Oliver El-Khatib rarely gives interviews. The October’s Very Own (OVO) founder and Drake co-manager, who has helped turn OVO into a global brand, isn't aloof or inarticulate -- he’s just a busy guy who prefers the spotlight to be on the artist.
“The craziest thing about the business is just the consistency,” he said at last weekend’s NXNE talk in Toronto. “It blows me away how consistent Drake is at the end of the day with his music. He’s pretty much the reason things are at where they’re at because for an artist you have your whole life to make your first project -- in his case, which was 'So Far Gone' -- but once you’re in demand, being an artist for real starts when you actually have to do it on command. Be artistic. Make songs. Now. It’s not so much like a hobby, ‘Yeah, when I’m ready I’ll get around to it.’ His ability to deliver again and again is what earned us the credibility and the following at the end of the day.”
The story of El-Khatib’s climb is, famous partner or not, as interesting as Drake’s. A high school kid inspired by the world of skateboarding and consumed by music became part of a DJ crew called the Lebanon Dons with eventual OVO co-founder and producer Noah “40” Shebib. At the time, however, El-Khatib was drawn to the fashion industry as a potential career, badgering his way into a volunteer position at downtown clothing store Lounge.
The job became full-time for El-Khatib, who never did graduate. As the store's manager and buyer, he turned the tiny shop opposite MuchMusic television station into a hub. It was the place to stop by, not just to see check out the new Rocawear or other urban brands on the shelves, but to listen to the music playing and see who was hanging out. Lounge is where El-Khatib met Drake.
Earlier this year, the Ontario government came under fire for awarding OVO Fest $300,000 in grant money for its annual summer concert, which sells out each year at the Molson Amphitheatre. Billboard determined part of the reason for the funding was OVO Fest’s expansion and new connection with the Remix Project, a Toronto-based registered charity that provides outside-the-box educational opportunities in recording arts, business arts, photography and film for at-risk or marginalized youth.
Gavin Sheppard, CEO and co-founder of the Remix Project, agreed to do the keynote interview with El-Khatib at NXNE last weekend.
“I don’t think people realize what it takes to put on OVO Fest,” El-Khatib told Billboard during the brief 'audience questions' part of the keynote. “You want to fly in your favorite five artists on three days', one day’s notice? How do you think those people are coming in? Do you think they’re taking the bus? I don’t think people realize the magnitude of OVO and what we really have to do and what we’ve done for five years to make that thing happen.”
OVO Fest’s first four years have included surprise guests including Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, P. Diddy, TLC, Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Eminem, Snoop Lion and Nicki Minaj.
“Drake is an unsung hero. He puts everything that he has into something that doesn’t necessarily make any money at all. It loses money every year,” said Khatib.
Sheppard explains the Remix connection and justifies the $300,000 grant for this year’s OVO Fest, to be headlined by Drake on Aug. 4 and Outkast on Aug. 3. “It’s very much a recognition from the city of what [OVO Fest] does for it,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not just about entertainment, but it really is a massive economic boost that comes in during that weekend -- employing taxi drivers, hotels, restaurant businesses.
“What’s really exciting abut this year is we are starting OVO Summit, where we are helping program an educational component to open them up and give them more access points and authentic points for young people to start to get connected to industry professionals. We both have a symbiotic relationship of supporting each other, whether it be with alumni or different creative folks as well.”
Sheppard introduced El-Khatib as “an enigma to the world of popular culture”: what is it Oliver does? What is he all about? He mentioned that the 27-year-old has developed an ”international cultural powerhouse" “in one of the unlikeliest cities in the entire hemisphere.” Though El-Khatib started just five years ago, he has been “firmly entrenched in Toronto’s urban cultural industries for over a decade.
“Oliver has been and continues to be a leader and friend to young creators across the Greater Toronto Area [GTA], helping mentor photographers, videographers, graphic designers, illustrators, as well, of course, most famously recording artists, songwriters and producers,” Sheppard added.
At the recent 25th anniversary of the SOCAN Awards, honouring Canadian songwriters and composers (including Drake and co-writers 40 and Boi-1da) it was noted that Drake has used more than 60 collaborators, mostly from the GTA, on 226 commercially released songs and four albums: 2009’s "So Far Gone," 2010’s "Thank Me Later," 2011’s "Take Care" and 2013’s "Nothing Was The Same." Many now work with other top names.
“It’s amazing that everybody’s Canadian, that we have that much talent here,” El-Khatib said.
He references “Crabbuckit,” a song by Toronto artist k-os, which is about the crab mentality of pulling each other down so that they can’t escape the bucket -- or progress. “I think I’ve done my best to try to change that within our city,” he said. “If you’re doing something good, come with us. It’s important to bring out from the city and help shine the light, but it’s also just about music.”
Music is the currency, he stressed, adding that there is a universal standard of quality; just because you're from the GTA doesn’t make you exempt. The OVO team holds creators -- songwriters, producers, photographers, videographers, whoever -- to the same standard.
“For me when I hear shit [from here], that sounds like this city, like what I’m going though, like what I’ve living. It looks like outside. That’s the sound of the city that I’m so proud of. That’s what I discover naturally,” he explains.
“I watch, everyday, people scramble. ‘There’s a new guy in a city and every A&R and every label head goes to take a meeting . . . that’s cool. That’s business. But they’ll never catch me flying to another city to try and sign some guy -- ‘I don’t know anything about you; I don’t know where you’re from; I don’t know what your music really means.’
“There’s still an underlying business to everything that makes the world go round," he added. "I’m not opposed to connecting with other cities. I just find it more natural to hear the story about my city.”
El-Khatib’s business dealings with Drake stem from their tight friendship and trust, which began back at the Lounge. He had Drake’s back. He also had a creative radar -- for music, graphic design, art, fashion and lifestyle -- that was holistic and, without even knowing it, forged a kind of interconnectedness that would become a brand. He was the designated blogger for OVO and he used it to provide original commentary, like an open diary.
“We knew that no matter how big his career would get and how big his celebrity would get, we wanted to offset that with something that always reminded everybody and us of what we set out to do,” El-Khatib said. “There would always be this contrast of the high-level, ‘Okay Drake, we’re going to try and get as big as possible and we’re going to try and have as much success as possible,’ [but] we’re going to have this local blog of ground-level energy that’s OVO -- that's untainted, that’s not for sale, that’s uncompromised."
"Where are you now?" Sheppard asked.
“There are many different motivations on many different levels," El Khatib said. "Not to be corny, but making the city proud of what we’re doing, and making what we’re doing a part of the city, and making everybody in the city know that you can be a part of it too is really important. I have partners in what I do that make all this possible, who are all geniuses in their respective spaces. Just in life, not even in the industry, it’s about what you’ve done lately. You can’t hang on to some amazing thing that you maybe contributed three or four years ago. Everything is very constant.
“We have a great team and we have people who are experts at a certain space so I can trust you and you can trust this person and you can trust this person. It’s a circle of trust and we hold each other to standards that I think are insane, and we’re all ambitious.”
He added that “the most important thing is your team,” before ending with these words:
“There was definitely a time where I knew the role that I wanted to have with Drake. I didn’t want to be a manager in the music business. I didn’t even want to be in the music business. I didn’t care. It was Drake that I believed in, so that’s what I wanted to be a part of and I was going to be a part of however I could.
“To own the company, you have to be able to do everything, like getting down on your hands and knees to tie your shoes a certain way to be negotiating deals. There’s so many different levels of being part of a team. It’s a pretty egoless job at the end of the day to be able to make something work. Whether you own a small business or a restaurant, whatever the case, you have to be willing to do everything as the owner.”