DJ Khaled Talks Hits, Hustle and Why He Still Gets Nervous Around Beyonce and Rihanna

DJ Khaled at home in Beverly
JAKE MICHAELS/The New York Times

It’s easy for anyone who’s heard a DJ Khaled song or seen him onstage to think that all he does is get up there and yell, then rope in famous friends who inexplicably do all the real work for him. After all, he’s not singing, rapping, dancing or playing an instrument — and while his bearded, plus-sized frame has become iconic, he’s not exactly supermodel material.

But Khaled, the 41 -year-old son of hard-working Palestinian immigrants, came in ninth on Forbes’ latest Hip-Hop Cash Kings list, with $24 million earned over the last year — ahead of Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Nicki Minaj. His last two albums, “Major Key” and “Grateful,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — and the latter not only includes two of the year’s biggest songs, “I’m the One” and “Wild Thoughts,” which landed at No. 9 and No. 26 (respectively) on Buzz Angle’s Top Songs of 2017, it features some of the biggest stars in the world: Beyonce, Jay-Z, Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne (Jay-Z is also Khaled’s manager). He has built an empire around his We the Best brand, and he’s branching into films, appearing in “Pitch Perfect 3” and a couple of others to be announced. He has branding or endorsement deals with Mentos, Champ Sports, Apple and other brands, and he scores six-figure fees for his DJ gigs. He lives large and broadcasts his doings from nearly every possible platform, with nearly 15 million social media followers (even his infant son Asahd has 44,000 Twitter followers). He’s on countless records yelling about his greatness, his gratitude for his greatness, and self-help advice about how to attain greatness like his.

Yet Khaled’s boasting both broadcasts and obscures the fact that he’s a first-rate producer in the truest sense of the word: an operator, organizer, orchestrator, hustler, hooker-upper and a world-class networker as well as a golden-eared record producer. He can get those artists on his records because he’s known most of them for 10 or 15 or, in Lil Wayne’s case, 24 years; several high-placed music executives told Variety he’s the best A&R in the business. It’s not that he’s the biggest dreamer or talker or mastermind —although he’s up there — but he just might believe bigger than anyone else.

“His business acumen goes well beyond music,” says Sylvia Rhone, president of Epic Records, which inked a partnership with Khaled’s We the Best label in 2016. “He is a genius at tying together all the disparate, moving parts and coming out with a diamond. He’s a culture creator and a rain-maker who is always thinking miles ahead of most people in the game. He impresses me every day.”

“I’ve always had the hustle in my blood,” says Khaled from his studio in Los Angeles, where he was working up some “top secret” new music. “The key is to believe: To succeed, you must believe.”

The building blocks of his empire were set in New Orleans and Florida, where the young Khaled Mohamed Khaled saw his parents working “seven days a week, 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.” He began DJing and organizing parties in his early teens, and worked at New Orleans’ Odyssey record store, where he first met Lil Wayne and the brothers who founded Cash Money Records, Bryan “Birdman” and Ronald “Slim” Williams, in the early ‘90s. “I learned a lot there,” he says. “When people would buy CDs or cassettes I’d have to scan it, and the sale would get documented [by Nielsen SoundScan]. So when we’d sell music by people who didn’t have national deals yet, like Birdman and Slim bringing me the early Cash Money albums out of the trunk of their car, I’d get [major] record companies calling me up asking, ‘Are you really selling all those records?’ ‘Absolutely — they sell out in an hour.’ So I learned that by those guys going to the local store to sell their music the correct way, it ended up [getting them major-label deals] and changing their lives. If you’re good at something and the people want it, make sure you get your credit!”

In a similar way, his work as a DJ shaped his skills as a record producer. “DJing at parties, I knew I had to keep the crowd moving and control the mood — some parties I’d make it feel like New Year’s Eve, others I’d make people wanna have an ice grill. And being a DJ on the radio, everyone would request the hits so I’d [analyze] why people loved those songs. I learned where to put certain breaks and build-ups to build emotions, how big the chorus and the hooks need to be. It’s about bringing out emotions in the listener, so any time you have a record that can connect with people, you’re doing your job as a producer.” He even undertakes the notoriously laborious process of clearing samples himself. “Usually you have people at the labels who get paid a lot of money to do that, but I think it makes me appreciate it — like, ‘Yo, if I’m gonna do all this sh–, I’d better make sure this record is a hit!’”

Through it all, he’s built up a contact list that has few peers in the hip-hop world: Even his first album, 2006’s “Listennn… the Album,” featured Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, John Legend, among many others. “A lot of them are people that I came up with — I broke some of Kanye’s early records on my radio show — or I started off as a fan: I remember going to a [Notorious B.I.G.] concert and asking him and Puff for a drop on my little cassette recorder, and I always looked up to Jay. Now he’s my manager and partner — when I’m in a room with him, I still be trippin’.”

Yet for all his high-roller hobnobbing with pop royalty, Khaled admits, “There’s only two artists I get starstruck from, and that’s Rihanna and Beyonce,” even though both are featured on his album and Khaled was the opening act on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” tour. “Me and Rihanna are friends and we always show love to each other, but I get real shy. And when I be talking to Jay and Beyonce pops up, I mean, obviously I say hello and I’ve thanked her for putting me on the floor. But I’m so nervous I don’t look nowhere else but at Jay, and then I leave the room like ‘I gotta go.’” He laughs, “I’m telling you, it’s weird!”

It would all be just talk if he didn’t deliver. “When I first started throwing parties, I’d make sure the flyers looked cool and I passed them out at high schools, the mall, restaurants, everywhere. And when you showed up and that party was incredible, you’d trust my vision and next time around it gets bigger. I already had the mentality of a CEO at 14 or 15 years old. I went through some hard times but I was always focused on the goal and the vision: To be one of the greats you’ve got to be very confident.”