Two and a half years ago, I was 50 feet away when Wiz Khalifa signed to Warner Brothers Records. Growing up under the same skyline as Khalifa, it felt like a moment of celebration for the entire city. In a smoky former-church-turned-club in Pittsburgh's Strip District, hours after Wiz opened a packed house for Nas (and got equal fanfare), major label reps courted the regional sensation until ink officially dried on Warner letterhead.
By early 2009, the label's dedication to Wiz may have been the next thing to dry up. Despite crossover success in "Say Yeah," a label merger with Asylum and a string of album delays halted the now-twenty-something emcee. Rather than make a scene, Khalifa made a quick, amicable exit. It was not long before Rostrum Records found a halfway house in iHipHop Distribution to drop Deal Or No Deal, a collection of work that caters to the blogs and online music consumers that kept Wiz' name ringing when major label marketing and promotions teams weren't.
With a pioneering presence on Twitter, a legion of bloggers making Wiz an international figure, and his youth still in tact, this Steel City star knew when it was time to fly, as he now aims to soar. Speaking with HipHopDX, Khalifa notes his growth through Deal Or No Deal, acknowledges his superior management team, and speak about the walls he and his peers are knocking down for emcees everywhere.
HipHopDX: I think the last time I saw you was the night you got the deal. If memory serves, it was April of 2007 and a lot in Hip Hop has changed since then. Looking at that experience versus your time before that deal, and now today being an independent; what would you say is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the record industry?
Wiz Khalifa: Well really the biggest change that I’ve noticed in the record industry is just how much more vital it is for artists to work for themselves and really establish their full fanbase and people that they’re making the music for. Because where labels used to come in before, [was] as far as distributing and making it so that the marketing and everything is right. It's still there. Labels are still good for that, but as far as developing an artist or having an artist with a lot of substance and with a lot going on other than just a hit song and stuff like that, it's really hard for labels to develop that and market that these days. So that’s really where its changed just in my eyes as far as that goes.
DX: Absolutely and that being said, one of the things that I think that you have that really works to your advantage is you’ve always had a team outside of whatever label there was. The Rostrum Records team and you know I don’t usually mention a lot of people that aren’t artists themselves, but Artie and Benjy are two of the hardest workers I've witnessed in this game. And I wanted to ask you, how much has the people in your immediate circle, and I mean maybe its people beyond those two guys too, how have they helped get you get through these last four years?
Wiz Khalifa: Well really it’s just been them showing a lot of support. Like you said, I’m signed to Rostrum Records, which is run by Benjy [Grinberg] and Artie [Pitt is] my publicist. Me and Artie have been rockin’ since I was really young. Like you say, he’s a very hard working dude. Anything that’s been happening over these four years, I really just have to give it up to them for really just giving me the freedom to make the music, the type of music that I want and really just trusting and knowing that I know what I’m doing as far as the direction that I’m going in. 'Cause there’s really no big talks about what types of music I need to make or who I need to make it for. It's really just everybody plays their role. I’ve been really active, as far as the Internet stuff goes. This time last year, I made my YouTube account in July last year and I’ve been doing all my blogs and my Twitter stuff and my videos and stuff like that. So I do all that on my own, like I just shoot my videos and make that stuff on my own. So it’s been a real combination of just everybody playing their role and doing what they doing, on the label side, and Artie doing what he’s doing as a publicist and me staying hands-on as an artist with my projects.
DX: I’m glad you mentioned some of the viral stuff that you do online because in '05, '06 and in '07 in a lot of ways you were Pittsburgh's best kept secret. I know you were hitting the magazines and getting all these good looks, but you still very much regional as an artist. When Twitter first really jumped off last year you, were among like the 10 rappers - you, Q-Tip, QuestLove, Diddy, that were really getting it in. You were probably one of the younger artists that was really making a lot of noise. Tell me a little bit how that happened. I mean are you just a technological guy or was that part of your grander marketing scheme here?
Wiz Khalifa: It was definitely part of the marketing scheme. I remember Artie…'cause I would hear about Twitter. I would always hear about it, a couple of people would say stuff, but this was before it was big and then Artie was really the one who was like, "Yo, you should make a Twitter. And start doing that shit, 'cause that’s whats gonna be poppin'." Artie put me on MySpace when it first started poppin' too. So even just the first day [on Twitter], I got on there and started going from there. I seen how valuable it was and how easy it was just to talk to people and connect to people and really just let them know what’s going on with me as a person. And it helped out a lot because Twitter grew and it's one of the most powerful social networks right now. Its also real good to, as you said, I’ve been doing it for a minute so I still have those people who might have only come to Twitter 'cause of me, so I’m able to drop my music to those people, drop my videos to those people and its just a quicker way and its easier too. It's definitely vital to help get to where I’m at right now just because it put me on a whole other level in the interest world and the game. It just put me up there with, like you said, those established artists.
DX: You have a song on Deal Or No Deal called "Who I Am." What you’re saying on that record is kind of intimate, kind of honest. It’s a side of you that maybe we’re getting to now that we didn’t get earlier. I wanted to ask you, you are an artist that got a deal out of high school; you started this at a very young age. Just like anyone else, you’re at a critical time in your life where your perspective, your life right now, just as a man, has to be a lot different than it was when you were 16, 17. And I want to ask you, artistically and as a man, how would you say who you are has evolved or changed?
Wiz Khalifa: I just think I’ve grown just as anybody should. Just through the years, I’ve paid attention to what people tell me about myself and what I know about myself and really just tried to grow with that and try not to do the same things over. Like you said, when I first got signed I was young so there was a lot of things I had to do and realize like "Okay, well cool, that’s not the right move," or "Alright, I don’t need to be doing that like that anymore." So it's just that I’ve learned a lot and creatively I feel like I’m just in a space where people is accepting and really know what type of artist I am. Before I felt like, it wasn’t really a misconception, but nobody really knew 'cause they don’t know me, they didn’t know me, they just knew my songs so it was kind of hard to figure out what type of music to expect from me. But now I feel like I’ve been working for these years and establishing the fan base that I have, I feel like I’m able to just really be me and make the type of music that I want to make. The things that I talk about, it’s a little bit different, whereas before, I might have been talking about stuff that I wanted to do like ballin' out and going crazy and being all these places; now I might be talking about I actually already done instead of wanting to do it. So it's just life experiences is changing. I met new people, I learned new things about business and stuff like that, so it made me an all around better person and better artist.
DX: Now, I don’t know how much you wish to talk about the Warner thing, but one thing that I will say is just in the last year I watched a few things happen. We watched another artist whom I respect, Murs, walk away from the label, I think that happened first. Then I watched, we all knew you were in the chamber, Jay Rock was in the chamber. All of a sudden then, Gucci Mane becomes a super-star, and their direction seemed to shift. When did you know it was time to fly?
Wiz Khalifa: It was about this time last year when I was getting ready for my second single, after "Say Yeah" had did what it did. It charted and everything. There was just a lot of back-and-forth with trying to decide the second single, because like I said, it was hard for them to really put their finger on what type of artist I was. So in Warner's mind, they were more trying to make us make me be a certain type of artist, which is understandable. It wasn’t anything forcefully, but it was like they were just picking certain songs out of my catalog that they thought I should just for my second single. So we ended up coming to an agreement on one ["Make It Hot"], and I ended up finding out later that some people at the label they didn’t really support it as much as they supported the first single, so that’s why I didn’t really get as much play and as much marketing and stuff like that. So after that happened, I really realized where things were going and I had a deal to option the album and everything, but I just noticed them losing interests in the whole project. They weren’t having me in the studio recording and stuff like that, and it wasn’t anything personal towards them, I could just see they were moving in a different direction. Todd Moscowitz had just come over from Asylum and that’s when Gucci [Mane] and Lil Boosie and all them, that’s where they come into play with Warner because they were all at Asylum. So when that really happened and the urban side was super urban at Warner and the Rock side was super Rock/Pop, I kind of really didn’t even fit in there. My A&R had gotten fired from the label, so there was like nobody in the building who was really interested in my project no more. So the people who got me in the building, those same people weren’t even around so it was just time to go. And it was a real easy, cool situation, cause when we brought it to their attention and when we did actually release, they granted us with that real easily it wasn’t like a long process or anything at all.
DX: Right. One of the key things of your last, of 2009 is this relationship that you’ve established with Curren$y and certainly that’s a road he’s been down too and dealing with his tenure with Cash Money Young Money Universal. I wanna ask, is that one of those elementals that you think makes you two have such a strong friendship?
Wiz Khalifa: Yeah, I definitely think it is. He’s been in the game a lot longer than I have, so he knows a lot more than I do and I think that’s why he sees what I’m doing and he’s really like "Aiight cool," he latches on to that, not saying he latches on, but its like we get along because of that 'cause of the moves that I’m making he’s already made once, twice, maybe three times so he sees that and he respects it. And for me, its like I look up to him just him being him cause me and my situation, I was with Warner I was by myself, but he was next to Lil Wayne, the #1 dude in the world. There is no beef between him, Cash Money and Lil Wayne, but its just like he gotta put his music out to make him who he is and not for who he’s around. So I always respected that about him and I definitely think that brings us closer together
DX: The guys that were a few years before you, Saigon, Papoose, they kind of went down this road also. When Saigon left Atlantic, he took his album with him, but fans knew what was on that LP. Papoose said similar things to us recently. With yours, and all the rumored collaborations and budget, did you want the project, or just keep it movin'?
Wiz Khalifa: Definitely. I left a lot of stuff over there, but the majority of the stuff I left over there was just like, was just stuff that I did with other producers. Like you know I do a lot of stuff in-house; the majority of all my stuff is in house so when we left the deal, I still had all of that stuff. But like you said, I evolve all the time. I grow so much so it's like I walk away with that stuff, but I really wasn’t trippin' on it because I can make so much more new stuff, I’m always making new stuff. I scraped like the whole album that I was working on and I haven’t even really started working on the new album yet, 'cause I wanted it to be so fresh and so tight when it comes out. I probably got like two or three songs maybe. But as far as in my head, I’m not even really focusing on me making songs for my album. But like I said a lot of that stuff is in-house, the majority of it. But anything that Warner paid for, stuff like "Say Yeah," they own that.
DX: 2009 watched new faces blow up the map from Toronto, Cleveland, Washington DC. Then you've got rappers like Freddie Gibbs and X.V. from crazy markets. From what you witnessed a few years ago to now, how do you feel? Also, when you look at that peer-group, how do you distinguish yourself these days?
Wiz Khalifa: It just really makes it better for me, f’real. I try to not too much think about it because I never thought about it before – the fact that I’m just from Pittsburgh and nobody else is anywhere else, but it's just like you said, proves what we’ve been knowing for a long time and that good music is whats gonna come around and change everything. And I think that cats like us, we went through it for the amount of years that we went through it and not getting no shine and not really getting no respect, just dealing with it and you know now that its here it's like "Okay, cool, cool." That’s just gonna make it easier for the next cat after us from our cities and from our areas to really just come out and for people to embrace it, so for me is a good thing and I’m happy that I’ve been able to go through the glass and go through the struggle just so somebody else can come out way easier because its out here for all of us. Like you said, an artist from Pittsburgh, an artist from Indiana like Freddie Gibbs or X.V., he’s from [Kansas] or something crazy like that, like dudes is just coming out from anywhere and its just good music that people are latching on to so in the end that’s what it's all about anyway.
DX: My last question is the toughest question I'ma ask you. When you popped up on the scene in '05 the same city we come from, Willie Parker made a big impression on the fans. This year, Rashard Mendenhall has been getting the start. He’s the new guy, you know every time we ever see Wiz, you repping the city with the hats and the shirts and the chain and all that. In your opinion, if you’re Coach Tomlin and we give you the headphones and Aviators, who should start Willie or Mendenhall?
Wiz Khalifa: Imma start Willie [Parker], I mean just 'cause we love Willie. Who doesn’t love Willie? I mean Mendenhall isn’t doing bad though, i'ts not like hes cutting up and just blowing the whole scene for us. If it aint broke don’t fix it, who knows what [Parker] got saved up for the rest of the season.