Jensen Karp has had a multi-hyphenate career. Jensen began his professional life as a major label hip-hop artist known as Hot Karl, during the white-rapper boom of the early aughts. He went on to ghostwrite songs for other artists, write for the WWE, open Gallery1988, a pop-culture-focused art gallery in Los Angeles, among other things. Lately, Jensen has been hosting Get Up On This on Smodcast, doing marketing projects for TV networks and just got back into the music world, signing up to manage Jamaican-Canadian, cute-but-fierce, female MC Nova Rockafeller. I’ve been following Jensen since he hosted Hype Men, the defunct hip-hop podcast he produced with sketch comedy bros, It’s the Real (If you’re into hip-hop at all, you should check out the back episodes, as it’s probably my favorite podcast of all time – it was like a hip-hop-Nerdist, for people born between 1980 and 1987). I wanted to ask Jensen about how he got go where he is, doing all sorts of awesome things at once, without completely losing his shit. So, you know, I did.
yr an adult: First off, you’ve done a lot of things in your adult career, segueing from artist to writer to ghostwriter to gallery owner to podcaster to rap manager. When you were younger, did you ever imagine you’d have such a multi-hyphenate career?
Jensen Karp: I was thinking about that today. My father was a car salesman and my mother was an advertising executive for coupon magazines. So, even though my mom would take painting lessons and had fun outside things, my parents never did a million things. I think I took that on myself based on other weird aspects of my personality that I’m in therapy for.
But I was thinking about it today and there was this guy who worked at my dad’s car dealership who was really funny. And he had a normal day job, obviously, he was a car salesman, but he would also do standup and he would do videos for the dealership and all these other things. I remember as a kid, I would think, “That guy is so funny and it seems like he has something that pays the bills normally, I feel like he should be doing 7 million other things.” And I think that was the first time I sort thought of the idea that I could be doing 7 million things.
Hot Karl came up while I was in college for film. I never wanted to ditch the film concept or stop writing. That sort of made it a necessity [to multi-task]. I felt like I had to do the Hot Karl thing, because it was offering me a lot of money and it’s an opportunity I can’t really pass up. But I don’t want to give up anything creatively, so I became a hyphen because I had to. Since then, I’ve sort of made that into a career.
What do you tell people you do when you first meet them?
It’s weird. It flips between art gallery owner and marketing executive. I dunno. I feel like marketing stuff is the stuff I’m most proud of recently, but it all came out of the gallery. That was the match that started the fire, so I guess I just stay with art-dealer or gallery owner, mostly.
Do you caveat that by saying “I do a bunch of other stuff, too.” Or do you wait for them to ask you to elaborate.
I guess naturally, I say I own an art gallery and do some marketing stuff at once.
It also seems like you transitioned from being a purely creative-slash-artist to being a curator. A lot of what you do is about highlighting creativity and connecting it to audiences. Was that intentional?
To be honest, that’s where I felt most natural even when I was Hot Karl. I didn’t feel very natural as the guy in the studio. I felt more natural talking about my marketing plan and thinking about what the arts going to look like on the vinyl. I basically felt best managing myself. And I knew that pretty fast. Unfortunately, a lot of people put money into it. But I knew pretty fast that I didn’t want to be in front of the camera solely. I felt better packaging it. Hot Karl was more of a concept then it was a rapper. Now, every rapper is suburban.
At the time, I knew I could rap my ass off and I paid my dues. I’d been doing it for 15 years. I knew there was some sort of place out there for me, I just didn’t know if there was an audience. I think it was just too early to be yourself on the microphone. Now it’s all you can do. But you know, I felt good walking away from [the music industry] and thought maybe some day something would bring me back. And Nova sort of did that for me.
It seems like you enjoy thinking about not just what the song or album would be like, but what is the brand and the story?
Totally. That meant way more to me, to be honest. I mean, I liked the songs, I like making songs, but that felt like the hobby. But the job was trying to figure out how it was going to make money and mean something in the long run. That stuff is really interesting.
I knew fast. It didn’t happen over the long-term. I just felt more comfortable at the desk, which was weird. I feel like I curated my own career in a sense. I think similarly, that’s what I wanted to do with everything in my life.
So how did the rap manager thing happen? That seems like a recent development.
Yeah, totally new. I messed around with music since Hot Karl. I worked on some Fall-Out Boy stuff, did a lot art direction for Pete [Wentz]. And I’d set up remixes. And even past Hot Karl, watching hip-hop as a sport, like the way people watch baseball, has been my passion. I’ve lived, eaten, breathed it for 24 years. I’ve never given up on learning who the next guy was and it’s something I’ve always been good at. I went to Odd Future’s first show and even way back, to getting the “Protect Ya Neck” 12’’ with Method Man on it. I always took good risks in music and they paid off.
And I would send Pete, because we’re very close, I would send him rappers all the time. I’d send a YouTube clip over and in Pete’s world, they had Tyga and they had The Pack, which had Lil’ B in it, but they weren’t really able to facilitate a rapper’s career over there. And I started thinking to myself, I’m sending over all these rappers that are making it big, eventually someone will come along where I think I can contribute to their career.
You were thinking hypothetically “How would I break this artist”?
Yeah but there’s never been anyone that made me want to give up a bunch of my time. Just because I think someone is gonna blow up doesn’t mean I’m going to dedicate myself to that person’s life.
Is this person worth a re-tweet or are they worth getting to know them better?
Like, yesterday, I sat down and listened to that Chance the Rapper kid. And he’s tremendous. I’ve only, in my life, in the last twenty years, felt that kind of presence from an 18 year old maybe five times ever. I mean, even Tyler [the Creator], when he was twenty, you just go, “Oh shit. This guy is going to be humongous.” And I felt that way about Chance the Rapper, whose incredible. He’s from Chicago and he’s going to be huge. But at the same time, I wasn’t like, “You know what I want to do? Have them sleep on my couch for three weeks while they record.” That doesn’t come up.
But I’d kept in touch with a lot of my rap friends. Apathy and Celph-Titled and Murs and Styles of Beyond. And one them was R.A. the Rugged Man. R.A. was a hero of mine growing up. I loved Crustified Dibbs and I loved him on Soundbombing, and became friends with him through our rap friends. R.A. ended up sending me these videos of this girl rapping. And at first, I felt like it was good, I got it. She’s pretty and it’s all right. He would keep me up to date and I would follow along to see where she was touring to Czech Republic and she’s playing shows with Wu-Tang affiliates, and that experience was making her so much better. But that didn’t make me want to manage.
I started talking to her and started realizing that even though she’s the best female rapper out of any cipher, and technically, she’s such an amazing rapper. She just kills. But she wanted to make music, and not make pop music or sell out, but make music that represents more of her influences. Her influences are Weezer and Nirvana and she’s a big fan of Gym Class Heroes, so we tried to find a bridge together, where she can make that kind of music and still live up the way that she raps. So I flew her out to LA and put her with Justin Warfield and Sam Hollander and Scoop Deville. I put her in the studio with all these producers, where finally she can depend on someone else musically and listen to their ear as well. And that turned into a bunch of people emailing labels. No one kept a good secret with her, so there’s a bunch of label buzz that’s been happening for the last couple of weeks, which we’re holding away from.
That was where the concept of me managing came from. I saw a vision with her, I followed through with that vision and now all this weird shit is happening to us. But it came from an organic place, where finally I felt like I could step in for a second and involve myself in this project, rather then tell my friends how big it’s gonna be. And to shape it with her is a cool experience.
Take what you’ve learned and have something to apply it to.
Yeah, exactly. The other day I heard ASAP Rocky, one of his managers is Chase Infinite, who is a rapper who came up at the same time I did. Funny to hear that, because it makes sense. We all learned a lot from 10 years kicking around in the business.
Has this project superseded some of your other gigs?
I mean, Nova right now is taking up a lot of time, but that’s just because we’re doing a lot of emails and calls, and when she’s in town, it takes a ton of time. Just like everything else, whether it’s the gallery, or, I’m [doing a marketing project for] Breaking Bad right now, those things are time-consuming. It’s just about juggling and know which day is most important for which project.
In your mind, is it all the same kind of work, or do you find you’re using different parts of your brain. Do you have to click between marketing stuff and art and music depending on what you’re working on, or does it all feel like it’s the same kind of creative labor?
I think it’s different parts of the brain at this point. For example, for Breaking Bad, there’s certain days that have certain things going on, but those days are on the calendar. It’s really about segmenting what it is. I guess I’m the same person in every meeting, but it’s like, “Today I have this. Today I have that.” It gets broken down into segments. I don’t know if that’s a talent I have. I would assume so, because I know friends for whom it’s all just one thing in their heads. I also don’t have a great memory anymore. You know, writing it all down and seeing it as separate things. Like, right now, I have two hours for Nova, right now I have two hours for the gallery. Today, at 8 am, I went into the gallery and spackled the walls and picked up some paint and did that stuff early. Then I did two hours of calls for Nova. That feels natural for me to segment it, not necessarily in my mind, but to break down the time and put on different hats.
It seems daunting, from a work standpoint, but from a creative energy standpoint. There’s nothing to phone in.
No. It sucks. It’s really not great.
But that’s only when something big comes up. Not sure if you know the story, but I was recently diagnosed with brain tumors and there’s no problem with them, they’re just there. But when big things like that come up, you throw the calendar out. It’s like, this is going to take up the whole calendar. I have a wedding this weekend, and it’s not like I’m dissing the wedding, but you have to learn that these things will mess with the calendar so much, you wonder “How am I living that I have trouble taking Saturday off?” It doesn’t feel very natural. It feels sort of robotic. But I try my hardest to get a vacation in every year and do things to make sure I don’t become the weirdest person around because I have so much stuff going on.
Do you set life goals or career goals for yourself, or is it more acting organically as the stuff comes up?
I feel like as a child, I did the things I wanted to do. And those things brought themselves to the forefront. I always wanted to write a book so Mattie and I wrote a book. I always wanted TV, so I wrote for Pro Wrestling. Now I’m working on a YouTube show for Justin Lin. And then to be able to curate a space for art, I mean I always loved Jim Henson and loved lots of things that went on in pop-culture artwise in my childhood, whether it’s the Snorks or the Smurfs, anything that involved pop-culture, I wanted to find a way to put my own spin on it. I’ve gotten to work with the Beastie Boys in the gallery, I’ve gotten to work with Pee-Wee Herman, and Weird Al, and all these people from my childhood. It’s really about if I have goals, but as many of my dreams that I can X out, I always felt like money would come with them. For instance, I always wanted to do radio and the podcast doesn’t bring in a lot of money, but it helps my soul you know what I mean? It brings my happiness. I don’t know if I pick goals, but there’s a big board in my mind with the things I’ve always wanted to do. That works more serendipitously for me.
Is there stuff you’re still thinking of?
Totally. I’ve never sold a movie. I’ve written stuff in the past and haven’t written long-form in a while. That would be amazing. I do stand-up for fun, but I’m not great at it. I would love to get better at that. There are thing where if time allowed, I’d love to do more. I had a job at ABC marketing for six months. I luckily didn’t have to stay much longer, it was terrible, but I’d love to find a less freelance-ey job in marketing, but those are large-board things that, as an adult with a mortgage and a pet and responsibilities, those are things that I hope will come along some day, but I shouldn’t rush it. I’m very new age about those kinds of things. If they come to you, they’re meant to be, so play it out. And if it doesn’t happen, don’t push it any further.
But as I get older, I’m 32 now, that opportunity that will take some time away, that gets less and less. So it’s a juggling act between feeling like a twelve year old, as in “I’m going to be a cowboy or a baseball player” and then being someone who is trying to make a living creatively. It’s a hard line to follow, but if you can, it’s pretty fun.