DJ Khaled can’t seem to shake it. He’s catching hits left and right, and with more zeros getting added to his bank account, his symptoms continue to run wild. Being the best is contagious, and DJ Khaled is spreading it to everyone in his camp.
“Circle Of Success” COVER STORY BY Kim Osorio
PHOTOS BY Ruthless Jules
The blazing sun is shining down on DJ Khaled’s black Bentley on a hot April afternoon. Inside, Khaled sits in the driver’s seat behind the wheel, in full control of where he’s headed. The car is spotless, with all the trimmings you would expect from this multi-platinum DJ/producer/mogul, and then some. And underneath his feet is the warm cozy feel of black chinchilla fur. The only car floor mats that make you immediately take off your shoes and sink your feet into the smooth feel of success. DJ Khaled is basking in it. But not without putting in the hours. “I’m never late for work,” says Khaled, as he pulls on a blunt and turns into the parking lot of his Miami-based studio. “That’s not who I am.”
DJ Khaled is living a life that most people can only dream of. Where the music industry is concerned, he’s got his hands in a little bit of everything, and his hustle and follow through is something like you’ve never seen. In addition to running his We the Best company, continuing in his role at Def Jam A&Ring some of today’s most important rap albums (see Rick Ross), producing Grammy-nominated No. 1 hit records like “I’m On One,” and gearing up for the release of his seventh album, Suffering From Success, Khaled’s business model is, simply stated, that of a boss. “A lot of people don’t realize, I’m also a management company. We’re also a marketing company. We the Best is a serious brand,” Khaled informs, before putting things into perspective, “and it all started from DJing, just for the love of Hip-Hop.”
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Khaled has spent most of his life in the Sunshine State. Repping Miami to the fullest, his 305 area code dates back to the early ‘90s when he decided to relocate to MIA from Orlando. DJ Khaled first started to make a name for himself on the pirate radio scene. Not too long after listeners started to recognize his voice, Khaled became a local sensation. Putting in long hours, even sleeping at the station some nights, Khaled never stopped hustling. And the more popular he became, the more he got booked to do clubs and build his brand. That’s when he started to triple his worth. “I’m making like $200 a week. Then I ended up making $500 a week, then $1,000 a week. I was the hottest on the underground radio. Then I got to the big radio station. That show became the highest-rated show. From there, I ended up getting six days a week on air.” For a DJ who had started at 12-years- old, things were finally looking up. DJ Khaled had come a long way from where he had been and what he had seen.
In 1984, Khaled and his family, of Palestinian descent, went to Israel to stay with his grandmother for a while. Khaled’s mother told him they were going on vacation (“She tricked me,” he says jokingly), but he would end up staying out there for a little while longer than anticipated. Having grown up in America, his family wanted him to know not where he was at, but where he came from. That trip would forever change the way a young Khaled would see things, impacting the way he viewed life and freedom drastically. “I was at my grandma’s house one day and the police kicked down every door in the house,” he begins. “I saw the army come in and rip apart everything in the house. S**t got real.” The police were actually looking for somebody else and had mistakenly turned Khaled’s grandmother’s house upside down. “That experience teaches you to appreciate freedom. It’s a holy war out there. Me going through that experience, it made me stronger to see s**t you think wouldn’t happen actually happen. You have to cherish every moment of life. There’s people out there that’s got it hard. Not just hard financially, hard to survive.”
Despite the hardships of the life-changing trip from his youth, Khaled, raised Muslim, feels he is blessed to have seen what he saw at such an early age. His appreciation of life and freedom has helped fuel his determination. “I’ve been raised to say, ‘Peace in the Middle East.’ I got to see the struggle. I got to see Bethlehem. I’m from Jerusalem. I got to see the Dome of the Rock where we pray. I got to go see the Dead Sea. I thank my family for bringing me there at a young age. I got to see the Holy Land.”
In addition to the time he spent in the Middle East with his family, DJ Khaled’s memories about growing
up are centered around Hip-Hop. Known as “Special K” in his early days, the DJ remembers breakdancing and listening to artists like Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and LL Cool J. “I said I always been the kid on the block. I always had the tapes and vinyl without being a DJ yet. It turned into me just wanting to be a DJ, so I started collecting vinyl, I started wearing the Hip-Hop clothes. I started spray-painting.” The now 37-year-old remembers how entrenched he was in the Hip-Hop culture growing up. Like many others who came from that era, if you were into Hip- Hop, you were into every element of it. DJing, back then, was a necessary part of that, and it was as common as rapping. Now a major force in the Hip-Hop game, Khaled recognizes that his success stems from that very craft that put him on the map. “It all started from DJing and just the love of Hip-Hop. I remember LL with the big boombox on stage. That’s who I wanted to be. I got to see them type of things. I DJ’d with Ron G. I got to see Fat Joe and Pun and be part of their family. Pun loved me so much. He drove all the way from North Carolina to Miami just to play me his album. I’ll never forget that. I remember being introduced to Nas. I used to give Clark Kent beats to give to Biggie.”
While most avid rap fans were busy on the corner arguing whether Jay, Nas, or Biggie was the best MC around that time, Khaled was putting in work. After honing his skills as a DJ for the radio, clubs, and even with the Terror Squad, Khaled put his grind into fifth gear and started making beats. As a DJ, producer, and up-and-coming entrepreneur, he decided to turn himself into a business, and the alliances he was making would be the stepping stones to take him into the new millennium as a major force in Hip-Hop. “I met Birdman and Slim when I worked at a record store in New Orleans. Birdman used to sell the tapes out of his car. He was selling B.G. and Juvenile tapes. I seen it. I met Wayne, at the beginning. And for me to connect in later years with them now as my partners, it was destined. Our friendship is more than music. And then to work with my brother Ross—for us to come up at the same time and me being able to tell the world that he’s going to be the biggest in the game. I told him that 10 years ago. I have history.”
Relaxed and ready to tackle yet another studio session, Khaled sits comfortably on the couch focused on the interview that he deems another milestone in his career, as his flagship artist Ace Hood walks in the room. “I ain’t seen my brother in a week,” says Khaled, as he gives Ace a pound. Still high off the success of his “Bugatti” record, Ace Hood has stopped by the studio to check in with Khaled before heading out to a show in Orlando. Khaled has believed in Ace’s talent since the rapper was 17-years-old. “I don’t have that many friends,” he says matter- of-factly. “I have a lot of acquaintances and people that I’m cool with. We help each other. We talk to each other. I feel like that’s what made us an unstoppable team.”
To the naked eye, Khaled would seem to be in cohorts with everyone in the rap game. His recent hits have boasted the likes of Future, Drake, Chris Brown, Kanye West, and everyone whose name rings bells. His Instagram photos show him alongside every major player in the game. But in actuality, the DJ likes to keep his business close to home. “That’s why you have to respect a Birdman and Wayne. Bird is Wayne’s father. They business partners and they blood. Just like you have to respect the Puff Daddy and Biggie. Me and Ross are so close. Me and Ace are so close. That’s the greatness of what we have conquered.”
Having recently added NY’s Vado to a roster that also includes Mavado and a host of producers, We the Best is expanding rapidly. According to the CEO, there is a big- name announcement being added to the list as well, but because the deal is still in negotiation, he’s careful not to slip up and let the cat out of the bag. With close alliances to MMG and Rick Ross (Khaled has A&R’d every Ross album), as well as Cash Money serving as the parent company for We the Best, Khaled’s music family is next in line for Hip-Hop domination. “My dreams are coming true, but I still have a long way to go,” Khaled says, taking a pull of his blunt. “What I’m learning is the word ‘focus.’ They need to make another word because I’m more than focused. The energy I bring out is love and motivation and inspiration for the youth. I’m somebody that will inspire you to do it. I believe the more blessings you give, the more blessings you get back.”
But as the old saying goes, mo’ money, mo’ problems, and Khaled’s chokehold on the game has definitely bred jealousy amongst those who have not experienced his level of success. “I have no problems. It’s all love,” reassures Khaled. “For me, I don’t see no problems with nobody in my team, from the streets to the community, and if there is anything, that’s part of being successful. The more successful you get, the more jealousy, but that’s part of the game. That’s why I keep my circle tight. No new friends.”
It’s amazing how far some in Hip-Hop have come. Remember, Khaled does not rap (well, not really), and he’s a perfect example of how Hip-Hop’s other elements are still alive and thriving, if you can learn to adapt to change. For DJ Khaled, the game has been good to him. Eating at high-priced restaurants numerous nights a week, driving around in high-end luxury vehicles, owning a state-of-the-art music studio (that even has a pool table with the We the Best logo emblazoned on it), and selling over 12 million singles worldwide, DJ Khaled’s suffering is severe and his condition is getting worse. His success is openly visible. And success is a helluva drug.
“My whole career they told me no,” Khaled recalls of some of the doubters who just didn’t understand what it was that he did. “What I do is the same thing that your other moguls do. Only I do it better. I make hits, I find hits, and I put hits out. I am We the Best music. I am the genius behind a lot of projects. A lot of No. 1 songs. I’m a f**king genius.”
AS SEEN IN THE JUNE/JULY ISSUE OFTHE SOURCE MAGAZINE (259)