“The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, and legions…now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circuses." –Juvenal (circa 100 AD)
"Girl, you looks good, won't you back that azz up." —Juvenile (circa 1999 AD)
If karmic justice exists, a riot of enraged teenagers will swarm the funeral of Lee “Q” O’Denat. A battalion of twerking strippers, bus drivers with ferocious uppercuts, belligerent street rappers, Riff Raff, and however you define Kat Stacks, will join in. A massive brawl will break out in front of the casket and as everyone reaches for their camera phones, a gospel choir will angelically croon, “WORLDSTAR!”
Such is the complicated legacy of the founder of WorldStarHipHop, the internet’s reigning emporium of ratchetness for most of the last decade, who was found dead in San Diego at age 43. Some considered the entrepreneur, who was raised in Hollis, Queens, a scourge of humanity, capitalizing on the misfortunes, stupidity, and violence of the lowest common denominator. Others defended him as the American dream incarnate. The son of a single mother who immigrated from Haiti—who dropped out of high school in the 9th grade, and through tireless hustle and savvy built one of the largest independent black-owned media businesses in America.
Q essentially saw the future of the Internet and the world itself.
To use the parlance of our times, you had to hear both sides. Q and his brainchild, WorldStar, showed little conscience towards exploiting those people eager to be exploited, as well as those tragically caught in the slipstream. He frequently and unapologetically described his desire to show the “good, the bad, and the ugly,” in order to present a reality that other outlets refused to show. And there’s an undeniable truth to his point.
Whether you find WorldStar’s lack of taste, scruples, or judgment repugnant, that doesn’t change the fact that the human disasters the site cataloged occur on a daily basis—whether or not they ever made it to the one-stop carnival of misbehavior. According to the Bible, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. King David of Israel caught Bathsheba naked and ordered her husband murdered so he could have her to himself. Our President was caught on camera not just admitting to sexual assault, but reveling in it. It’s hard to really trip over “Fight at Gas Station in Alabama: Man Gets a Woopin & Kicked to the Dome.”
Over the last decade, innumerable websites have failed by attempting to go highbrow, but nearly as many have mimicked WorldStar’s tactics and failed. The reason for Q’s success is partially good timing, and partially his innate sense of what would make for addictive entertainment. He came from the culture: a former breaker, rapper, and graffiti artist, he grew up seeing Run-DMC in the park, and came up on Native Tongues, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, DMX, and Boot Camp Clique.
“I saw that lane where most of these hip-hop sites were boring,” Q told me when I interviewed him in 2013 for the Shots Fired podcast. “They were mostly Q&A and not entertaining or exciting. People wanted to see and feel that realness.”
Until that point, Q’s primary hustle had been selling exclusive mixtapes for his childhood friend and 50 Cent’s DJ, Whoo Kid. As the physical mixtape industry switched to digital around 2005, Q initially founded WorldStar as a place to download his product.
But when a hacker forced the site to shutter for the latter half of 2007, it offered a chance to realign his vision. This was around the time that Soulja Boy first harnessed the power of internet video to go viral. The year before, Google had purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion.
When WorldStar re-launched in early 2008, it focused on aggregating both rap videos and anything remotely bizarre, salacious, and easily digested by an audience just starting to get smart phones.
“Without camera phones, WorldStar would probably be a nice little hip-hop site playing music videos,” Q admitted on Shots Fired. “It played a big role because people were recording and submitting authentic, real shit to us. It wasn’t like some guy with a big camera waiting to film a celebrity tripping.”
Q essentially saw the future of the internet and the world itself. Everyone could be celebrity or spy, a voyeur or the next contestant on that WorldStar screen. In some respects, he built something resembling a hip-hop analogue to the Huffington Post or Breitbart. Unlike those sites, WorldStar had no ideology other than extreme capitalism, but it obliterated the preconceived ideas of respectability, editorial oversight, and propriety of an earlier age. Unless it involved bestiality or harm done to a child, WorldStar would show it. This included murder, sex, and Post Malone videos.
Q refused to apologize for taking thousands of dollars from unknown rappers to run their videos on his site. He gave Kat Stacks a contract knowing that her stunts and scenarios were all fake, and the rappers were in on the joke (at least if you believe what she told Rosenberg and Ebro last year). This was entertainment in Roman gladiatorial fashion. If the people wanted a circus, he gave them freak shows and fistfights for free. If you can’t blame Juvenile for making people back that ass up, you couldn’t blame Q for showing them doing it. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have.
It’s been said that WorldStar would’ve been better off without the Hip-Hop part of its name. But it’s unquestionable that Q built one of the most influential websites of this millennium. If hip-hop’s gatekeepers were loathe to endorse Lil B and Riff Raff, WorldStar was among the first to embrace them, if only because they knew that eccentricity meant clicks. A 2012 video where a Chicago teenager freaked out when Chief Keef got out of jail was effectively Sosa’s introduction to the world outside of Windy City high schools.
Even today, one of the best ways for a regional street rapper to blow up outside of their hometown is getting a video published on WorldStar’s YouTube channel (4.2 million subscribers and counting). And in a gesture of contrition to the old school hip-hop gods, Q would personally curate a Flashback Friday series that included Gang Starr, Pharoahe Monch, and Nas videos.
As someone who once did off-Broadway acting at 18, Q’s dream was to branch out into feature films, television, and documentaries. WorldStar had successfully done the latter by launching acclaimed short films that examined the internecine gang violence, hip-hop culture, and crippling poverty of neighborhoods in Chicago and Miami—ones where hi-definition cameras rarely roamed. Most recently, WorldStar announced a deal with MTV for the 10-episode World Star TV show, which is slated to air next month.
The site will live on without its founder, the father of three, who passed away from heart failure, with obesity considered to be a contributing factor. According to police, the body was found unresponsive at a massage parlor, which all things considered, is a WorldStar-worthy way to go.
Love him or hate him, Q changed the way we perceive hip-hop, the world, and the often-terrifying extremes of human behavior. No one understood how to give the people what they wanted better than Q or WorldStar. The problem is, that meant we all learned what the people wanted.