the production were on point.”
The record was Hus’ first to be made without Jae5’s involvement, with TSB serving as executive producer, leading a cast including P2J, EY, IO and more. Chief among the features was Drake on No.2 hit Who Told You (424,279 sales), a coup Jalloh credits to “OVO Moe”.
“Tiffany Calver put me in a group chat with Drake, I sent him the song and he said he loved hit, then sent his verse over,” says Bah. “We wanted it to be the song of the summer and I think we achieved that, which is great.”
“I’ll give you that,” smiles Jalloh, who initially wanted to offer Drake another song. “But Moe was like, ‘Why would we not send him our best song?’ So, there are a lot of times where we might not agree, but we want the same result.”
Hus is now an established star, but trouble with the law has threatened his trajectory and Bah and Jalloh reflect poignantly on the obstacles he has faced today.
“Through the prison sentences, his stabbing [in 2015], his dad passing away, Hus has just been like, ‘Let’s crack on,’” says Jalloh. “We do our best to be there for him and his family, to be the pillar during the down periods.”
The complications persist: Hus pulled this month’s UK tour, including two nights at the O2 Arena, due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
Aside from Hus, 2K’s roster kept growing, they notably steered Young T & Bugsey (who followed J Hus in signing to Black Butter) to viral success with tracks including Headie One collaboration Don’t Rush (990,146 sales).
But Bah and Jalloh’s most significant move since their first appearance in Music Week came in 2020 with the creation of 5K Records, their Sony Music UK imprint formed alongside their management client Jae5 (who has had a hand in Black music bangers by J Hus, Dave, Burna Boy, Koffee, D-Block Europe and more). Jonathan Dickins has a stake, while the label was also the subject of offers from Universal and Warner, and it’s safe to say that big things were expected when it was announced.
This year, Bah and Jalloh duly delivered: 5K’s first hit is the monumental People by Minnesota-based singer Libianca, who channelled a story about the dangers of partying too much into an international Afrobeats phenomenon.
Since 5K A&R Melanie Ijieh, who came through Sony’s internship scheme, discovered the track on TikTok last year, it has racked up 838,624 sales in the UK alone, with more than 613 million streams on Spotify across its multiple versions.
Our mission today is to uncover the mechanics behind Bah and Jalloh’s label and management operation. At its core is their will to uncover emerging artists with drive to match their musical talent and use ultra-modern ways to market them to markets around the world. Alongside J Hus and Jae5 on their management roster are NSJ Mali and producers IO, Cole YoursTruly and Sunset Drver, while King Promise, Priesst and Zakhar are signed to 5K.
We talk for two hours, before wandering round to 5K’s corner of the office, where their team (made up primarily of friends they knew before music) is blasting UK rap records.
“Drink?” says Jalloh, laughing as he points to shelves stacked with gleaming bottles of booze behind his desk. “I’m joking, not one of these has been opened you know.”
Next to him, Bah rummages through a box of J Hus merch full of t-shirts, vinyl and cassette tapes. Ensconced in a giant glass tower in central London, backed by major label money and given the freedom to develop acts their way, it certainly feels as if Bah and Jalloh have come a long way. Dressed all in black and able to switch from smiling and joking to the kind of focus and intent that suggests they’d be a powerful presence in meetings, they look the part too.
“Sony asked us for a description of our label for the website when we launched, and we wrote something about turning artists into global superstars,” says Bah. “We’ve actually really manifested it, it’s something that is happening.”
“It’s nice when you’re in the Uber, and you sit there and three songs play during the journey that you’ve been a part of,” Jalloh says. “And you might even hear the driver humming along. He has no clue, he doesn’t know the headache that went into this…”
“Big headache!” smiles Bah, who likes to stay quiet about what he does in such instances to allow the drivers to offer up their take on his work.
They chime in while each other is talking a lot. It’s the easy patter of two people who spend a lot of time together, camaraderie built up over years of experience, much of which has been spent in cars. Many of their ideas were cooked up in their old Volkswagen Golf, and it’s there that our story begins, as we wind back to Bah and Jalloh’s first steps in the industry, guided by the likes of WME’s Caroline Simionescu-Marin, who was then at GRM Daily, Black Butter’s Joe Gossa and SBTV’s late founder Jamal Edwards and Isaac Densu.
“Isaac was actually the one that advised us to start a management company,” says Jalloh. “Funnily enough, a lot of our breakthrough moments came when we were having conversations in the car. I remember Isaac was on the loudspeaker saying, ‘You guys should manage Hus, but you should actually build a company and manage [other acts] too.’ We took it on board. We struggled for a long time with the name, I was fussing about it so when I suggested 2K, because everyone used to call us big Kilo and little Kilo, Moe said, ‘Bruv, quit faffing about with the name, let’s just go with 2K!’”
And so, amidst laughing from both execs, we trace their story and hear their plan to build a Black music empire and leave a legacy that will reverberate for years to come…
At the start, how did you go from being outside the industry to making hits?
Moe Bah: “Caroline [Simionescu-Marin] was the first person that reached out to us. We went to Westfield in Stratford, sat in this shop and she was just talking to us about the music industry and using all these big words. We were gobsmacked. After that, we’d link up and pick her brains. We just started taking on loads and loads of meetings.”
Kilo Jalloh: “If anybody reaches out, it’s a pleasure, that’s just how we are. We met Jae5 because he was close with J Hus’ DJ, and he was the first person that told us about PRS. But because we were meeting with so many people, a month later, we were correcting him about PRS stuff and production agreements!”
How did it feel going into all those meetings with corporate companies?
MB: “I remember walking into Disturbing London and meeting Dumi Oburota. He asked me what my name was. I said, ‘AJ,’ and he was just like, ‘What does AJ stand for?’ I just made something up and said ‘Akin James,’ it was weird! Kilo looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?!’ I thought, ‘Why is this guy asking personal questions?’ After growing up in Stratford, when you step into a corporate world it’s just learning how to even have those conversations. But as time went on we got used to having meetings and learned on the go…”
Signing a deal for J Hus with Black Butter got you into Sony. That feels like a key part of your story given what’s happened since with 5K...
MB: “Joe Gossa [Black Butter president] was very welcoming and warm. That deal was instrumental, if we’d done it anywhere else, we wouldn’t have had that mentorship.”
KJ: “One time, we knew Hus was going to jail, but nobody else did. So I went and met up with Joe to [ask him to] help us get an A&R job…”
MB: “He just said, ‘Why would you do that? Just focus on Hus!’ [Laughs].”
When J Hus became one of Sony’s biggest new UK acts, did you feel the embrace of the whole company?
KJ: “I don’t think we knew how big it was. From where we come from, being nominated for a MOBO, having a million views or being known in the neighbourhood was enough. I remember when Did You See first got on to Radio 1, everyone in the Black Butter office started a round of applause and me and Moe were just like, ‘Okay, fine, what does that mean?’”
MB: “We always think about how we can do better. That’s
just how we are. Hus performed at the BRITs nominations event in 2018 and Joe [Gossa], Jason [Iley, CEO & chairman] and Semtex were there. It was like, ‘This is big.’ I’ll always remember that.”
Since then, there have been highs and lows for J Hus. What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
KJ: “It would’ve been easy to just quit with some of the things that have gone on with him, so obviously that has been a challenge. Financial [issues] is another. How we were with money very early on due to a lack of knowledge was… We didn’t understand tax, VAT, putting money aside, how the whole system works. There were times where we were using the business card for literally everything, going to Costa… It was, ‘There’s more money on the business card so we’re gonna use it!’ Then eventually we got an accountant and understood, ‘Okay, we’ve messed up – we have to take a serious L here and rectify it.’”
MB: “A lot of the management side is very personal, we’re friends with artists before anything else. Like, we go to each other’s houses, chill and that’s what results in trust and honesty. We didn’t come up understanding about mental health and therapy. So when a situation happened, we just got on with it. Looking back now, the challenges were really not understanding how those things worked, because if we could go back in time we’d say, ‘Let’s try and get a therapist and understand what this person has gone through.’ We’re trying to implement that now when we sign artists because the mind is the most important thing.”
How did you find the transition from being managers to label bosses, too?
MB: “We had an approach of just doing what every other label does and hiring a general manager, or this person because Warner or Columbia has them, or this is how these corporate buildings work... But what has worked is just sticking to the basics and following our core principles. Once we started doing that and brought in a few people from 2K, we started seeing a lot more success.”
KJ: “The label is 24/7. Before, Hus might get a booking in Ibiza or Dubai and we’d go and chill for four or five days. Now I know about annual leave! There’s always a release, or if there’s no release, why isn’t there? It’s, ‘A&R team, what’s going on, why isn’t there a good song coming up?’ Management was a bit like, ‘Everybody happy? Yes? Cool.’”
MB: “I remember someone said to me, ‘Don’t start a record label, because when you do start one, your management company will suffer.’ And I said to them, ‘Not ours, I’m going to prove you wrong, and we’re going to make sure they’re both levelling up and doing as well as each other.’ That is something that still really keeps us going.”
Can you sum up what your principles are as executives?
KJ: “It’s a very close friendship, family vibe. The 2K team come in every Tuesday and Thursday, and on Thursdays we all do a big brainstorm. We take one artist from the label, one artist from the management roster and we come up with ideas. It’s inclusion, it’s a family vibe and appreciating everyone’s efforts.”
MB: “Being close with our artists is one of our principles. I think a lot of labels tend not to be too close to the artists. It’s really just the A&R in the middle and they pretty much deal with it and the presidents don’t speak to the A&R, they’re not active, they don’t go to the studio, they’re not in it, breathing it. For us it’s like, ‘Nah, let’s not do that, let’s stick to what we know from management and let that reflect in what we do on the label.’ We are in constant communication with our artists, we make sure we’re in all the group chats, all the sessions and actually understand them.”
Do you operate differently to your peers in the industry?
KJ: “I don’t know, this works for us. Transparency is important. We tell the artists, ‘We love you, we would not have put pen to paper if we didn’t, but we have to understand it’s a business.’ Sometimes we break it down and show them, ‘This is how much you’ve made in total, this is how much you’re in minus. Let’s make this make sense.’ We even put it down to KPIs with one artist. It was like, ‘This is the budget, let’s break it down, divide it by how many songs we want to put out. This is the bare minimum we will spend, and if you reach this amount of views, streams, recreations, we’ll spend more.’ I think that motivates [artists] because sometimes they get to a label, give you the song, shoot the video and think the label does the rest. Jae5 came up with the analogy that it’s like a relay race. If you do your 100 or 200 metres, then we can bring it home. But if you don’t, we can’t do the whole race.”
Does your experience in management give you an edge when it comes to running the label?
MB: “As managers, we’ve been in situations where it feels like we’re not getting the full information. And it just seems a bit strange. It’s like, ‘Just be honest, because we understand how business works, we’re not going to kick up a fuss.’ Where we come from, everything’s just about being honest and loyal.”
KJ: “For the first two years, the mistake we made at the label was coming into it too much like managers. So if an artist told us their vision for a video, we were like, ‘I get it, 30 grand video, let’s go!’ Then things like, ‘We’ll take a cab to here, get vocal coaching, this and get that…’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re spending a lot here!’”
MB: “The way we do it might not be normal, it might be a bit rogue, it might be a bit, you know, scatty and sometimes it’s a bit messy, but it works. It can’t always be a straight line in the music industry and if it’s too straight it doesn’t work for us. It’s like a rollercoaster, and that’s what works for us.”
Is there any difference between working with producers and artists?
KJ: “A producer/artist is very difficult. With Jae5, as successful as he is, a lot of artists feel like they’re doing you a favour [by working with you]. You might have given someone their biggest song to date, but when it’s time to do a swap, it’s like, ‘I’m free in December 2024.’ So you reach out to other people that maybe appreciate you a bit more. Or, which always works for us, you work with new artists instead. I don’t think we’ve had success with attaching ourselves to something that’s already out there. Maybe it’s because of egos, but we work very well with development acts. You just understand what needs to be done. We’re big fans of what we listen to and know that there’s a certain way for it to be marketed. When we give advice, it’s not about, ‘We need these numbers,’ it’s more like, ‘This is how I would consume this.’”
You’ve been involved with so many crossover hits from different genres. Can you give us some insight into how you make it happen?
KJ: “With Afrobeats, the song needs to be grown in West Africa first. You can’t grow an Afrobeats banger that transcends around the world from the UK. With Libianca’s People, it was about trying to take it off TikTok and give it more weight. During the Qatar World Cup, we made pieces of content attaching the song when teams won or lost. Jae5 is Ghanaian, so when Ghana went out, we made him shoot content at home watching Ghana drinking a bottle of alcohol and looking sad. There was another incident with an influencer that had an issue with his car being smashed into. We know him so we reached out like, ‘Apologies, I know you’re going through a tough time, but do you want to make some money?’ We did all those things just because we understood the song just needed to be heard by more people. It was about getting it on the right platforms, getting influencers, getting other artists to do covers. We pulled in loads of favours. All our resources that we’ve learned over the years came into full effect, like being able to call up people at Apple, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube.”
Famous 5K: (L-R) Kilo Jalloh, Melanie Ijieh and Moe Bah
People was clearly a song you really believed in. How do you know when something is a hit?
MB: “It’s just going to clubs, travelling to Nigeria or Ghana. Once you’re in a club and a song comes on, it might not be a hit in the charts or it might not be doing the numbers, but the way it slaps in your ear, it feels like a hit. Then we come in like, ‘Yo, this is a hit!’ and the aim is to get out there and market it, all we need to do is get more people to listen to it.”
Just how significant has People been for 5K in terms of proving yourselves as label bosses?
MB: “If I’m being honest, for the first two years, we’d look at ourselves and think, ‘What’s happening? Are we not good at this anymore?’ Libianca was us, not proving something, but being 100% sure that we definitely know what we’re doing. The wider Sony team helped us bring a professional, business side to our chaos.”
KJ: “We had made the decisions on how to embed our DNA into the label last July, then Libianca happened in November, December. We were probably doubting ourselves a bit, but also doubting where the music was at that moment in time and thinking, ‘Maybe we’re not with this TikTok moment or the sampling thing?’ But then we realised, we’d just had a bit of a learning curve during the last 18 months or two years. With Jason [Iley], the relationship we have is just honest and he said, ‘We’ve done the first two years, what’s going on?’ But by then the penny had dropped and then People [happened]. We love the feeling of success and we do not need to be pushed to be successful, it was more about learning the business. I wouldn’t say we’ve got it now, but we’re doing a lot better. There are still some [ways of working] that we’ve kept, and I don’t want to say rogue, but there are some bits that work better our way, some things in Black music are just a bit different from a big corporate organisation, so [sometimes] it’s just like, ‘We’re going to get a bit of trouble there, but it will be worth in the long run.’”
Which global markets are you excited about now?
MB: “France, just because of the diaspora of Africa and the lingo and the fact that Africa is embedded in France and certain songs sonically just make sense in those markets. Jae5 has been in sessions with Tiakola, Gazo and Aya Nakamura.”
KJ: “West Africa. We tried South Africa with a song that we did very early with 5K, but some of the DSPs are still yet to fully embed themselves in Africa, so you may not make back the money because they still use Audiomack and Boomplay, which provide a free service to listen to music, while we rely on DSPs to bring in the revenue. With the music, there’s a point where things need to be a bit more easy on the ear for a worldwide market. For artists that speak a lot in their native tongue or in an accent that people may not understand, it’s a bit difficult to get it to cross over. So we’re trying to find that same feelgood vibe, but also a lot more people who can understand what the person is saying so that it can work in more territories.”
Looking ahead, how do you see the future for 5K?
MB: “As much as we focus on the UK, we’ve seen that [success] can come from anywhere in the world. We definitely want to sign a lot more next year, but also keep the balance of being boutique. Now, we spend more time with artists and understand what they really want to do, what their vision is, and how hungry they are. And once they’ve ticked all those boxes, then it’s like, ‘This is what we can do.’ We’re still very early in our careers and this is just the beginning. We want to do a lot more and keep breaking down barriers.”
On that subject, you’ve opened doors for a lot of people in the industry. It it more accessible than when you started?
KJ: “I feel like it is easier now. A lot more people, probably because of trust reasons, are having friends or relatives manage them or look after them, which is opening a lot more doors for more people other than just artists. Music has always been a results-based industry, but it’s [about] finding people that want to work constantly. I think that’s why Mel [Ijieh] has worked so well, because she also does management. With managers, you eat what you kill and that way of working helps a lot. It’s about finding people that want to win and be a part of something great, rather than just be here to get paid.”
Finally, in your first interview with Music Week you said you wanted to “be the greatest”. What does greatness mean to you now?
MB: “We want to look back in the next 20 years and know that we’ve been part of a journey. Like when you watch documentaries on Top Dawg Entertainment or Motown. We want to be known for timeless songs. Greatness is also about leaving a mark on people. Where we come from, there isn’t really a guidebook, it just seems like there’s a lack of opportunities. It’s about how we can make a change and help people, teach people about what we do. You don’t always have to be the artist, you can be a booking agent, a tour manager, work in HR, there are so many different things. But if you don’t know, then you’ll never be in those rooms. We want to help the next generation of people coming through.”