The first stop on The Formation World Tour was Miami. Before Beyoncé’s 49-date, $256 million-grossing wildfire of a trek spread for five-and-a-half months, it ignited at Marlins Park. April 27, 2016, offered DJ Khaled his biggest stage yet. For the We the Best Music Group general, failing was not an option. He knew Bey’s husband owning his management was the sole reason she gifted him a shot, so the Roc Nation maestro needed to produce a definitive performance.
Instead of bearing the gravity pull of ‘Yoncé-size expectations alone, Khaled turned his pressure into offerings. Flashing back to his wonder years as a party promoter, he invited friends and peers who could use some face time with 60,000 fans. His stadium stage became “our stage.” Lil Wayne, Future and, of course, Rick Ross all showed up and showed out. Khaled squeezed nine guests into an incinerating 25-minute set.
After the show, Khaled, alongside his friends, enjoyed a rambunctious and botanically cloudy winner’s circle backstage. Rappers and entourages bathed in the revelry of being VIP at a Beyoncé concert, before the Carters summoned Khaled to their chambers. He was shook, instructing his manager, Lenny Santiago, to investigate the issue on his behalf.
“It felt like I was going to the principal’s office,” recalls Santiago, who in that moment was overcome with anxiety. “I walk in and Bey and Jay got the poker face on. Then they were like, ‘That sh*t y’all did out there tonight? Do it every night.’”
That’s the story Santiago recounted when he pitched Khaled as the music guest for Saturday Night Live’s season finale.
The vision to have 30 Rock’s weekend stage transformed into a mini music festival manifested early Sunday morning. As Paul Rudd opened with his monologue, Khaled assumed the calm in a backstage storm, populated primarily by his management, publicists, label reps as well as eight of his guests and their teams. Adorned in Miami hues – custom satin short-sleeve printed with flamingos and palm trees, powder blue denim and pink Air Jordan 6s – Khaled remained glued to his phone until either greeted or spoken to (which occurred approximately once every minute).
A few feet away, Leslie Jones sat in a makeup chair rushing her glam squad. Head writer Michael Che, dressed in a Dipset hoodie, cruised around, wowed by the amount of folks not employed by SNL. Alec Baldwin donned all black and shuffled about shoeless to greet the night’s music guest. Khaled was cordial, but remained focused. “Are you nervous?” someone shouted to him. “I’m ready,” he immediately responded. After all, he was on the verge of squeezing several tracks and eight guests into two slots to grant NBC’s nine million viewers their first live experience of his 11th studio album, Father of Asahd.
Although momentous and culturally maverick, last weekend’s SNL appearance, within the big picture, was essentially a sizable cog in a robust marketing and promo wheel for Father of Asahd (titled in honor of Khaled’s 2-year-old son and co-executive producer). The 15-track spinner is a standard DJ Khaled offering of the biggest and brightest in today’s music pantheon — heavyweights such as Cardi B, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Nas, Meek Mill, Quavo, SZA and the recently liberated Buju Banton make appearances.
Since Khaled is the rare act that doesn’t sing nor spit, his music is powered by his personality — a mammoth commodity within today’s pop culture. Commanding a reach that stretches beyond hip-hop, Khaled reverse engineers record promotion to the the degree that his new album can appear as ostensible accentuation to its roll out. Making SNL history is the main dish. The exclusive songs performed are the à la mode.
“Khaled is a one-of-one,” says We the Best publicist Tammy Brooks (Khaled also has an EPIC Records publicist). “His formula is blueprinted. He gets away with what no one else can because he’s so unapologetically himself. [It’s why] Tony Robbins wants to have a conversation with him; why he and Ariana Huffington say lets be mentors to each other. He’s magical.”
The world’s most popular Palestinian is a social media icon; a brand director’s dream. His Instagram following is 15 million (Asahd’s is a junior two mill). Khaled once graced the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek as the face of Snapchat. He is currently endorsed by nine brands, including Weight Watchers, Belaire, Beats By Dre and Mitchell & Ness. He recently released his own color way for the Jordan III; throughout spring, he blessed T-Mobile Tuesdays for the carrier’s Puerto Rico and South Carolina offices; in current rotation is his commercial featuring Diddy for the new Summer Watermelon Ciroc; approaching is an Apple commercial, co-starring Asahd with voice narration by Kevin Hart.
The most innovative of the campaign is Khaled’s IG partnership with the egg that beat Kylie Jenner for most-liked Instagram post: 9 million people approve. The advantage of having a treasure chest of endorsers is each can chip in for a billboard blitz that will plaster Mr. Major Key’s face and “good vibes” monetization cross country. “We strive to collaborate with people who carry the same mindset that [Michael Jordan] had around greatness,” says Reggie Saunders, Brand Jordan’s senior director of global marketing. “Khaled is the true embodiment of that and is one of the most positive people within the universe.”
“He just makes you feel good about whatever he’s talking about,” says JD Anderson, senior vice president of marketing at EPIC Records. “Like, he literally makes you feel good about drinking Watermelon Ciroc.”
In conjunction with Khaled’s heavyweight marketing plan is an A-lister’s media run, during which Khaled gets to speak on his heritage, religion and number-one motivation: fatherhood. The GQ cover Khaled spent the last couple of years lobbying for came with a GQ Middle East look for him and his son.
New media appearances are in the pipeline. Confirmed are Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Ellen, a sit-down with Nightline and, for his core fan base, a one-on-one with esteemed hip-hop journalist Elliott Wilson for CRWN. “Khaled is an impassioned showman who creates high art with a drive and vision that I love hearing him speak on,” says Wilson. “He remains the perfect guest.”
We the Best, Roc Nation and EPIC proclaiming that Father of Asahd is Khaled’s best album is unsurprising. Boasts about the album featuring six hit records is what raises brows toward rhetoric that dubs the super producer “the Quincy Jones of hip-hop.”
“We have too many singles,” says Santiago. “Like, legit seven singles.”
Several singles and no lead is another unique element of Khaled’s rollout. It screams confidence into a bullhorn. The root could possibly be that Khaled possesses a contender for song of the year with his Nipsey Hussle and John Legend collab on “Higher.” Its video, gorgeous and chilling at once, was filmed two days prior to Nipsey’s untimely demise. Wearing a black hoodie with a spray paint depiction of Nipsey’s face, Khaled concluded his second SNL performance alongside John Legend, Meek Mill, Big Sean, SZA, J Balvin, Jeremih and Lil Wayne, all of whom helped pay tribute to the fallen MC. “The marathon continues,” Khaled stated before exiting the stage.
An album comprised of a constellation of star power sans early music can make things tricky. DJ Khaled is also a marketing director’s gift and curse. While the meme legend has enough inspirational charm to sell you diet products in spite of his own rotund physique, Khaled is essentially a music artist with a handicap: he can’t perform without guests.
This fact means booking for him is an unrelenting stress, albeit it doesn’t incline him to suffer his team. While he may have the image of a teddy bear, those a part of his machine compare Khaled’s appetite for success to that of a grizzly mid-spring. “It’s never good enough,” Anderson later added. “This man has several videos ready to go and he’ll call me asking what can we do to keep the people’s attention for the [first] 17 days of May. He pushes me to go harder. I’m never comfortable with Khaled.”
Stacking results for a mogul who also happens to be one of hip-hop’s ultimate hustlers means your day-to-day lives in an abnormally demanding return-of-investment culture. It’s exactly why pitching SNL while your franchise is elsewhere on business was an unnerving task. Santiago calls to mind: “We’re walking in there with the fear like, ‘If we don’t get it, will Khaled think we didn’t go hard enough?’”
“I like a little fire up my ass,” chimes Brooks, who has worked with Khaled for 15 years. “I think you need to push people. No is not an option.”
Such was the mindset going into the 45-minute SNL meeting. Normally artists bring a few songs and maybe play a video for Lorne Michaels’ staff. Khaled’s crew not only brought to the meeting a 50-inch flat screen (bigger than the SNL office), but speakers, a Beyoncé story and, most importantly, the six completed visuals, which would roll out over the three days succeeding the album release. “It left them no choice,” says Santiago. “We were over-delivering.”
Khaled’s winner’s circle was 15 minutes away from 30 Rock, at the New York Meatpacking District’s Tao Downtown restaurant, on one of the trendy eatery’s busiest nights. Asahd’s father held court at a Beats By Dre and Summer Watermelon Ciroc-sponsored dinner for 100 invited guests. In attendance were everyone from Fat Joe to Jonathan Mannion to Angela Simmons.
Visibly wiser since the inception of the Formation tour, the family man’s most valued lesson remains to bet on himself; hip-hop artists get to talk it all day, but Khaled would rather show you (…another one). He is hip-hop’s undisputed showman, and that exhibition – whether it’s articulating his greatest love of his 2-year-old son or offering gems about the sun always finding you – just might be on a billboard in the middle of Times Square also promoting an album of radio hits.