Karen Civil started as a blogger. Now she’s a power player.
Words Jeff Weiss
Images Dove Shore
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.
At 29 years old, Oprah Winfrey left a local talk show in Baltimore to take over a low-rated morning TV program called AM Chicago. The syndication deal, television channel and vehicular giveaways remained years or decades away. By the time she celebrated her 29th birthday in November, Karen Civil already had a mini-empire in digital hip-hop media and strategic marketing. If the rap game off ered a “Most likely to become the next Oprah” superlative, it might belong to Civil.
Even if you’ve never seen her YouTube interviews on Civil TV or visited the stratospherically popular site that bears her name, chances are you’ve witnessed the influence of the Elizabeth, N.J., native. For the last two and a half years, she’s shaped multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and digital direction for Beats By Dre. When she worked with The Diplomats, she convinced Cam’ron, Jim Jones and Duke Da God, the VP of A&R at Diplomat Records, to build dipsetmixtapes.com to expand their reach beyond the tri-state area. When Lil Wayne was incarcerated, it was Civil who incubated the idea for weezythanxyou.com, the award-winning site that served as the Young Money boss’ chief mode of communication with the outside world. “During that difficult time in my life, working with Karen Civil to maintain my relevancy in music was important and essential to me,” Lil Wayne says about Civil’s contribution to his career.
The question of how a young woman without formal marketing training became an industry power player gets quickly answered when you hear her life story. She’s a natural connector and maven, the evidence in action of Malcolm Gladwell’s theories. Mix a little Steve Stoute, with a little Oprah, with a little Christina Applegate in Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, and you get Karen Civil.
It started when she was 13 years old and first harnessed the power of the Internet to bend the world her way. Building a fan site for J.D. Williams (Oz, The Wire), she quickly attracted the attention of the actor’s lawyer. “They’d never seen that done for a Black actor. His lawyer was so confused. He kept asking, ‘How do you know him, what do you do, where do you live?’” Civil says, laughing in one of the war rooms at Beats By Dre’s headquarters in Santa Monica. She’s perfectly matched in a navy cloth tennis skirt, red and blue blouse and red Nike kicks. She’s petite with bangs and a gold-plated Egyptian collar around her neck. “I told the lawyer that I was just a fan in school who lived near [Williams] in New Jersey,” Civil says smiling. “[Williams] ended up taking me to IHOP for my birthday, and we had a whole conversation. That was the moment where I realized that the Internet could get you what you want. This was where it happens.”
A decade before most artists fully understood how to leverage the potential of the Internet, Civil was already a prodigy. She built a Backstreet Boys Geocities fan site that became one of the largest devoted to the boy band. Shortly after graduating high school in Elizabeth, the self-described “antisocial girl in a social world” got her first real break after applying to be Angie Martinez’s intern at New York’s Hot 97.
“At the time, I wanted to be an MTV VJ. All I cared about was TRL. I was studying communications at school, and one day before class, I heard about the ‘Search For An Apprentice’ program,” Civil remembers. “I immediately wrote [Martinez] an e-mail from the heart about how she had paved the way. Thirty minutes later, there was a response asking me to come in and meet.”
Despite making it down to the final three applicants, Civil wasn’t selected. However, her enthusiasm and character attracted the attention of Funkmaster Flex, who offered her an internship on his nightly radio show. Not long after, she stopped attending college. “I wanted to go full time with Flex, but it was unpaid, and I needed money to get to the city,” Civil says. “So I got a job at this tax accounting place. I didn’t know anything about taxes, but I told them that I did—my inspiration was Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. After doing it wrong a few times, I eventually figured it out. Sorry to the folks whose taxes I messed up.”
While at Hot 97, Civil met Duke Da God. He invited her to work for Dipset at the height of the crew’s popularity, and she taught them how to build a viable e-commerce business and wrangled New Era to make a run of Dipset hats. At the time, Civil also expanded her digital marketing clientele to include Max B and Wale.
Sometime in 2008, it all went to pieces. Dipset split up. Max B faced life imprisonment. Civil’s working relationship with Wale soured. She found herself at a career crossroads. “I had three strikes and needed to figure out what Karen wanted to do. I thought I’d be at Dipset forever, but it was clearly over,” Civil says. “So I got a job on Wall Street working for a financial brokerage company. I didn’t know what I was doing again, and it was so mundane and about shit I didn’t care about. I’d worked in music for years and built all these relationships, so I bought a camera, built a website and decided to go for it.”