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.
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.