When compared to Black record executives who came to prominence in the pre-streaming era, some of today’s African American label heads keep a relatively low profile. As a Morehouse College senior, Steven Victor—CEO of Victor Victor Worldwide—was familiar with some of his illustrious predecessors in a way that current students may not be with Victor himself. But even without a flamboyant public image, he’s making history.

This 41-year-old entrepreneur launched his career straight out of Morehouse by interning (for free) at Interscope, rising up the label’s public relations ranks. Managing Pusha T led Victor to an appointment as the COO of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. All of which and more resulted in the founding of both Victor Victor Worldwide (where he signed Pop Smoke) and the William Victor Management Group, a firm that handles The-Dream and Pusha T, among others.

“My parents are from Haiti, and I grew up in Brooklyn,” Victor notes. “My father used to listen to country music, so there’s that. Also, I used to listen to a lot of reggae: Beres Hammond, Bounty Killer, Barrington Levy. My early rap was A Tribe Called Quest. My older sister [Melissa Victor] put me on to Mobb Deep, interestingly enough. She actually works in music too; she works in the publicity department at Epic. My musical tastes have always been wild. From country music to reggae to pop. I was a huge Madonna fan also. I was all over the place. Foxy Brown might’ve been my first concert. She rocked it; it was crazy.

After he graduated from college, Victor was inspired you to get into the industry by “a guy named Haqq Islam who I was interning for. He had a record label [University] at Universal. Dru Hill and Mýa were signed to him; they were the popular acts that were on his label. He was African American, and I was roommates with his son at college—that’s how I met him. He was the first person to give me an internship. That was my entry into the music business, through Haqq. He was the CEO of his own label; he had those acts signed to him.

“I was always looking for opportunity. Not necessarily paid, but opportunities for information and to learn. I interned at Interscope for free for two years after college. Initially working for The Clipse, I worked for them for free. A lot of things I did early on, I did just for the opportunity.

“I just want to mention that a lot of stuff that I learned from a business standpoint was from a guy named Tony Draper from Suave House Records. Before I was managing The Clipse, before I was managing Pusha T, I was their publicist. Tony Draper was their manager, and his background is, he had his own record label super early on—back when Master P [No Limit] and Cash Money first started popping off. He really gave me all the information as it related to the music business.

“He owned his label, so he did things himself. He spent his own money. Whenever I had any questions about the music business, I always asked Draper. My perspective has always been his perspective, in the sense that you gotta treat everything as if it’s your own money. Don’t treat the label’s money like it’s their money; you gotta treat everything like it’s yours. I’ve always had that perspective. I feel like that’s one of the most important things as a young executive or a young manager—to be able to handle business from that perspective. Don’t ever look at it as you’re taking advantage of this or that person. You gotta put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Because essentially, if you’re managing an act on the label, that’s your partner. Or if you’re a 50-50 partner with a label, that’s your partner. You have to treat them as though they’re you. That’s something very important that I learned from Draper.

“When I signed [Pop Smoke], he was just playing me different vibes,” Victor recalls. “He didn’t really have any songs; he just had the talent. It was everything about him. I just felt like his talent, his passion. When you meet a superstar, you know. I feel like that’s my God-given ability, to be able to identify talent at that level. I met him through his manager, Rico Beats, in January-ish of 2019. We were in New York in Rico’s office. I actually took the meeting as a favor to Rico. I didn’t know that I was meeting a superstar. I knew he was bringing me Pop Smoke, because he was managing him. But after I met him, I just knew he was the one.”

When Victor decided to branch out with the William Victor Management Group, the model that provided the template “was actually this guy named Chris Smith,” he reveals. “He had a company called Chris Smith Management, and he managed Nelly Furtado. I worked on the Nelly Furtado project with him as a publicist back in the early 2000s, the Loose project. I just remember he was so on point with everything, so smart. To me at least, I feel like he had all the attributes of a management company that I wanted. I had never worked with someone that thorough on all levels: the creative, the business. His perspective was always global. He never was thinking about [only] the U.S.

“I became really close with him and I just watched him take that project from zero to 10 very deliberately. He had the plan, he put the plan together and he made sure it was executed to a T. [Loose] sold 10 million records worldwide. It only sold maybe 2 million records in the U.S., but everywhere else, it sold millions of records. I wanted to model my company on that: Being a global company and being able to execute things at the highest level.”

When asked to pinpoint the elements that characterize modern-day hip-hop, Victor replies, “Where it’s at right now is a very stream-of-consciousness vibe. In hip-hop at least, a lot of the music that’s coming out is…thoughts. These rappers are just putting their thoughts on wax. It doesn’t necessarily have to rhyme; it just has to go with whatever emotion they’re feeling—whether that’s a melodic thing or not. But I think it’s headed in a different direction. Not to say that what they’re doing is not real music, but I think it’s gonna go back to a place where music is more thoughtful. Right now, it’s very emotional. But if you’re able to get out your emotional thought in 45 seconds, that’s the song. It could be a minute song, a two-minute song, however long it takes to get your thought out is what you get. I feel like in the future, it’s gonna go back to how it was with real songs.”

Read the full Q&A