It’s coming up on two in the morning in an industrial warehouse complex outside Stockholm, and Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, Maverick Management partner and XO label CEO, who manages superstars The Weeknd and French Montana, is dealing with a major onstage malfunction just moments before a performance. The Mac laptop used by Montana’s DJ to power the rapper’s backing tracks has inexplicably died, but someone comes to the rescue: Slaiby’s wife, Rima Fakih, who is his unofficial traveling IT department. Four months pregnant with the couple’s third child, Fakih, 33 — who in 2010 became the first Arab American to be named Miss USA — is as spry as the Swedish summer morning that’s starting to peek out barely four hours since sunset.

Minutes later, Montana is hitting his groove in front of an audience of tech insiders and influencers as Spotify CEO Daniel Ek watches nearby. The Slaibys, model Naomi Campbell and Montana co-manager Dina Sahim cheer from the side of the stage, all smiles until an unknowing Swede steps in front of Campbell and obstructs her view. 

“Bro, you gotta move,” says Slaiby, a 39-year-old Lebanese Canadian who might come off as intimidating if you didn’t know there was a teddy bear inside the gruff facade. The local doesn’t budge, and Sahim comes in for backup while Campbell shields her face, both for cover and out of astonishment at a rarely seen jostled side of Slaiby. It doesn’t take long for the interloper to retreat. As always, Sal gets his way. 

No wonder Live Nation’s Michael Rapino and Maverick founder Guy Oseary (Madonna, U2) saw something special in the makeup of the rags-to-riches Slaiby, the very manifestation of the lyric “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.” To put it chronologically: He went from working one hip-hop record at a time to heading Canada’s top independent label to signing The Weeknd and partnering with Maverick, joining a stable of managers who collectively represent a couple dozen of the world’s biggest music stars, including Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears and Shania Twain.

Slaiby’s Sal & Co. is a robust concern that includes management (producers and songwriters like hitmaker Metro Boomin and developing acts like NAV) and houses XO, the label and merchandising arm for The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye), with whom Slaiby has worked since 2011. The Weeknd has grossed tour receipts of $106 million, according to Pollstar, and global streams of 330 billion that, along with merchandise, put his net worth north of $70 million. Montana, a seasoned rapper nurtured by Sean “Diddy” Combs, is seeing his most fruitful years yet. 

That stratospheric success is one reason why Slaiby was invited to the Swedish capital to speak at the Spotify-hosted ultra-exclusive Brilliant Minds conference in June alongside such media giants as Shari Redstone, Ted Sarandos and Barry Diller and political heavyweights like former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry. When asked about his face-to-face with Obama at a private
dinner for speakers the night before, Slaiby says: “I told him, ‘You know we’re related. My wife’s middle name is Hussein!’” Noting that the ex-president’s self-curated 2017 year-end playlist included Montana’s hit “Unforgettable,” he adds, “We were laughing; then I thanked him for including French on his Spotify playlist.”

It’s precisely this sort of bright-eyed, find-a-common-denominator charm that has helped propel Slaiby from hip-hop tastemaker to master impresario, building what he would call a family business. 

“Sal’s not just my manager; he’s my brother,” says Montana, who, along with The Weeknd, traveled to Stockholm to cheer Slaiby on. “The work he does is from the heart, and that’s why our bond is so special.”

Adds longtime associate Amir “Cash” Esmailian: “Growing up in Canada as immigrants, it was almost impossible to make it in the music business. Sal never gave up on us and our dreams. His values and principles never changed, and that’s what pushed us to make our own change.”

After Slaiby’s Brilliant Minds talk — titled, naturally, “Make Your Own Change” — he sat with Variety for an exclusive interview.

You fled Lebanon for Canada, alone, at 15 years old. What do you remember of your arrival? After I got through customs, I had to look back to make sure nobody was coming after me. Because coming from a place of war and death and devastation, it meant the world to me to get to Canada. At that moment, it was like everything that had come before had been deleted. I was so ready for life.

What were some of the early challenges you faced? It was a hustle — a struggle to survive. When you’re that young, you don’t always know the difference between your wants and your needs. I had to quickly forget about what I wanted and only focus on what I needed to survive. At that time, there was no internet or social media. To get a Social Security number, I was like, “Where do you go?” At 15, I had to figure out how to enroll myself in school and live on my own. I was ready to face all those obstacles without showing any fear. 

Sal Slaiby Music Manager Vertical

How did you first discover hip-hop? Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” — that song was on repeat — then Tupac when I was 16 or 17. I also loved the East Coast rap scene. I fell in love with Biggie, Nas, Mobb Deep. R&B acts like Ginuwine and 112 had a rawness to their music. Those songs will speak to you forever. 

You launched your own company, CP Music Group, in 2005 and went on to claim top market share as an independent in Canada. Ten years in, you sold it to Live Nation. Why? I felt like the music business was changing. The record label business was shaky between CDs and iTunes. Deals were going down, and I was able to get my record label to a place where, for an indie hip-hop label in Canada, nobody was even coming close to us. So I made the decision to sell the company and get into management. Streaming came along, rebuilt the business, and now it’s stronger than ever, which is great for everybody.

When The Weeknd signed with Republic in 2012, it was a label joint venture rather than a straight artist deal. What was the thinking behind that? And why Republic when the competition for Abel was so fierce? Record label executives were like, “Abel, just name your price,” but [Republic co-founders] Monte and Avery Lipman were special. Seeing two brothers who run a company together stood out right away for us. I noticed small details like that they never interrupted each other. And Abel, he is his own A&R; he’s the king of his own music. We didn’t want a label that gets involved in our creative process. We wanted a real partner that believes in us, and Monte showed us that. 

Abel is regarded as an artistic trailblazer. How does the team stay ahead of trends when music moves so quickly? We try not to focus on trends at all. And I’ve got to give it to Abel — when he’s creating, he just wants to see the future. He’s so good at that. I remember the first time he played us [2016’s] “Starboy.” I was like, “Oh, my God, are you f–king kidding me?” How could you not fall in love with it the second the track starts? You’re just controlled by the song. 

Because The Weeknd and Drake both broke out of Canada around the same time and exploded simultaneously, do you see it as a “rising tide lifts all boats” situation? XO gave Canada a whole new darkness, a vibe, a different flavor. Drake definitely had huge global success that opened doors for many Canadian artists. There’s enough for everybody.  … The music business leads you into a competitive zone, 24/7. I take it as a great sport. I think everybody should wake up in the morning and pay attention to the competition. 

For “Unforgettable,” French Montana paid a fortune out of pocket for a beat at your urging. How did you know it would be one of the biggest songs of 2017? We saw the vision. You couldn’t stop us. We were ready at any cost; we believed in the record that much. It was personal to us. And then French came up with the idea for the video. He found these kids dancing online and said that was the vibe he wanted — something that had a soul and touches you. I’m really good at execution, and take pride in that, so I got my staff to find those kids … in Uganda. We contacted them and I was able to arrange a video shoot in their country. I convinced French to fly 30 hours to get there, but he came back a different person. … And we ended up building a hospital that serves 300,000 people. It’s incredible how much that means to me and to French, both being immigrants. This is bigger than success. These are the moments I live for in my career.

Montana was born in Morocco and is here on a green card, and you have yet to gain American citizenship. How do you feel about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric? I’m going to be the greatest immigrant he ever saw and change his mind. You can’t fight a fire with fire. You have to fight fire with water. This is how I want to get the message through to Trump.

Clockwise from above left: Slaiby with The Weeknd; with former President Obama; and greeting Pope Francis with his wife, Rima Fakih, and their daughter
Courtesy of Sal Slaiby

Sylvia Rhone was recently named chairman of Epic Records, Montana’s label. How would you describe her leadership? I admire Sylvia’s leadership because she is fearless and empowers management to lead. Our relationship is special in that Sylvia admires how hard we work and how we don’t only wear a management hat. 

Do you concern yourself with things like the majors’ negotiations to extend licenses for Spotify? Or Universal Music Group’s potential minority interest sale? I don’t, because Lucian [Grainge, UMG chairman] does a phenomenal job. He has been such a powerhouse and a strong leader to the whole of Universal Music Group. Growth, partnering or selling is always good for the music business. Whatever they decide to do, somebody is going to get rich, and I’m happy for them as long as it doesn’t reflect negatively on artist services. As for Spotify, Daniel [Ek] is my bro. He’s a great family man. He’s seen the vision. I love how young he is [36] and what he’s accomplished. 

What do you still want to accomplish? I want to build a real legacy for myself and my team. Coming up, nobody supported young entrepreneurs and especially a new immigrant like myself. So here I am building an empire of young entrepreneurs that have the same hunger and vision as me. Also, the Middle East is a big thing for me. They love urban music. It’s probably the biggest genre in the region right now. And seeing in the past couple years how many activities and festivals are getting booked in the area, from Massive to Formula One in Dubai. In 2017, we brought [DJ] Kygo to Dubai and Lebanon back-to-back. It’s a market that I’d love to focus on and help grow.   

Coming from such humble beginnings, was there a moment when you felt like you finally made it? On my wedding night in 2016. I whispered into my wife’s ear, “This is true success for me; everything else is a blessing.” Three years and two kids later, with another on the way, I will stick to that.