A Conversation With Music Exec Steve Carless On Nipsey Hussle, Grammys & More

One of the founders of The Marathon Agency shares his views on current Hip Hop culture.

(AllHipHop Features) Nipsey Hussle has been a favorite among many rap enthusiasts since he jump-started his career over a decade ago with the Bullets Ain't Got No Name and The Marathon mixtape series. It wasn’t until 2018 that the mainstream finally took notice of the Angeleno, thanks to overwhelmingly positive feedback for his Victory Lap album.

A lot of people contributed to the creation of the debut studio LP from the All Money In label head. Veteran music executive Steve “Steve-O” Carless was one of those insiders that assisted in crafting Nipsey’s magnum opus. This wasn’t the first time Steve’s hands were involved in feeding music to an ever-hungry rap fan base.

Die-hard Hip Hop aficionados who spent time surfing the web for new tunes in the late-2000s and early-2010s are likely familiar with Best Of Both Offices. Steve-O and his BOBO partner Young Sav were the force behind those covert, competitive compilations.

Careless’ progression in the industry started at Pharrell Williams’ Star Trak Entertainment as well as Def Jam Recordings during Jay-Z’s tenure as president. He eventually rose up the corporate ladder to earn A&R positions at Atlantic Records and Def Jam Recordings.

By 2016, Steve-O had executive-produced Jeezy’s Church In These Streets and YG’s Still Brazy. The Roselle, New Jersey native also played a role in Harlem rapper Dave East signing to Def Jam that same year.

The current SVP of A&R and Artist Relations at Universal Music Group teamed with Nipsey Hussle, Karen Civil, and Jorge Peniche in 2017 to launch the marketing/management firm known as The Marathon Agency. Steve-O’s close ties with Nipsey led to his participation in creating the Grammy-nominated Victory Lap.

The Recording Academy (formerly the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) is set to reveal the 61st Annual Grammy Award winners on February 10. While Steve Carless is looking for Nipsey to take home a trophy that night, he explained in our conversation why the LA-based spitter’s nomination for Best Rap Album is already a victory for Nip and Hip Hop.

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AllHipHop: Can you explain your relationship with Nipsey Hussle?

Steve-O: We’ve been friends since 2010, 2011. He was fresh out of that Epic deal that he walked away from. We actually met through a mutual friend named Nicole Plantin [current Vice President, A&R Rostrum Records]. She was his publisher at BMI at the time. She was actually the woman that gave me my first job back at Star Trak. I was always a fan of Nipsey, and she told me she was cool with him. I asked her to link me with him. She said, “I can definitely do that.” That’s how we connected.

AHH: So now you guys have a business relationship?

SO: We have a business relationship, but we’re friends first. Yeah, we’re business partners in a couple of different ventures: marketing, branding, and a couple other music related stuff.

AHH: Victory Lap received a lot of praise within Hip Hop circles, but I think for a lot of us it still came as a surprise that the Grammys actually recognized it with a nomination. What did it mean to you that the Grammys selected an album like Victory Lap over more commercially successful albums?

SO: It’s super gratifying. It’s emotional because it lets you know, number one, real music still matters, authentic street music still has a place in commercial Hip Hop and the mainstream world, and it also lets you know that you can do things your way without conforming. That’s not any slight to any other artist. That Nipsey Hussle Victory Lap album is an autobiography. Some of those topics and a lot of the content in that music are difficult to rehash and relive, and it’s also a nod to something that he survived. He’s just a special individual. Someone with his background - the way he lived, what he endured over the course of his career - just to get recognized on that level, by your peers, by the highest music platform in the world, it’s an emotional thing.

AHH: In the past, there’ve been some complaints from people in Hip Hop about the way the Grammys chose to recognize certain projects and not recognize others. It seems like this year there haven’t been as many complaints about the nominations, except for maybe J. Cole [being snubbed]. Do you think the Grammys did a good job this year with their selections?

SO: With me just learning the whole process of the Grammys and being able to visit the [The Recording Academy] campus and meet the people there, I could tell that anything that needs change takes time in its evolution. Being that Hip Hop is the number one genre on planet Earth, I feel the voice of our community, our people, and our culture helped make those strives that [The Recording Academy] have been able to identify. Especially for somebody like Nipsey, it’s definitely in the right direction. I can’t complain about that, but I definitely feel like it has to be in the right direction because that was a very important cultural album that he did. If it would’ve been overlooked… you’ll always feel slighted when you feel like something that represents something so pure doesn’t get its recognition, but we’ve always looked forward like, “Alright, they’ll be another opportunity or someone else that could represent that.”

AHH: Nipsey said in a recent interview that he wasn’t really focused on Grammy recognition or critical acclaim when he was working on the album. You were closely involved in that process. Did you foresee [Victory Lap] being in the “Album Of The Year” mix?

SO: Of course you always have high hopes and large ambitions. Without us ever talking about it, from an aesthetic, cultural standpoint, we always knew what the music was. It was just more or less about him deciding and committing to living what he talks about in the music again. So from my side, I was like it has to be considered because he’s that important. I’ve been part of a lot of albums. Just seeing how that was cosmetically, structurally, and thoroughly put together and the time, energy, and all the technicians that went into making this album, I knew it was something special from the day we started getting the more polished mixes.

AHH: Did he have complete creative control over the project? How much was Atlantic involved?

SO: The greatest part of Atlantic being a partner is he had one trillion percent control over whatever he wanted to do. That’s why the album looks the way it does. That’s why the album sounds the way it does. That’s why the album is what it is. He had a hundred million percent control. That’s a testament to that company because they trusted him and his vision and what we were doing and what we were bringing to the table. It’s just gratifying to see the outcome and the result of that vision. All they ever did was add on. My counterpart, [SVP of A&R Atlantic Records] Dallas [Martin], was there the whole way. He gave us some important records, some great feedback, and some additions that really made the album what it is today.

AHH: There’s been a lot of talk about Atlanta having this stronghold on the culture for so long. I also feel like people don’t give enough recognition for how long the West Coast run has been. I found it interesting that If Nipsey wins Best Rap Album, that will be three out of the last four years that a West Coast artist would have won that award. Do you think having an LA connection impacts artists’ ability to build those relationships in the industry?

SO: Absolutely, LA is the second biggest city in the United States. LA is also a major hub for the business of music - creatively and business-wise. Contacts, relationships, creatives - they all go between New York, Atlanta, and LA. LA is a culturally vibrant city, and there’s so much history, especially with people of color. Where it sits in southern California, it's an important place. There’s no way you could ever have an artist not thrive there.

AHH: You’ve talked about how one of your jobs at Star Trak was to have a weekly meeting with Pusha T about SoundScan numbers. Now that you’re both in executive positions, do you still have those type of conversations about the business?

SO: Not as much anymore. Even though we’re parallel in our executive careers, he has his own inner-team of confidants and people that provide that to him as opposed to when I was an upstart intern and it was him and I talking on the phone every day. The crazy thing about it is all these years later we’re still great friends. We still talk from time to time. It’s always love and a lot of respect. Every time I get to talk to him in depth, I always bring that up like, “Remember when you used to call me every Tuesday morning and we’d go over SoundScan for literally fifty minutes.” It was crazy.

AHH: It’s kind of ironic that he’s in the same [Best Rap Album Grammy] category this year.

SO: His project was amazing too. He’s still on the Mount Rushmore of lyricists for me, so he’s very deserving of that. I’m happy for him too, because it’s good to see real spitters recognized and real-life artists get nods for things when I know how hard they go for that craft.

AHH: I agree. I was pleasantly surprised to see artists like Nipsey and Pusha get that look. Because, so often, lyricists get overlooked when it comes to the Grammys and other award shows. I think it’s great for the culture to see them in that space.

SO: And like two real individuals. That’s what makes it even more fire. They’re real guys.

AHH: Going back to your role as an executive. This is something I’ve always wanted to ask someone that’s in the higher ranks. What’s the reaction from the corporate brass when you have artists on the same label that are beefing? [In 2018,] we saw a lot of artists going at each other, but they were often under the same [label] umbrella. What is that like in the office?

SO: It’s not as people may think it is. In this business, a lot of people have relationships and they cross paths. The biggest thing I can say about being in this position is everyone is always respectful. You almost take a side without knowing because they just know what you’re affiliation is. Everyone knows where their loyalty lies, but everyone still tries to have a level of respect for that situation because we understand that those two individuals have something to hash out. I know from the corporate side that I’ve dealt with - I can’t speak for anybody else - they’ve always tried to add a level of resolution to any of these issues. If it’s that serious, people get involved. But if they deem it as not that serious, they just let them hash it out on their own or just wait until it dissipates. Everyone has their own level of issues and sometimes it just takes for those two individuals to get in a room or time to pass for it to resolve itself.

AHH: Are there any artists that you feel have the potential to breakout in 2019?

SO: There’s a kid name SAFE from Toronto that I really like. He’s moving around. He’s an incredible artist. I really like him a lot. I love Bibi Bourelly. I’m a big fan of her. There are a couple of other kids, but I feel like those two are at a place where they can have breakout years.

AHH: Do you see Hip Hop having this dominance over the commercial space in music for some time?

SO: I don’t see it stopping because the culture gets bigger and bigger. Now that it’s commercialized to a certain level more people can participate, more people are trying to find ways to be a part of it. There are still your fundamental pieces like the street and expression, but there are still new kids coming up finding new ways to do their craft, and it’s still our style, our dress, and everything. I feel like it’s only going to get bigger from where we are now. I’m excited.

AHH: There’s an argument that some people make that, because it’s so much easier to break into the industry now, it’s almost become more “quantity over quality.” How does Hip Hop balance that? It felt like [in 2018] a ton of music came out and it’s almost impossible to listen to all of it.

SO: Here’s my thing, there’s no real answer to that. My opinion would be is that anything that’s really, really good will always rise to the top at some point and it’s always going to have staying power. Everybody always has Michael Jackson in that top five list. Or Prince. Or Nas. Those things are based on quality. Those things are not for "how much" they’ve done but "what it is" that they’ve done. By the way, albums and records always came out in troves even back in the day, but only the good ones stuck around or made it all the way to the top. So at the end of the day, for me, it’s quality over quantity. But I get quantity is the business though. Quality is the legacy.

AllHipHop: Finally, what’s next for you? What do you have planned for the future?

SO: I’m looking to build with more artists that I feel are authentic to themselves and are really serious about their craft. That’s as simple as it is. Beyond that, to help them elevate to their highest potential. That’s really my function and purpose in this entire business anyway. So that’s what I’m planning on doing for years and years to come.

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Follow Steve “Steve-O” Carless on Twitter @SteveCarless and Instagram @stevecarless.

Follow Nipsey Hussle on Twitter @NipseyHussle and Instagram @nipseyhussle.

Follow The Marathon Agency on Instagram @marathonagency.