Wiz Kid

Enjoying a meteoric rise to fame after “Black and Yellow” went platinum just two years ago, native son Wiz Khalifa is helping transform Pittsburgh into a hip-hop capital.




Photos by Marc Hom
 

“It’s all real,” says Wiz Khalifa. “Everything in my songs is literally how I feel. Everything sounds better in song form. It’s just an expression of who I am.”

The phone connection is bad, and Khalifa, the master rhymer with perfect diction, is hard to hear during the interview. But when it comes to the most important question, he answers loud and clear: It’s all real.

Which means he believes in every lyric, song title and frame of his music videos. He believes in the 100-plus tattoos that quilt his body — from forehead to thigh. When a teenaged Cameron Jibril Thomaz adopted the stage name Wiz Khalifa, he didn’t invent a persona to go with it. His Pittsburgh pride is authentic. He really loves his fiancée, model Amber Rose — and his mother, his No. 1 fan. He really works hard and plays hard. He really says yeah.

“People know me — they know how much I don’t hold back [with] what I say,” says Khalifa. “And it’s always from the heart.”

Hip-hop has pervaded American airwaves since the 1980s, and the art form goes back another decade. Once derided as an underground movement, the genre now influences every facet of American culture — from TV commercials to adolescent fashion to everyday conversation. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have birthed thousands of performers. Some of them are pioneers, like Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg (Khalifa’s chum, frequent collaborator and fellow Steelers fan). Some of them are mainstream superstars, like Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. Others are cultural outliers, like Eminem and M.I.A. The family tree of hip-hop artists is vast and complex, and the power of its music cannot be overstated.

But until recently, all major hip-hop artists have had one thing in common: They’re not from here.

Pittsburgh should be a hip-hop capital. The city is earthy and honest. The landscape is urban and weathered. Our music scene thrives. Spoken-word poets are everywhere. Our youth are literate and verbal, and most have a lot to say. Yet no one — not one serious hip-hop performer — has ever made it big. We relish our local successes, like Jasiri X. The talent is obvious. The art is well-known. But no Method Man cometh.

In 2010, Khalifa's track “Black and Yellow” changed all of that. He was 22 years old, and he had already performed broadly. Like fellow rap sensation Mac Miller, Khalifa was a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School, where he really came of age. Coming from a military family, Khalifa had lived around the world, but he had long considered Pittsburgh home. He was young, energetic and well-known for his talents. His nickname “Wiz” was short for “wisdom,” but it also suggested his wide-ranging talent.

“Khalifa” was Arabic for “successor,” a name given by his Muslim grandfather. He had shared stages with local favorites like Girl Talk. He had great potential — not to mention legions of fans. Anything could have happened.



Surprisingly, the origins of “Black and Yellow” don’t have direct ties to Pittsburgh. The song doesn’t outright mention the city in any way. And like Khalifa’s later tunes, its lyrics are basically about luxury and triumph; he mentions nice cars (“push to start”), money (“just made a million”) and critical rivals (“hear them haters talk”). But the music video was filmed here, and the images are definitely of the Steel City. Khalifa dances in front of Homestead smokestacks. He passes the downtown skyline. He waves a Terrible Towel and even breathes in its fabric.

As a single, “Black and Yellow” shot to Billboard’s No. 1 spot in February 2011, just in time for the Steelers’ Super Bowl trip; thus, Khalifa’s popularity exploded — and appropriately enough, the hit’s been adopted by Steeler Nation as a team anthem. Overnight, he became a national celebrity.

“He’s probably the most important cog in the Pittsburgh hip-hop machine,” says Nate Mitchell, co-owner of 720 Records in Lawrenceville. “We watched him climb. We’ve had a front-row seat.”

Mitchell, 37, is a longtime hip-hop expert and performer who goes by the name DJ Nate Da Phat Barber on stage. He has followed and shaken hands with major artists since the early ’90s, and has attended many hip-hop conferences. Mitchell knows how important Wiz Khalifa is to Pittsburgh as an artist, but also as an icon. “I think he’s already meant everything to the up-and-comers,” says Mitchell, speaking of fledgling singers. “[Khalifa] put the spotlight on this town.”

But Mitchell is more than just a music aficionado. He also owns The Natural Choice, an Oakland barbershop, where a young Khalifa used to get his hair styled. Mitchell knew Khalifa the high-school student, a vibrant youth with a loving family and zillions of friends. “He’s the nicest guy ever,” says Mitchell. “I’ve met a lot of people in the hip-hop industry, and I know that Wiz takes pride in being a regular guy.”

Indeed, for all his fame, Khalifa is living a remarkably traditional life. When his albums went platinum, Khalifa didn’t move to a Long Beach party house or Manhattan loft. Instead, he bought an expansive townhouse in Canonsburg. When asked about his mythic home, he declines to answer because, “I don’t talk about my home life, man.” Once Khalifa learned that his sweetheart was expecting, they decided to tie the knot. Their baby is due next month, and they plan to marry soon after.

“After the baby comes,” says Khalifa, “I want [Rose] to have a good time at the wedding and have a regular honeymoon.”

The pregnancy has earned its own fame, partly because Rose is a well-known model and recording artist, and partly because of their cover photo on hip-hop magazine XXL: The black-and-white portrait shows Khalifa, shirtless and hatted, his arm around Rose, whose bare baby-bump bulges between them. Their expressions are serious and proud, like two marathon runners who have just crossed the finish line.

Wiz Khalifa in Pittsburgh Magazine's December 2012 issue

Even his tattoos have a straightforward explanation: “I like art,” he says. “I like putting small pictures together to make a big picture. It’s just all about my life and what I believe.”

Meanwhile, Khalifa nurtures his Steel City roots, and locals return the affection. “They give me a lot of confidence and motivation,” Khalifa says. “They want to see me do well. Even if they don’t know my music, if they find out I’m from Pittsburgh, they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s my man.’”

What’s unusual about Wiz Khalifa is that he is not only a success story — his music is actually about success. His single "Work Hard, Play Hard" takes toil and recreation as its major themes. But the lyrics also have a meritocratic blue note: “Last year they had to ask; now they know who we are.”

His message can seem Social Darwinist, as in his latest album, One Night in First Class, yet another on the Rostrum Records label. Coming out Dec. 4, O.N.I.F.C.’s cover shows Khalifa sitting in a regal chair, his bare abdomen half-covered in cheetah furs. On the surface, he embraces opulence, routinely describing himself as a “baller” (that is, a street kid who’s now wealthy and respected). He can seem hostile to hangers-on.

But Mitchell, who has known the real Khalifa for years, defends his lyrics as a cautionary tale. “Once you reach a certain level,” Mitchell says, “things change when you have millions [of dollars] and the people who admire you don’t. It can be intoxicating. On your rise, you have to choose who to take with you. They look at you like food.”

Conversely, Khalifa has brought attention to Pittsburgh, and one day he may take on the role of mentor. This is one of the most powerful aspects of hip-hop culture: teaching and apprenticeship. Dr. Dre cultivated 50 Cent, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs signed The Notorious B.I.G. and so on. Khalifa is only 25 years old, but he’s already expected to groom future musicians. And local fruit may be ripening.

“In my experience,” says Justin Strong, owner of Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, “the music coming out of Pittsburgh is much better than what’s come out of Brooklyn right now. We don’t fall into a thing where everybody’s duplicating each other. The artists are still authentic and finding their own sound.”

“Things happen when they’re supposed to,” corroborates Mitchell. “I say Godspeed.”

For now, Khalifa is riding his wave. Finally, his album O.N.I.F.C. will be released this month, and Khalifa and fellow members of the Taylor Gang (his posse, partly named for his alma mater) will wrap the 2050 Tour at CONSOL Energy Center Dec. 12 (for those keeping score: yes, this is his second Pittsburgh concert of 2012). Then Khalifa and Rose will kick off 2013 with their first baby, followed by a wedding. Pittsburgh’s first baller is enjoying his new life, and he’ll tend to the new generation when the time comes.

“I feel a responsibility to be the best that I can be,” Khalifa says. “Working and doing business. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Help people and make sure they eventually end up better than you.” He ponders this, then adds: “It’s just like raising kids.”  

*

Award-winning journalist Robert Isenberg is one of PM's regular contributors. His book The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage was published in 2010 by Autumn House Press.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

A mistake at the end of the duo's sold-out show earned them some good-natured teasing on social media.
So Where are the Best 'Burbs in the Pittsburgh Area?

So Where are the Best 'Burbs in the Pittsburgh Area?

Pittsburgh-based Niche crunched a whole lot of data to rank the best suburbs in the country, the state, and around here.
Affordable Housing Part of Civic Arena Site Redevelopment

Affordable Housing Part of Civic Arena Site Redevelopment

The Pittsburgh Penguins and a St. Louis developer hope to eventually build 1,000 residential units near PPG Paints Arena.
Watch: Phil Kessel has a Mini-Me – And He's Too Cute

Watch: Phil Kessel has a Mini-Me – And He's Too Cute

Have the Pens have found their new meme for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

A mistake at the end of the duo's sold-out show earned them some good-natured teasing on social media.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Brandon Blumenfeld introduces an American gastropub menu at the Troy Hill bar.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

The latest outpost of the small, Wexford-born chain isn't flashy, but offers good beer and grub.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
A Life Well Lived: Dan Rooney's Humility and Humanity

A Life Well Lived: Dan Rooney's Humility and Humanity

Delivering the Homily at Rooney's funeral, Cardinal Donald Wuerl acknowledged a longstanding Rooney philosophical belief: “You can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

Reviews of "Free Fire," "Unforgettable" and "The Promise," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Planning Proposals: The Element of Surprise

Planning Proposals: The Element of Surprise

This couple’s proposal story really takes the cake.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Hosted by the Penn State Master Gardeners, the free event, which includes the local daffodil society’s annual show, features exclusive and hard-to-find flowers, shrubs, fruit and vegetable plants and other garden accessories from a variety of vendors.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

Considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Alex Rodriguez also is one of the league's more controversial stars.

Comments