Wiz Khalifa is about to take his career to the next level, but will his OG Taylor Gang fans go there with him?
This feature appears in Complex's October/November 2012 issue.
There’s a party going on right here. Fresh from rocking a crowd of 13,500 at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Long Island, NY, Wiz Khalifa is unwinding in his dressing room. The sold out show was the latest stop on the Under the Influence of Music Tour. It’s midnight, all the beer is gone, and the strategically placed incense sticks have all burned out. But a bunch of people are still floating around, as are an endless supply of joints, plastic red cups filled with Bombay gin and lemonade, and the sounds of classic hip-hop breaks and beats.
It’s all fun and games as Wiz—who’s been rocking the same torn-up, skintight jeans for three days—kicks it with his inner circle.
There are Taylor Gang members Tuki Carter, Wiz’s personal tattoo artist, and Berner, the aptly named weed guy who’s working with Wiz on a clothing line called Freshko. He’s also famous for his web video series, “Stoner Girls Gone Wild.”
There’s Chevy Woods, Wiz’s longtime friend and trusty sidekick. There’s Benjy Grinberg, founder and CEO of Pittsburgh rap powerhouse Rostrum Records. It’s been a busy day for Benjy since both of the tour’s headliners, Wiz and Mac Miller, are signed to Rostrum.
Then there’s Brian Brick, owner of the clothing store Timebomb, a staple of Pittsburgh hip-hop and one of the first places to sell Rocawear, Phat Farm, and Ecko in the City of Steel. There’s a little bit of all of them in Wiz, who is, after all, a fully tatted stoner rapper entrepreneur whose come-up put Pittsburgh hip-hop on the map.
Brick and Wiz are discussing one of Wiz’s favorite groups, Three 6 Mafia. “There are kids these days who don’t even know Juicy J’s old shit,” says Wiz. “Before, Juicy was cadences, he’s more lyrical now.” Though he’s down with the Taylor Gang, Juicy’s headlining the Smokers Club Tour today. But an unexpected guest has come by to hang out: J. Cole.
Wiz has done what so many young spitters dream of, but only a select few actually pull off: He’s evolved from local star to indie signee to Internet celebrity to major-label superstar.
Wiz has known the Roc Nation rapper for years. “We met in the streets when we were both out thugging,” says Wiz. “We ain’t have no money and no deal. We rose in our situations together. We share a lot of the same experiences.”
Those would be the experiences shared by all newly minted rap stars—the delicate balancing act of chasing chart success while maintaining underground respect. And make no mistake, whether you prefer his crossover hits or his harder mixtape cuts, 24-year-old Cameron Jibril Thomaz is by all means a star. He’s got the Billboard hits, the plaques, and the national tour to prove it. More important, Wiz has done what so many young spitters dream of, but only a select few actually pull off: He’s evolved from local star to indie signee to Internet celebrity to major-label superstar.
These days Wiz is Uncle Snoop’s favorite nephew. He’s the only one in the industry Kanye West respects. And in Wiz’s own terms, he is the O.N.I.F.C. (Only Nigga in First Class). Watching him balance work and play, juggle commercial expectations and creative vision—all while maintaining relationships with fans and friends alike—is an object lesson in the trials and tribulations of rap stardom circa 2012.
But right now, he’s just having fun playing a game with Cole. The game revolves around identifying the samples behind classic rap records like the Charmels’ “As Long as I’ve Got You” (sampled on Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.”), Bobby Caldwell’s “My Flame” (Biggie’s “Sky’s the Limit”), and the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” (2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”), all of which are bumping through a Bose speaker dock from a playlist on Wiz’s iPhone.
Guests around the room have to name the rap record that used that particular sample. If they get it wrong, they have to guzzle a shot from a one-liter bottle of Bombay. If they get it right, whoever asked the question takes the shot.
“Who’s the white boy that doesn’t know this shit?” asks J. Cole, of no one in particular.
One white boy who would probably recognize all the samples (but has no time to play because he’s too busy recording on his tour bus) is Wiz’s labelmate, Mac Miller. The Pittsburgh mixtape sensation, whose indie release Blue Slide Park debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart last year, was recently sued for $10 million by Lord Finesse over a 2010 mixtape cut. It seems the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew wasn’t cool with Mac diggin’ in their crates.
“The game has changed,” Wiz says. “Not to say anything against Mac, but to any artist [who wants to] make their situation stronger, make sure the songs that you publish sell more than your mixtape stuff. That will help you stand up against that because nobody can say that you’re building your career off it.”
Wiz ought to know; he’s built quite a career himself. Hits like the Stargate-produced smash “Black & Yellow” and the Benny Blanco–produced follow-up “No Sleep” have raised him to the top of the rap game. Still, the hustle never stops. One of the two huge Prevost tour buses parked outside contains a makeshift recording studio. He’s come a long way since the days when he rolled back and forth from Pittsburgh to New York in Benjy’s black 1997 VW Jetta. He’s gone from performing in front of 20 people to averaging 20,000 a night, and from earning four figures a performance to six.
Midway through, Wiz and Cole’s sample game takes an unexpected detour as they start debating who knows the lyrics to Canibus’ “100 Bars” better. (To his credit, Cole can recite the first few bars of the song.) Later, when Cole describes a woman with a particularly fat ass, Wiz replies “I can’t even hear this man, I got a fiancée.” They play on into the wee hours of the morning, throwing back shots of gin until Cole winds up barfing in the bathroom while Wiz pats him on the back. It’s all part of the balancing act.
Back in 2004, when Wiz was a teenager attending Taylor Allderdice High School, he wandered into a Pittsburgh recording studio headed by E. Dan of the production duo I.D. Labs. When E. Dan heard Wiz rhyme over a Dipset instrumental, he was blown away. He helped Wiz put together a handful of songs that landed in the hands of Benjy Grinberg, who signed Wiz to Rostrum Records in 2005.
“There are a lot of guys who can rap,” says E. Dan. “But there are only certain guys who have that charisma. It was one of the first times I recorded somebody and thought, ‘This dude has got it.’”
The seeds of Wiz’s charisma and his love for music were planted by his father, a military man named Laurence Thomaz. “Wiz’s dad is a real musical person,” says Will Dzombak, Wiz’s day-to-day manager and co-CEO of Taylor Gang. “Growing up, instead of watching TV, they used to always listen to music. He took that with him as he got older.”
When you do an album, you can’t separate the music from the business because it’s music business.
As he grew up, Wiz went through phases where he would dream of being a member of his favorite rap crews: Wu-Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Three 6 Mafia, and the Diplomats. Still, his father kept him rooted in reality.
“My dad made me write down goals every couple of months,” Wiz recalls. “He’d say, ‘What are your goals for the next couple months?’ I’d tell him, ‘To get this, to do this, and have enough money to buy this.’”
Looks like the advice paid off. Last year, Wiz tied Drake on Forbes’ list of Hip-Hop’s Top Earners, coming in at No. 11 with $11 million. Enough money to cop a mansion in suburban Canonsburg, PA for a reported $900,000 to go with his apartment in L.A.
The road to that mansion was paved with hard work, starting with Wiz’s first mixtape, Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania. Released in May 2006, it featured a very different-sounding rapper. As the title would suggest, Wiz’s rap style was more aggressive and street-oriented than the laid-back stoner flow he’s known for now.
Still, young Wiz had enough promise to score a deal with Warner Music Group in 2007. But after two years and little progress, Wiz and WMG parted ways.“
They butted heads,” says Sledgren, Wiz’s longtime producer, who remembers the days when they couldn’t get airplay in Pittsburgh. “It was like, ‘Let me off the label and I’ma do this myself.’ Some people have ugly label splits but it wasn’t like that. Warner just let the situation go. People used to make fun of us, like, ‘Wiz got dropped.’ And I was like, ‘So what?’”
The Warner years weren’t a complete loss, though. According to Benjy, the experience taught them an important lesson. “When we signed with Warner we figured they’d handle everything,” Benjy said via email. “We were wrong. We learned that we couldn’t ever rely solely on the major label. From that point on we were going to rely on ourselves.”
Wiz looks back on ’07 as an important turning point. “When I did Prince of the City 2, I never felt like I was forcing anything,” he says. “I put it all together. I had club records, girl records, and ones where I was spitting. I figured out all the different dimensions of myself and pulled them together and realized, I can’t just give people one or two styles. I had to be like, ‘This is me. I’m the complete package.’”
That growth spurt lead to a trio of projects starting with 2009’s Flight School, a mixtape on which E. Dan says Wiz was “starting to find his own path.” That was followed by the successful independent album Deal or No Deal. And then, in 2010, Wiz blossomed as an artist, unleashing his breakthrough, Kush & Orange Juice.
The mixtape’s impact was undeniable, becoming a trending topic on Twitter the day of its release. “That was when he completed the transition to the Wiz we all know and love,” says E. Dan. “That was the first project where he said, ‘I’m going to do exactly what I’m feeling, what I want to hear. I’m not going to try to specifically appeal to anyone. I’m going to do my style.’ It was like, ‘This is me, this is where I’m coming from, and this is the statement I want to make.’”
Rolling a joint filled with his own strain of weed—dubbed Khalifa Kush—Wiz explains the difference. “Kush & Orange Juice is a classic mixtape, but it’s still a mixtape,” he says. “That mixtape is raw. I did what I wanted to do. You can’t do that on an album because other people gotta eat off that album. There’s business that goes into an album. When you do an album, you can’t separate the music from the business because it’s music business.”
The album Wizzle has been eating off is his Atlantic Records major label debut, 2011’s Rolling Papers. It was a huge commercial success, topping the Rap chart and debuting at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, spawning several Top 40 hits, and selling over 750,000 copies in the US. But Wiz’s longtime fans criticized the album for a lack of lyrical depth and the pop feel of Wiz’s work with Stargate and Benny Blanco.
“People were like, ‘Wiz changed. He’s singing and making more radio songs,’” says Sledgren. “But he was always singing; it just didn’t come out until certain projects.” Still, Wiz found it hard to shrug off the criticism. One night last February, he decided to post a letter on his Tumblr titled “Strictly for My Taylors.” The letter began as a thank-you to his fans but soon turned into a reflection on Rolling Papers. “The album did great numbers, but creatively wasn’t my best work,” he admitted.
Wiz says the letter was his way of letting the Taylors know “that I hear what they’re saying.” That letter has become almost as significant to his fans as any of his records—a masterful example of the hip-hop balancing act. The letter was followed up shortly with Taylor Allderdice, a mixtape on par with his best work that functioned as a creative reboot.
Although Wiz’s letter specfically said he didn’t regret the album, it’s clear he did have some regrets. “I’m used to listening to my music all the time, critiquing it, and making it better,” said Wiz, when asked about the letter. “I didn’t really get a chance to do that with Rolling Papers. I looked back and decided I can’t do that again.”
He’s determined not to let the same thing happen with his new album, O.N.I.F.C. For Wiz, it’s not just about the music, it’s about the Wiz Khalifa brand—one that goes beyond partying and smoking weed and that represents a lifestyle, an attitude, freedom. Hip-hop.
“The people that are buying Frank Ocean, they don’t buy into one song that he sings,” says Wiz of the Def Jam star who also (in)famously wrote an open letter on Tumblr. “He sings 20 songs. Frank Ocean is the name. You can either get with it or you can keep trying to be a song. I’m not trying to be no song. It’s always the name.”
The day after ending his national tour in Detroit, Wiz is in LA for a photo shoot. Later on, he’ll hit the studio and then a club. Tomorrow, he’ll record a segment for Chelsea Lately, knock out a few guest verses, and then do some work with his artist, Lola Monroe. But right now, while rolling yet another joint, Wiz shows off a vintage 1974 gold Rolex that he bought earlier that day “just because.”
Being rich and famous doesn’t just afford Wiz a lifestyle of first-class flights and fancy wristwear, it’s also made him some new friends. Although he still rolls with the people who’ve been around for years, these days he also hangs out with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Juicy J, and Curren$y. He discusses musical tastes with Snoop (“Snoop loves Kendrick, Curren$y, and Mac.”), rides around with Juicy (“Juicy put faith in me, he didn’t have to ride with me.”), and feels he owes a debt to Curren$y Spitta.
“He helped me stay out of the way of a lot of bullshit because he’s seen so much,” says Wiz of Spitta, who languished on No Limit and Cash Money before cultivating a buzz independently and signing with Warner. “He helped me with marketing and branding when we were coming up. Where I was confused, he had the answer. When he was confused, I had the answer. Curren$y helped me way more than I helped him.”
We’re going to do O.N.I.F.C. exactly how I want to do it to see how that works. It can’t be one-sided.
“We’re like Ryu and Ken,” adds Curren$y, who remembers the days of going half on Chinese food plates with Wiz while recording their collaborative mixtape, How Fly. “Ken had the uppercut with all the fire and shit. Ryu had a more controlled uppercut, but he’s the one that showed Ken the uppercut.”
Curren$y cautions that Wiz’s level of success isn’t for everyone. “He’s like fucking Puff Daddy right now,” says Spitta. “People be like, ‘You should be right there with your brother.’ But I’d rather lay low and kick it. It’s super awesome to be Puff Daddy but it’s a gift and a curse.”
Not only does Wiz have high-profile friends, he’s also got a high-profile relationship with Amber Rose. The couple are not shy about PDA, like the time Wiz licked Amber on stage.
“He’s so special,” Amber says of her man. “These bitches shouldn’t even be around him. They’re not cool enough to be in his presence. It’s like, ew, stay away.”
And stay away he does. “I don’t look at no girls. All I look at is my fiancée,” says Wiz. “I don’t got no reason to look at other girls. It’s weird to some people, but to us it’s the right thing. It’s how much we love each other.”
Just how much does Wiz love Amber? He doesn’t even peep cell phone pictures of groupies. “Groupies? I don’t do that,” he says with disdain. “My girl said to me, ‘Baby, these bitches don’t even deserve to breathe your air.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? You right.’” Call it another sort of balancing act.
What does command Wiz’s full attention is his upcoming album. He and everyone in his camp feel confident about O.N.I.F.C.—everyone, apparently, except for Atlantic Records.
“Atlantic likes O.N.I.F.C.,” says Wiz. “But they want more obvious singles because that’s what sells it for them. My belief in the record is what sells it to me. It’s not a conflict. You just have to communicate so everybody understands it.”
Wiz is looking for that delicate balance. “When you’re working with other people, you figure out how much you do for them and how much you do for yourself,” he says. “You can’t just be an artist fighting for your opinion and that’s it. The label has to understand artists. I wanted to make Rolling Papers when I made Rolling Papers, now it’s time for O.N.I.F.C. Now we’re going to do it exactly how I want to do it to see how that works. It can’t be one-sided.”
Wiz looks to Snoop Dogg’s classic “Gin and Juice,” a song he says wasn’t meant to be a single but that went on to become a hip-hop classic. He’ll save his “obvious singles” for guest spots, like Maroon 5’s “Payphone”—Wiz’s second biggest hit to date. But don’t expect him to switch up his style.
“When you start forcing things, you lose people,” says Wiz. “I never want to do that because none of my favorite artists have ever done that to me—i.e., Juicy J. You know what’s right and you know what’s wrong. You know when you’re forcing it and when you’re just laying it down. I’m trying to do more laying it down than forcing it. That’s how you become legendary.”
Speaking of legends, Wiz is quick to bring up how he’ll soon be 25—the same age as 2Pac when he died. “We’re the new 2Pacs,” he says of the artists on his tour: Mac, Kendrick Lamar, and Schoolboy Q.
But he must balance these lofty ideals with other goals. Wiz has talked about wanting to make $100 million. He recalls seeing a prince spend $1.5 million on champagne in the South of France and aspires to do the same. That’s the meaning behind his album’s title—having all the finest things in life, but getting them his way.
It all came into focus during a moment onstage back at Jones Beach. Wiz was rocking with a live band, his mic stand adorned with a worn and torn American flag. He performed a medley of mixtape cuts but closed his set with hits from his albums. The mostly white, teenage crowd responded particularly well to “Young, Wild & Free,” his collab with Snoop Dogg and Bruno Mars.
“So what we get drunk?” he sang as the flag fluttered in the heavy winds blowing across Jones Beach. “So what we smoke weed?/We’re just having fun/We don’t care who sees.” For pop fans the song was catchy; for hard-core fans it was cringeworthy, but Wiz sees the big picture. This play doesn’t end here. There will be other acts to follow.
WATCH WIZ KHALIFA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (GROOMING) Erin Lee Smith. (CLOTHING) FIRST IMAGE: T-shirt by Givenchy / Jeans by Nudie Jeans / Sneakers by Jordan / Sunglasses by Super / Hat by Bailey / All jewelry Wiz's own. SECOND, THIRD & FOURTH IMAGES: Top by Balenciaga / Jeans by Nudie Jeans. All jewelry Wiz's own.