The music world is filled with self-made people, and DJ Khaled will never let anyone forget that he is one. Amid 15-plus years of gold and platinum albums, chart-topping collaborations with famous friends including Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West, longtime friends Lil Wayne and Rick Ross and even Justin Bieber, he is actually best known for his ubiquitous, boastfully self-referential shout-outs — to himself, in the third person — and his “We the best!” verbal branding.
Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid or forget it — and Khaled is as self-aware as he is self-referential. From online memes of fans’ favorite Khaled jokes or mispronunciations to comedian Aziz Ansari impersonating the DJ’s boasts during his 2022 Netflix stand-up special, people talk about Khaled almost as much as he does himself.
But when talking about his Hollywood Walk of Fame star, which he will get April 11, it is in many ways a culmination of the 46-year-old’s decades of working his way up from humble beginnings as the New Orleans-born son of Palestinian immigrants, to a record-store employee, radio DJ and finally a star in his own right, Khaled’s voice drops down to a modest tone before ramping back up to hype-man volume. (And yes, in real life, he talks just as he does on his records.)
“Everybody who puts out great work loves greatness to come back,” he says. “Now, am I driven by awards or other accolades? No. That I came from nothing, that I made it this far, and that I keep going and I keep growing — that’s what drives me. Being a father of two children drives me. Being a good man drives me — being there for my family and my children. I’m grateful for blessings that God gave me. Getting this star, that acknowledgment, is a blessing. Getting the call where you got a Walk of Fame star, a Grammy or a No. 1 album — I wake up every day saying that ‘We’re No. 1!’ So I am very grateful for the Hollywood Walk of Fame star, that sign of what I have accomplished. It’s nice getting the call that I’m getting a star, or a Grammy, or that I got another No. 1 album.”
And as he gears up for the next phase of his career and his next album, which features both newer names such as Lil Durk along with old friends including Rick Ross, Khaled is quick to say that an uplifting attitude and strong work ethic are where it all begins.
“Life calls upon us to be great, so let’s be the best of the best,” he says tapping his chest like the proud motivational speaker he basically is. “I wake up every day being No. 1.”
His longtime friend and collaborator Ross says of Khaled’s early days, “There were always a lot of things to like about him, but preeminent among those was that he always busted his ass. He would go to three and four clubs a night, do radio during the day, mixtapes at night. He was everywhere. We were both hard workers. Still are.”
“I wake up every day saying that ‘We’re No. 1!’ So I am very grateful for the Hollywood Walk of Fame star, that sign of what I have accomplished.”
Yet for all of his unrelenting self-promotion, the man born Khaled Mohammed Khaled in New Orleans on Nov. 26, 1975, says having a family completely changed his focus — suddenly, life was about much more than himself and music.
“It ain’t about just me no more — it’s all about my family and their future,” he says. “And I hope my children are inspired by what their daddy’s done, and to be great, to help people and to always accomplish their goals and dreams.”
That ethic began with his parents, who worked tirelessly for their family and pushed the young Khaled to strive hard and dream big.
“When I was a young boy in Louisiana and Florida, I always knew that I was going to climb a mountaintop, do it big. But knew that it would take a lot of hard work,” he says. “I had the attitude that I was great, and that I could attain the even greater. Believing in God made that possible. Believing in my parents made that possible. We knew we were going to do it big.”
His love for music developed early, from the traditional West and South Asian music his parents played at home — traces of which can be heard in his songs today — to the ’80s and ’90s hip-hop that he became obsessed with as a teenager.
“When you love something as much as I love music, it never feels like work,” he says. “That drive — I prayed on it so that it connected to something great. I still do. I pray for the world; I pray for God to put the light on for me and my friends.”
However, he also learned that sometimes success takes more than a strong work ethic and self-belief. He lowers his voice when saying that things “just didn’t work out” for his parents and a business they tried to start, which led him to work twice as hard as a teenager.
“I had to man up early, work for respect and take care of my mother and father, my family,” he says. “Work for your respect, work for what’s yours — that was my parents’ message.”
He did just that by moving away from New Orleans and the record stores he’d worked in — including Odyssey, where he met future collaborators Lil Wayne and Birdman — to Miami, where he DJed in clubs and eventually co-hosted “The Luke Show” with 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell on 99JAMZ-FM before launching his own radio show, and linking up with Fat Joe’s Terror Squad (who scored a classic hit with 2004’s “Lean Back”).
“He was our local club DJ,” says Ross, rapper, producer, founder of the Maybach Music Group and one of Khaled’s oldest friends. “K worked his way up to radio from the clubs, and always found a way to earn and garner the respect of artists, whether they were national artists coming into town like J. Lo and Lil Wayne, or local underground artists like me and Pitbull. He found a way to balance things out, show us all love and brotherhood. If you were an artist with a dream, you knew that he was somebody you had to be aligned with.”
Yet what made Khaled different was the diversity of the music he played: Whether on turntables, radio or records, he mixed up American hip-hop with Caribbean sounds, Latin rhythms, reggae, dancehall, soul, funk, jazz, rock and West Asian music. That foundation has continued through his dozen albums, from his first proper full-length, 2006’s “Listennn … the Album,” through to his most recent, 2021’s “Khaled Khaled.”
“God blessed me to love all music, especially Arabic music — dancing to Arabic music, going to family events and having it run through everything,” he recalls fondly. “You go to an Arabic wedding, and it’s music, music, music, wall-to-wall, beginning to end — that inspired me.”
However, “hip-hop was the first vinyl that I collected,” he says, with a childlike enthusiasm. “That and cassette tapes. Then when I got my first turntable, and put all of that music together, it made sense. I fell in love with the idea of combining all those different sounds into one, especially when I started DJing and then producing.”
Yet he was able to bring his wide-ranging musical background into all the music he was playing, promoting and creating.
“Sampling jazz records, soul, rock, Arabic — hip-hop is an amalgamation of all that. I didn’t know it when I was like an 8- or 9-year-old first loving music, but combining all of that was in my head since I was a tiny child. By 12 and 13 years old, I was scratching, I knew sampling. By 16, I had my keyboard, my drum machine, and my production skills together.”
Was there any one hip-hop record that moved the needle for him, that he feels elevated it to another level?
“Run DMC’s ‘Peter Piper,’ ” he says without hesitation, referring to the 1986 hit. “As a producer and a DJ, that record was genius because it had so many breaks and change-ups. And as artists, the way they performed it, that was genius! The first time I saw them, I knew that was what I wanted to do. That record is a DJ’s dream, but seeing Reverend Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay perform it, though, really drove ‘Peter Piper’ home for me. It drove hip-hop home for me. It was a feeling that I liiiiiiiked, for real.
“Plus, all of my friends were into it — we all were born into hip-hop.”
In fact, in many ways Ross and his career have followed similar tracks — both are 46, and the friends released their debut albums in summer 2006 — Khaled’s “Listennn … the Album” entered the Billboard 200 at No 12 in June, while Ross’ “Port of Miami” debuted at No. 1 two months later in August.
The rapper has also appeared on every Khaled album, often with three and four songs per set. “We came up together, and I had confidence in what he wanted to do,” Ross says. “That came naturally, you know? We found ourselves in the same rooms on the same day — the Hit Factory or Cool & Dre’s studio or Po Boy Studios, him behind me, or me behind him, and a conversation of creativity would spark immediately. He’d ask me what I thought of a beat, and I’d write him a verse just to show him what I thought.”
Camaraderie and a party-with-friend vibe is a foundation of Khaled’s sound. Starting with old record-store pals such as Wayne and Birdman (that led to an introduction to Drake), Miami allies including Ross and Trick Daddy and moving up to Jay-Z and Beyoncé and more recently Cardi B, Post Malone and Justin Bieber, relationships are the heart of DJ Khaled records.
“My relationships are crucial to me, way more important to me than making a record,” he says. “I’ve known most of these friends from their start. When I was DJing, I used to break their records, before they became big. As I was pursuing my career and my goals as an artist and producer, we came up together and built that mutual respect.”
Ross seconds that emotion. “We both have been at the bottom of that bucket, and have both earned our ways to the top,” he says. “Me watching him create further collaborations beyond our own, and have No. 1 records over and over that respond to the clubs, the radio and the live festival scene — what Khaled brings to the game is real. You can feel it. And the rush Khaled gets when he’s working with me on all of his albums across all of these years, it’s like we’re both still unsigned artists — still hungry. He’ll get a beat that excites him and he’ll call me 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. I’ll get on the mic at 3 a.m., and he’s moving at a pace like it’s gonna hit Spotify by 7 a.m.! That’s the same vibe from when we did the tracks on ‘Listennn …’ as it was on ‘Khaled Khaled.’ We’re older now, but it’s still a pure feeling.”
Khaled points a finger to the sky and he says, “Greatness finds greatness. Winners work with winners. Nothing but the best comes out of that. And everyone with me knows that I have love in my heart when we work together and that I want to hit a home run with them each time at bat. I’m always going all out.”
Much of that work is underway long before the artist gets on the mic. “That way, if they love it, the excitement they feel at that exact moment goes into the track,” he says. “You can’t record just anything with Kanye or Beyoncé — it has to be incredible. They have to know they’re walking into that when I call them. You don’t get an anthem without putting
in the work.”
But, he adds more modestly, “Really, if you don’t go big with all of these artists, you might not get another chance. So I’m giving each and every artist 1 trillion percent of me in the studio. That’s the only way you can approach these artists, and I expect the same of them — nothing less. Now, I have friends and artists who’ll record anytime, at the drop of a needle, but I don’t work that way. I always need to be inspired, and ready to motivate. That way, when we record and I release what we do, these tracks will have staying power. I want these tracks to live forever.”
That rare dynamic shows in his records, because Jay-Z, Ross and Bieber sound dramatically different on their own records from the way they do on Khaled’s.
“You’re right — what they’re doing for me, they’re not doing on their own records,” he says proudly. “Different and elevating — I’m going to use that! And they’re a part of it. And it’s got to capture a moment in time. Ten years from now, I want you to remember where you were when you heard it, and what else was going on around you. Maybe you were at the Super Bowl. Maybe you were graduating. Maybe you were on vacation or on a yacht. You hear a DJ Khaled song and you remember that moment. That’s what is great about making anthems — they’re climactic.”
That sense of an event, of momentousness, is something he strives to include in his best work. “I always want to give the audience a show, a deep experience — that’s what I’m inviting them to take part in,” he says. “So I treat my records like a big show of which you’re a part. That’s the concept. When an artist records with me, everything about the song has to stick out like a sore thumb — hooks, bars, concepts. Whether it’s in the clubs or on your headphones, it’s got to stick out, sonically and conceptually, like you’re in a stadium with these artists and me.”
Ross puts Khaled’s unique production abilities down to his background at record stores and as a DJ. “Khaled just has this knack for putting exciting samples together,” he says. “Being at radio for all those years gave him a sense of what radio needs. Even though I sell, I’m still an underground artist who understands what is needed to sustain the respect of the have-nots.”
So even all these years after moving from have-not to have status, why does he still feel the need to shout himself out so frequently on his hits, even when he’s the
Khaled laughs and recalls that early in his career, he was told that no DJ or producer had ever had a successful album under their own name.
“I heard that and I wanted to challenge that,” he says thoughtfully. “You have to remember that, as a kid, I came up with no Instagram or Twitter, or no Zoom to do the interview like this. So I had to get people to know who I was, fast; I had to tell people up front who I was and what they were getting — a No. 1, then another one. When I came up in the clubs, I would use my name in the talk-in. I wanted people to leave thinking that my mixes were dope: ‘What was that?’ That was a DJ Khaled joint. They remembered my name and probably came to see and hear me when I played another club. Same with making records. How am I going to stand out? Through my identity.
“It’s not just my tag,” he continues, gaining momentum. “It makes a song elevate. I want you to remember just who made everything, so we scream ‘DJ Khaled!’ and ‘We the best!’ on every record. It makes each song bigger — it makes all of us bigger. The expectations that I have are as big as the kids who are listening to these records. Kids are screaming ‘DJ Khaled!’ Because the sound is the thing, but it is identity too. We are the best — we are all the best! Here comes another one! Not just me, but you as well. We are coming! We are all the best! Every day — that’s how we elevate. That’s how we — the record and us, together — become bigger.”
Such enthusiasm takes not just self-belief, but a lot of energy and good will as well. “I’m doing everything with love,” he says. “We’re out of the gate with positivity. We all have our days, but why focus a day on the negative? That’s a waste. Be the light. Why would I want to be anything but the best? I embrace the light every day and know this is love. If a day’s not great, make it great.”
At the rate he’s going, he’ll outshine his Hollywood star.
Khaled laughs. “It’s like Nike’s ‘Just Do It,’ it’s Air Jordan and Michael Jordan,” he says, briefly digressing about a sneaker collaboration with Jordan he has coming later this year before resuming his line of thought. “I want to inspire all of us to be No. 1. Especially in times like this — the news, the pandemic, social media, that’s all a lie. The truth is you. I need you to know that we are all the best. I wake up every morning, I pray, I kiss my family, I look in the mirror and say, ‘We are the best.’ I’ve made that a part of everything I’ve done my whole life. That’s my brand, and the name of my label, and I always knew it would be. Push yourself to be great — wake up and motivate yourself your own way. It’s a love chant, the ultimate in self-care.
“So when I get that star on the Walk of Fame, we’re all getting that star,” he concludes. “You don’t have to want to be No. 1 — you already are. You already have that Walk of Fame star.”