Remembering Q, WorldStarHipHop's Visionary, Pioneering (And Yes, Controversial) Leader

Johnny Nunez/WireImage
Lee 'Q' O'Denat at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on Nov. 19, 2013 in New York City.

The founder of hip-hop's most infamous site was much more than the controversies he courted.

Last Monday, a man named Lee O’Denat died in San Diego, officially from athersclerotic cardiovascular disease. To know O’Denat at all was to know him as Q, the founder and face of WorldStarHipHop, the wildly popular (and often divisive) website that helped to document -- and even to shape -- hip-hop culture over the past decade-plus.

Though it was often dismissed as a repository for lowest-common-denominator entertainment (including fights where people got seriously injured, or where the participants were children), the aggregation site became a hub for a generation of kids in and around hip-hop culture. And in between the memes and fist fight compilations, WorldStar found time to help break some of the era’s most important artists -- either by posting their music directly or by doggedly documenting the grassroots support around them. Above all, Q’s brainchild is an aggressively populist enterprise, where the only status symbols are clicks, preferably counted in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The history is simple enough: In the early 2000s, the Hollis, Queens-born Q first ventured into the online music landscape by trying to sell mixtapes over the internet. (His business partner was DJ Whoo Kid, made famous by his work on dozens of mixtapes with 50 Cent and G-Unit.) His first stab at making WorldStar stick saw the site focus on mixtape downloads, in the vein of DatPiff or LiveMixtapes. But when he rebooted the site with a focus on video streaming, Q struck gold; the streaming explosion brought on by smartphones lined up to make him one of the new digital economy’s pioneers.

WorldStar’s no-frills home page is a succinct look at its ethos. At the top is a single-row box marked TRENDING NOW; on Tuesday, this included clips about Emmett Till’s accuser, Big Sean’s philanthropy, and one titled “Dad Beats Up Kid For Asking His 9-Year-Old Daughter To Twerk! (Makes Him Twerk Instead).” Underneath the trending section is a full-screen collage of four music videos, marked as “FEATURED.” That day, they were for songs by Rick Ross, Missy Elliott, RiFF RAFF and Toni Valli.

Where RiFF RAFF’s video is subsequently marked “WSHH EXCLUSIVE” (when viewed on YouTube, it will start with the WSHH banner), Valli’s reads “SPONSORED.” Q never claimed to be a journalist, and therefore was free to solicit payment in exchange for posting a music video -- something more mainstream outlets were unable to do. Q’s guiding philosophy was always uncompromised capitalism. “I talk to everybody,” he told Vibe in 2011. “The scum of the earth. I’m down there in the mud. I treat everybody the same, from Puffy to the nobody with $500 for a video. That’s what people love about the site.”

In some contexts, that would be predatory. But if Valli paid for his video placement, he’s certainly not throwing money down the drain; WorldStar has a long track record of being early on rap’s rising stars. Propane -- a marketing and music consulting guru based in Atlanta who has had a hand in pushing Future, Gucci Mane, Rocko and Jeezy, among others, out to a wider audience -- has seen first-hand how Q ran his business, and how wide its reach became within hip-hop.

“A lot of stuff broke on WorldStar,” Propane says. “If Q felt a way about something, he really acted on it. There’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t have happened in the industry if it wasn’t for him.” Propane explains that to get placed in more traditional media outlets, an artist needs to be working with an established PR firm -- something to which many aspiring rappers don’t yet have access. “The streets pay attention to WorldStar,” he explains. “They dictate what’s going on, what’s hot in the culture.” In 2011, when Propane and Rocko were determined to bring Future to the next level, they knew they had to tap Q to make it happen -- and happen it did, with the ATLien now sitting near the top of rap’s commercial pyramid. 

One of the most commonly-cited examples of WorldStar’s influence is a video titled, “Its Something Wrong With This Lil Boy: Freaks Out When He Finds Out His Favorite Rapper “Chief Keef” Gets Out Of Jail.” Uploaded on Jan. 2, 2012, the five-minute clip was, for many outside of Chicago (and many who were in Chicago, but over the age of 18), the introduction to Chief Keef, who would become a national star within the year. Drill music became a point of mainstream curiosity, and then morphed into one of hip-hop's dominant styles, but few were covering it before WorldStar had the hard evidence of just how excited Keef made Windy City teenagers.

As Q saw his company continue to grow, he began to branch out in two important ways. The first was a question of content. In 2014, WorldStar began producing original, documentary-style videos about inner city communities, beginning with Chicago and Miami. Rather than treat low-income areas as aesthetic fodder, these videos gave voices to local residents and talent and attempted to flesh out the complex and complicated worlds so often glossed over by other outlets. The second was an expansion in form: WorldStar is coming to terrestrial television with World Star TV, which premieres this Friday (Feb. 3) at 11 p.m. EST on MTV2. The show will have a variety of different segments, including a panel of comedians commenting on the video clips that generate the most traffic on the website.

But back to the WorldStar home page. Beneath the two top boxes, there are pages upon pages of videos, organized by date, but never by subject. “Amazing: Aid Workers Rescue A Dog That Turned Rock-Solid In A Tar Drum!” sits beside “Clownin: Marshawn Lynch Visits Scotland To Talk About The Super Bowl!” and directly above “Road Rage: Australian Man Knocks Out A Driver And Attacks His Daughter!” In a way, this makes perfect sense: everyone is blanketed by a deluge of information every day, seeing the outside world in shards and fragments short enough to scan through on phones during commutes and meetings and biology classes. Though its market share has receded a bit from its early-2010s heyday, WorldStar has been remarkable not only for its sheer size and influence, but for how long it’s been able to captivate the attention of a generation eager to jump on the next platform, the next innovation.

“Q understood that tech and music were going to converge,” Propane says. This can been seen not only on the grassroots level, but at the corporate level as well -- Chance the Rapper was 2016’s breakout star, with a critically-acclaimed release backed by tech giant Apple as opposed to a traditional record label. “I feel like he should be remembered as a pioneer, as someone who affected the culture. He was ahead of the curve.”