Every DJ Khaled album cycle engenders the same question throughout certain segments of the hip-hop community: what exactly does he do? In the past two weeks, that query was weaponized more than ever after Khaled took to social media to downplay Tyler The Creator’s appeal while complaining about his own Father Of Asahd album initially debuting at number two on the Billboard charts. Khaled was upset that he was missing out on roughly 100,000 units because Billboard wasn’t counting his energy drink album bundle toward his first-week album sales, and Tyler caught some misdirected anger. There are plenty of people who listened to both albums last week, and there was no need for Khaled, usually a purveyor of hip-hop unity, to subtly snipe at Tyler in his moment of anger.
This week, Father Of Asahd tabulated more units than Tyler’s exceptional IGOR project because some people bought energy drinks, but the sting of Khaled slighting Tyler’s music as “mysterious” persists. Tyler and Khaled were pitted against each other by many people last week, which is an apples and oranges comparison. Tyler is a talented rapper and producer. Khaled is no longer a from-scratch producer like Tyler, though he has a say in the beatmaking and recording process ala Diddy or Jermaine Dupri. He’s definitely not a rapper, but that doesn’t mean that his contributions to rap are a mystery; his game is in his name. His albums are true to the spirit of the DJ’s place in rap as a curator and vibe setter. Mocking him is showing disregard to every DJ who ever created compilation mixtapes and/or albums.
Hip-hop culture was cultivated from four elements: rap, DJing, grafitti, and breakdancing. Most casual listeners and young hip-hop fans may primarily identify the term hip-hop with rapping, but that reduction is their own shortsightedness at play. There have been many DJs who, like Khaled, have utilized their network to put together projects under their sonic purview. They A&R the projects by greenlighting songs, choosing the beats, and deciding the ideal artists to fit each production. That is a key cog of the creative process and takes a devoted understanding of hip-hop to pull off.
And Khaled cultivated his curatorial eye on a winding journey that reflects a devotion to hip-hop felt in every one of his impassioned award show speeches, interviews, or song intros. There are some who find his shtick obnoxious, but frankly, he deserves to be after his grind paid off. The New Orleans native started his career working at a record shop in the early 90s, then began DJing all over the Big Easy before transitioning to Miami’s 99 Jamz radio station for years. It was there that he met Fat Joe, who put him down with his Terror Squad crew. Khaled capitalized on his position as the Terror Squad DJ to nestle further into the music industry as a producer, and ultimately landed a deal with Koch Records that laid the way for his 2006 debut Listennnn…The Album.
From there, he’s been on an upward ascendance, becoming the most commercially successful DJ ever from a sales perspective. In the 1980s and early ’90s, legendary DJ figures like Mr. Magic, DJ Red Alert, and the duo of DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, among others, pioneered the mix compilation format, putting together mixes of the hottest rap songs that were bumped throughout the New York City area on the radio or on cassette tapes. Later on, disc jockeys like DJ Clue, Kay Slay, DJ Drama, and Funk Master Flex released compilation mixtapes featuring freestyles and song submissions from the hottest artists of the moment, even releasing studio albums through major labels. What Khaled does is a continuation of that latter format, with a more commercially polished, hit-driven formula. He was able to sidestep the death of the physical mixtape market in the late ‘00s, which hamstrung many DJs, and curate hit-laden albums with his hefty network of artists like Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and more. They respected his craft enough to jump on hits like “We Takin Over,” “I’m So Hood” and “I’m On One,” which, along with his incessant internet presence, helped him climb the industry ladder and reach the top tier stratosphere of artists like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Rihanna.
But Khaled’s ascendance has been a blessing and a bit of a curse. He named one of his albums Suffering From Success, which is an accurate summation of his public perception. Hip-hop purists who bumped Clue or Kay Slay tape would never question the role of those DJs in picking the artists and songs, because they know that the tapes are an extension of their role as soundscapists. But as Khaled’s career has ascended beyond the sphere of hip-hop traditionalists and into the top 40 realm, casual fans who don’t know the nuts and bolts of hip-hop often display their ignorance by questioning his purpose on his albums.
DJs who curate projects must feel like referees in sports; patrons don’t notice their impact until they make their presence known. And Khaled, more than perhaps any DJ, does that. He’s branded himself with viral motivational videos where he humorously lets viewers know that a nameless “they” didn’t want you to succeed. Whereas most DJ’s utilize trademark sound effect tags to mark their stamp of approval, Khaled is like DJ Drama and others who make their vocal presence felt at the beginning and ends of songs, letting you know that they had an imprint on the track.
Khaled has become the victim of casual rap fans’ subscription to a binary that suggests artists are either rapping on a record, making the beat, or have no value in its creation — even if they picked out all the featured artists and the beat. Would anyone walking home ragged after a night of dancing ask what a DJ did for them? No, but somehow there’s a mystery and downplaying of the DJ’s function when the format shifts from live play to music projects.
It often feels like if Khaled was a fledgling DJ who crafted moderately successful projects with up and coming artists, no one would ridicule his presence. But on tracks with Kanye West, Beyonce and Rihanna, their devoted fans often ask what he comparatively brings to the table — as if he didn’t set the table and invite the guests over, which plays an integral role in any track’s existence. Relegating Khaled or any DJ’s role in the creative process to strictly yelling adlibs over a fully crafted song is unfair. The inverse is true. Khaled uses his DJ instincts to choose the right production and the right people for them. It’s plenty fair for fans to be annoyed by his presence, but it’s unfair to deny his role in curating the sonic experience. He decided not to simply play good music like the average DJ, but compile some of his own under a branded umbrella. He should be applauded for that, not clowned.
And for those who read that and mutter, “I can do that”– there’s nothing stopping you. There are thousands of so-called hip-hop influencers on social media who may not be musically inclined but know good hip-hop. Khaled and other DJs have carved a path for people with a network and the know-how to make their own projects. There’s more of a need for people to compile and promote good music than be creating average music just because they want to be involved in the music scene.
There’s a space for knowledgable people who care for hip-hop culture to wrestle control back from out of touch corporations and metric-driven labels by becoming the modern descendants of star-making figures like Red Alert and Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, who were all respected DJs and gatekeepers of their day. And even if an aspirant doesn’t reach the heights of a DJ Khaled, they’ll still be contributing to the game in a valuable manner.
People who question the musicality of rappers or producers who sample are often called out by hip-hop fans for their bad takes. The same needs to be true of people who question the DJ’s role in the creative process. Contributing to hip-hop culture isn’t solely a manner of rhyming or making beats. And while Khaled is nothing close to Quincy Jones, as he tried to assert himself in 2017, he has a valuable space in the rap game that people should consider emulating instead of ridiculing.