MUSIC EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Karam Gill: Golden Eye

Gill’s latest directorial efforts include directing Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby, which premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.

Karam Gill wanted to pick up a camera from the moment he could fit his hands around one. So it makes sense that years later he became the youngest director to have a feature documentary at SXSW.

Gill made his directorial debut at the festival in 2017 with the world premiere for G Funk at 22 years old. It was a moment he’d been preparing for his entire life.

“I’m a believer that art exists for a long time in the subconscious until it becomes conscious,” Gill told Boardroom over a Zoom call one July afternoon. “Your whole life, you could be surrounded by so much art and influence. You don’t even realize until later in life, when you’re headed down the path of what you should be doing, that you tap into all these things that you experienced or saw before.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles — the son of two artists — Gill blossomed into a filmmaker and creative director gradually. First, alongside his business partner Daniel Malikyar, he worked with the likes of Marshmello, helping oversee content strategy for the first three years of the EDM artist’s career and growing his YouTube subscriber base from 25,000 to over 45 million.

Shortly thereafter, Gill would be asked to write and direct Showtime’s documentary series, Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine, produced alongside Rolling Stone, Lightbox, and Imagine Entertainment.

In 2021, QC and Migos’ docuseries Ice Cold premiered at Tribeca, offering an examination of deeper themes around materialism and racial perception. He found himself back on that same stage one year later working with Pierre “P” Thomas and Kevin “Coach K” Lee, co-founders of Quality Control Music.

This time around, it was for Lil Baby’s Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby. The documentary follows Baby upon his release from jail in 2017 all the way until present day and chronicles the story of redemption for the Atlanta rapper.

Gill, who was recently featured on the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 list, co-founded his MGX Creative production company and creative agency with longtime best friend Daniel Malikyar. He houses all of his projects under his own umbrella and has done work for the likes of Apple, Adidas, Amazon, FUJIFILM, and Mercedes.

Karam Gill and Daniel Malikyar, founders of MGX Creative, at their headquarters in Los Angeles, California.

For the two of them, the biggest focus right now as a company is being “bold and stylistic.”

“Our entire company is under the age of 30,” Gill said. “We have the most talented young team of creators, artists, storytellers, and producers all under one roof, and that allows us to really have our fingers on the pulse. We are the demographic that brands want to engage with. It’s the perfect time to do what we want to do and tell powerful stories that resonate with our generation.”

“Pop culture holds a mirror up to the larger movements of our society,” he continued. “It is the best vehicle to explore larger ideas in society. That’s the foundation of what we try to do.”

Boardroom spoke to Gill about his work, blending documentary and narrative aesthetics, and what he’s learned from spending so much time around Lil Baby.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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NATE LOUIS: When did you first realize working with a camera was something you had an interest in?

KARAM GILL: Ever since I was younger, I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling and the concept of framing ideas with a camera. I was always into creative writing — taking film and photography classes in high school. I didn’t feel like doing the same s—t everybody else was doing. I felt like I had a different perspective on things.

I had so many ideas as a kid, so much energy. I was that annoying little kid. I always wanted to find a way to get that creative energy out and the camera — the filmmaking — was that.

NL: Did you have an inkling of where you wanted to go or what you wanted to do with it, as far as documenting music goes?

KG: Growing up, my dad would play such an eclectic range of music. He had a CD collection that was in the thousands. Everything from Dr. Dre to the Eagles, The Pet Shop Boys, The Clash, The Gap Band, it was such a range of artists I grew up listening to. It was crazy because there was no skipping then ’cause you didn’t want to scratch the CD. You’d put the whole album in and just listen to it from front to back. So, naturally, it made me love storytelling with such a musical foundation.

NL: What are some of the things you learned early on working with Warren G on the G Funk doc?

KG: When it came to working with Warren G and the G Funk doc, Daniel and I were around 19 or 20 and still in college so that time period forced us to grow quickly. We were scrappy in the way we approached things on the film side, because we never went to the film school. We took classes but our approach was: You don’t need to know how to plug in the camera, which settings to be on, what lighting, equipment, memory card, etc. You just need to have the big idea and ask these bigger questions.

That’s how we’ve run our company. I learned early on you’ve got to be scrappy and figure out how to get it done because there’s no right way of doing anything.

NL: Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine was next. What was your aim with telling that story?

KG: Initially, I didn’t want to do the Tekashi 6ix9ine doc when I was approached even though it was unauthorized and Tekashi himself wasn’t going to be a part of it. It was something I said no to. I was like, “Absolutely not.” But the world works in interesting ways, and there’s a lot that you can realize just by being present and observing.

One day, I was sitting there looking at Donald Trump’s Twitter and started examining the tactics he was employing and how he was misspelling words purposely on his tweets so that the tweets got more visibility. You start to realize there’s actually a much more hyper-calculated nature that exists with these villains of our culture and how they operate using their digital toolkit today. It’s a lot more sociopathic and calculated than we think.

I started to draw the parallel between what [Trump] was doing and what 6ix9ine was doing. It’s way more interesting to frame him in this larger archetype than to just tell the story straight up. It was just another example of this toxic, manufactured celebrity culture that we live in. That’s when I realized this is actually (1) a really fascinating story and (2) a really important story. 

NL: When you were working on the Ice Cold doc, you spent time with Migos and Quality Control. Was there anything you realized about the relationship between artists and jewelry that’s deeper? 

KG: The biggest takeaway that I had from Ice Cold is that whether it’s the jewelers, the executives, or artists themselves, people try to judge hip-hop jewelry and the way that people of color consume material items. The reality of it is there is no difference between a rapper going out and buying a half-a-million-dollar chain than a white dude going to spend half-a-million dollars on a country club membership or fine wine or even a vintage car. At the end of the day, there should not be any difference in the way that we view, analyze, or critique material expression, because we don’t do the same to white people in America.

NL: Where does your work usually start on an idea or doc? What’s the creative process?

KG: It really starts at the larger why? It can be the flashiest story about the most popular person in the world, but if there’s no larger why or societal conversation that’s gonna intrigue the team at MGX or everybody who watches, then the project probably isn’t right. We say no to a lot of stuff because it just doesn’t have that breadth. That second wind.

From there, researching, storyboarding, scripting, and treating these documentary projects as if they’re fully narrative, scripted projects. That’s our approach. We’re very prep-intensive, and we want people to be entertained. We don’t want to lecture people. We want it to always feel like an immersive movie. We don’t just make docs to make docs.

NL: When you were making the Lil Baby Untrapped documentary, how long were you guys shooting that? How often were you just following Baby around?

KG: Coach K, Pierre, Baby, myself, and the team at MGX, we’ve all been so close for so many years just working on a variety of projects now. Whether it’s Ice Cold, City Girls, or the Apple commercial, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve done together. So, Quality Control (QC) had a ton of footage where they’d been following Baby over the years and just recording ever since he got out of prison. And then, they brought us in a few years ago, and the project’s been in the works for over three years now. They brought us in to basically put it all together and to shoot any additional footage that was needed.

NL: Was there anything interesting or insightful about the way Baby moves to you? 

KG: Yeah, it was really interesting to see how much of a father he is. That’s my biggest takeaway from the entire film.

For Baby, this dude is such an incredible father and person. His kids are with him everywhere. They’re backstage at shows, with him in the studio, with him and his friends. They’re almost his best friends, and he told me that his philosophy is, ‘I’m gonna be friends with my kids longer than I’m gonna be their father.”

And It’s true. Eventually, his kids are gonna hit 18, and they’re gonna be adults. He views the relationship so differently, which has taught me so much about parenting and made me rethink how I’m gonna be a father.

I learned so much from him and just seeing how he genuinely gives back to his community. He’s not going out and posting and telling everybody how much he does for his community. But he supports people in every which way he can. There’s a scene where he gives coats back to kids, and he’ll go to the neighborhood and buy a bunch of shoes and coats and gives ’em out.

NL: How did Drake end up appearing in the doc praising Baby? That was kind of a light passing-of-the-torch moment.

KG: I was with P one day in Atlanta, and we were talking. I was like, “You know what would be great is to get Drake in the doc.” Because I feel like the relationship he has with Baby is so organic. P was basically like, I was thinking the same thing. Immediately, he just texted and called Drake, and it wasn’t even a question. Drake was like, “Of course! For sure.” And then P, Future The Prince, Drake’s manager, and myself jumped on a call.

They were like, “Can you come to the Bahamas?” Drake was in the Bahamas at the time working on Certified Lover Boy. I flew out there with the team, knocked it out, and came home. But the idea came from a conversation between P and I about how we should really have Drake on this, and it would mean a lot. It’s not contrived. [Baby and Drake] really have that close-knit relationship.

NL: What will the RapCaviar Presents docuseries look like in terms of chronicling the importance of that playlist and its impact over the last few years? 

KG: Yeah, it’s gonna be a really incredible look at American society and American culture through the lens of hip-hop. Carl Chery, who’s the creative director of Spotify and head of RapCaviar, brought up an interesting point the other day in a conversation we had. He was saying that a lot of different hip-hop series and stories in the culture, they really focus retrospectively on things that happened decades ago.

I think what’s really cool about what we’re doing with this series is we’re focusing on the contemporary stories that are moving the culture right now. Hip-hop has gotten to the point where it’s so broad and pulls in so many different people from so many different walks of life. With this series, we have an opportunity to contextualize all of this, what it means, and the larger themes behind it.

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NL: What are some of the things you’re passionate about and want to work on in the future?

KG: For us, what we’re working on is a slate of really exciting films. We are big believers in the power of independent film and people of color being given the opportunity to tell their own stories.

What we want to do is amplify that and stylistically frame it within the larger construct of what’s happening in America and the world at large. We don’t believe the documentary format has to be so didactic and literal in every sense. At the end of the day, it is also a form of entertainment and people come home from work and want to see something exciting.

NL: How has your life changed over the past couple years?

KG: In terms of my life changing, I don’t really look at it as being that different. I’m blessed every day to wake up and do what I like to do and tell these important stories. I’m always thinking, ‘how can I get better?’ I critique every single project under a microscope and ask myself, ‘what could I have done better on this? How can my work constantly evolve?’

Daniel, myself, and MGX, we want to chase the things that we believe we can make an impact on. The biggest realization is the companies that stand the test of time are those that shape and influence cultural conversation. The ones who chase the stories they believe in and build environments for creativity to thrive. It’s about quality over quantity.

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