From ‘The Tunnel’ to the top with Interscope Geffen A&M’s resident hip-hop head.

When Joie Manda was 12 years old, Mongoose bicycles were all the rage among his preteen friends in Brooklyn — for everyone but him. “My mom had saved her money to get me a birthday present,” says Manda, 43. “She wanted to buy me a ­bicycle because all the other kids wanted them. But I wanted a turntable. That started my obsession with music.”

That passion became a career after he got his start as a nightclub promoter in the 1990s in New York, and later morphed into management with client and DJ Funkmaster Flex. Then, in 1999, Manda became associate executive producer on Flex and DJ Big Kap's gold album, The Tunnel, named after the iconic club where Flex and Kap broke rap records.

“I wasn't qualified in any way,” says the father two. “But I like to remember the feeling. It wasn't about the money.”

Five years later, Manda was given another opportunity: a major-label gig. Hired as executive vp Warner Music Group's then-newly revived Asylum Records, Manda worked with label president Todd Moscowitz and signed Gucci Mane, Lil Boosie, Paul Wall  and Bun B. Later, as head urban music for Warner Bros. Records, he helmed deals for Jill Scott, Common  and Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group. Manda spent a year as president Def Jam Records — the first person to hold that title since JAY-Z in 2007 — before becoming head urban music at Interscope in 2013, though the role did not include oversight Top Dawg Entertainment's Kendrick Lamar, due to TDE's deal with Interscope. Last May, Interscope Geffen A&M ­chairman/CEO John Janick elevated him to executive vp.

At Interscope, Manda has signed or ­overseen projects from Rae Sremmurd, Tory Lanez, Mike WiLL Made-It, Playboi Carti and first-time Grammy nominee 6LACK. He also has piloted label partnerships with J. Cole's Dreamville Records, LVRN, DJ Mustard's 10 Summers, YG's 4Hunnid and Moscowitz's Alamo Records. Also on Manda's agenda: his own IGA joint venture, Rule #1 Music.

With projects from Rae Sremmurd, Carti and 6LACK in the pipeline, Manda says Interscope is “on track to be the most ­innovative label in the world.” He discusses his first year in his new role at IGA, female rap's might and the signing that got away.

What does your current role entail?

To help expand the roster and map out future strategy. It has been an amazing time. Now I'm putting my toe in the water pop music with artists like blackbear. We've done pop music, but I'm talking about the popularity hip-hop and its influence on pop culture. Now every pop artist is calling for a rap feature or producer. I've been migrating to pop music naturally, and that's why I shifted roles.

Were you surprised when R&B/hip-hop began leading music consumption?

I wasn't, because when you go outside it's the music you hear coming out cars. It's what you hear when you go to a club. Urban music has always been at the forefront. Right now, it's dominating culture.

Does that extend to R&B?

If you look at artists like 6LACK, Bryson Tiller, Khalid, the answer is yes. It's just leading to more creativity. Look at these collaboration albums being released. Look at how rappers and R&B artists are touring bigger venues than ever. The landscape we're in is leading to more ­opportunities, more brand partnerships. The first calls we used to get would be about a pop artist. That's not always the case anymore.

Female MCs are having a moment now. What caused the disconnect before?

We're entering the strongest time ever for female rap. Nicki Minaj dominated for a long time. Now Cardi B has kicked the door open for more to come after her. We have Dreezy, Kamaiyah. Before, I think women felt like they had to fit in a certain box to be a rapper, to look or be supersexual and be ­co-signed by a crew. Now they can make songs they want to make. They should be able to play by the same rules.

How important are major labels now?

Major labels are as necessary now as they ever were. You can't define what a major label's role is without speaking about an ­artist specifically. Every artist needs a ­different kind support for his or her vision. Some artists can come in with an album they've made at home that's ready to go to market and win Grammys. Some artists need help making records. There's no set support you get from a major label.

Is there an artist signing that got away?

I really wanted to sign Bryson Tiller. He chose to go with RCA A&R rep] Tunji Balogun. Obviously, they've done ­incredible things there and my hat's f to them. Tiller is a special artist and talented writer.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue Billboard.

102