Hustle Hard
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 to expand their reach beyond the tri-state area. When Lil Wayne was incarcerated, it was Civil who incubated the idea for, 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.”

Karen Civil 2

During her Dipset years, Civil developed friendships with Lil Wayne and Young Money President Mack Maine. It helped her leverage interviews with Nicki Minaj and Drake long before they became household names. Civil also became adept at convincing artists to give her song premieres. But the site really blew up after she broke the story of Waka Flocka Flame getting robbed and shot in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Civil published an exclusive photo of the gunman holding up Flocka’s chain like a championship trophy. spawned a sister site, The pair receive anywhere between 3,000,000 and 6,000,000 views a month. Then there’s Always Civil Enterprise, a strategic marketing firm intended to help artists expand social growth and build their audience on and offline. Her clients include Lil Wayne, Pusha T, Young Jeezy and Mary J. Blige. “She understands how the public perceives artists and has her pulse on everything going on in the industry,” Pusha T says. “There’s nothing I won’t tell her. She’s trustworthy and keeps her business relationships and friendships very sacred. Before I started working with her, I had no knowledge of social media. She told me what I should react to and what I shouldn’t. She taught me how to keep my fans engaged beyond the music.”

Beats By Dre offered Civil a position as digital marketing director not long after she partook in a gifting suite during the 2011 NBA All-Star Weekend. After an offhand mention that she’d pass on their headphones to Lil Wayne and J. Cole, the Beats team flooded her with product.

Once several artists sent back photos of themselves rocking Beats, word of Civil’s influence spread to the industry leader’s upper management. They dangled a name-your-price job offer, and within weeks, Civil moved from Elizabeth, N.J., to Los Angeles. At the time, the company only had 11 employees. It currently has 300.

“It sells [Civil] short to label her a ‘digital person,’” says Paul Rivera, the former head of sports marketing at Beats By Dre who recently left to start his own marketing company with clients including his former Beats employers and LeBron James. “More than anyone else at Beats, she touches on all facets of the business. From sports to entertainment to the digital space, there’s no category she doesn’t touch.

“We’re all in a relationship-based business, and she’s mastered relationships,” Rivera adds. “She’s a real and authentic person, which in this business is the highest compliment you can give. You never have to question her ulterior motives. She always keeps it 100 with you.”

The word “relationships” continually reappears in conversations with those close to Civil. This affability bubbles up in casual conversation. Her mind moves rapidly yet seems calm—as though she can freeze time to carefully weigh out each scenario. She’s an indefatigable worker, running marathons, balancing multiple business enterprises and frequently subsisting on just four hours of sleep. There’s a Karen Civil book due next year and plans for more video content. Don’t be surprised if one day you find yourself watching an audience giveaway of “Karen’s Favorite Things.”

“Sometimes these contacts make it feel like I have hip-hop in my back pocket. I can hang with Rick Ross in the morning at the BET Awards and then go to Young Jeezy’s dinner at night. It’s not a big deal,” Civil says. “I get to have meetings with Lil Wayne one day and Jimmy Iovine the next about the culture at Beats By Dre. It shows that you can go from a blogger to doing whatever you want to do. It’s exciting to get to light a match, let it go and watch the fire burn.” ♠

Subscribe to XXL Magazine.

More From XXL