Can’t Knock The Hustle: Karlie Hustle On Being Your Own Boss

Karlie Hustle is no rookie when it comes to working on excellence. The former music programming director for HOT 97 has worked in and out of local radio stations and street teams, while promoting her own bow tie line and serving as director of brand relations for 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records. She also contributes to the site, Hip Hop My Way, and throws a party at Manhattan’s S.O.B.’s called Groove Candy.

Her industry moniker summarizes her daily routine and stems from another hard-working individual hailing from her native West Coast. “E-40 put out a project called E-40 Tycoon known as “Charlie Hustle” and I was at a record store, talking with a couple of guys there and they were like your name is Karlie. We should just call you Karlie Hustle,” she recalls from the 2001 exchange. “E-40 borrowed that name from Pete Rose, who’s the original Charile Hustle, so I basically borrowed it from E-40 and made it into a feminine version with the help of my record store friends.”

Fast forward 14 years later and her hustle has given her a wealth of wisdom on working in the music business. VIBE recently sat down with Karlie at coworking hot spot QNS Collective for an insightful exchange on being your own boss and doing it well.

My come-up in a nutshell:
It wasn’t until I was able to get a mentor, [HOT 97 personality] Ebro Darden. He found me doing some charity work in the hip-hop community and put me on the street team at the radio station. I walked into the studio one day and saw Mario Devoe crack the mic and I was like ‘That’s it. I’m going to try that. It looks terrifying, fun, and I’m going to make it happen’ and so I did. I got an opportunity to host a mixed show and I did that for a few months [before getting] an opportunity to go full-time. But I had to pick up and move. It’s interesting that I didn’t set out knowing that this is I wanted to do. It sort of found me and that’s how my career has been throughout the years.

How I locked in my bow tie business:
I was wearing button-ups and bow ties by the time the VH1 show [This Is HOT 97] came out. I kinda wanted to have a look that people could identify me with besides just being the bald chick. I wanted to add a few layers of style to it. I told my boyfriend I wanted to put out my own bow tie, because I love bow ties, so he and I brainstormed and basically came up with the wooden bow tie, a collaboration with Good Wood. I started [the company] before I left HOT 97. Really, it was my boyfriend who had the connection and also worked with the graphic designer. We went through a few different incarnations of the tie and it ended up being kind of the one that you see right now.

On leaving a major gig to be an entrepreneur:
At HOT 97, I was challenged very much. It was a difficult job and a lot of work and multitasking [amongst] lots of lay-offs that happened so I was constantly inheriting more and more jobs. I realized [that with] all these skills I have, I’m using them to make somebody else rich. If I worked hard and utilized them to run my own business, how successful could I possibly be? So when I started the Hustle bow tie company, it was almost like I gave myself permission to try that road and think that the illusion of stability and long-term career is just that—an illusion.

On navigating the music business:
There’s somebody younger waiting to take your spot or there’s somebody who will work for cheaper. These are not necessarily things that people say directly but it’s very much indirectly there. You look at HOT 97 when you’re coming up in radio as the diamond brand, the pinnacle and I believe that it still is even though I’m not there. To be on the inside of it, it functions like every other radio station that I’ve worked at except the names are bigger, the stakes are higher, and every rating point means a million dollars instead of maybe $150,000. There’s more to lose if you aren’t succeeding and making mistakes. It’s on a more national, if not worldwide stage, so that’s the main difference. To me, radio is radio. If you understand the business, you can go anywhere, but there is something special about HOT 97 in that you really need to be invested in it and be involved with the lifestyle and culture. If you’re not, it shows.

My biggest challenge:
Prioritizing. There’s not so much in the way of delegation when you work for yourself because you end up delegating it back to yourself. It’s about making a list of priorities. When you work for yourself, you’re not checking in at 9am and leaving at 5pm. The checks are not coming every two weeks unless you go out there and get it, so that’s signing contracts with people, making sure that you’re getting checks for [a certain number of] months for a particular project, that kind of stuff. And it’s a new space for me to be in too, because you’re used to getting a check every two weeks. When you’re not, you’re in a whole new world of evaluating how much you think you’re worth financially, dictating that and negotiating around that.

On being comfortable while talking about money:
The best way is to talk with other people who are generally in the same business as you are. I may talk to a friend who does freelance PR and be like ‘So when you do a campaign, how long is it? How much do you usually charge?’ And because she’s a friend of mine, she’s going to give me the real deal, so having those kinds of people in your corner will help you. Other than that, there’s always that dance you do with people around money. ‘So how much do you have? How much do you want? Well, what’s your budget?’ You just have to get over that hump, give them a higher number and know that they’re probably going to talk you down, and being okay with whatever that number ends up being unless it’s just not worth it for you.

My advice to young females trying to be on their hustle:
It depends on where you are at in the game. I worked for free a lot over the years and I still do solids for people, knowing that I’m going to come back around and need a favor at some point. There is a give-and-take. It’s not like your keeping score, like a creep, but there’s an understanding in business that if I do something for you, I’m going to need something from you at some point. I’m not afraid to do things for free, whether it’s for myself and I break even. If it’s for the greater good of my brand and what I’m trying to do overall, then I’ll keep doing it.

On networking the right way:
When you’re in any kind of position where people want to speak to you, there’s a space where people can be a little bit thirsty. Just create the most organic relationship that can start with casual conversations with people, whether it’s interacting with them on Twitter or showing up and supporting an event they’re already doing. That’s always a nice gesture if you’re trying to get to know somebody and get next to them. I think that people who don’t understand those rules of engagement, don’t end up being very successful in the long run.

I’m still working on my ______:
Belief in myself. I don’t think it ever stops being something that is challenging as far as ‘Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I gonna take it to the next level?’ These are all things that I think are just constantly real in most of our heads and so it’s a battle to continually decide that you are despite what the world is trying to tell us most of the time, as women, specifically.

Hardest project I’ve done:
I did all the stage logistics for the Main stage at Summer Jam and produced for the Festival stage. It’s about managing so much information, like graphs, charts, spreadsheets and who’s here when. Having different sets of information and only giving people what they need, yet being the barrier of all that and figuring out how to aggregate and disseminate it properly.

My biggest professional regret:
I don’t have any. I think [my career is] laid out exactly the way it is supposed to be and I wouldn’t change anything, because I wouldn’t be sitting where I am right now.

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