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Keys to the Future
By Brennan Kilbane | Photo: by Warwick Saint | Styled by Terrell Jones | March 23, 2018
Forget what they don’t want you to do. DJ Khaled is living the life he always wanted, embracing fatherhood and spreading good vibes one catchphrase at a time.
The first thing you need to know about DJ Khaled is that it is nearly impossible to comprehend DJ Khaled. In theory, he is larger than life: one of the most prolific music producers of our time, responsible for three Billboard No. 1 hits in the past year alone; an artist in his own right with 10 studio albums under his Gucci belt; a music executive; and, “obviously,” he explains to me late one February night, “an entrepreneur and a mogul.” But in reality, he is so much more than all of that. He’s a life coach, and an author, and a living meme, and a gold-plated warrior of God’s love, hellbent on spreading joy to every living being on this Earth, including plants. His motto, “We the Best,” is at once his producer’s tag (the one he shouts at the beginning of a song before it goes platinum), the name of his media conglomerate and his self-love manifesto. He hasn’t met you yet, but he loves you to death; he thinks you’re destined for greatness; and he wants nothing but the best for you.
To begin to understand him—a task you will begin in vain and ultimately abandon because it is fruitless—you have to go back to when he was 14 and DJing in his garage in New Orleans. Khaled (Mohammed Khaled, his given name), the son of Palestinian immigrants, spent his youth mixing tapes and playing them for whoever would listen. “I remember throwing my own parties,” he says. “I was never the guy who was waiting for someone to hire me. I hired myself. I rented out halls, passed out my own flyers. … Why wait on a promoter when you can invite the same way they would invite?” People loved him then for the same reason they love him now—his capacity to entertain and his radiant disposition make watching him like watching a human light show. It was all of this, plus his talent, that landed him in Miami in 1998, where he DJed first for a pirate radio station, then as co-host of The Luke Show with Uncle Luke. He’d be on the radio five days a week and DJing at the club seven days a week. He credits the city of Miami for raising him—the clubs Warsaw, Liv and Story were his nurseries. 2006 saw his first album; the next 11 years saw nine more. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the tracks he’s guested or advised on, or produced or remixed. His discography has its own Wikipedia page.
When it comes to explaining his talent, Khaled is inscrutable. During the course of our interview, I try desperately to figure out how it is possible for somebody to repeatedly make hits in an industry afflicted with chronic turnover. Khaled tries to elucidate his talent but cannot. Asking him how he makes a hit is akin to asking LeBron James why he can jump so high: It’s muscular.
But Khaled tries because he is the most compassionate person in America and he can feel my struggle. First: “I work off of vibes.” Then: “Sometimes I start songs by making titles. I might name something that I feel would be a great song, and that’ll spark the idea for writing it.” (This was the case with his latest album, Grateful, which debuted last year at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and went platinum two months later.)
Sometimes it’s fortuitous, like when he was out eating sushi in a private dining room he rented and heard the song that later became the sample for the single “Shining” (which he worked on with Beyoncé and Jay-Z), Shazam’d it (Osunlade’s “Dionne”) and headed for the studio. He completed the track in a shorter amount of time than it took me to write this article—because he’s DJ Khaled.
But the best answer, and the one Khaled keeps offering, is this: “I’m one of the greatest, you know?” This sounds egomaniacal but is a statement of basic fact.
Khaled is one of a handful of power producers more or less responsible for the American music industry, but the odds are good he’s the only one you know by name (because he bellows it during every other song on the radio). It’s easy to dismiss Khaled’s stage persona as branding, but “radical authenticity” might be more apt: He famously broke out of the hip-hop sphere and into every household conversation in the United States when he adopted Snapchat as his personal platform for disseminating inspiration to millions of fans. “They’ll try to close a door on you,” he says in one, to a closed door. “Just open it,” he says, opening it. He displays his personal grooming routine, which involves lots of Dove products and cocoa butter. He waters his garden famously and shouts beatitudes from hot tubs.
The most profound thing that sets Khaled apart is his relentless positivity. Greatness, according to him, goes hand in hand with gratitude. “So many people out there are fighting to be great but aren’t grateful,” he says. “I’ve worked my whole life and have never been the guy who complains. Why would I waste my energy complaining [about] setbacks when I can put my energy toward the solution to be great?” Even hit-making is, to Khaled, an act of consideration for the world around him. “I wouldn’t want to waste your time when you’re listening to the radio. I don’t want to waste my time; I don’t want to waste the fans’ time; I don’t want to waste the artist’s time. If it’s not great, then I stop and scrap it, and move on to something else.” Khaled wants you to listen to only good music all of the time because that’s how much he cares.
Two years ago, Khaled’s fiancee, Nicole Tuck, gave birth to the world’s youngest executive producer: Asahd. As first children are wont to do, he changed everything for Khaled. “Right now, I’m watching my son run around with a blanket on his head, and,” he pauses thoughtfully and I think he’s going to cry, “my son is my everything.” He is also in the title of Khaled’s forthcoming album: Father of Asahd.
And Asahd is doing great, thank you for asking. This year, he unveiled his Jordan Asahd collection for Nike—last year he produced Grateful and also turned 1. Since his birth was livestreamed on Snapchat, Asahd has been the focal point of the Khaled family, appearing on his father’s album art and occasionally onstage too. The family usually tours together. “Everywhere I go, my queen and son are with me,” Khaled says. “I told my son the other day, ‘What you’ve accomplished in one year took me 42 years.’” What does Asahd make of his enormous success? “Man, he’s so smart,” Khaled says affectionately. “He understands every word I’m saying."
The moment he was born, I let him know: ‘You’re a boss. You’re self-made. You’re the greatest that ever did it. You can be anything you want to be.’ It’s our job to put the right environment around them and the right energy.”
Supporting youth is where most of Khaled’s energy goes nowadays. He works regularly with Get Schooled, a nonprofit focusing on raising high school graduation and college entry rates, along with his own We the Best Foundation (and accompanying Asahd Initiative). It’s not about molding youth, but giving them the tools—or, in Khaled-speak, “keys”—for long-term success. “The new generation of kids, they’re the ones who are going to be the next Khaled, the next Oprah, the next Obama, you know what I’m saying? They’re the ones. It’s important for all of us to embrace them.” This comment comes on the heels of the devastating mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla. (an hour north of Khaled’s home of Miami), which brought teen voices to crescendo in the national gun control debate. Khaled marvels at their courage: “We have to listen to them.”
That, and love more. If there’s anything to be learned from Khaled, it’s that love is the key—and sushi is best enjoyed in a private dining room.