Karen Civil is the hip hop MVP who has helped craft the images of Beats By Dre and Lil Wayne – here she talks about coming up in a male-dominated industry
If you’re a hip-hop fan, you’ll likely have heard of Karen Civil. Credited with helping now global stars, such as Drake and J. Cole reach superstardom through her website KarenCivil.com, with keeping Lil Wayne’s brand intact through his jail stint, and with growing Beats By Dre into an important cultural entity, Civil has long been one of hip hop’s digital MVPs, making numbers shoot up and turning people into brands from behind the scenes.
And the magic worked on her, too. Indeed, these days, it’s almost easier to talk about what she doesn’t do. “To this day, people are like, ‘I don’t really know what she does…’” Civil explains, when we sit down with her ahead of her LifeTalks discussion last week. “At this point, I do what I want. I get paid to be myself.”
Recently in London as part of a series for LIFE TALKS, we asked Civil about career come ups, rapper affiliations, and finally feeling comfortable enough in her success to let the world see just how fire she really is.
You started your career as an intern on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 show – what did you take away from that experience?
Karen Civil: Working with Flex was incredible; it taught me to check my ego. When you go into a situation like that you think you’re going to be around these celebrities, you are going to turn into a celebrity… Flex didn’t even know my name for the first couple of months. It made me realise not to put a time limit on success.
Were you always a hip-hop fan?
Karen Civil: I wasn’t the biggest hip-hop fan because I had to listen to whatever my parents listened to, so growing up it was a lot of Dolly Parton, Elvis (Presley) and Whitney Houston. When they finally put a TV in my room and I got to listen to MTV Jams I was like: “Here I am!”
“People will find any reason not to give you credit for your success because in their mind your success is their failure. I know I did this the right way, I know I’ma get into heaven, preferably VIP; I’ma be next to Mary and Tupac” – Karen Civil
You’re credited with helping the likes of Drake and Lil Wayne reach global stardom. How did you first come across them?
Karen Civil: I’m a big fan of Source and XXL, but a lot of the time you had to be a big artist to get in there. I wanted to give exposure to artists that are on the come up, just like my site (karencivil.com) was on the come up.
With Drake, I was a big fan of Degrassi (the TV show Drake acted in when he was 15). I used to have the biggest crush on him! He used to come to Atlantic Records (where I worked at the time) so I saw him early on and he was someone I wanted to highlight. A friend of mine would put people on my radar very early, like: “Hey, you should check out this guy Mac Miller, J Cole goes to my barber shop, here’s his CD…” and that’s really where it started from.
You came up with the idea behind weezythanxyou.com – tell me a bit about that.
Karen Civil: Mac Maine (Lil Wayne’s manager) reached out and was like: “Wayne’s getting all these letters in jail!” This was before Twitter and Facebook, before you were getting direct access to artists. Weezythanxyou gave people an inside look at Wayne because (before that) he never really told you how he was feeling or his thoughts, you just got the music. He got thousands of pieces of mail weekly. I got an MTV award for that!
How important do you think it is to give people that access to an artist?
Karen Civil: I feel like (now) it can be very overwhelming; people treat social media like a diary. Like Azealia Banks, I think she’s an incredible performer and I loved her Hot 97 interviews but then you think like, was she high when she tweeted this? Or was this person drunk? Those are things you can’t take back. I love the way Beyonce uses her social media, she just comes out when it’s necessary but she doesn’t give too much.
You’ve worked with pretty much everyone. Who has been your favourite artist to work with?
Karen Civil: Wayne and Mack Maine are always going to be number one because they are always supportive. I don’t produce, but (recently) I wanted to know what it felt like to produce, so I was like: “Hey (Lil Wayne), can you get on one of these songs I’ve been producing?” He didn’t go: “Wait, what do you mean you’re producing? Karen, stop.” Most people shy you away from learning new things; most people are like: “What?” (But he was like) “Cool”, and sent me the verse. And now I’ve produced two songs on Wale and YG’s (forthcoming) albums.
Being a woman in a mostly male-dominated environment, rapping about women, sex, and violence against women and men, do you ever feel uncomfortable or alienated?
Karen Civil: I do, but it’s part of life. There’s nothing you can say to me that has not already been said; I’ve heard worse by better. “Oh, I heard she slept with…” I’m like: count them out. Show me the text messages. People will find any reason not to give you credit for your success because in their mind your success is their failure. I know I did this the right way, I know I’ma get into heaven, preferably VIP; I’ma be next to Mary and Tupac. You don’t like me or you think I shouldn’t be here? God thinks I do, my work ethic thinks I do, so I’m here and you’re going to have to deal with it because I’m not going anywhere.
In an interview with Nylon you mentioned you make sure not to put yourself in certain predicaments and places, can you tell me a bit more about that?
Karen Civil: I feel like very early on you have to set a tone so people understand you and respect you. Now people are like: “OMG I didn’t know you looked like this!” And I’m like, I always looked like this, I just didn’t push my outward appearance, it was about my work ethic. I wanted to focus on creating a solid foundation, creating my blueprint and understanding who I was. You can get distracted easily and people take you off course with just a compliment. I wanted the focus to be on Karen Civil the businessperson, not what I wore, not what I looked like.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
Karen Civil: As you grow it’s new levels, new devils. This year has been one of the hardest for me on a personal level because I’ve had so many people removed from my life. We make the mistake of keeping people in our lives because we spent time on them, but (sometimes) it’s like okay, it’s time for you to go. At this point, I’m getting them all chairs for Christmas… there’s nothing I can do for you guys, here’s your fold up chair, I’m going to continue doing me.