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KAREEM JOHNSON: THE CLIVE DAVIS OF HIP-HOP VISUALS

Photography by Christian Traver | Words by Jaylen Coaxum | Styling by Theo Hanson | Grooming by Yah Yah | Dope Studios

Not many artists in the audiovisual sphere can do what Kareem Johnson does. He not only drastically changed the world of hip hop, but since he emerged from the scene, how he produces music videos became other video commissioners’ blueprint – thanks to the New York native.

Born in New York in 1973 to a creative family – all in the film industry – Kareem Johnson spent his early life around the corner from the famed birthplace of Hip Hop: the Cedric Avenue Recreational Center. Outside of a brief stint in Atlanta, during his first two years of high school, Johnson’s formative years were spent in and around the dynamism that was New York’s early hip-hop era.

“Hip-hop is infused with everything. To think that [it all] started with this one man from Jamaica who threw a party that birthed a whole culture, not only in the U.S., but the whole world,” Johnson said of the culture that raised him. When it comes to his favorite MCs, he credits The Notorious B.I.G, Black Thought, and more recently, Ransom.


While living in Atlanta at 15 years old, Kareem’s father introduced him to the world of film – as he personally worked in the industry. Spike Lee’s “School Days” and “Malcolm X” were the most notable movies Kareem’s father worked on; Spike was a family friend, said Johnson.

Upon returning up north to New York, Kareem went on to graduate from All Hallows High School in 1990 – only to turn right back around to study at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. This would only be for one school year, as he’d wind up getting caught smoking weed and locked up for a weekend.

Kareem’s shades are from Ray-Ban, his overcoat is from Catou Menswear @lecatou, and his sweater is from AG Jeans @AGJeans.

At the time, Johnson had already been shadowing his father on small TV projects doing electrical work – such as lighting, cabling, and many more. Simultaneously, in the early to mid-1990s, Atlanta’s music scene was beginning to blow up. In 1996, Kareem got his first major opportunity to produce a music video; before that, he had worked mostly on smaller-budget Latin videos.

Since his early days traveling back and forth between New York and Atlanta (both somewhat U.S. capitals of the hip-hop scene), Johnson – now Senior Director of Video Production at Atlantic Records – is now an unstoppable force. With a track record like his – where he achieved highly-impressive feats by working with almost everyone who’s distinguished, and anyone like-minded enough to exchange brilliant ideas – Kareem’s contribution to Hip-hop music videos serves as the archetype that we see others doing, following, and perhaps even copying today. But nobody seems to have surpassed Kareem’s ingenious artistic talent.

Kareem Johnson has long been renowned for his work. He already collaborated with megastars like Madonna, Britney Spears, Wiz Khalifa, Cardi B, and Jack Harlow, and many, many other illustrious celebrities. Without a doubt, these superstars love working with him. For instance, with Wiz Khalifa, both parties enjoy their long collaborative relationship – they’ve been collaborating since the rapper’s 2011 hit, “Black and Yellow.” Johnson has produced 30 videos with Khalifa, including a fully-commissioned, 9-video album for Rolling Papers 2 (generally, producers work on 2-4 videos for an album).

While most of his career was oriented around producing, Kareem is now transitioning to a career that’s centered around commissioning. He works with around 12-13 artists – for whom he commissions at Atlantic.

Recalling his transition to the label, Johnson said, “At that time when I was producing videos, I’m getting calls from all the labels…I knew a lot of people at those labels, so it wasn’t like I was [particularly] with Atlantic at that time. It just so happened that lots of the videos I was doing early on were for Atlantic artists. My close friend Emmanuelle Cuny-Panicker was at Roc-A-Fella early on and moved to Atlantic [Records]. By working with her before, when she left Atlantic for Motown in LA, the opportunity at Atlantic opened up and the first person they called was me.”

Kareem’s blazer is from Catou Menswear @lecatou, his t-shirt is from Banana Republic @bananarepublic, his trousers are from AG Jeans @AGJeans, his socks are from Hanes @hanes, and his sneakers are from Nike @nike.

Johnson also touched on his experiences as a black producer in the industry; it’s worth noting that when he was starting his career, there were only a handful of black producers. Despite the low representation, Kareem sees his position as a black producer as somewhat of an advantage – as this allows him to navigate his work in ways that other producers may not understand.

“If I’m shooting a video on [the] block, I always got a kick out of being in those types of environments, seeing people look up to you. It gives other folks inspiration,” Johnson said.

“My first job with Kareem was two years ago for Wiz Khalifa, featuring Tyga, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Perris, California. Call time? 2 am,” said Erica Nagai, one of Johnson’s closest colleagues and friends, about the first time she worked with him. Their friendship was a slow burn, one that developed throughout many projects together.

“I haven’t met anyone who’s so well-liked and appreciated. You just know he’s so genuine and you don’t really meet that [kind of] person anymore. On Zooms, everyone recognizes him from way back when. For someone to have this long of a career, for people to feel the same way about him as people today meeting him do, that’s amazing.” she added.

Moreover, when Erica was asked which words can pretty much sum up Kareem, she called the music video producer and commissioner genuine, legendary, yet balanced.

“[Kareem] is very direct, straight to the point. That’s how I operate, so I think that’s the way we got along professionally. He commands respect and you know what you’re getting, no B.S.,” she said. “On the flip side, he’s also just great to be around. There’s a time for us to be serious, but afterwards, you want to hang out with him. There’s so many people who are the opposite.”

“Being younger in this field, I just hope that people feel the same way about me that they do for him. We’re on different career paths, but the way he’s received, the way he’s recognized, you can’t fake that.”

Kareem’s suit is from Boss @boss, his button-down shirt is from 5001 Flavors, his blazer is from Catou Menswear @lecatou, and his trousers are from AG Jeans @AGJeans.

Kareem’s schedule is jam-packed with filming music videos around the country, and meeting with industry professionals left and right. However, this is what fuels the legendary audiovisual artist. Kareem leaves way more than a lasting impression wherever he goes. Many are instantly drawn into his creative ideas – the moment he speaks. And those who listen – and listened – can attest to how iconic Kareem Johnson truly is.

On the other hand, outside of work, Kareem remains a well-loved family man – he always makes sure that he spends time with his family, despite his busy schedule.

You can follow Kareem on Instagram @kxreemjxhnsxn to get updated about his projects.

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