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What will be DJ Khaled's legacy? A tremendously influential radio programmer whose ability to unite local rap stars helped turn Miami into one of hip-hop's most important cities. But his music and outsize personality are polarizing, and many see him as more of a caricature than a legitimate musical force. With disappointing sales of his latest album, Victory, his career as an artist appears to be winding down. Will he ultimately be remembered as an innovator, or simply a chubby dude with an ill-defined musical role who shouted a lot?
Nobody disagrees about the fact that Khaled is a unique hip-hop presence. In an industry of tough-talking thugs and wannabe trendsetters, he is content to be himself, a relentlessly positive, thoroughly uncool throwback who seems just happy to be here. Something like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, he's smarter than everyone gives him credit for and, confident he'll triumph in the end, is content to let naysayers poke fun at him.
"It's the entertainment business, so people will make things look like something they're not," Khaled says, speaking from a tour bus passing through North Carolina. Insisting criticism doesn't bother him, he offers his famous catch phrase by way of explanation: "We the best, ya know?"
His unbridled enthusiasm was on display during his now-famous McDonald's radio plug, in which he discussed the McCafé hot cocoa with such reverence one assumed he was kidding. "[When] that whipped cream is on your face and even hits your nose, you don't even get mad!" he howled in the spot recorded last year for WEDR-FM, 99 Jamz. "You don't even wipe it off! Because you immediately go back in for more hot chocolate!" But it was no joke. In fact, add a T-Pain hook, a Birdman verse, and a few "We the best!" shout-outs, and you could probably put the track on one of his albums.
As Khaled's stature as a pitchman has grown, so has his influence. In early 2009, he was named president of Def Jam South, a seemingly ill-defined role that has him overseeing albums from MCs such as Ludacris, Ace Hood, and Young Jeezy. (He says he's hard at work on Rick Ross's Teflon Don.)
But his relevance as an artist is threatened in the wake of his poor-performing fourth CD, Victory. Featuring most of the biggest rap and R&B stars going — including Usher, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Snoop Dogg, Nas, and Drake — it debuted weakly at number 14 on the Billboard 200 upon its early March release, moving only about 28,000 units.
It has since plunged and will probably be his worst-selling work. (High-water mark We the Best, in comparison, has sold more than 400,000 copies.) As usual, however, Khaled is focusing on the upside. "It's my fourth number one independent album," he notes, which is technically true because it was released on independent imprint E1 Records. "It feels real good to be making incredible, amazing music."
Born to Palestinian parents in New Orleans as Khaled Khaled ("My name means 'leader, warrior, victorious'"), as a young man he worked at a shop there called Odyssey Records. At the store, he made contacts that would benefit him greatly, befriending a 12-year-old Lil Wayne and Cash Money Records cofounder Bryan Williams, who sold his albums there on consignment. Khaled moved to Miami around 1994, chasing a girlfriend. He was so broke he often had to spend the night in his car. "Whenever her dad left, I went to take a shower in her crib," he recalls.
Before long, however, he was working as Luther Campbell's sidekick on a 99 Jamz show and eventually got his own program on weekends and then in the evenings. His debut disc, Listennn... the Album dropped in 2006, not long after Wayne had settled in town, and the pair's careers accelerated in tandem.
By 2007, the year Khaled released We the Best, it was clear Miami had moved from a lesser rap city to one of the South's most important, second probably only to Atlanta. It's not clear if Khaled was responsible for Miami's rise or if it helped buoy his ascendancy. But there was little doubt that he served as the region's center of gravity, a one-man networking machine who propelled artists to giant solo success.
Khaled's DJ platform encourages his symbiotic relationship with rappers, because his show can help put their albums over the top. (His Def Jam position makes artists even more eager to curry favor.) No one seems bothered that he doesn't actually rap, sing, or do much serious production. Though he credits himself as Victory's executive producer (along with "Allah"), his A-list team of beatmakers, led by Orlando's the Runners, are responsible for his big singles.
So, what exactly is his input, then? "I give them concepts," Khaled explains. "I get with, like, T-Pain in the studio, and give him a concept. He'll put some words to it, and then I'm like, 'I'm with that,' or 'Change this.'" In the case of Khaled's current single, "All I Do Is Win," he says he suggested the "winning" theme and then T-Pain came up with the hook.