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DJ Khaled: Still the best?

Sluggish sales for his fourth disc aren't getting DJ Khaled down.
Rayon Richards

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.

It's a somewhat confusing process, but it has proven a successful one over the past half-decade, in which Khaled-helmed tracks such as "We Takin' Over" and "Out Here Grindin'" have gone gold, and "I'm So Hood" went platinum. By featuring three, four, or more rappers on each song, Khaled pumped new life into the posse cut, a hip-hop tradition dating back to its early golden era. (He says he's a fan of the Juice Crew, responsible for the most famous posse track, 1988's "The Symphony," recorded by Marley Marl and featuring Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane.)

"I just wanted to take collaborations to the next level, to bring it into my world," Khaled adds, "to make records for the streets and make superbig anthems." Widely credited for reviving the posse cut, Khaled has received fewer props for said anthems. While rock and metal have a long tradition of radio bangers — "Eye of the Tiger," say, or "Welcome to the Jungle" — early '00s chart-toppers from Nelly and Outkast were mainly R&B- or funk-driven.

Khaled proceeded to cast all subtlety aside and focus exclusively on bombastic beats and traditional pop song structures. You always know what's coming on a Khaled single — a slow intro, a dramatic voice-over, some quickly spit verses, and an enormous hook. The dramatic crooning of singers such as Akon works well on these songs, as do the fierce, thugged-up rhymes of Miamians and Miami transplants such as Trick Daddy, Rick Ross, Jeezy, and Lil Wayne.

Other Floridians like Plies and Cool & Dre have also fit easily into the mix, and Khaled has emphasized regional pride from the beginning. Seemingly afraid to leave anyone out, he invites just about everyone to the party; if a rapper is not on the song, chances are he's in the video. With artists from New York to Arkansas frequently complaining that a lack of unity stifles their local scenes, the value of what Khaled does should not be underestimated.

Perhaps critics' biggest complaint about DJ Khaled songs is the presence of Khaled himself. For many, his penchant for screaming his catch phrases at the top of his lungs has begun to grate. Of course, considering Khaled lives and dies by his radio play, it doesn't matter too much what the critics think. The bigger problem is that his new tracks haven't taken hold with the public — first single "Fed Up" failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, and "All I Do Is Win" peaked at number 64.

It might simply be that Khaled's moment has passed, that the posse cut is fated to again retreat into obscurity for a few years. Meanwhile, with Lil Wayne in jail, Khaled has temporarily lost his marquee artist, and protégés such as Ace Hood and Rum have so far failed to capture the public's imagination.

If Khaled is feeling the pressure, he's not showing it. For his Victory release party, he flooded the King of Diamonds strip club with dollar bills and then bought countless copies of his own album after a Best Buy autograph session. (One wonders what the SoundScan folks would think about that.)

Though his days as DJ Khaled, rap star who doesn't rap, seem to be numbered, his influence in the music industry doesn't show much sign of abating. One suspects that as long as he maintains his relentless optimism, he won't be working behind the counter at McDonald's anytime soon.


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