DJ Khaled and the Art — and Chart Smarts — of the ‘Featured’ Guest

Rick Ross, Future, Nicki Minaj, August
Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock

From TurboTax endorsements to Silk Soymilk ads, DJ Khaled is everywhere, all the time. No project is more crucial; however, than the June 23 Epic Records release of “Grateful,” his new album with such name-above-the-title artists as Future, 21 Savage, Migos, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott, Alicia Keys, and more that will surely race to the top of the charts by week’s end. That’s Khaled’s thing — making radio- and club-friendly anthems with a veritable slew of credited features — as many as five on a track on “Grateful.”

And the charts have followed suit, with more than a third of the songs to hit the Billboard Hot 100 credited to one or more featured guests, chief among them: “Despacito,” the smash Latin-dancehall song of the summer with Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, which sits atop the chart for its sixth week at No. 1.

“Khaled has had that formula since we started working together,” says Tammy Brook, CEO of FYI Brand Communications, a company partnered with Khaled in branding and promotion. “Doing features is part of why he’s a cultural institution.”

Since the top of the year, Khaled has been dropping feature-heavy, pre-release singles from “Grateful”: first, “Shining” with Beyoncé and Jay Z (and a writing credit from PartyNextDoor), then April 26’s “I’m the One” with Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne which reached No.1, becoming Khaled’s first chart-topping single on the Hot 100. “To the Max” dropped June 5 with Drake’s name on it, and “Wild Thoughts” came out last week (June 16) with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller as that track’s features. “Wild Thoughts” is likely to give “Despacito” “a run for its money,” says Tom Poleman, iHeartMedia’s chief programming officer. “With Rihanna, Tiller, and [a sample of] Carlos Santana, Khaled does features right.”

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The idea and the culture surrounding the guest shot feature is hardly new, as hip hop has always given its superstar pairings the limelight. Consider 1981’s “Showdown” by The Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang, or 1989’s “Ladies First” with Queen Latifah and Monie Love, or Big Daddy Kane and Spinderella ‘s “Very Special” (1993). Certainly 1986’s feature with Run DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way,” introduced pop and rock to the game.

“Hip-hop is about community, culture and innovation, all which can be conducive to features,” says Mike Caren, songwriter, producer and CEO/founder of Artist Partners Group, adding that a lot of hip-hop’s invention is often born out of collaboration with two or more creatives challenging each other. “The year 1997 might have been the turning point for features going from a special to a staple. Puff Daddy’s ‘No Way Out’ album had a feature on almost every song and signaled a new era.” Khaled, in Caren’s mind, is carrying on Puffy’s masterwork with a DJ’s perspective of energy, fresh ideas and a deep understanding of what will move a crowd. “DJ Khaled is one of the great A&R men, DJs and personalities of this era.”

“The feature is like having an all-star team in front of you, as you’re combining fanbases and generating more interest,” adds iHeart’s Poleman. “That, in and of itself, demands a better hook because everyone is bringing something different to the table. Plus, features can merge different styles that might not always jive together.”

A feature fee also comes into the equation, where, depending on the stature, a featured guest can get as little as $5,000 to the high-range $100,000 to $150,000 to the superstar (and likely, brand-supported) $250,000 level. Sometimes, “artists will jump on [a track] and just do publishing,” says one industry insider of the back-end potential in a cowriting credit. “Every deal is different. There are singers who don’t get paid any publishing but just do it as a topline.” And there are occasions when money doesn’t factor in at all. “Artists swap appearances in hopes of a future collaboration,” explains another source.

Also worth noting: labels look to boost their market share by asking that featured artists be counted towards it. While the economics of a split don’t always add up, nevertheless there’s a perception of participation in a hit that is, in itself, valuable.

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And looking at the charts, they’re not wrong. David Penn, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hit Songs Deconstructed, a primary source for songwriting analysis and trends, studied the 131 songs that charted in the Top 10 of the Hot 100 between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2017, and found that 36% of those same hits have a credited feature. Broken down even further, Penn looked at the gender of artists, and noticed that, of the songs:

•                  17% are all male artists (like “Despacito,” which is credited to Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber)
•                  19% are both female and male artists (“Chained to the Rhythm” – Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley)
•                  Less than 1% are all female – only one song, “Side To Side” by Ariana Grande featuring Nicki Minaj, registered in significance, though Minaj’s latest appearance on Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” may add another to the mix.

When asked why an artist would partner with another artist, Penn’s observational data led him to the following conclusions:

•                  They provide an artist or artists with heightened exposure / new fan acquisition (i.e. tap into another artist’s fan base)
•                  Provide a song with heightened exposure and crossover potential (e.g. a Latin song like “Despacito” crossing over into mainstream Pop because of the remix that features Justin Bieber)
•                  Heighten the clout of a song and/or emerging artist through affiliation with an artist of higher stature.
•                  Provide a song with an additional element that heightens its impact – such as: a specific vocal characteristic (for instance: a featured artist providing a sung Pop or R&B chorus vocal in a song that contains rapped verses by the main artist), or a narrative enhancement (a featured artist in a male/female duet that provides one of the characters with a unique voice, thus heightening the impact of the storyline).

So how does Khaled get the A-list features so consistently? FYI’s Brook has an answer. “He has an uncanny ability to persuade; nobody can say no to him, because he has such a magnetic spirit,” Feature-heavy tracks, an album every summer with at least one quantifiable hit, has been his blueprint since the start, she adds. “The only thing that has changed is that more people are seeing and hearing what he’s doing.  He’s created a viral movement — a sense of urgency — and many artists want to be a part of that. Being featured with Khaled is a stamp of approval.”

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  1. Toni says:

    This is how mediocre artists rack up a lot of hits, being featured on ten songs at any given moment.

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