I remember the first time I saw DJ Khaled in person. It was in the small auditorium of Citrus Grove Middle School, just a few blocks west of Marlins Park, where, six months later, he'd open for Beyoncé at one of the biggest concerts Miami's seen in decades.
But back then, before the second coming of his career, he sat quietly in the front row, watching a student play the cello. Khaled was getting the key to the city that day from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. A teacher got up to introduce him in a speech that was most definitely written by Wikipedia, mispronouncing his name in the process — DJ
The ceremony lasted for about 30 minutes. Khaled accepted his key underneath a paper banner the students had made for him that said "WE LOVE DJ KHALED" in
His first words to the prepubescent crowd, dripping with authenticity, were: "This is beautiful." His speech was about God and opportunity and being thankful and hard work and having a dream and actually achieving that dream, of which he still sounded in disbelief; like, at any moment, he thought he would wake up back in his bed, a frumpy 13-year-old living in New Orleans.
"I love all y'all and I appreciate y'all — tremendously," he said and walked off stage.
I was supposed to interview him after the ceremony but was not told where or how or when, which isn't that rare, especially when it comes to hip-hop interviews. So I darted around a little and followed the sound of his entourage until I found them in the principal's office. I walked up to Khaled's right-hand man, Jay Ones, who was polite and accommodating. He had been with Khaled for decades and was now the general manager of Khaled's own label, We the Best Music Group.
He agreed to a quick interview before I met Khaled, and I still remember the look on his face when I asked him: "So it's fair to say Khaled wasn't an overnight success?"
He looked at me like I had just stripped naked and started doing jumping jacks. He looked at me like I had just regurgitated a snake who spoke English. He looked at me like I had spent my entire life trying to come up with the world's dumbest question, and finally, after years and years of sleepless nights and tireless research, had found it and was now presenting it to him in all its stupid glory.
Khaled's story was far from overnight, he informed me. It had been years in the making, he said, and the way he said "years" sounded like the way one might say "cheeseburger" on day 366 of being forced to eat McDonald's every day for a year straight, like all that struggle was still so accessible that even the thought of it could be nauseating.
I interviewed Khaled afterward. I was supposed to only have 15 minutes, but we spoke for 45. He was sincere and goofy and tried his best to be thoughtful and introspective. I came away from the meeting like most who have a conversation with Khaled, thinking he was a sweetheart.
He's tried to hide it throughout the years, the fact that he's a teddy bear. Sometimes he acts tough and does thuggish things in music videos, but you won't talk to many people who don't see him as one big, emotional beanbag chair.
He was born to poor parents who immigrated to New Orleans from Palestine. They named their son Khaled Mohamed Khaled, an early lesson in the importance of repetition.
He got fired from one of his first jobs at Odyssey Records in New Orleans because he wouldn't stop making long distance calls from his boss' phone.
He had a very specific dream from an early age. He wanted to make music, and that was just about it. He worked hard and eventually came to Miami. He got a gig on a pirate radio station and screamed his way into the heart of the Magic City. Eventually, he'd discover Snapchat and get lost on a jet ski and then, by accident, he'd become the world's favorite enigma.
Everyone was suddenly very interested in getting to the bottom of this man. And on the eve of the release of his biggest album ever, they've thus far had
Many still see Khaled as a sort of joke, but he doesn't seem to care. Some are split between laughing at him or laughing with him, but he doesn't mind either way. He cares only that they're happy.
Major Key, the new Khaled album that's fewer than 24 hours away, is another notch in what has to be one of the weirdest, most confusing, yet beautiful careers the country has ever seen: a Miami dream turned American dream. Khaled's Drake collaboration, "For Free," reached number one on Billboard's Hot 100. Major Key could present Khaled with his first opportunity to get an album to the top of the charts. He'd have to overthrow his collaborator, Drake, in order to do it, but if there's one person Drizzy could stand losing to, it's probably Khaled.
He's once again wrangled the biggest names in hip-hop —
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
So, from everyone over in the 305: Congratulations, Khaled.
You smart. You loyal. You grateful.
And we appreciate that.