DJ Khaled’s Journey of Success Started Long Before Snapchat
Illustration by Tristan Elwell
"He was quiet."
Of all the words in all the land one could use to describe DJ Khaled, Gary Holzenthal chose "quiet." It would have been less jarring to learn that his best friend was a llama.
"We have had our fair share of characters, but as far as I remember, at least in the workplace, Khaled wasn't one of those guys," Holzenthal says.
He doesn't remember how exactly the then-18-year-old came to work at Odyssey Records, Holzenthal's tiny store in the Carrollton Shopping Plaza in Mid-City New Orleans. But he does remember hiring him.
The year was 1993. Khaled was skinnier, but not skinny. Baggy clothes hid a lumpy frame, and his eyes, coffee black, looked slightly melted, microwaved until just warm.
Holzenthal pulled him aside to fill out some paperwork his first day on the job.
"OK, give me your name."
"My name is Khaled Khaled."
"What do you mean 'Khaled Khaled'? What's your last name?"
"Well, what's your first name?"
"So when I write the check out to you, I'm writing
"That kind of freaked me out, you know?" Holzenthal says, trying his best to remember the encounter 23 years later. After their initial Abbott and Costello routine, Khaled Mohamed Khaled flew mostly under the radar.
But a few months later, Holzenthal noticed something weird about his phone bill. "I'm looking at all these calls, and I'm like, I never called these people."
Someone had been using the office phone to contact record labels in New York. About what exactly, he had no clue.
He knew it was one of his employees but decided not to make a fuss. To make sure it wouldn't happen again, he unplugged the phone in his back office and moved it to the front of the shop.
A few weeks passed without incident, and Holzenthal — who ran two locations — nearly forgot about the whole thing. Then one day he dropped by the store unannounced. When he walked in, he noticed the phone was missing from the front of the store. Also missing:
Holzenthal marched to his office — a glorified closet — and swung open the door. There was Khaled, sneakers kicked up on the desk and the phone pressed to his ear, caught in the act. He had been moving the phone when the boss wasn't around.
"I think that may have been how we ended our professional relationship," Holzenthal says.
Some 20 years later, Holzenthal turned on the TV and saw a very different
Holzenthal looks at Khaled now with a mix of pride and, like most people, confusion. "I'm proud to be a small part of whatever he is today." He pauses before asking, "I don't even know what he is now. What's his deal?"
On paper, Khaled's career doesn't make a whole lot of sense. He's released eight full-length albums but doesn't actually rap on any of them. He's perhaps the most quoted figure in hip-hop, able to create viral catch phrases with an ease that marketing executives dream about. He's played a serious role in the hip-hop industry throughout his career, yet he's perceived almost exclusively as a meme by fans across the nation. He's a human pop-up ad who, to many, is known simply for shouting his own name like a hairy brown Pikachu. And, sure, any fool can stumble into success.
But that fool won't stay there for nearly a decade, collaborating with the biggest names in the industry: Kanye West, Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nas. If they have a pulse and can rap, Khaled has worked with them.
When you peel back the layers of DJ Khaled, you see a story more complex than the ten-second Snapchats that have recently made him a public obsession. It's the tale of a child of immigrant parents who worked his way up from DJing school dances in Orlando to the top of the Miami music scene and, now, into two million (and counting) cell phones, where he delivers daily sermons about the correlation between egg whites and success from a three-inch screen.
"I feel like it's the most unbelievable story," Khaled says, pulling and twisting his beard like he's trying to milk it, "because I am the definition of hard work pays off.
"I knew when I was a kid this is what I wanted to do, and there's nothing else that I wanted to do more than this."
DJ Khaled films a Snapchat for his millions of followers during Art Basel this past December.
Photo by Alex Markow
Khaled sighs at the laminated menu in his hands. "I've got to take it easy, man." He's been traveling the past two weeks and packed on seven pounds that he's determined to lose. "But you can eat clean here," he says both to himself and to the slice of red velvet cake a nearby customer just received. "Grilled fish, grilled chicken, we have everything. It's just... I
It's two days before Thanksgiving, and an hour ago DJ Khaled was handing out 500 free turkeys in the parking lot of Finga Licking, a Miami Gardens restaurant he co-owns with E-Class, founder of Miami's Poe Boy Music Group, who looks like he signed a lifetime no-smiling contract.
The giveaway was slated to run from 3 to 6 p.m. By 3:45, a Miami Gardens cop waved away cars while shouting, "¡No más pavos!"
Now, tucked into a corner booth, Khaled forks his way through a chicken thigh and remembers a time when food didn't come so easily.
His parents arrived in New Orleans from Palestine in their 20s, he says. His mother was born in Ramallah, a city of around 30,000 in the central West Bank. Nine miles to the northeast, his father grew up in Al-Mazra'a ash-Sharqiya. It's a town that recently earned the nickname "The Miami of the West Bank," thanks to an abundance of gaudy mansions built mostly by wealthy Palestinian expats returning home to spend fortunes earned abroad.
Khaled's father did not grow up in one of those mansions. He came to America with only $20, Khaled says. To make a living, he and his wife sold clothes out of their van at a flea market, often bringing along their boy for an extra hand.
"They worked every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. If I wanted to hang out with my mother and father, I had to hang out with them hustling."
But he dances unapologetically with uncovered women and enjoys a nice glass of Cîroc Apple as well.
Eventually, his family left New Orleans for Orlando, where he attended Dr. Phillips High, a public school within walking distance of Universal's Islands of Adventure. He began DJing
His parents didn't love the loud music every night, but they supported their son. "I wouldn't say the word 'black sheep of the family' — but I guess I was. My mother and father supported me. Other people outside the family were like, 'Man, what's Khaled doing? He crazy.' "
His eyes grow wide and he starts nodding quickly, mouth slightly open. It's something he does when he senses a Khaled-ism coming on, and it makes him look like he's either just seen a ghost or has gas.
"Naw, I ain't crazy. I'm very crazy." He smiles. "And very successful."
But when Khaled was 16 years old, tax issues and a run-in with the IRS financially gutted his family. "I literally watched [the government] take everything," he says, moving onto the rice, a grain of which is snagged in his beard.
His family went from living comfortably to having zero.
Khaled reiterates with a shake of the head — "Zero" — and the rice tumbles free into his lap.
The family had to move back to New Orleans to regroup, and Khaled followed, unable to afford Orlando on his own. He needed a job, which he (briefly) found at Odyssey Records.
The whole situation was a ping-pong of bad and good luck. His family was in financial ruin, yes, but in the origin story of DJ Khaled, Odyssey Records is the radioactive spider that started it all. It's where he met Birdman, a 12-year-old Lil Wayne, and the Cash Money family, some of his earliest and most prolific collaborators.
"Birdman would drop off CDs and cassette tapes," Khaled remembers. "I used to be the guy behind the counter." He watched Birdman and Wayne meet for the first time.
Collectively, the two would appear on all eight of DJ Khaled's albums. But that wouldn't happen until more than a decade later.
Back then, Khaled was out of a job and had to find somewhere else to make his long-distance calls. He faced a decision: Push forward or abandon ship.
"I said, 'Fuck the job. It's all about my music career.' "
Khaled had already made up his mind.
He was the best.
Now for the hard part: convincing everyone else.
Left: In the '90s, Khaled was a DJ for Rockers Island, Miami's most popular hip-hop party. Right: Khaled performs with Rick Ross, one of his longtime musical collaborators.
Poster Courtesy of Joey Budafuco / Performance image via JLJ/ZOJ WENN Photos/Newscom
It's 1998, and Luther Campbell walks into a party on Key Biscayne. If this were a romantic comedy, now is when everything would switch to slow motion as a Lisa Loeb song fades in.
He notices Khaled almost immediately. Even at an industry party for radio professionals, which this is, Khaled stands out, Campbell remembers.
Keep imagining this in slow motion. It's sexier that way.
Khaled is frantic, breaking into songs to scream at anyone who dares stand still. He bounces on the balls of his feet, shifting from left foot to right like a cocky fighter, mixing an odd cocktail of Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop as sweat beads on his forehead.
It is pure energy, almost at dangerous levels. Some doctors might have diagnosed it. Uncle Luke wants to bottle it. "He had a mouthpiece on him, man," Campbell says. "So much energy."
But let's back up a bit. You can stop the whole slow-motion thing now.
Khaled landed in Miami in 1994, fresh from serving a month in an Orlando jail after four traffic offenses in 27 days. Even back then, he had a thing for repetition. On his last infraction, he was caught driving without a license. The judge was annoyed.
Once released, he wanted a fresh start. Options in Orlando were few. Plus, he had a girlfriend who was on her way to the Magic City. He figured it was as good a plan as any.
So he arrived in a new and foreign land with only $20 in his pocket. (Sound familiar?)
He slept wherever he could: motels on Biscayne Boulevard, his girlfriend's parents' house, and after his girlfriend's dad found out about this, his girlfriend's car.
To make money, he DJed any place that would have him. But people weren't exactly elbowing one another out of the way to give this no-name from Orlando a shot.
That first year in Miami was hard. Khaled struggled to establish a foothold. He was poor, just about homeless.
Not too far away, at an undisclosed location on Biscayne Boulevard (undisclosed because it wasn't exactly legal), Marcello Valenzano and Andre Christopher Lyon were sitting at a makeshift soundboard, spinning records on Mixx 96, a Caribbean pirate radio station.
The two North Miami natives, then barely old enough to drive, heard a knock on the door, and in walked Khaled.
"Hey, I just moved to Miami from Orlando. I been trying to get some time on the radio, and everybody keeps telling me no. I wonder if I can get some time on y'all's slot."
He was humble, soft-spoken — the demeanor of a man who knew his options were few.
Andre and Marcello were on the cusp of a major decision. In a week, they'd embark upon a move to Atlanta and eventually become the Grammy-winning hip-hop production duo known as Cool & Dre.
But before that, they had to decide what to do with this guy standing before them, earnestly asking for just a bit of airtime.
"Cool and I, we
So they gave him a chunk of their time slot. A week later, when they left for A-town, they gave him the whole thing.
"When we got back to Miami in nine months, he had already taken over the city."
As Cool & Dre hopped into the car and drove north, Khaled moved into the studio. Literally.
"I used to sleep at the radio station," he says. He'd DJ until the early morning, pass out on the floor, wake up, and do it again. He quickly became an omnipresent voice on Miami's airwaves — a loud one too.
"When we came back to Miami, the first thing we did was turn on Mixx 96," Dre remembers. "And all day long, it was just Khaled."
He passed out flyers on South Beach, introduced himself to everyone who walked by, slipped his mixtape into each palm he shook.
"It's still like that for me, just in a different way," Khaled says. He plucks his iPhone, which receives an incoming call or text every two minutes, off the table and gives it a shake. "This is my flyer now."
Joey Budafuco (no, not that one) was promoting Miami's biggest weekly hip-hop party in the mid-'90s, Rockers Island at Amnesia.
Khaled walked into the Collins Avenue nightclub one afternoon and asked if he could DJ. Budafuco informed him they already had a DJ. Khaled blinked, nodded, and asked again. Budafuco, beginning to question the mental state of the kid in front of him, tried to explain, once again, slower and with the use of hand gestures, that they already had a DJ.
"He pulled out his records, and he started playing," Budafuco remembers. "We couldn't stop him." When Budafuco finally relented and let Khaled behind the booth, he was blown away. Who was this man? And what the hell had he eaten for breakfast?
"The energy that he played with was amazing."
The Khaled you know now, the fidgety dude who's always at a ten, dripping with enthusiasm and pizzazz — imagine a younger version of that.
He went on to become the resident DJ at Rockers Island, and soon enough the crowds were coming just to see him. Lines snaked out the door. Opening DJs would give countdowns for Khaled's set: 30 minutes, ten minutes, blastoff.
"I was like, 'They're paying to come in?' " Khaled says. "Those were the parties that made me say, 'This is what I want to do, and I can show them who I am.' "
Budafuco was a fan from the beginning and even now identifies himself as Khaled's "biggest cheerleader." He admired his insatiability, even if at times it got a tad confusing.
"Khaled would get paid, and he'd have his money in his hand, put it in his pocket, and turn around and still ask you for $20 to get something to eat.
"That always threw me off. I said, 'You just got paid, bro. What's going on?' "
Khaled hopes to turn his social media and music fame into acting and business careers.
Photo by Ian Witlen / TheCameraClicks.com
When a struggling 99 Jamz approached Luther Campbell, the 2 Live Crew frontman (and now New Times columnist), about hosting his own radio show in 1998, his first task was to assemble a team. So he recruited the noble DJ Irie, Miami music's Captain America. Campbell picked up Uncle Al, the Thor of Magic City pirate radio, and then snatched Papa Keith, a Brooklyn hip-hop Iron Man. But something was missing from his ragtag rap Avengers: the Hulk.
And then Campbell walked into that party on Key Biscayne and saw Khaled, at the time only 22 years old.
Campbell knew who he was. He had heard Khaled screaming his head off well into the early morning on Mixx 96. But when he saw him live, in the flesh, it was something else.
"It was energy," Campbell says. "Imagine the Energizer Bunny." Now imagine that bunny is big and hairy with a knack for spinning vinyl. How could you not want that on your team?
So Khaled moved up from the underground and into the mainstream. The Luke Show aired Friday evenings, from 10 to midnight, and was somewhere between Howard Stern and TRL. Campbell choreographed conversations on topics ranging from booty to politics. Strippers often stopped by to chat. But things hardly went smoothly. "In Khaled's case, they hated him," Campbell says.
Each week, higherups would beg Campbell to kick Khaled off the show. He was too loud, unpolished, and crass. He'd try to sell black-market cell phones to people
So he tried to coach him. Maybe we could dial it back a couple of notches, he suggested. Let's focus on trying to expose the listeners to new music. Don't scream at them; scream with them. Consider the eardrum. Deep breaths. See? Isn't that better?
Khaled softened only slightly, but it was enough for him to eventually find his voice on the radio.
When The Luke Show ended in 2003, 99 Jamz gave Khaled his own time slot, where he'd stay for another decade. But it wasn't long before he targeted a bigger audience. One night in 2005, Dre remembers, he and some others were hanging out at Khaled's house when Khaled pitched the idea of putting together a mixtape. "Somebody out of nowhere said, 'Mixtape? Man, nobody wants to hear a mixtape from you. You fucking crazy? Stick to what you do. Play in the clubs, and DJ on the radio.' "
A few months later, This Ain't a Movie Dogg! was released. On the album cover, Khaled stands
After that, Khaled's first national breakout collaboration was the 2006 hit "We Takin' Over," featuring Akon, T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, and Lil Wayne.
In the five-minute music video, Khaled drives a Bentley backward on I-95 with Rick Ross riding shotgun before jumping into a speedboat with Fat Joe. T.I. drives an ice-cream truck. Cool & Dre show up in a Ferrari to save the day. There are cameos by DJ Irie and T-Pain. Birdman and Wayne rap in a church. Hey, is that Pitbull? Yup.
"Basically, between me and Khaled, we pulled every favor in the book," says Gil Green, the man who directed that video and just about every Khaled video since.
Not every Khaled album has been a smash. Most, as bodies of work, have been met with a shrug from critics. But he knows how to make a hit.
After "We Takin' Over," came "I'm So Hood." Then "All I Do Is Win," a single off Khaled's third album, 2010's Victory, blew up the charts. It would eventually go triple-platinum and sell more than three million copies. The first time Dre heard that track, the hair on his arms shot up. He looked at Khaled and said, "This is like 'We Are the Champions.' It's going to be played forever."
Three years later, at the 2013 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Barack Obama strutted to the podium and did an awkward little dance as T-Pain's hook from "All I Do Is Win" blared over the speakers. "How do you like my new walkout music?" he grinned. "Second term, baby. Rush Limbaugh warned you about this."
Then there was 2011's "I'm On One," a track that earned Khaled his only Grammy nomination and utilized Drake while he was still a slightly awkward Canadian with caterpillar eyebrows. In 2013, Khaled quarterbacked "No New Friends" with help from old friends Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Drake, eyebrows slightly thinner this time around.
On the most recent album, I Changed a Lot, Khaled came through once again with "Hold You Down," an unbearably catchy song outshined only by its own video, his most viewed one yet.
Four minutes and 30 seconds in, the music stops and the video
It's become one of the most quoted Khaled moments. It was all improvised too. Green gave Khaled three takes and told him to have fun. "I hid the rest of the crew in the next
Meanwhile, Campbell watched his pupil's ascent with a pride that slowly baked to disappointment. "Quite a few times I felt like I created this monster," he says now.
In Campbell's eyes, Khaled didn't do enough for Miami. "Local artists would come to me, and on numerous
In 2011, in Luke's weekly column for New Times, he penned a letter to "all the rappers from other parts of the country who now live in Miami." His message was this: You can't come to our city, drink our strip clubs dry, and not give back to the community.
Campbell says the piece was largely aimed at Khaled, who often acted as Miami's liaison for out-of-towners.
A few weeks after the column was published, Khaled brought Luke onto 99 Jamz to hash things out. The conversation was respectful. "Ain't nobody expecting DJ Khaled, Lil Wayne, Puff Daddy — anybody — to come over with $50 million and save the community," Campbell told him. "But if you are politically active, you can determine who ends up being the mayor." Khaled listened attentively
That's about the last time Campbell and Khaled sat down together, so Campbell isn't sure if the DJ did, in fact, overstand. He still thinks Khaled isn't doing enough to help Miami natives.
"I could have left him on underground radio. I did not have to go through the things I went through to give him this platform. I thought he would be much more of a guy to support local artists."
This past October, when DJ Khaled was doing press for I Changed a Lot, he stopped by Hot 97's Ebro in the Morning and gave an interview that went viral almost immediately.
There was no shortage of the goofy moments and shameless self-promoting we've come to expect from Khaled. But there was also anger and genuine frustration, something we don't usually see from the invariably positive DJ.
Twenty minutes into the interview, the topic of magazines came up.
"Where's DJ Khaled on the cover of all magazines?" His gold bracelet jingled as he waved his arms in outrage. "I don't have the fucking
Hip-hop bimonthly Complex ended up giving him the cover that same month, by the way. Asked what he thought of the article that went with that cover, Khaled looks down at the bones on his plate, realizing he's about to say something he probably shouldn't. "I'm going to be real with you. I didn't fully read it yet."
After the magazine tangent, Khaled transitions to the topic of awards — for
Here's a neat statistic: A total of 118 artists have appeared on Khaled's eight studio albums. That's more bodies than there are in the United States Senate and more than twice the number of people on an NFL roster. And that's not even including mixtapes or other miscellaneous singles. One hundred eighteen people. One hundred eighteen phone calls to make. One hundred eighteen schedules to work around. One hundred eighteen relationships to maintain.
He's been nominated for only one Grammy. "I'm on One" was up for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2012. He lost to Kanye West, who appeared on Khaled's first, third, and sixth albums. The next year, in the same category, every single nominee had appeared on a Khaled album.
It's so easy to ignore DJ Khaled the artist because that side of him is covered with very thick layers of showmanship. He's a craftsman, but first and foremost, an entertainer. This past January 13, he was the musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. While there, he also filmed an inspirational message for slumping presidential candidate Jeb Bush. It was hilarious. And it was what everyone was talking about the next day, not his musical medley with Future. At the circus, rarely do we take
The artistic side of DJ Khaled is hard to explain. So hard, in fact, that Dre's explanation of what Khaled does in the studio reads more like a haiku than an answer. "It's storming and it's raining outside. Khaled will be the sun that comes through the clouds and changes the temperature. You understand what I'm saying?"
Sort of. Wanna take a crack at it, Gil?
"I think what they don't get is that his work ethic is about bringing people together for an amazing sound," Green says. "He has this vision, like the way Quincy Jones has a vision as a producer, where Quincy Jones can bring in Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah and come out with The Color Purple."
Khaled's role in the studio varies. He's helped guide Dre through a sort of writer's block while creating beats. Occasionally, he jumps behind the microphone to add a few embellishments to a song. Sometimes he's simply a motivational speaker. "I think people get with me because they know we gonna make something great," Khaled says.
Whatever it is you want to call his job title, it's clear no one else is doing it. And none of it happens unless he somehow makes people — very rich and powerful people — want to work with him.
He does this in a couple of ways. First, likability. For example: In one potato-quality video online, an eager Khaled plays his 2008 single "Out Here Grindin" for Kanye West in what looks like a backstage green room. While he lip-synchs and bounces around, West smiles for four minutes straight. Four minutes. When was the last time you saw Kanye smile for four seconds? His second strategy: persistence. On I Changed a Lot, Khaled snagged a guest verse from Jay Z. As Khaled tells it, he flew to New York and borderline stalked Jay for nearly a year. Even the biggest name in hip-hop had to say yes to Khaled. Or maybe he was just tired of saying no. Either way,
In the past three months, Khaled's fame has climbed higher than ever. Twenty years into a career that came so close to never happening, he's finally a household name. And it's all thanks to Snapchat, a 4-year-old social media platform that allows users to send photos and video snippets to their friends. Users can compile a day's worth of Snaps in their "story mode" for all followers to see. How many followers he has exactly, only Khaled and Snapchat know. But according to a
Since he joined Snapchat last year, Khaled has been gaining momentum. His account rocketed in popularity after he live-snapped an evening spent lost in Biscayne Bay in December. He rode his Jet Ski to Rick Ross's house for lunch — which is about the most hip-hop thing one can do outside of owning a pistol-shaped Lamborghini — but when he tried to navigate his way home, it was pitch black. And he was lost. "If u know me call zay zee tell her we lost," Khaled broadcast to his followers. It was a millennial Moby Dick, man versus nature with a modern twist.
He eventually made it back to dry land. The next day, he woke up to articles from Vice, Buzzfeed, MTV, the Huffington Post, and dozens of others. Things haven't slowed since.
Does it bother him that it took antics on a millennial app to propel him to international fame?
It doesn't appear so. He's as happy as ever, rich as ever, busy as ever. When he sees Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift quote him on Instagram — which they have — he becomes giddy. "I am just being me. If people make memes of it, videos, and have fun with it, that's a way of people showing love."
Now that he has their attention, he can do with it what he pleases. "I have a lot of goals," he says, head tilted against the red vinyl booth. The restaurant begins to clear out. "I want to open more Finga Lickings, a lot more new businesses. I want to continue to put out big, monster anthems."
He wants to act too.
"Why can't Khaled be the next Denzel Washington?"
Laugh if you will. You wouldn't be the first.
One of Khaled's most successful recent ventures has been WeTheBestStore.com. You can now buy T-shirts featuring his best-known catch phrases for $24.99 plus tax and shipping. Sixty-five dollars will buy you a pair of slide sandals that read "Another" on the right foot and "One" on the left. Also available for your feet: "Bless Up," "Just Know," "Bow Down." And more are coming soon.
Campbell doesn't follow Khaled on Snapchat. He just downloaded it a week ago. Told of WeTheBestStore.com's success, he laughs.
"Oh, so he's back to selling? Like the booster phones. He's going back to his fucking roots. Let me tell
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