In honor of our 15-year anniversary this month, DJBooth will be publishing a series of "lost" interviews from 2006 through 2011, including Kanye West, J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Clipse and more.
Wiz Khalifa's mainstream arrival came in late 2010, when his hit song, "Black and Yellow," the first single released off his third studio album Rolling Papers, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But less than one year prior, the skinny Pittsburgh native found himself in record label limbo.
In July 2009, Khalifa and his independent label home at the time, Rostrum, exited an existing contract with Warner Music, which was signed after the release of Khalifa's 2006 independent debut, Show and Prove. During his tenure at Warner, Khalifa released a grand total of zero albums, but thanks to a string of popular mixtapes, his fans remained happy and his buzz never died.
That November, two weeks after the release of Burn After Rolling, the first of three consecutive acclaimed mixtape releases (Kush & Orange Juice, Cabin Fever), and prior to eventually inking a new major label contract with Atlantic Records, whose parent company is ironically Warner Music Group, I spoke with Khalifa for the second time in two years. I wanted to know where his head was at following his departure from Warner, what he learned from his brief tenure with the label, and what his second act would look like.
On the afternoon of November 17, 2009, Khalifa, higher than a Russian satellite on stilts, rang my landline. While our conversation began by discussing his future, it eventually devolved into the difficulty of recording studio sex and always losing his iPhone. As I was reminded that day, there's only one Wiz Khalifa.
Our interview, edited for content, clarity, and length, follows.
DJBooth: This past July, you split from your label home at Warner Bros. Did they not understand the direction that you wanted to take your music, or did you simply not want to wait around any longer for them to push your project?
Wiz Khalifa: They completely understood the direction of where I wanted to take my music, and that’s why they were so lenient and so generous about releasin’ us when we asked them to let us go. I think Warner was looking for a specific thing from me, and they thought I was a certain type of artist, just a poppy artist and a fad-type artist, where it would be cool for a second and I’d start this fad, and then that would be that. I think, as time went by, they realized that I had some substance, and it would take time to build a fanbase and really market what I’ve got goin’ on, and that’s a little more difficult these days, especially with how people are stealin’ music, and how fast the game moves. I don’t have any hard feelings towards Warner. I learned a lot of things while I was over there, but it was definitely time for me to just take what I had learned and apply that to myself and do the independent thing.
Do you view the signing as a success or a failure?
I definitely view it as a success, ‘cause just being at Warner, it introduced me to the mainstream and the radio people. I got to meet a lot of DJs and get a lot of good people in my corner. It also let me know that I have hit potential—I can make good radio songs as well as what I’m doin’ right now, which is lyrical stuff, fun stuff for my fans and stuff like that. ‘Cause it’s really all about buildin’ a fanbase and having people who are gonna support you forever, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds, which is really rare for an artist these days, bein’ that they don’t do too much artist development and things like that.
The title of your new album is Deal or No Deal. I assume by this you mean, very straightforward, you are going to succeed with or without major label backing.
You hit the nail on the head, there’s nothing else to it. That’s it, man. My fans are gonna support me whether I’m signed to major label or not; everybody showed me that, with the support for me leavin’ my label and my buzz growin’ more and me bein’ more of a factor now than when I was on a major label. That right there proves [it], deal or no deal.
The project’s lead single is “This Plane,” which is an appropriate title given your career really has begun to take off. Now that you’ve boarded, how are you going to make sure that the flight is smooth?
I’m really just gonna stick to my guns and my original plans and actions and stuff that I do. Our whole process is taking time. I waited this long, so I can just keep slow-walking and taking my little steps, and eventually we’ll get to where we at, but when we get there we’re gonna have a strong foundation to stand on, so we’re gonna be there forever.
In the grand scheme of a career, you've really just begun.
Yeah, exactly. That’s why I’m cool with it; everything’s happening how it’s supposed to happen and when it’s supposed to happen. I feel like if I would have blown up on Warner, then where would I be now? I would be having to reinvent myself, and having to come back out another way, whereas now it’s like, I’ve been around, but I’ve still got the privilege of being looked at as a new cat, a young cat, a fresh cat. So I’m just attacking all that.
When we spoke early last year, I asked you what your top priority was as an artist, and you told me that you wanted to develop a direction for your music. 20 months later, is that still your central focus?
It’s crazy that I said that because that’s exactly what I feel like I’ve done in the last 20 months. That’s actually kinda cool that I said that and that you would bring that up, man—that’s great! Now it’s really just me maintaining what I’ve done and, like I keep sayin’, just building on top of it and just expanding and going deeper into what I’ve already created, and keep surprising myself. Right now I feel like it’s at a point where I have a certain fanbase, and I have people who wanna hear certain things from me. When I do my album—like my real, for sure album—I want it to be a studio sound, like a real musical sound [with] everything put together, and have it to a point where I’m on the radio and I’ve got a video on TV, but I’m still the same underground cat that people feel like I am.
Let’s discuss a few of the songs on the new album. Track eight is entitled “Studio Lovin’.” I’ve been in plenty of recording studios—not as many as you, of course—and, nice couches aside, they don’t strike me as the best place to really get it in. What have you found to be the case in your experience?
[Laughs] Um… studios are not the best place to get it in. That’s why, in the song, you’ll hear about me being all tangled up and messing stuff up. And me being as tall as I am, I’m 6’4”, so it’s definitely not the business for me. But, you know, when you’re young, you just try stuff to do it and then rap about it. It makes for a great song, though! [laughs]
Track number 14 is entitled “Who I Am.” Without having heard the full-length version of this record, who are you? Who is Wiz Khalifa?
I would definitely answer, just good times, man—fun, no stress, great music, a lot of weed smoke, and doin’ whatever the f*ck you feel. That’s what I do. And bein’ a business, too. ‘Cause I’m all about conducting business and doin’ sh*t the right way.
The project is set for a November 24 release. What happens next? I’m assuming you’re going to go on tour.
Yep. We’re gonna go on tour, we’re going straight on tour starting in the new year. And yeah, just expect me to be a little more mainstream. Not my music more mainstream, just the look; a lot of the people who’ve been wantin’ to see me out on these award shows and in these cameos, these videos, that’s what I’m about to start doin’ a lot more of. A lot more music bein’ played in the clubs.
New Years is around the corner. What is your number one resolution?
Number one New Year’s resolution… I don’t know, man. I feel like I did all right this year! [laughs] I don’t do any drugs or anything other than weed that I wanna stop.
Maybe you’re on your Blackberry too much? Do you tweet too much?
It ain’t even that… I don’t think I tweet too much. I lose my—there it is, New Year’s resolution: not to lose no more phones. I lost five iPhones this year.
You lost five iPhones in one year?
Yeah, just bein’ dumb! That’s my New Year’s resolution right there.
First, you mentioned weed, and then you mentioned losing your phone—is weed the culprit behind why you’re losing the phones?
No man, because weed helps me slow down and get sh*t together and focus and be like, “Phone, keys, everything–alright, cool.” It’s when I’m moving too fast, that’s when I lose my phone.
So what you’re sayin’ is, without weed, you might’ve lost 20 iPhones this year?
Exactly, exactly. The weed saved the other 15 phones.