DJ Khaled photographed on May 8th at The Fig House in Los Angeles. Styling by Terrell Jones. All clothing by Terrell Jones and produced by 5001 Flavors. Shoes by Jordan Brand.
Magazine Feature

DJ Khaled: How Hard Work & Humility (Plus Assists From Drake & Bieber) Put Him on Top

DJ Khaled is driving a golf cart down the double yellow line of a road in Beverly Hills, because traffic is snarled and he just wants to get back home to work on his album. People in luxury cars stare as we pass them -- though we’re traveling no more than 20 miles per hour, we must seem to be whizzing by. The unseasonably cool May air whips through Khaled’s beard as he coughs and grumbles about the chill. “How often do you fire this puppy up?” I yell. “Every day,” he replies. “Go to Starbucks, get me a pumpkin bread. It’s off the chain.” I glance at the brown paper sack in my lap, the pastry warming my knees through my jeans. The bag is secure. Whew.

Khaled Mohamed Khaled, 41, is a man who appreciates the small things. And -- as we return to his recently acquired $10 million mansion in a gated 90210 community -- I’m reminded that Khaled also appreciates the big things. The driveway is crowded with Rolls-Royce Wraiths, one black and one Arabian blue, plus the Escalade he signed for earlier that day (more on that later). There’s nothing middling about the producer’s life or career, the line between which he has been gleefully blurring since he became a Snapchat celebrity/sentient meme in late 2015.

“That’s me being myself,” says Khaled, referring to his outsize online persona. “These artists work with me because I make good music, but also because I have good energy, a good heart and I’m grateful -- the special things that God is blessing me with, now the world can see them.”

Sami Drasin
“I started taking care of my family damn near 17, 18 years old. I got raised with greatness. And my son is going to be the biggest mogul.”

His grandest blessing is his 7-month-old son Asahd (Arabic for “lion”), who has a tiny motorized Rolls of his own and an executive producer credit on Dad’s other intensely fussed-over creation: his 10th album, Grateful, out June 23 on Epic and Khaled’s own We the Best imprint. Khaled recruited A-listers including Rihanna, Drake and Big Sean for Grateful, which has already been heralded by two Khaledian mega-collabs: head-nodder “Shining” with Beyoncé and Jay Z (a Billboard Rhythmic chart No. 1) and bubbly rap-pop crossover feast “I’m the One,” in which Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, Chance the Rapper and Quavo from Migos merrily rhyme over what sounds like a dolphin humming dancehall. When the single debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Khaled celebrated on Instagram by putting on swim trunks and the most serious face imaginable, then spraying five bottles of champagne across his lawn.

When I arrive at Khaled’s home, a couple of hours before our snack run, I expect to find him covered in gold chains, floral prints and cocoa butter, getting his hair touched up by a team of stylists as he prunes a fern -- you know, Snapchat stuff. Instead, he’s in gray sweat shorts and a white tee (both Polo) with gray socks and black We the Best slides, his only adornment a small diamond pendant that spells “Allah” in Arabian script. He’s in an armchair, neck hunched and eyes locked on his phone. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says distractedly. He then stands up and disappears for 20 minutes. I’m left with a sleepy Siamese cat named Coco, a tray of Ciroc vodkas and the black velvet damask wallpaper last owner Robbie Williams chose for the high-ceilinged anteroom.

Khaled leaves again just 25 minutes into our talk -- that time I overhear words like “my lawyer” and, with an irritated edge, “that was early in the process.” His phone never stops buzzing. “The day in the life of a Khaled is crazy, right? This album I’m making is literally impossible,” he says, in what sounds like a boast until he adds, “clearing samples, dealing with other labels. When you work with these big artists, it’s very delicate. Legally it’s a nightmare.”

Yes, this is the same guy who in November published The Keys, a motivational book with chapter headings like “Don’t complain,” “Life is what you make it, so let’s make it” and “Have a lot of pillows,” which is important so you can “rest your greatness.” Looking at his eyes I venture a guess: He hasn’t been resting his greatness. “I don’t sleep a lot,” sample-clearing Khaled admits. But Keys Khaled -- walking, as always, an unswerving line between cartoonishly inflated and monkishly reverent -- quickly cuts in and adds, “If I only get two to four hours of sleep, I want to sleep in the biggest bed ever with the most pillows in the world and the most beautifullest view. I remember sleeping on the floor with one sheet and no pillow. So I don’t take nothing for granted.”

One way to think of Keys Khaled is as the living embodiment of sample-clearing Khaled’s triumph over childhood adversity, as the first-generation son of Palestinian immigrants who escaped an Israel-occupied West Bank with $200 in their pockets. As a kid in New Orleans, he helped his folks hawk clothes out of their van at a flea market. They built the family trade into an “empire” of apparel stores stretching to Orlando, but that collapsed after an IRS audit, forcing teenage Khaled to take on various jobs and hustles to keep them afloat. A stellar work ethic, after all, is the one thing all iterations of Khaled indisputably share.

Picture John Cusack holding a boom box, but with a big-bodied, hirsute man in place of Cusack, and a PA speaker instead of a boom box. This is, essentially, how Khaled won the affection of Justin Bieber and made “I’m the One.” He got the beat from -- “Lemme see his name,” says Khaled, checking his phone, “I want to make sure I get it right” -- Los Angeles producer Let Me See You (aka Nic Nac). He took out some drums to highlight the groove and suddenly realized he had something worthy of pop’s hook-man of the moment. He and Bieber were longtime pals, but he had been waiting to ask him to collaborate until his own career was on the level, “so I don’t play myself” (a “Major Key” to success). It was early January, his first day in his Beverly Hills mansion, and he made the call. Bieber invited him to his place. “I hung up, jumped in the Rolls and brought a PA just to make sure I presented it right,” says Khaled.

They wound up listening to the track in Bieber’s truck, which, Khaled wonderingly says, “has stars in it, a reclining fur seat, shit like a movie.” The Biebs started bobbing his head. He liked it. Bieber said he’d play around with it. Before Khaled could leave, he made him play ground hockey. “I took the beating for the song,” says Khaled.

Khaled calls this sort of thing “going into their world.” “His energy is infectious,” says Bieber. “He’s got an amazing ear for hits, and when I heard the beat for this track, [Bieber’s collaborator] Poo Bear and I decided to jump on and write the hook. Khaled is a good friend and a lot of fun to be around, and when he believes in something, he makes you believe.”

Rick Ross, a close friend who has appeared on every Khaled album, puts it this way: “When you answer a call from DJ Khaled, regardless of what time it is, he’s screaming like it’s 8 a.m. He’s excited, he’s got this big idea that’s much bigger than the last -- ‘You won’t believe this one.’ The thing is, he really feels that way. He really loves his music that much.”

With Bieber onboard (Khaled’s directive: “I want a big, anthematic call-out hook”) the names of the would-be MCs came to Khaled all at once. Chance the Rapper was staying in Malibu, eating barbecue with his family when the DJ showed up. Chance recognized Khaled’s vision and was sold. Migos were coming to Los Angeles in mid-January to tape Jimmy Kimmel Live!, so Khaled booked a post-show room with them at Westlake Studios (where Thriller was made, because the track’s melody reminded him of “Human Nature”) and Quavo did his verse in five minutes. Then Khaled called Lil Wayne. The two met, famously, when Wayne was 12 and Khaled, 19, was a NOLA record shop clerk. “He’s never told me ‘no,’ ” says Khaled. Weezy knocked it out, and that was it -- except Bieber wasn’t done. “I’m calling every day like, ‘Do you need me to bring you tea? Is the AC good in the house?’ Then he sends it. I’m not going to lie. I shed tears.”

Critics want Khaled to be J Dilla, in the lab all day, smoked out, dreaming up beats. He does still make actual music (he cites “Shining” and Grateful’s cut with Rihanna), but more importantly, he masterminds songs-as-events, providing direction, putting the right people in the room, fine-tuning results and dealing with the administrative details after everyone has gone home.

LaTrice Burnette, senior vp of marketing at Epic, calls Khaled a “one-stop shop.” Epic president Sylvia Rhone says Khaled gets the best out of his superstar collaborators because he maintains real friendships with them, and adds, “He is an excellent legal dealmaker on top of all of that -- one of the sharpest businessmen that I have seen on the creative side of music.”

I tell Khaled that there are people who think he doesn’t do anything, and he retorts, “Anybody who’s confused what Khaled does is an idiot.” He’s perched on the edge of his cushioned seat, waving his arms, voice echoing. “I produce, I write, I orchestrate. I’m a mogul and one of the biggest DJs you’ve seen in your life. I’ll bust your ass on some turntables. You go to my Miami studio, you’ll be blinded by the shining of the [platinum and gold] plaques. What, you think my records get made magically?”

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella
Onstage at Coachella in April.

No, I say, but some assume that he lets others do the work, then puts his name on it. “The difference with me is this,” says Khaled, suddenly calm. “I show love. I don’t hide credit for anybody that works with me. A lot of these producers don’t say [who helped them].”

Khaled came of age in the late ’80s, break dancing (as Special K), amassing golden-age vinyl and practicing his turntables in the garage. He sold music behind a counter while guys like Wayne peddled mixtapes outside and, after fate brought him to Florida, set himself apart from other DJs by being the most loudly enthusiastic voice on the radio and in the club. Of course he fantasizes about improbable posse cuts and treats musicians like rare collectibles (“I checked a lot of people off with this album,” he says). Of course the first thing you see when you walk through his front door is a vintage photo of Nas and Jay Z autographed by both of the once bitter rivals. Of course it galls him that he still hasn’t worked with Eminem. (“It’s going to happen one day, I feel it. His lawyer is my lawyer.”) He hollers his every accomplishment from the rooftops not only because Khaled is Khaled’s biggest fan -- Khaled is rap’s biggest fan.

Even so, rap turned its back on Khaled two years ago. “I had people betray me, want me broke,” he says, though he won’t get specific because he has a policy of not speaking about other people unless they’re great. (Khaled refuses to utter Donald Trump’s name or comment on his policies, saying only, “I expect our leaders to lead with love. Obama’s my president.”) But in 2015 Khaled self-released the atypically broody I Changed a Lot. He’d broken from Cash Money Records without explanation -- Ross has claimed label boss Birdman owes Khaled millions; Khaled insists they’re still pals. He does say he was burned out, and all of his assets were tied up in simply maintaining his career: “I’m putting out all these records, on the road nine months of the year, and what do I have to show for it? A watch?”

Khaled went to his girlfriend, Nicole Tuck, and told her he wanted a child. (They’ve now been together 13 years.) “I said, ‘If this music thing is over tomorrow, I’ll be happy. I just want you, my baby, my swimming pool, my flowers, my jet ski and I’m good. And some barbecue cheeseburgers. I was searching for joy and happiness. I found it [at home]. Now that I’m a father, I’m unstoppable.”

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NARAS
Khaled with girlfriend Nicole Tuck and their son Asahd Tuck Khaled at the 2017 Grammys.

It’s a moving speech, and while he’s delivering it, he’s signing for the Escalade that pulled up in the drive an hour earlier. Several times Tuck asked Khaled to do this so the man from the dealership could leave, and each time Khaled said, “We spending all this money, he can wait.” Now she’s holding the paperwork in front of him and pointing to the places where his signature goes while he talks to me. How much did he just spend? “No fucking idea.”

Khaled recently set a new rule: He and his family are never to be more than three days apart by car. Khaled, if you don’t know, is terrified of flying. Tony Robbins, the celebrity "life and business strategist," is trying to help him with this, leaving voice memos every few weeks reminding Khaled he’ll take him up in his jet anytime. For now, Khaled takes a tour bus between homes and responsibilities. Asahd, though, may change that. “He flies private,” says Khaled. “I’m just as stressed out on ground waiting for him, so I might as well be up there.”

Father and son have been otherwise inseparable: in the studio, on red carpets, at the Grammys in matching tuxes, in the “I’m the One” video, at a Grateful press conference. Asahd is the cover model for the album and its first three singles. He’s got verified Twitter and Instagram accounts and has been a regular on Khaled’s Snapchat literally since birth. It’s one thing to film yourself watering the lawn while dropping philosophical nuggets about tending to one’s spiritual garden. Likewise to ask your followers for help when you’re lost at sea on a jet ski at night (the incident that made Khaled a viral hit). But it’s another to broadcast your fiancee in labor from beginning to end. “She wasn’t the happiest,” Khaled admits. But didn’t he also want to keep that moment for himself?

He leans in very closely: “He’s my son, but when I look at him, he’s my prophet, too. I believe me and Asahd was put on this world to show what love is.” 

This would seem to be at odds with Khaled’s presentation of himself as the bottle-popping soul of rap excess. It’s so on the nose that one of his mentors is Sean “Diddy” Combs, Diddy being known less for making music than for mogul-ing (including with his MTV reality show, the only real precursor to commanding millions of followers on Snapchat). Khaled got his break making beats for ballers like Fat Joe, Big Pun and Fabolous, back before bling gave way to name-checking designers as the come-up-signifier of choice. His millennial-friendly update to such signifying was to rebrand it all as a personal affirmation. “I gave the kids a language that’s clear and positive,” he says.

Sami Drasin
Khaled advises “the younger moguls out there” to invest in real estate.

“He has a very natural approach,” says Arianna Huffington, who in December shared a stage with Khaled for a speaking engagement at Columbia University. “It’s rooted in the deeper stoic philosophy of approaching life -- to not be overwhelmed by events or defeated by adversity.”

In other words, it’s real in a way that social media usually isn’t. While countless claim to be simultaneously #blessed and #humble, Khaled genuinely seems to be both. Authenticity may be irrelevant to his art (as popular, accomplished and legally fraught as it is), but it’s crucial to his lifestyle. “We live in a world where so much is fake,” says Robbins. “Even reality television, we all know, is fake. So when you get something raw and real, it strikes a chord with people.”

“I’m about one love,” says Khaled, although you could also call it self-love. That’s what Khaled models, whether he’s unbuttoning his silk shirt to free his belly on The Wendy Williams Show or Instagramming at 2 a.m., snuggling Asahd while murmuring, “You wake daddy up any time you want. I love you.”

Khaled’s a beacon in this age of contradiction, when being true to one’s self seems more attainable than ever -- and our president’s policies flout such freedoms. Khaled’s proudly living large in a time when some would marginalize his demographic. The “they” Khaled frequently invokes -- the ones who don’t want you, the dreamer, to “win” or “succeed” -- are no joke.

They also do not want Khaled to get props at Starbucks, but this happens three times before we hop into the golf cart with our pumpkin bread: The barista behind the counter throws up metal horns when we walk in; a young mother stops for a selfie near the register; and as we pull away in the cart, a man close to Khaled’s age reaches for a fist bump. I’m reminded of when, back at the house, Khaled paused and asked me, in all earnestness, “Am I a celebrity?” It’s hard to say whether he thinks he has a ways to go -- or sees he may have become something more.

Watch DJ Khaled tell the epic story behind assembling his all-star squad of Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne for Hot 100 No. 1 smash "I'm the One."