There once was a time when the DJ stood front and center in hip-hop. Yet slowly, the MC made his advance — from hyping the disc jockey to free-style rap duels and tag-team collabs, on to the revered hip-hop collectives of the late ’80s and early ’90s before the final transition into full-fledged stardom of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Lil Wayne-class. Inevitably, the DJ took a backseat.
Enter DJ Khaled: turntablist, radio personality, producer, label executive, ringleader. His monumental status in the current landscape of hip-hop is a rare one, given the genre’s favoring of vocal personalities. Nonetheless, Khaled has remained a key mover in mainstream rap based on his nonpareil knack for conjoining star-power on bombastic hits.
Such is the case with Khaled’s summer blockbuster We the Best Forever. His fifth album, it’s a roaring party of songs, some loose and celebratory — like lead single “Welcome to My Hood” or “A Million Lights” — others confrontational, taut with menacing boasts (“Sleep When I’m Gone,” “I’m Thuggin’”). In either vein there’s the underlying sense of street-worn credibility and intuition that Khaled deems crucial to his success.
In an interview earlier this year with Crate Kings, Khaled stressed the indie, DIY ethic behind his success, as well as the importance of staying involved in every level of promotion when building a personal brand. That’s how Khaled made his climb, building a reputation in Miami’s hip-hop scene during the late 1990s. He quickly became a local hero as a radio host — he still has an evening slot, weekdays on WEDR — before becoming involved as a producer with Terror Squad, the Bronx-based collective spearheaded by Fat Joe. From 2004 to 2006, Khaled assisted in the production of albums by Fabolous, Fat Joe and Terror Squad, whose True Story contained the club smash “Lean Back.” With Fat Joe, Khaled helped devise a remix of that hit the following year, snagging a rare guest-appearance from Eminem.
In 2006, Khaled had his breakthrough with Listennn…The Album. Since then, and with one exception, he’s released a record every year, all of them a smattering of hip-hop’s leading and still-rising rappers, including T-Pain, Birdman, Rick Ross and the indefatigable Lil Wayne. In 2009, Khaled was appointed president of Def Jam South.
Last year continued his exceptional spell of expansion. Among other hits, DJ Khaled’s fourth album, Victory, offered the inescapable and certified double platinum “All I Do Is Win.” With verses from Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross and Ludacris, the thundering hit sufficed as both the realization and theme music of Khaled’s decade-long advance.
We the Best Forever looks to disprove the notion that the climb is anywhere near finished. Though it marks Khaled’s first release on a major label (Universal), he hasn’t allowed that to change the independent methodology behind his ascent. And the connection with fans has anything but abated: In its first three weeks, We the Best Forever sold 87,000 copies. His fifth is also DJ Khaled’s highest charting record to date, debuting at no. 5 on the Billboard 200 its first week.
Mostly, that’s due to the smoldering single that was released in early June. “I’m On One” stands apart from the other tracks in its stealthy vibe, and not so surprisingly has been the album’s biggest hit on the hip-hop charts. It brings together three of the most influential figures in modern rap; they detail wealth as a tightrope: Drake lending his intuitive croon, self-styled Miami kingpin Rick Ross and the ever-sly Lil Wayne boasting as they walk its fine line.
Many of Khaled’s preferred personalities return on the remaining songs. T-Pain, Birdman, Ludacris, Busta Rhymes and protégé Ace Hood all collude with yet a handful of others on the closing track, a remix of “Welcome to My Hood,” which features an impressive chain of acrobatic rhymes from its guests. The mastermind raps a few bars in that final bout, but overall shares production credits in only three songs on We the Best Forever. Never one to overtake his assembly, DJ Khaled allows the network of producers, rappers and singers he’s curated to speak for itself.
DJ Khaled joined BMI in 2004. Dig deeper at www.djkhaled.org.
M. Sean Ryan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. He is Editor and Writer-in-Chief of HASH Magazine and has contributed to Slant Magazine and themusicswamp.com, among other outlets.