Words: Kris Ex | Photo: Armen Djerrahian
AS HE JUMPS into a black Cadillac SUV snaking its way through the back lot of Atlanta’s Compound nightclub, DJ Khaled is poised to say the most truly outrageous thing he’s told you all day. He’s already extolled Cash Money Records’ Bryan “Birdman” Williams as “the new Doug Morris,” referred to himself as “the hip-hop Berry Gordy, the hip-hop Quincy Jones, the new L.A. Reid” and proclaimed his We the Best Studios—which is at a “secret location in Miami”—to be his own Motown Records. (He probably meant Hitsville USA: “If I told people the address of my studio, the whole world would fly in to be where the magic happens,” he said.)
None of the above claims should be shocking if you’ve paid attention to Khaled for any amount of time. Over the past half decade, he’s released a string of LPs that are about five-sixths disposable, largely irrelevant and moderately successful in the marketplace. These albums, starting with 2006’s Listennn… The Album, which was released through the independent music factory Koch Records, typically feature somewhere around 30 guest appearances by some of the biggest names in urban music and would easily emerge as much less than the sum of their parts were it not for the nigh-interchangeable “We in These Streets” anthems that have become his calling card. It’s no accident that Khaled’s biggest hits feature hooks that are first-person declarations of self, purpose and success, which are open to translation and delivered in the present moment. Nor is it some mistake that these songs are sonically super-sized—exquisitely brazen, superfluously grand, unapologetically unapologetic. The energy of the message is a big part of the message. These anthems are so singular in purpose and execution that when they connect with an audience, they connect with an audience—because “we the best.” Songs like “I’m So Hood” and “We Takin’ Over” aren’t just made to be hits—they’re engineered to be self-sufficient myths onto themselves. Everything else is marginalia.
“It’s not even so much about albums, but about hit records,” says DJ Green Lantern, whose birthday party tonight doubled as Khaled’s release party for his fifth studio album, We the Best Forever. “It’s about individual songs and the performance of those individual songs in the marketplace—from radio translating to iTunes sales and paid downloads. To this date, DJ Khaled, 36, is the front-runner in the category, which is basically the standard we use as success these days. People like to find something wrong with Khaled and they’ll come up to me and say some slick shit like, ‘He ain’t no DJ.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t see the intense, immense skill in what he does?’ He executive produces the songs. These people don’t magically come together.”
“He keeps the bar high, period, point-blank,” adds DJ Drama, who released his third studio album, Third Power, in October. “He’s the first to have some of the accomplishments that he’s had, and that’s coming from a lineage of DJs that put out albums. When it comes to making records throughout history, I would give him the best at putting records together over everybody. It’s not a fluke. You can get one off, but I think his track record speaks for itself.”
We the Best Forever--Khaled’s first release on Cash Money Records, the most successful label of the past few years–has been no different from its predecessors, yielding the characteristically over-the-top “Welcome to My Hood,” featuring his old reliables T-Pain, Rick Ross, Plies and Lil Wayne. “I’m on One” (featuring Drake, Ross and Wayne)–a song that is at once woozy, defiant and aspirational–is Khaled’s highest charting single to date, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and cracking the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Khaled, who likes to “speak everything into existence,” predicts that “Legendary,” featuring Keyshia Cole, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo will garner him a Grammy nomination.
IN A WORLD where everyone is watching the throne, but no one seems to be guarding the gates, Khaled emerges as a cause celèbre DJ (he jockeys a daily show on South Florida’s WEDR 99Jamz [99.1FM]), producer (as Beat Novacane, he’s done tracks for Fabolous and Fat Joe, as well as coproduction on many of his own hits) and budding record executive (in addition to heading We the Best Music Group, he’s the president of Def Jam South and manages production duo the Runners, who’ve made hits for Rihanna, Usher and a host of others). He’s both backroom power broker and marquee attraction, a man given to grand statements that echo between the borders of affirmative autosuggestion and flights of fancy. His catchphrase–“We the best”–is his professional brand, personal mantra, mission statement and magical sigil, alchemizing everything he does under the banner of his biggest-selling record: “All I Do Is Win.” A carnival barker and ringmaster in one, he sells lowbrow spectacle and epic posturing as ’hood grandeur, becoming an irritation that is downright impossible to ignore and a thug-friendly motivational figure that you’d be stupid to bet against. Even when he says something truly outrageous.