The platinum Terror Squad medallion worn by Palestinian-American producer and radio announcer DJ Khaled makes quite a thud as it lands on his desk. It’s got to be heavy, maybe one reason he takes it off as he sits in the offices of Serious Promotions, his music company, situated across the street from 99 Jamz, South Florida’s only station for hip-hop and r&b. A framed photo of Khaled and Russell Simmons sits on the table behind him, near his Rolodex.
“How y’all doin? Everybody good?” he says into his BlackBerry, addressing the street team at Koch, Khaled’s New York label. “It’s so important that y’all go in hard, because we’re making history right now. Not just DJ Khaled, but Koch Records. You got Jim Jones with the biggest album, biggest single. UNK: biggest album, biggest single. You’ve got DJ Khaled with the biggest album, biggest single. I am Koch’s lucky charm, you understand? I started off the movement with Koch.” As he talks, the diamonds in his watch and bracelet catch the afternoon sunlight through his office blinds, creating rainbows.
The rapper’s graveyard no more, Koch has bumped up its cachet since scoring so many Billboard hits in the past two years—it’s now a jump-off where underground rappers can actually maintain a career and still get some airplay. Even rappers with major deals like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Young Jeezy, Juelz Santana, and Snoop Dogg have done little side projects with Koch.
But Khaled doesn’t do little side projects. He makes what he calls “movies.” Like “We Takin’ Over,” the bombastic lead single on his new album, We the Best—the track features Akon, Lil Wayne, Birdman, Rick Ross, Fat Joe, and T.I. “That’s huge. That’s a big event. That’s never been done before,” Khaled says. “I’m not trying to sound cocky, but that’s the biggest thing out. You’ve got everybody’s favorite rapper on one record and it’s big. So that’s what I do is pull off the impossible. Can I just make this quick call to this radio station real quick? You sure?”
The voice of underground hip-hop in Miami since the late ’90s, Khaled Khaled (his birth name) got his start on pirate radio station Mixx 96 before jumping to 99 Jamz as a mix-show DJ. Listeners enjoyed his enthusiasm; soon, he was offered a nightly prime-time show called “The Takeover,” along with his co-host, K. Foxx.
“Man, I’m feeling good,” Khaled says as he goes live on Orlando’s 102 Jamz. “I’m on my way to Orlando ’cause it’s my brother’s birthday. Mayne: Happy birthday. I love you. No homo. You know how we do. It’s your birthday. God bless you. Mayne and Drew [of the Runners], they’re the biggest producers out right now. They hurtin’ the game . . . and you know they produced half my album, and trust me, that comes out June 12. They got a record called ‘I’m So Hood’ [featuring DJ Khaled, T-Pain, Trick Daddy, Rick Ross, and Plies], ’cause we so hood. And tonight I’m-a have a party with Mayne and Drew. I’m poppin’ bottles. I’m doing it big. I’m jumping in the crowd. I can’t wait. Rick Ross and my brother Fat Joe, we makin’ a movie.”
Khaled mostly plays the role of hype man on both We the Best and last year’s Koch debut, Listennn . . . The Album, shouting catch phrases that serve as rallying cries over the Runners’ tracks of lavishly overloaded organ and the swashbuckling synths of Miami production duo Cool and Dre. Khaled only produced one track on We the Best: “Before the Solution,” featuring Beanie Sigel. “You have to understand,” Khaled says. “I could produce the whole album, easy. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to have different sounds and help other people and bring different types of vibes. I’ll be in the studio while they’re making it. Everything is hands-on.” He compares himself to Lil Jon—there’s even a Crunk Juice refrigerator (that happens to be empty) in this office. “He does his ‘Yeah!’ and ‘OK!’ ” Khaled explains. “I do my ‘Listennn!’ and ‘We the best!’ ”
Even before he blew up in Miami, Khaled had important contacts from his days as a college-radio DJ in Orlando and his stint DJ’ing in New Orleans, his birthplace. Many of the major artists now appearing on his albums, Khaled knew and supported them before they got their major-label deals.
“You know the saying ‘Real recognize real’?” Khaled asks, sneakers propped up on his desk, leaning back in his black leather chair. “That’s the relationship I got with Jeezy. I knew Jeezy when he used to come to town to just party. Before I even knew he was a rapper. Then he got music and I let him rock one night in the club, and the club went crazy. He was standing on top of the bar rapping one of his songs. And they loved him, and I was like, ‘This kid gon’ be big.’ Lil Wayne and Birdman I knew when I used to live in New Orleans, when they were selling CDs and tapes out of their trunk to mom-and-pop shops. So I’ve seen their growth. And they’ve seen my growth.”
He gets another call. The DJ who’d just interviewed him wants Khaled to do an additional drop. “Can I do this real quick?” Khaled asks me. “Uh yeah, go ahead,” he tells the DJ. “But I’m doing the Village . . . what’s this called again? The Village Voice interview too.”
Soon, Khaled and his assistant drive across the street to the 99 Jamz studio in a black Cadillac Escalade. Yes, it’s sittin’ on Ds. At 6 p.m., on what happens to be Haitian Flag Day, the theme to “The Takeover” (a take on Dennis Edwards’s “Don’t Look Any Further” with verses by Trick Daddy, Busta Rhymes, et al) blasts through the station’s control room. Khaled cracks his mic and ID’s himself: “Yeah it’s DJ Khaled, the Don Dada, the Big Dawg Pitbull, Terror Squadian a/k/a We the Best!”
Then the menacing, fire engine–siren synths of “We Takin’ Over” take over. If this were the remix—featuring R. Kelly, Akon, T-Pain, Young Jeezy, and very special guest Lil’ Kim, we’d hear R. Kelly chanting Khaled’s name as if it were part of the Salatu-I-Fajr, the Muslim early-morning prayer. But this is the original, which climaxes with Lil Wayne’s verse. A group of us can’t help but rap along:
I am the beast
Feed me rappers or feed me beats
I’m untamed I need a leash
I’m insane I need a shrink
I love brain I need a leech
Why complain on easy streets
I don’t even talk I let the Visa speak
And I like my Sprite Easter pink
A few minutes later, while R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt” is on the air, Khaled hits up r&b singer T-Pain on his cell phone. “We the best, T-Pain! T-Pain, talk to me,” Khaled yells, surrounded by mix-show DJs. “Yo, Pain. Yo, listen. When I say the whole world loves the remix, all they’re talking about is that remix! It’s the biggest thing in the game right now. R. Kelly, Akon, T-Pain, Young Jizzle? Yo, Pain, what do you want me to do? Stop? Never, Pain. Yo, Pain, Pain, talk to me man! [Pain lets out a hearty laugh.] Where you at?”
“I’m in Tallahassee,” T-Pain replies, audible through Khaled’s phone .
“You’re in your hometown?” shouts Khaled.
“Yeah, my sister’s getting married tomorrow and I’m going to the wedding,” T-Pain says.
“We need to perform that ‘We Takin’ Over’ right there,” Khaled says to raucous laughs in the studio. “Perform that ‘We Takin’ Over’ at that wedding, Pain.” T-Pain cracks up again.
Khaled’s a member of New York rapper Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, and talks openly about the influence New York City rappers and DJs have had on him. “Kid Capri I always looked up to big time,” he says. “I think he’s one of the greatest club DJs. When he was DJ’ing a party I was like, ‘Man, this dude is going in.'” He also thinks Hot 97’s DJ Funkmaster Flex took the radio game to another level. Some have even dubbed Khaled “The Funkmaster Flex of Miami”—he’s also a member of Flex’s DJ crew, the Big Dawg Pitbulls.
As to the schism between Northern and Southern hip-hop, Khaled seems to want to squash all that with We the Best‘s final track, “New York” (featuring Jadakiss, Ja Rule, and Fat Joe). “I’m about unity man!” Khaled implores. It’s something of a reprise of Ja Rule’s “New York” lineup from 2004, and Ja is like: “ I can’t believe niggas saying N.Y. fell off/And L.A. came back/The South is runnin’ shit/Then one blood rule/The shit is all developing.” New York hip-hop is often influenced by Southern hip-hop (the snappiness of Mims’s “This is Why I’m Hot”), while Southern hip-hop continually borrows from the classic New York sound—on Khaled’s “New York,” Cool and Dre appropriate what sounds like the beat from Whodini’s 1984 hit “Friends,” the chorus announcing “New York is back!” while Khaled shouts out his New York peeps, solemn as a proclaimer of names at a commencement ceremony: Funkmaster Flex! DJ Enuff! Mister Cee! Cipha Sounds! Green Lantern! DJ Absolut! DJ Camilo! Kay Slay! Envy! Jabba! Bobby Konders! Jazzy Joyce! Cocoa Chanel! Angie Martinez! Fatman Scoop! Miss Jones! Ralph McDaniels! DJ Clue! Red Alert! DJ Kid Capri! DJ SNS! Ron G! Doo Wop! Double R! Big Mike! DJ Clark Kent, I got you! DJ Threat! Jam Master Jay! Big Pun! B.I.G! We the Best!