DJ Khaled's name has been attached to some of rap's biggest hits. But really, what role does he play?
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
DJ Khaled's sixth album, Kiss the Ring, is out today, which means that rap fans can expect to hear one message repeated over and over for the foreseeable future: We The Best. There's no arguing with success. DJ Khaled is the best—at something. The question is: exactly what is it that he does?
I'm here and I ain't going nowhere.
This week Khaled has not one but two tracks in the Top 50 of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “Take It to the Head” with Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown is No. 8. and “I Wish You Would” featuring Kanye West and Rick Ross rests at No. 48. The Runners produced the former, while Hit-Boy handled the beat for the latter.
Khaled is credited on both songs as an artist, even though—aside from some introductory ad-libs, delivered at top volume—Khaled Bin Abdul Khaled's voice does not appear on either of these records. The formula has been the same on all of his hit bass-rattling, hood-galvanizing bangers, starting with "Holla At Me" in 2006. The trend continued with “We Takin’ Over” in 2007 and that same year's “I’m So Hood,” later followed by 2010’s “All I Do is Win,” and last summer’s “I’m On One.” The bulk of those became platinum singles. But with no production credits and minimal vocal appearances on any of those records, the question remains: What does DJ Khaled actually do?
If not for the constant respect he gets from elites like Rick Ross and Jay-Z (who recently shouted him out on Ross’s “3 Kings” single), uninformed listeners might mistake him for some sort of mascot, cheering rappers on at the beginning and end of huge songs. There must be more to it than that.
“People still don’t know,” says Khaled, calling in from his tour bus, as it rolled from Baltimore to Philadelphia. He’s a relentless promoter, getting the word out about the album, but also eager to set the record straight. “I’m glad we’re doing this interview," he says. "I’m a real boss.” Khaled then runs through a series of anecdotes about funding his dreams through his first hustle, DJing. The New Orleans native moved to Miami and as he built relationships with artists through various radio gigs, he began to think bigger. Independent record label Koch approached him with the idea of putting together a compilation album.
“When I did that album I was putting my own money up,” Khaled says of his 2006 debut, Listennn… the Album, which boasted guest appearances like Lil Wayne on “Holla At Me” and stars like Kanye West on “Grammy Family.”
“Every dollar I made from DJing, I put into my videos, promotion—everything," he explains. "I’ve been a mogul and executive since the beginning of my career. People are just born with that skill.” So far we’ve established the fact that Khaled grinds—“Hard.”
“Listennn was me saying, ‘I’m here and I ain’t going nowhere,’” he says. “’And you’re going to know about me.’” Since then he’s released a new album yearly, all pretty much sticking to the same script. These albums are not particularly cohesive—cluttered as they are with a bunch of rhymers, all trying to outshine one another—and they have sold pretty modestly (none have reached gold status), but they’re always good for a big single or two. Nevertheless, the album titles have grown more grandiose over time, from asking people to pay attention to declaring his team the best, to demanding that those who “aren’t down with the program and what we do to bow down and Kiss the Ring.”
Khaled’s bravado, his work ethic, and his evident knack for orchestrating hit records has taken him far. He’s been appointed President of Def Jam South, A&Ring Rick Ross’ albums and handling acts like Ace Hood and reggae star Mavado, both signed to his We The Best Music Group label. He’s also a solo artist on Cash Money Records, distributing his latest album through Universal Republic.
Like his other albums, Ring is star-studded. Lil Wayne makes a couple of cameos—on “Bitches & Bottles (Let's Get It Started)" and most notably on the single “Take It to the Head.” Khaled’s relationship with Wayne goes way back to his days in New Orleans when he first became cool with Weezy’s father figure, Bryan “Baby” Williams. “I knew Baby and [Cash Money partner] Slim when they were selling tapes out of their trunks to mom and pop joints,” Khaled says. By 2005 Wayne was multi-platinum artist and enlisted Khaled to host his mixtape, The Suffix.
There are beat-makers and there are producers. I’m a producer. I put together amazing records.
Kanye West, an old bud Khaled met “when he was just producing through some friends of mine in Chicago” features on “I Wish You Would.” That connection dates back to “before his rap career blew up,” Khaled says. “I was one of the DJs that supported him before cats even knew he was nice. Our relationship was stamped then. When I started doing my thing and reached out, he showed love back. And at the same time, he recognizes my talent, skills, and growth.”
Similar stories apply to his connection with Fat Joe (who Khaled stands next to in the video for R. Kelly’s 2000 hit “Feelin’ on Yo’ Booty”) and Miami “bawse” Rick Ross. One thing Khaled does very well is network and build alliances with the right friends. But what other skills does he bring to the table?
The story behind the making of Khaled’s 2011 smash “I’m On One” helps shed light on how he does what he does. “Me and Drake had been going back and forth for a year and a half,” Khaled explains. “Drake said, ‘When we do something, we should do something that’s what you do anthem-wise, but with a different feel.’ He finally sent me a hook and a verse for the T-Minus track and it was super amazing. Then I reached out to Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. Then I got with Drake on iChat to make sure every little ad-lib was right. Then I had [Drake’s engineer and producer Noah] 40 [Shebib] add a little production to the T-Minus track. We filtered my voice so it could sound like a sample. It’s all about perfection at the final stages. I have to make sure it’s right.”
Next Khaled gets to talking about conceptualizing records with Ross. “I’m coaching. Him and me talk about what we’d like to do. Then he goes and writes the most phenomenal shit ever. But you have to understand, I give him the biggest speech ever before I give him the record. And I always have a hook on the record already, so when guys hear it they’re like, ‘Wow.’” It’s just a vibe. But if I’m in the studio with Ross, I never have a problem with his verses.”
See, Khaled’s not just some loudmouth yapping over the hottest record in the club. He’s the reason the record exists. If music were sports, he’d be a general manager, coach, and player all in one.
“There are beat-makers and there are producers,” Khaled continues. “I’m a producer. I put together amazing records, whether that’s finding the beat or putting the right hook on there, and picking the right artists on the record. That’s me being an A&R. And I’m making sure that they give me their best. A Khaled record is always the best.”
DJ Khaled is a testament to what hard work, networking, and, yes, skills can bring to fruition. In that sense, he’s a gift to hip-hop. But just so everyone is clear—once and for all—what exactly does he do?
“That’s like saying, ‘What does Puff Daddy or Jay-Z do?’” he snaps back coolly. “It’s 2012. People have got to get in tune a little better.” Then finally he gives in. “I make hits,” he says after a sigh. “I find hits. And I put hits out. That’s what I do.” Understood.