The Genius of DJ Khaled

How creativity can make you a superstar.

It was the summer of 2011. I was driving in a beat-up car from 1995. I was having an existential crisis about my upcoming senior year in college, an existential crisis about an unrequited love, and an existential crisis about my goal of becoming a published poet. Listening to New York rap radio was one of my few joys left.

Just as I was driving home from my summer poetry-related internship, I heard a miracle from the car radio speakers. It was the rapper Drake’s voice. It was the first sign of new commercial music from Drake in months. It was Champagne Papi dropping from heaven. “Me and 40 back to work but we still smell like a vacation,” Drake sing-rapped in his one-of-a-kind wunderkind fashion. The song sounded fresh like a wave breaking on the shoreline. It was called “I’m On One,” and I thought it was from Drake’s upcoming album. I’d been a desperate Drake fan, looking for any sign of his return to mainstream dominance. I wanted to hear his voice pour out from the speakers of cars, malls, and nightclubs. I missed his ubiquity that happened in the summer of 2010.

Drake was a feature on the song. It was the producer DJ Khaled’s creation. And later that fall, when I watched the music video for “I’m On One,” I still couldn’t understand DJ Khaled’s role in the song. He stood on a balcony and drank Four Loko. He enthusiastically said “DJ KHALED” a few times in the song. What did DJ Khaled do? “I’m On One” was the best Drake song I ever heard. And, it wasn’t even his song. There was something to this DJ Khaled.

Let’s fast-forward four years later to the fall of 2015. DJ Khaled generally had not been in my mind. Sometimes, I would play “I’m On One” to cheer myself up or to motivate me to do work. His other songs were good, but they didn’t have the same impact on me as “I’m On One.” The fall of 2015 was the second coming of DJ Khaled. He was on a full-fledged media tour for his new album I Changed A Lot. He promoted himself nonstop on radio shows and social media. He was working out, losing weight, and preaching positivity. He changed…A LOT. My friends sent me funny memes from his Snapchat antics. He was getting lost in Miami waters on his jet ski. He was talking about the importance of pillows for success. He bestowed blessings on his beautiful garden while gorgeous reggae music played in the background.

Today, I return to that time period because it explains the genius of DJ Khaled. His social media presence revealed the secrets behind his creativity in the studio. His Snapchat stories were creative promotions of his personal brand. In a Hot ’97 interview on October 22, 2015, DJ Khaled brought together all of these elements of his genius. He made his purpose and genius clear for everyone. He appeared in a red leather jacket while wearing his signature red and gold We The Best brand headphones. “When you get DJ Khaled, you get soundbites. You get documentaries. My interviews will play 10 years from now. I ain’t regular like these other people. This is DJ Khaled. This is special cloth alert,” he said. He had a supreme confidence in himself. He showed that he crafted his impression on people. With an eye to public perception, DJ Khaled promoted his “soundbites” and “documentaries” as part of his future legacy. The soundbites could be any number of his catchphrases in songs and social media, which include “Special Cloth Alert” and “Don’t Play Yourself,” among others. The “documentaries” could be his snapchat stories.

In the interview, he also expressed that his conscious intentions were an important part of his creative process. While talking about his charisma with the radio interviewers, DJ Khaled explained that his collaborators also feel his magnetic energy and intentions. “Imagine how the artists feel when they recording with me. It’s crazy. Especially if it’s one of my records and I see a vision that they might not see yet. And I’m painting it, and I’m letting it explain the whole movie. I’m explaining the whole year actually besides the record…” he said. DJ Khaled uses his skill for intentional thinking to help bring collaborators into his vision. He wants musicians to understand the artistic structure, context, and direction to his songs. He also discusses the promotional possibilities of the song for the collaborators, “the whole year.” The song will have an impact on the collaborator’s career and fanbase.

DJ Khaled really gets into the making of a song. He works like the director of a movie. “If it’s writing, it might be me and a writer coming up with like ‘You mine,’ that’s my talk, ‘you mine, you mine,’ that’s my talk I sing in the shower to my lady.” He brings feelings, memories, and expressions into the song’s creation. He directs his collaborators to fulfill his vision. He hums melodies and harmonies to musicians, “I tell them sometimes what to play out my mouth.” The vision guides DJ Khaled, but it does not restrict his creativity. He allows collaborators to enhance a song, and he says, “…and if they love it, they contribute to it, they make it 10 times bigger.”

When DJ Khaled directed himself in his own Snapchat stories, he became a superstar. At first, he didn’t even realize his own social media celebrity. “I’m in the apple store fixing my phone, I turn around, 10 minutes later, there’s so many people in the store, thousands of people screaming, I thought Michael Jackson was in here,” DJ Khaled said in an interview with French program Clique. In “How Snapchat Built a Business By Confusing Olds” in the March 3, 2016 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Max Chafkin and Sarah Frier write about DJ Khaled’s connection to Snapchat’s success. At the time of the article, DJ Khaled had 6 million followers. Before he started using the app around 2015, he was unaware of it. However, he could sense that the app could help him communicate his personality directly to people. He improvised with his creativity. “I didn’t really know how to use it…I was kind of just talking to myself,” he said in the article.

DJ Khaled’s charisma shined through Snapchat. The personality behind the songs finally became fully available to millions of people. You could see DJ Khaled at his palatial home, in the studio with collaborators, or on the water with his jet ski. He said personal catchphrases like, “Major Key,” “They Don’t Want You To Win,” and “Another One.” The same catchphrases on Snapchat were catchphrases in songs and albums. One of his most popular catchphrases “Major Key” became the name of his 2016 album Major Key.

The Snapchat promotions fueled DJ Khaled’s celebrity. He was now able to collaborate with high-profile musicians in the mainstream. The #1 Billboard song “I’m the One” featured Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper. In the Billboard video “How DJ Khaled Created ‘I’m the One’: How It Went Down,” DJ Khaled explains the creative process of bringing the music stars together for the song. He works with each artist individually, and he celebrates the importance of each contribution. He says, “Everybody played their part to just bring awareness to the greatness. It’s just a statement. I’m the one, you know, and that’s how I feel, I’m the one, the only one.” He is the one to uplift others to a single vision. In the music video for his most recent song “No Brainer,” DJ Khaled takes the role of a director on set. Funny. He has always been the genius behind the scenes.