Black and Yellow Fever: Top 15 hit, Waken Baken Tour has everyone buzzing about rapper Wiz Khalifa
Aside from that one incident -- you know, where he got busted for pot, spent the night in a North Carolina jail and had to put 300 grand in bond -- the 60-city Waken Baken tour was an off-the-charts, raging success.
Wiz Khalifa left Pittsburgh in September as a perennial up-and-comer with a huge buzz (pun intended) and came back home with his name bumping up against stars like Eminem, Nelly, Rihanna and Bruno Mars on the pop charts.
Over the next two nights, the 23-year-old rapper plays two homecoming concerts at Stage AE, his first in these parts since the summer, for what promises to be the most hyped-up and adoring crowds of the tour. Just another couple of sold-out dates on a trail littered with them.
"I was surprised to see as much support as I got," Wiz says of Waken Baken. "I don't really have too many expectations when I go out, you know what I'm sayin', so it really set the standard for what we can accomplish.
"[Pittsburgh's] gonna be crazy. I can't wait."
Prince of the City
When Wiz was interviewed by the Post-Gazette back in 2005, at age 17, he said, "We've got a football team. But we really don't have too many musicians, especially in hip-hop, where you can say, 'That dude's from Pittsburgh. That's Pittsburgh right there.' There's nobody out there like that. And I hope to be one of the first to step out and put us on the radio."
For a rapper, it doesn't happen without that kind of confidence. Beyond that, what sets him apart is, he has the rhymes, the swagger, the look, the pot-fueled work ethic (if that's not a contradiction in terms) and the right people around him to make it happen. He even has the back story.
An army brat who grew up with divorced parents, Cameron "Wiz Khalifa" Thomaz lived in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, England and Germany before he even hit middle school. He came to Pittsburgh with his mom when he was 8, started rapping when he was 9 and cutting tracks at 13. When Chad Glick (then of Strict Flow) and Benjy Grinberg caught wind of the Allderdice student, at 16, he sounded like he'd been rapping for decades, they say.
A 'Dice grad 10 years older than Wiz, Mr. Grinberg had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and was putting his experience as an assistant to Arista Records president L.A. Reid to work by forming Rostrum Records. Wiz was the second signing after Nitty, who scored a 2004 hit with "Nasty Girl."
Wiz dropped his first mixtape, "Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania," in 2005, followed the next year by a debut album, "Show and Prove," that proudly waved the colors of his "Pittsburgh Sound." In short time, "the kid spittin' flames" was sitting there on Rolling Stone's list of Artists to Watch. After a major-label bidding war, he signed to Warner Bros., where he released a single "Say Yeah" that went to No. 20 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks. After numerous delays for the album and obvious problems getting on the same page, his fast-track career hit a speed bump when he parted ways with the label.
He was back on Rostrum for a second album, "Deal or No Deal," that went to No. 1 on the iTunes hip-hop albums chart, and a mixtape, "Kush and Orange Juice," that moved more than a million downloads and made him the top trending topic on Twitter. This year he appeared on the covers of XXL magazine as one of the "Top 10 Freshmen" and The Source as "Rookie of the Year." In July, he beat out 19 other candidates, including Nicki Minaj, to be voted MTV's "Hottest Breakthrough MC of 2010."
That same month he signed to Atlantic Records, where he'll release his major-label debut in early 2011.
Doing it 'Big'
So far, the Atlantic deal is more Steelers than Pirates.
On Sept. 14, Wiz dropped "Black and Yellow," sporting that infectious hook, "Yeah, uh-huh, you know what it is/everything I do, I do it big." A shout-out to his hometown colors and his signature Dodge Challenger, it was accompanied by a stunning cinematic video that shows off Pittsburgh and its team spirit.
"Everything's black and yellow in Pittsburgh," he says, during a phone interview in the midst of a New York media blitz that included a Vibe magazine photo shoot and live performance on BET. "It's just that hometown pride. When I was writing it, I was really just trying to do something that would be a good look for me and also represent where I'm from. I felt like that was a good notion for me and it paid off."
He had no idea it would shoot up into the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, making him the first Pittsburgh-based artist to crack the Top 40 since Christina Aguilera in the '90s. Steelers players are tweeting #blackandyellow before games, Girl Talk had the crowd going nuts to it when he opened Stage AE, and Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber both sang it to the hometown crowd earlier this week. There's a beautiful irony in "Black and Yellow" actually going ... Gold.
"I didn't think it was going to be as popular as it is," he says. "I thought it was just going to be a set-up record, but it's gone crazy."
" 'Black and Yellow' benefited from everything that came before it," Mr. Grinberg says. "We had built up momentum on the independent side with Wiz's mixtapes, videos and tours. And it came to the point where Wiz's audience was really ready for an official single. Moreover, Atlantic's radio department is amazing. They let the record grow naturally, and when the right time revealed itself, they pushed the button, so to speak."
It's spawned a frenzy of remixes, including one with Kanye West and Snoop Dogg's "Purp & Yellow," celebrating his LA Lakers. Snoop, of course, also reps the Steelers as well as Khalifa.
He told Vibe magazine, "I like the boy outta Pittsburgh, Wiz Khalifa. He off the chain with it. He represent that black and yellow, and he go hard in the yard. He got a bunch of songs, he be smoking when he rapping ... It sound like my kinda [stuff]; I can get with it."
"His son is a big fan," Wiz says, "so I think he turned him onto it. But Snoop just up on everything, been on to what's cool. He's never lost that. That's what makes him hot."
Snoop isn't the only vet who has thrown his support to Wiz's Taylor Gang.
DJ Bonics, who was working the turntables on the Waken Baken tour, says, "Diddy came on stage in LA, Drake watched us in Toronto, and Chris Brown pop and locked on stage in Houston."
The Atlantic album will be well stocked with talent, including the likes of Snoop, Pharrell and Stargate, the production team that crafted "Black and Yellow."
"The recording process is going amazingly," Mr. Grinberg says. "Wiz is making the best, most comprehensive records of his career."
How hot and heavy is the pressure for that follow-up hit?
"We've always had a strong, intrinsic motivation to deliver the best songs possible, as long as we stayed true to who Wiz was/is as an artist," he says. "The success of 'Black and Yellow' has simply heightened the anticipation for what is to come next. It also raised the stakes in general."
If you listen to his songs or follow him on Twitter, you know Wiz Khalifa likes to smoke the "sour," as he calls it. He has his own Wiz Khalifa Brand King Size rolling papers and a YouTube video on how to properly roll a joint. It was no surprise, then, to learn that his bus was raided after a November show at East Carolina University and that he was busted with 60 grams of marijuana.
He and his road manager had to put up bond of $300,000 each and also bail out members of the Taylor Gang. He had Twitter abuzz when he was "waken and baken" the next morning.
"It was bound to happen at some time," he says of the arrest. "Whether I'm going to be a target now for this or something else ... there are other artists that get targeted for other things. At the end of the day, I make sure that I'm OK, that I'm safe, that there's nothing they can do to me too bad. I try to keep myself out of that situation where it won't be as bad as most people think it is."
For Wiz, pot is part of his everyday creative life, and he's copped to a $10,000-a-month habit. He's even been placed into the genre of stoner rap.
"I do everything on pot. Everything. Absolutely everything," he says. "It works different on some people. You have to use for how it works for you, whether you're going to sleep or whether you're working or whether you just wanna relax and have a good time. For me, it just fuels my day -- like Bob Marley."
Wiz's smoke-filled ways prompted a recent PG columnist to write a piece titled "Wiz Khalifa would be the wrong role model," claiming Wiz's message exacerbates problems with black youth, including the high dropout rate.
"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion," he says. "At the end of the day, my message is that kids graduate. I graduated high school. ... What's more important is their parents' influence on them than somebody making music. And their friends around them. And it's up to their parents to monitor who they're with and what they're doing."
At this point in his career, no one is going to confuse him with the conscious or political rappers like Talib Kweli or Pittsburgh's own Jasiri X (who recently stood up for him over a track called "Huey Newton" being a party song), but Wiz hardly considers himself a gangsta.
"My music is positive," he says. "Everything about my music is positive."