Born in Ghazir, Lebanon, during the civil war of the 1970s and ’80s, Slaiby spent much of his early life in a bomb shelter. He fled to Montreal, then Ottawa alone at 16 and spoke little English when he arrived. There, he met a neighborhood kid named Ahmad Balshe — a Palestinian-Canadian rapper who’d eventually become XO artist Belly — who introduced him to Esmailian, whose own family had emigrated from Tehran amid the Iranian Revolution.
By the early 2000s, the three had gone into business together, as Slaiby and Balshe co-founded hip-hop/R&B label Capital Prophet Records (Esmailian headed street promotions, then became an artist manager). Three-hundred miles west, in Toronto, Tesfaye and Taylor had their own hustle going. Raised by single mothers in the city’s Scarborough suburb, they were, as Tesfaye puts it today, “basically homeless” high school dropouts posting his music to YouTube and Facebook — without his face on it. “We just kind of played into that mystery for a year or so,” says Taylor, “until we got to the point where we couldn’t hide his face anymore, because he was just that famous.”
In 2010, Esmailian was living in Miami, working to break Belly in the city’s hip-hop scene. But when a friend sent him a few tracks by an up-and-coming Toronto artist who called himself The Weeknd, he dropped everything and booked a flight home to Canada for the next day. “This kid is ahead of his time,” Esmailian remembers thinking. “I knew it right away.”
In the first of what would become many nights on the town together, Esmailian and Tesfaye hit a Toronto club with some mutual friends the very evening Esmailian landed. The pair were fast friends, and with The Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House of Balloons, about to blow up, Esmailian became “the manager, the road manager, security and the driver.” By late 2011, Tesfaye had put out two more mixtapes, and the hype around him had escalated accordingly. Hanging at Balshe’s apartment one night around this time, he and Esmailian met Balshe’s neighbor, Slaiby. “La Mar and Abel were going through a hard time,” says Slaiby. “They had a different team that screwed over their businesses. The songs were flying. Their career was flying. But their business was in a danger zone because they didn’t have the right team.”
“We surrounded ourselves with people who thought they knew everything and almost literally ruined our chances,” explains Tesfaye. Slaiby’s more pragmatic approach — “You get what I’m good at, and I tell you where to go for everything I’m not good at,” he says — appealed, and he and Esmailian extricated Tesfaye from his bad deal. They became The Weeknd’s co-managers, and shortly thereafter, the four men founded XO.
Early on, they figured out that taking chances — and operating on their own timeline — often made sense. The Weeknd’s “whole mysterious aesthetic,” as Taylor puts it, meant his music had to speak for itself. “I think that’s really what captivated everyone and catapulted Abel into the stratosphere,” Taylor continues. That buzz soon translated into big potential paychecks, but the XO crew didn’t jump at them: When an Australian promoter offered a $160,000 gig, they passed on it and others like it, opting instead to play clubs around Canada. “I knew how important it was to build the touring business,” says Esmailian. “At that point, we could have gone to step four or five, but I knew we had to start at step one. We were doing 500-person venues, but there were 2,000 people outside trying to get in.”
When major labels inevitably started circling, that groundswell became leverage. Among those interested were Republic Records co-founders and brothers Monte and Avery Lipman. “They came to Toronto, like, 10 times,” says Esmailian. “These guys are not running a small company — and going to Toronto, you’ve got to deal with customs — but they just kept showing up.”