The Greatest Show on Earth: How DJ Khaled Became Hip-Hop's Biggest Personality

The Miami producer may provide consistent comic relief, but his success is no joke.

Photography By Clay Patrick McBride

Everything DJ Khaled says is funny, apparently. At least that’s the way it seems at the Soho Apple Store where the Miami-reared DJ/producer/ad-libber/hitmaker is set to be interviewed as part of the company’s Meet the Musician series. He arrives nearly 30 minutes late wearing the regalia of hip-hop royalty: leather jacket with a fur-lined hood, sneakers that probably cost as much as a new laptop, and jewelry that makes you believe diamonds can actually dance. “Sorry I’m late,” he tells the crowd in *Khaled voice* (an excited high-pitched boom that turns regular sentences into powerful and hilarious affirmations). “New York City traffic is crazy.” The crowd erupts in laughter. He could read the sideeffects of a drug advertised on late-night television and make it more entertaining than an SNL skit. For example: “That’s the new MacBook? The gold one?” he excitedly asks no one in particular when he notices the new Apple laptop on stage. “Yo, Jay, find out how much that cost. I need one of them.” Boom. Laughter. Or when he’s asked by an audience member what he should tell his friends who are still confused as to what exactly Khaled does and he replies with “I’d tell them—HEH—bow down and kiss the ring.” More laughter.

Despite releasing some of the biggest rap songs of the past decade, it’s clear that this is what people came to see: the bravado and posturing that has made him one of the most endearing and divisive figures in urban music. Sure, they came to hear about his new album, to hear about who’s featured on it and in what capacity they’ll be used, but they really came to see the DJ Khaled Show. Watching him on stage, almost 10 years into his career, it’s tough to figure out if this is all an act Khaled has concocted for attention. Or if he’s dead serious when he says absolutely ridiculous things like “I told [Apple] to add the most powerful servers” to handle the release of a song that didn’t even make it onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Antics like this, or appearing on MTV to fake propose to Nicki Minaj all in the service of promoting a single, have become the DJ-turned-record-svengali-turned-professional-personality’s bread and butter. But is it possible for someone to be that on all the time? Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t always Borat, although Lil B is pretty much always Lil B. But is DJ Khaled always DJ Khaled even when the lights, cameras, and microphones are turned off?

Before he was corralling the biggest names in rap and R&B to record some of the most memorable and successful posse cuts of the 21st century, DJ Khaled was just a kid who wanted to be on the radio. Born Khaled bin Abdul Khaled in New Orleans to parents who immigrated from Palestine, Khaled, 39, knew from a young age that he wanted to be in the music industry. Like most young rap fans, his walls were adorned with posters of hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. He worked in a record store that occasionally let him DJ. Unbelievably, in 1993, he was there the day Lil Wayne met the co-founders of Cash Money Records. “I was there when Birdman signed [him],” he says. DJing didn’t become his main focus until his parents moved the family to Orlando. After Khaled was repeatedly pulled over for driving with a suspended license, the judge attempted to teach him a lesson by sentencing him to three months in jail. He says he only had to serve a month, but that that month was enough for him to realize that he never wanted to go back. “I’m not a criminal or nothing, but it opened my eyes,” he says as he simultaneously widens his eyes. “The day I got out, I went straight to Miami, me and my records, because I felt like I would keep getting in trouble. I went to Miami and I loved it.”

The brush with prison wasn’t the only thing that motivated Khaled to go hard. It was also the reality that his family was in a bad spot. Khaled gets cagey when asked about his family, but relents and explains that they weren’t doing very well financially. “At that time my family was going through some serious situations. They got some tax problems, meaning [the IRS] came and finished them. Cleaned ’em up,” he says. “Imagine your family finally making it from nothing to something, and finally getting things going, and finally buying a beautiful house and taking care of your children—and the next day, it’s completely all gone. Zero. Boom. Flat broke. So that’s when I had to man up. From that day on I had to make a decision: Do I want to be a bum, or do I want to follow my music career? I followed my music career.” How’s that for an origin story?

“Do I want to be a bum, or do I want to follow my music career? I followed my
music career.”
—DJ Khaled

And that is when his transformation into DJ Khaled began. As he remembers it, if people wanted to listen to good hip-hop in Miami, they had to tune into one of the unregulated “illegal” pirate radio broadcasts transmitted from secret locations all over Miami. Khaled asserts that he was on the air “seven days a week. Literally when you turn the radio on, I’m on.” As if that wasn’t enough, he also began throwing parties, which included his annual birthday party that he called the Temple. He promoted these by handing out fliers on the street. “Nobody know me yet. They heard me on the radio, but they don’t know me, they haven’t seen me, they haven’t felt me,” he says, arms flailing a bit. “So I’d promote my party for like a month—graffiti flyers, real hip-hop shit—and the whole city came out. We’re talking about a club that probably could hold a thousand people, and there was, no lie, 7,000 people outside trying to get in.” His voice trails off for a bit before adding in one more “no lie” for good measure.

If a DJ is single-handedly holding down an entire station and throwing the hottest parties in Miami, as Khaled says he did, it’s not hard to imagine him piquing the interest of bigger DJs and radio stations. Which is exactly what happened. Uncle Luke, the unofficial mayor of Miami, supposedly called Khaled to co-host and DJ on a show he had on 99 Jamz that aired on Friday nights. “[Luke] started touring, so he had to stop radio, and I eventually stayed on the station and ended up doing a mix show Friday night, my own show. Then I started doing the 5 o’clock mix show, then they gave me my own night show, and I ended up doing my own night show for 10-plus years.”

In the late ’90s as his radio career began to take off, Khaled, sometimes under the name the Palestinian Rebel (Arab Attack), also began hosting mixtapes, some with DJ Tony Touch, which featured artists like Fat Joe, Jay Z, Canibus, and Elephant Man. All the while he started hustling beats under the name Beat Novacane (he says this is how he met Kanye West: “I remember Kanye in the studio. When he was shopping beats, I was shopping beats.”) But he wanted more. “While I was doing all that, I always had the vision of putting an album out,” says Khaled. “I put out tapes, but I always kept saying, ‘Why am I putting all this energy into these tapes?’ I was like, ‘I’d rather make just an album because I have a vision, I know how I want to do my records.’ I always felt like an artist as well.”

The day after the Apple Store event, DJ Khaled is in his hotel suite at the JW Marriott getting ready for the day. The suite is overrun with rap star accouterments—Jordans and Yeezys are placed on side tables. Louis Vuitton bags are everywhere. Various models of the headphones he collaborated on with Bang & Olufsen are scattered across the coffee table. One member of his crew is going through his schedule for the day, another one is editing a video on a laptop. Khaled’s operation is in full go mode for the release of his eighth album, I Changed a Lot. Khaled can be heard in one of the suite’s bedrooms talking excitedly on the phone. All of sudden he comes bounding down the hallway into the main area of the suite in a white T-shirt and sweatpants and begins to tell his boy Jay something before he notices a journalist on the couch. He composes himself a bit, but he’s too happy and excited to reel in his delight. “Yoo!” he starts off, and the room braces for some monumental news. “Ross said he’s going to bring me out tonight!” Yes, DJ Khaled, still gets excited when a rapper he helped put on (Rick Ross) tells him he’ll bring him out at a show. Most artists would sooner bristle at being asked to appear on stage at another artist’s show; it’d be akin to your boy asking you to work for free. Not Khaled. Even the most mundane acts make him sincerely happy and fired up.

In that way, Khaled in person is much like the Khaled on record and TV. It’s surprising, refreshing, and confusing all at once. He’s very excitable, even when he seems drained of energy. He loves to speak in catchphrases, repeating lines, like the title of his new album, as if he’s doing a stand-up act. Even though we’re in a hotel room, he speaks as if he’s trying to reach people in the rafters. He also loves to remind you that he’s been making hits for a long time. Which, to his credit, is true. His first big record, “Holla at Me,” the Cool & Dre-produced banger featuring Lil Wayne, Pitbull, Fat Joe, Paul Wall, and Rick Ross, came out in 2006. There are very few people who can sustain a run for that long. However, a big fuss has been made about exactly what’s powering that run. Though he’s explained it before, to this publication, no less, people still wonder what it is that DJ Khaled does.

“I produce all the records,” he says as he perks up on the couch.

But what about the ones that don’t list him as a producer or co-producer, like the majority of his hits? “All of my records, I produced, put together, completely. All of them,” he says. “Maybe Drake might come with an idea and I might finish it. You gotta remember what a producer is. Quincy Jones is a producer. Not everybody is a beat maker. A producer gets the whole vision done from top to bottom, to making the record to having the record delivered to the world. That’s a producer.”

He adds, “Besides being hands on in the production, it’s vocal production, it’s arrangement production, it’s mixing production—I do it all. I want to make that clear. I am one of the best producers of our time,” he says more exasperated than anything else. “I’m a person that shows love, I give people their credit as well. These other people are not telling you and not giving their credits, they keep it as secrets. I don’t! I’m a real person. I could easily do it. I am the best, one of the best producers. If you want a hit record, come see me, I’ll give it to you.”

For I Changed a lot he says he’s credited on 90 percent of the album. “I’m a writer on every record! A writer is a producer too. I write on all my records.” If you’re wondering what exactly he writes, let him explain: “‘You Mine,’ I wrote the ‘You Mine’ part. It’s something that I came up with. Then the artist takes it to the next level, and then they write their part to make it even bigger. That’s how it goes.”

Khaled says all of this after casually mentioning that he owns all of his masters. The guy who has made a career out of releasing songs featuring most of rap’s A-list talent, says he owns the master rights to all of those hits. “Everything you hear right now I own 100 percent of the masters,” he says, meaning that all the recent songs he’s released are his. He owns half of the songs he released early on in his career, the stuff like “We Takin’ Over” and “I’m So Hood.” “Eventually I’ll own them all in time. I was always focused when I was young because Jay Z, he owns his masters. I do too. But ‘All I Do Is Win,’ I own half my masters.” In an age when artists are somehow still signing deals that, from the outside, seem like indentured servitude, it’s impressive to know that Khaled has situated himself so that when you hear “All I Do Is Win” in a commercial or at a sporting event he gets a nice check in the mail. You would think he would tout this fact more, but, hey.

Perhaps this is why Khaled feels slighted. During the Apple event and on Hot 97, Khaled expresses that he feels he doesn’t get the recognition and respect that he deserves. It may seem as if he’s a walking meme who falls into hit records, but if making hits is so easy…well, you know the rest. And there must be a reason artists are so willing to work with Khaled. His new album features four contributions from Future, who just released a torrent of great projects and had an album he made in six days with Drake go Gold in a week. It’s not like Future needs to be on a Khaled record. There’s also a verse from Jay Z. You think Hov needs to be on the project? Nah. So why do it? Khaled, in usual Khaled manner, credits his relationships and work ethic for his ability to net such big names. “I remember KRS-One did a speech. He said, ‘If you look at anybody that you look up to and are inspired by and you look at their story before their fame, even through their fame, I guarantee you that you might not want to do what they had to do to get where they was at.’ It’s the truth.”

Case in point: After conceiving of the concept and hook for “They Don’t Love You No More” with French Montana and getting verses from Meek Mill and Rick Ross, Khaled upended his life to get a Jay Z verse. “I damn near moved to New York for a whole year so I could see him every day when he was recording his last album,” says Khaled. “I was in the studio with him a lot of times when he was recording that last album, and I would tell him, ‘I’m not giving up.’ We worked on another record he was starting to cut in the studio, but we ain’t finish it and he went on tour. When he came back, that’s when I had ‘They Don’t Love You No More.’ Not only did he respect my passion, when I played him the record he loved it.” How many artists who are 10 years deep in the game do you think are willing to do that?

Forget that. How many artists who have been putting out hit records for nearly a decade and helped cultivate the sound of a city would get overjoyed at the prospect of a close friend and known collaborator inviting him onstage for a 10-minute cameo? The same one who, when given the opportunity to play a new record for Kanye, looked like a proud kid bringing his father a good report card. It’s tough at times to discern what’s fact or fiction when dealing with him, but one thing is ultimately clear: Khaled loves this shit. And he’s not afraid to show it, even if him showing it may be distracting people from the work he puts in. Some people may take umbrage to him jumping off of boats in brand-new sneakers or repeating the same phrase over and over again on records, but that’s, in part, what got him here.

“You gotta remember, the world is this big,” he says, stretching his arms about as wide as his body. “Haters is this big,” he says as he touches his pointer finger to his thumb. He then stretches his arms out as far as they can go and says, “Success is this big. Success overcomes everything. I’m successful. It’s what you let in your life. I don’t let anything else stop my vision. If I did listen to that piece of the world, I wouldn’t be winning. I’d fall for the trap. I’m not ever falling for the trap. It’s never happening.” At that moment, it’s hard not to believe him.

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