Sporting a sweater with palm trees and dinosaurs, Wiz Khalifa waits in a dressing room earlier this month before performing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Khalifa poses in front of the cover of his latest album at a listening event for it earlier this month in New York City.
Wiz Khalifa arriving at NBC Studios for "The Tonight Show."
Wiz Khalifa greeted by paparazzi on the way out of NBC Studios.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEW YORK — Wiz Khalifa, long and lean, slowly glides out of the offices of Atlantic Records in a long camel coat and furry slippers.
It’s a late Wednesday afternoon and he’s being shuttled from 1633 Broadway, following a string of interviews, to 30 Rock for his appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Taylor Gang, most of them in black hoodies, is taking Manhattan promoting his new collection “Khalifa.” It’s the second of a two-day blitz here that began the night before with a poppin’ listening party at the Greenwich Village club Subrosa, where VIPs included Michael Strahan and estranged wife Amber Rose, whom he introduced as his “baby mama.”
This is a year when Khalifa can ride some serious momentum having owned the singles charts with “See You Again,” a pop anthem for “Furious 7” that launched him to a new stratosphere of stardom. A 12-week chart-topper and the first hip-hop song to hit 1 billion views on YouTube, it could win the Pittsburgh rapper his first Grammy Award Monday in Los Angeles.
Khalifa, just back from South America, is constantly on the move these days, going back and forth between the coasts and touring overseas. It’s in the DNA of Army brat Cameron Jibril Thomaz, who was born in North Dakota and lived in England, Germany, Japan and other parts of the United States with his divorced parents before settling in Pittsburgh and attending Taylor Allderdice High School.
Even in the bustle of Manhattan, Khalifa moves at his own smooth pace, unfazed by anything. From the Atlantic offices, he gets into a black limo van that he quickly fills with smoke. He’s catching a buzz on the way to doing the biggest late-night show in the country.
On the way, he and his Taylors (a half-dozen friends from Pittsburgh) review some of the drama that went down at the party the night before and jump topics, at one point discussing to what degree Justin Bieber is passionate about his art. DJ Bonics is holding a vinyl copy of the “Black and Yellow” single someone at Atlantic just gave him. It’s the song, a breakout No. 1 single, that thrust Khalifa into the public consciousness in 2010 on the way to a Steelers Super Bowl run.
At that point, Bonics gave up a sweet gig as afternoon drive-time DJ at KISS-FM to risk it on the road as Khalifa’s DJ. It has turned out to be a pretty good career move.
“Risk big, reward big,” he said. “When I think about leaving KISS and that comfort zone I knew there wasn’t any certainty. There’s been up and downs but knowing that we have worldwide influence which stems from Pittsburgh is just a great feeling.”
Also along for the ride, and helping to run the engine, is Will Dzombak, who co-manages Khalifa. They met in 2007 when, as a freshman at Penn State, the Point Breeze native booked the rapper for a benefit concert. He became his road manager and planned a summer tour for him at 18. At the time, Khalifa had released one album and a handful of mixtapes on Rostrum, the Pittsburgh label founded by fellow Allderdice grad Benjy Grinberg.
“One of our first conversations,” Mr. Dzombak said, “Wiz said, ‘I don’t want to have a limit on my music. I want to be a household name.’ And I thought that’s really cool. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was a star.”
Mr. Dzombak is running business between LA and Pittsburgh, co-managing now with Constance Schwartz, founder of SMAC Entertainment, who has worked with Khalifa’s friend Snoop Dogg, as well as Kelly Clarkson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mr. Strahan, explaining his presence at the party.
Asked if he’s a fan, Khalifa said, “We’re fans of each other’s personalities. He is just like the coolest person in the world. If you want to have a dope conversation, talk to Strahan. He’ll crack you up.”
Khalifa is seated in a small, darkened dressing room on the cramped sixth floor of Rockefeller Center. Guests Jonah Hill and Megyn Kelly are a couple of doors away. Robert De Niro walks by and takes photos with the Taylors.
Khalifa strips off his shirt, revealing his lean, inked-up frame and changes into a Saint Laurent mohair cardigan with palm trees and dinosaurs over ripped-up “cool jeans” and white Converse. He’s sitting at a desk with a mirror while Mr. Fallon is on the monitor behind him doing the introduction to the show.
The host is displaying the new “Khalifa” album cover, a close-up of the rapper’s elaborate back tattoo, and riffing about getting a similar tattoo. As various Taylors laugh, Khalifa doesn’t look up from his phone until Mr. Fallon gets to a punchline wanting “Alfalfa” but it comes out backwards.
This new project could be a critical juncture for the rapper. Or maybe not. When you hit with a blockbuster like “See You Again,” logic says go big or bigger with the next single. Charlie Puth, his young partner on “See You Again,” did just that with “One Call Away.”
Khalifa, on the other hand, is at NBC to introduce “Bake Sale,” as chilled-out a stoner song as he’s ever done.
“Charlie is at the beginning of his career, so he’s got to do that,” Khalifa said. “I’m old.” He pauses while I laugh. “Strategically, it just makes a little more sense for me to hold onto my sound as opposed to giving a lot of it away.”
At 28, he is by no means old, but that’s his self-image. He released his first mixtape and started to nurture a hardcore hip-hop following 11 years ago.
“ ‘See You Again’ made me a household name, but I still have my core fan base,” he said, “and there’s a lot of artists who would take ‘See You Again’ and go straight for those people who are paying attention because of that, but I know how fast those come and go, so I just stick to what I naturally know and what I always do.”
Not quite a follow-up to his chart-topping third major label album, “Blacc Hollywood,” “Khalifa” is a collection of outtakes. “BTS” (for “be the same”) starts it with a declarative statement: “People tell me I should change/I’m just trynna be the same.”
“I was pretty frustrated when I wrote that,” he said. “I think I was married at that time, so I was, like, you just get a lot of scrutiny from people who don’t want you to do the things that make you who you are, and that was kind of my way of writing that.”
Pop music is littered with tales of chart-topping albums and millions of dollars leading to pretty significant changes in a human being.
“This level of success hasn’t changed me as a person at all,” Khalifa said. “I could say I’ve ‘been through changes,’ but it hasn’t changed me.”
But money changes everything, to some degree.
“It’s allowed me to be stable on my own,” he said. “I’m able to do a lot of things for other people. I put my sister through college. I’m able to help my dad out and give money to my mom whenever she needs it. My son doesn’t have to worry about anything. It just makes it easier to focus on other stuff.”
It makes it easy to feel comfortable, which is exactly how so many artists lose their edge.
“I feel like they have because they let the material things get to them,” he said. “When I started rapping at the age of 14, I did it because I wanted money, so now that money is what I’m getting, I trained myself mentally to know how to deal with it.”
That “did it for the money” line definitely goes over better in a hip-hop world populated by inner-city kids who started from the bottom than it does in the more middle-class rock world. Both genres are marked by short careers, but especially hip-hop where the turnover is fierce and there’s only a handful of enduring superstars.
Khalifa has crossed that line into being a career artist, a notch below current hip-hop royalty Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake.
“The way I think I’ve turned myself into a career artist is being focused on money,” he said. “It takes money to keep going in this thing and the more things you have in your corner to generate money, the longer it can last. So, for me I stay focused on touring, licensing, the marijuana deals that are just opening up big opportunities, acting, fashion.”
It’s more than money that puts him in that middle realm of rappers. Khalifa, who tours with a live band that gets a little hotter every year, is one of the best live hip-hop performers in the game, approaching Marley-esque charisma on stage.
After headlining a number of his own Under the Influence Tours (with such undercards as Mac Miller and Kendrick Lamar), Khalifa mixed it up last summer, partnering with Fall Out Boy on the $18 million-grossing Boys of Zummer tour, a billing that could lead to more like it down the road.
“It was just a goal of mine to go onstage with someone who is bigger than me in the world and it will set me up to do that more,” he said. “Maybe I can tour with Madonna someday. I would never be able to do that without starting with some people that I’m really similar to. And we can catapult off each other’s fan base and people can see exactly what I’m trying to do.”
One pairing we won’t likely see is Khalifa with Kanye West. That already strained relationship (Amber as Kanye’s ex-girlfriend) went nuclear in late January in a Twitter exchange in which Mr. West mistakenly thought Khalifa was disrespecting his wife Kim Kardashian with the initials “KK,” which is Khalifa Kush, his brand of marijuana.
Khalifa, who has steered clear of rap beefs, bowed out gracefully as Mr. West went on a 17-point character assassination. Mr. West then apologized and the two smoothed things over. Khalifa has said almost nothing about it, but coincidentally, there’s a song on “Khalifa” where he addresses such situations, rapping, “[N-words] looking for trouble/I don’t entertain it.”
“The songs [on ‘Khalifa’] are old,” he said, “but they’re still relevant, so when I said that, I was probably like 24 years old and as a 28-year-old now I still feel the same way. So when I rap about it, I really mean it and it goes to show that I’m really telling you what I mean. It’s not about what goes on, it’s about how you handle it. If I tell you how I’m going to handle a situation, it doesn’t matter what that situation is, that’s how I’m handling it.”
Khalifa has better things to deal with, including the care of his 2-year-old son, Sebastian aka Bash (as it’s tattooed on Wiz’s forehead).
Asked about juggling a hip-hop career and fatherhood, he said, “It made me more, like, innocent and in touch with my creative side and kind of being free and not really caring. You don’t care about looking goofy when you’re with your kid. You don’t really care about what you’re wearing when you go to the park. You know what I mean? So it’s like at the end of the day, it made me care less about things that don’t matter.”
In his downtime, and he does get downtime, “I’m with my kid,” he said.
What’s a father-son day like for them?
“Just normal stuff: take him to the park, drive around with him, take him to the mall, take him out to eat, to play with other kids. That’s pretty much my day from when I wake up till he goes to sleep unless I got a meeting or something like that, and I can take him with me there, too, so I have him all day and when he goes to bed that’s when I go to work.”
And he doesn’t get mobbed by people at the park or the mall?
“Hmm-mmm. Some people will come up and ask me for pictures and stuff like that, but they don’t get crazy. It’s not like Michael Jackson.”
Outside the NBC dressing room, his publicity people and a few Taylors are busy brainstorming ideas for the LA release party. After about an hour, sitting through the Hill and Kelly spots, a member of the Fallon team gives him the alert to be on set. On the way down the hall, one Taylor stops for a quick photo with Mr. Hill.
Inside the studio, Fallon is prepping the crowd with a Q&A session, and when Wiz suddenly pops on the tiny stage, he runs down, exclaiming, “I love this guy!”
Bonics cues the track and the Roots kick in as well on “Bake Sale,” which starts out with a mumbling, “Can’t smoke weed to it, I don’t want to listen to it.” Certain members of the crowd are no doubt confused as to why this long, lanky character with dreadlocks in a palm-tree/dinosaur sweater is rapping about a bake sale.
After the song, the “Applause” sign flickers and the crowd screams its approval. Wiz comes off doing high fives down in the hallway.
When he walks out of 30 Rock there’s a line of photographers outside waiting for him, yelling “Wiz! Wiz! Just one picture!” His Hazelwood friend and bodyguard Big Breeze clears a path toward the limo and the Taylor Gang hops in and closes the door. They’re gonna get real high and then fly off before the winter storm back to LA for a gig the next day. It’s an appearance at Cannibus Cup, a marijuana trade show.
Who better to appear there than the Bake Sale gang?
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg
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