Words Elliott Wilson
Images Presscott McDonald
Believe it or not DJ Khaled does get tired sometimes. After a long day of meetings on top of meetings at Def Jam and an appearance on BET’s 106 & Park, the Miami mix-master/mogul is famished and pleased to take refuge in his posh Four Seasons hotel room overlooking Central Park.
His favorite basketball team, the Miami Heat, are on the TV screen and are attempting to eliminate the scrappy Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of its first-round NBA Playoff series. Undercutting the tension of this close game, Khaled and his rowdy crew look closely and notice that his We The Best artist Ace Hood is seated in one of Cash Money’s courtside seats. It’s just another sign of how far this Muslim DJ has come in this crazy rap business.
After polishing off some room service and a hard-fought victory from Bron Bron and his bunch, Khaled is ready to recount his crazy ride to the top of the charts, his role in the Rick Ross/50 Cent conflict and his enduring motivation for achievement. Your best better be good enough, ’cause Khaled wants to raise the bar even higher.
RESPECT.: Where does the drive come from, my man?
KHALED: Life is inspiring me just to go hard. If you have life, you have an opportunity to do something. So I’m here—I’m ready to get it. I like to speak a lot of things into existence. Everything I’m doing now, I talked about it 10 years ago, 15 years ago. When I was kid, I used to be a B-boy, breakdancing—that’s how I became a DJ. Before I was DJing, I just wanted to have a Michael Jackson vinyl, or a Public Enemy “Rebel Without a Pause” vinyl, I just liked it. And then cassettes were big, so I used to make my own little tapes to breakdance to, and I realized, “I’m mixing.” And I was like, Yo… That’s how I came to love hip-hop, the breaking days. I wanted to live that life, that culture.
Being a Palestinian dude, was your family embracing your love of hip-hop culture?
Well, my family’s always been hustlers. They used to sell clothes out the trunk, so we moved a lot. Everybody I ever met was into hip-hop when I was a kid. I used to live in North Carolina; at one time, Greensboro. My neighbor was a breaker, another was a DJ, and we used to hang out every day. Then I ended up moving to Miami, and I took it to another level.
How did Miami become your true home?
Before Miami, I was in Orlando. In Orlando I used to go to jail all the time for my driver’s license being suspended. They ended up putting me in jail for, like, three months. While I was in there, I was saying to myself, “This town’s small, I’mma keep getting in trouble because I’mma keep driving.” Everybody knew who DJ Khaled was—“That’s Khaled in the red BMW.” I used to date a girl I went to high school with, and her family was in Miami. At that time, I was going through a lot of hard times financially, so I told my girl as soon as I got out, “Let’s move to Miami. We ain’t got no money, we ain’t got shit, but let’s move to Miami.” We ended up staying with her mother in a one-bedroom, sleeping on the floor. Then we got kicked out of there—she stayed with her dad. I used to stay in the car ’cause her dad wouldn’t let me stay in the crib. While I was struggling in Miami, I peeped the scene, and I was like, “Everybody’s having a good time, but if I was rocking, these people might lose their minds.”
But your first big connect was with Fat Joe from New York.
I met Fat Joe at New Music Seminar when he had “Flow Joe.” I was a big fan of Joe and still am. We ended up being cool. So when I came to New York, I’d see Joe. He used to let me come to the studio. When I got out of jail and moved to Miami, I think it was the first or second day I got there, I was walking down Ocean Drive, and I bumped into Joe. He said, “What you doing out here?” I said, “Yo, I’m ’bout to take over this whole city.” He always believed in me.
So your pirate radio was your launch pad, right?
I found a way to get to the pirate radio, like in a project building in downtown Miami in the hood. It ended up going from like a guest spot to me sleeping in the apartment every day and being on the air. I used to be on, like, two to three hours at a time, ’cause whoever didn’t show up, I’d do their show too. I wouldn’t leave! And I’ll never forget they had How Can I Be Down, in Miami, and all the DJs wanted to go hang out with all the stars. I’m like, “I wanna work.” So they were listening to me! They’re in the car, and I’m bumping the shit and killing it and bringing a certain energy. And then the big station picked me up. Uncle Luke had his own show; he asked me to be the cohost and DJ.
How did you start making records?
When I was DJing, I was also producing, too, as Beat Novacane. I was making beats for Joe, Fab, just making music. I kept saying I wanna put an album out. So I started making my own album, I did records with Guru. This was before my first album, Listennn. Me and Guru did a classic. I did a record with KRS-One and Sean Paul. It was crazy. Then I did, oh, Bone Thugs. I wasn’t big. I was just hustling. I tried to shop it. I kept telling Joe, he always showed love, so I was like, “Yo, Joe, I wanna put an album out, if you can help me.” I got the deal with Koch, and I went into another beast mode. I started making these hits, “We Takin’ Over,” “I’m So Hood”—them two records changed my whole life.
You’re known for putting together rap stars on your songs. Which pairing are you most proud of?
The “Go Hard” remix with Kanye and Jay-Z. When I pulled out that with Jay-Z, people started looking at me like, “How’d he do that?” Kanye gave me “Go Hard,” the original, and I went to present it to Jay-Z. I called Lenny S, Lenny S is cool with Jay-Z, and I’m like, “Lenny, man, I know you fuck with me, and I know you believe in me—yo, go tell Hov.” All he can do is say No. So they play it for him, and it sounded like he wanted to do it. That’s what I heard. But I kept waiting. I’m on a deadline to turn my album in. I’m waiting. I ain’t get no answer, but I heard through the grapevine that he did it. Shot the video, it’s already out, it’s crazy, I’m not even thinking about it no more. I get a call—like, “Yo, Khaled, Jay-Z wants to send you that verse.” I went and mixed it. I got it the day before Christmas Eve. I went in, booked the studio, got his vocals, mixed it. When I heard the verse, I was like, This verse is so hard. I can say I worked with Jay-Z. I’m big now.
You obviously have a lot of respect for Jay.
I never told this story about Ace Hood actually rapping in the studio to Jay-Z. He’s in there spitting. I’m like, “Ace, back up a little, you all in his face.” He’s going in! This is his opportunity. After Jay hears the music, me and Jay walk in another room. We sit there chopping it up. I was explaining to him, like, I’m trying to find a home for my label, and I want it to be right. I want Ace to be my first artist. You know what me and Ross did. It’s a vibe, this is the movement, I’m just trying to find a dope label for We The Best Music. Before anybody knew about Roc Nation, he was like, “I’m about to start this new Roc Nation shit. When I start it up, let’s do it.”
But you ended up at Def Jam.
Yeah, after that meeting, I was so inspired. I had a meeting at Def Jam, and Ace performed for L.A. Reid. We in there, L.A. Reid loves him, and he wouldn’t let me leave Def Jam. I never understood when people said that, but I understood it then. Let’s get the deal done now. He told my lawyer to call his lawyer.
Why go to Def Jam instead of Roc Nation?
I know. That’s Jay-Z! I said to myself, I was like, My time is now. I can’t wait. Because what if he’s not up in a month? What if he’s not up in two months? What if he’s not up in three months? I might not have that buzz with the kid; I gotta go now while the fire’s lit.
So I end up doing the deal with L.A. Reid. I hit Jay immediately, like, “I just wanted to you know I feel like the time was now, and I want to make sure I make money to provide for my family, and I don’t wanna miss my boat.” He was like, “Nah, Khaled, love, mad love,” on an e-mail. “Congratulations.”
So the Def Jam South exec job didn’t have anything to do with your decision?
Nah, that came later. L.A. thought the speech I gave at the BET Awards was amazing. He’s like, “I’m going to give you a job. I want you to be involved with the music here and work with all the superstars here. You and Ross are already working together. Just keep that magic going.” I was like, “I want to do it, but I can’t just be an A&R—that’s what I am no matter what, but I gotta take it to another level too.” He’s like, “You know what? You can be the President of Def Jam South.” And we made history.
What do you say your job duties are right now?
Ross is my main thing, but we have meetings twice a week, and it’s just playing everybody’s music, and everybody weighs in, and if I can help with somebody’s project, like with Ludacris, and deliver a record, I’m going to go to Ludacris. I’m on a hundred conference calls a day, micromanaging.
You always speak about peace and unity, but you were involved in a very ugly beef between Rick Ross and 50 Cent.
I’m always about peace and unity, but at the same time, as we say in the streets, I’m not a pussy. We’re from Don’t Get It Twisted. Me and 50 already didn’t like each other—before the Ross beef. It is what it is. Then when Ross went to war with them, I’m riding with him, so we tied up our shoelaces and we went to war. We’re real dudes and we’re well-respected, and we went to war. You see what Ross did, record after record, freestyle after freestyle, to make that album a number-one album. Teflon Don ended up being a classic. You gotta look at him like a Teflon Don. I know Ross from the street. I didn’t meet him through music.
You had that thing with your mother and that infamous video. How did you deal with all that?
We don’t talk about it. But when he disrespected my mom, that’s when I said, “I ain’t with this.” As in, it’s going too far now. Don’t fuck with my mom. Don’t fuck with my mom. You understand? I ain’t have to tell my people around me that I was pissed off because they knew already. I thought real deeply. I said, “I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to wild out and just go crazy.” Then I stopped myself. I was on the tour bus, and I stopped myself. I don’t have to say nothing, ’cause your fans are lookin’ at you like you’re crazy. They were having fun at first, but now they’re like, “Yo, that’s disrespect.” They probably put themselves in them shoes if somebody did that to their mom, so I said, “I ain’t saying nothing.”
At that time, did you feel you and your family were in any real danger?
When that happened, I, of course, put the team on alert. But at the same time, my father ain’t no chump. I felt like we gotta be on point no matter what and just keep making great music. I’m loved out there. I make great music. Ross makes great music. We hot. We just keep going. We’re already making God Forgives, I Don’t. We’re making We The Best Forever. I got Ace Hood. Ross got Meek Mill and Wale on his label. “All I Do Is Win” sold 2 million singles, it crossed over, it’s playing in the NBA probably right now. DJ Khaled closing out the BET Awards—after Prince. Who could perform after Prince? After Prince, the show’s done.
How do you look at your legacy? Especially compared to other DJs who came before you.
I’m a mogul while I’m DJing. While I’m DJing, I’m a producer. I’m an executive. And I’m an artist. I look up to Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy. They were artists as well as bosses. They were famous, and when you seen the artist, you seen him. That’s how I am today. Even if I’m not making a record, I’m part of a record. It might just be behind the scenes.
Why sign to Cash Money at this point?
They live in Miami, and I respect their brand to the highest. They have not stopped. The empire is amazing, and I’m a fan of the music, and I respect Birdman as a boss. I respect Wayne as a boss. I respect Slim as a boss. When you sign to a record company, you have to go through channels, marketing, this and that. With them it’s like, I got you. Let the singles go! Shoot a video. Go on tour. We’re always on a big stage.
Tell me about your new album, We The Best Forever.
I got Chris Brown and Keyshia Cole on a record—legendary. I got some shit with Mary J. Blige. I never worked with her before, so it’s another accomplishment that I pulled off in my career, working with the Queen. The second single will be out soon—Drake is on there, and Ross is on there, and Weezy’s supposed to get on it. I’m trying to get that verse. Drake’s on the hook, and you know what he does in hooks.
People are fascinated by how you deal with all these artists, how you get your concepts in and get them to understand your vision. How does that work?
Well, now when I send stuff to artists, they understand that Khaled makes anthems. I mean, nothing’s easy. It’s just a vibe—magic. I want to give ’em magic all the time. Like the one I have with Mary, Fabolous and Jadakiss—New York will go nuts. It’s a smash. Everybody’s gonna love it.
Are you still working with Jeezy? Especially since he and Ross were at odds last year.
Everybody’s trying to create something. They ain’t got no beef. I ain’t allowing it. As a friend, I’m not allowing it. Ross is my brother and Jeezy’s my man, and that is that. I got a good record with Jeezy. Who else? I got so many people on this album—me and Kanye working on a record. It’s almost done. I want to start the album off with it. Who else on the album? Fuckin’ Cee-Lo Green is on the album. Something crazy. I just did some crazy shit with Akon.
When’s the last time somebody told you no?
I ain’t gonna lie—they always say no. That’s the problem, they always say no. We tell them yes.