May 2nd, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Lisa Strouss

Dressed in a denim blue letterman jacket, a white hoodie emblazoned with the image of James Dean, and red Converse, Wiz Khalifa looks as American as apple pie. That’s fitting since his rise to prominence is an updated version of the American dream—after a less-than-salutary relationship with his first major label, he spent a couple of years independently building an army of fans on the internet before signing with Atlantic last summer. After the Venice Beach shoot for ‘Roll Up,’ a single from his upcoming debut album on the label, he talked about Ninja Turtles, the paparazzi, and, of course, women and weed. This interview by Rebecca Haithcoat.

What’s the first tattoo you ever got?
It’s on my left arm; it’s my first rap group. I don’t ever tell anybody. I keep that under wraps. I was 16. But I don’t regret it cuz they were all my family members. It was just our first rap group name, and I tattooed it on me cuz I just loved it.
Which tattoo hurt the most?
Probably my back. The back of my neck hurt really bad too. But I don’t really feel it on my face. Not too much sting. The hands! I don’t have my feet yet. But I will. I usually don’t tell people the next ones I’m gonna get cuz I don’t want nobody to try to do it first. People are tricky.
Curren$y told me his friends get them for him because he’s afraid getting tattooed will hurt too much.
Oh yeah! He told me that if he could just go to sleep and wake up with his whole body tattooed, he’d be cool with that—but he doesn’t want to go through the pain.
What was it like when you first met Benjy Grinberg, president of your label—Rostrum Records? He’s been with you a long time.
I was a kid—I had no clue about anything, and he basically just took advantage of a young mind and pimped me for everything … I don’t even make money off of this stuff. Nah, I met Benjy when I was probably like, 16, and he heard my music through one of his friends that he went to high school with. I had a couple songs that I’d recorded at the studio called ID Labs—and I WOULD still record there, but it got kinda hot. That’s like the little monument now in Pittsburgh—the main studio everybody records at. So through me workin’ there, he heard my music, and was like, ‘Yo, you kinda hot; you look cool, whass up?’ You know what I’m sayin’? And I was like, ‘Whass up?!’ And we made some records together. He let some other people who had opinions back then hear the music, and he was really happy with the reception and the work that I was puttin’ in, and I was happy with the business that he was handlin’ and the opportunities I felt like he could provide. And we just went out on a limb and rocked with each other! I was really, really young, and he had experience working with different artists, but the situation was pretty much totally new to both of us, and it ended up workin’ out pretty solid.
What’s your strongest memory before 16?
Dang! I don’t know! It was all pretty much buildin’ up to like, you know, just me … everything was about music. I was always in the studio, and things didn’t really start paying off until later on. My early years were just me bein’ a normal ass kid, and like working really, really hard—my friends not understandin’ why I was goin’ to the studio instead of fuckin’ off.
Tell me about you as a kid.
I was just like, real crazy. Like, outgoing, always shouting stuff out, yelling things through the house. Wild things—about turkeys, and unnamable stuff. I was just crazy—I was in my own little world.
Did you have imaginary friends?
Nah, I didn’t have imaginary friends. I had a lot of toys that I would make fight each other all the time. [Makes pow-pow-pow noises.] Ninja Turtles were popular, Captain Planet was poppin’, Power Rangers were poppin’. Totally watched those cartoons; I totally LIVED those cartoons. I got a Ninja Turtle on my leg! [Pulls up his left pant leg.] I WAS a Ninja Turtle at one point. I got this tattoo like, four years ago.
What kind of music did your mom listen to?
My mom listened to everything—she listened to a lot of rap music, though, more than my dad did. Because when I was in like third grade, I remember my mom buying me [Tupac’s] Makaveli for Christmas. SHE wanted Makaveli, but she just bought it for me so she could listen to it. She had all the dirty versions of CDs, but my dad didn’t want me listening to the cuss words. My dad listened to more old-school music—like ‘70s, old school rap, early ‘90s rap. My mom was like Too Short, Snoop, Tupac.
Is she excited that you’re working with Snoop?
She loves it. I try to call her every time I’m with somebody, but she never picks up the phone!
Do you still live with her when you’re in Pittsburgh?
Yeah—I made sure in Pittsburgh that I have a house that everybody can function in. My mom stays there, my uncles stay there, my cousin stays there—Will, who’s my tour manager, lives with me when I’m there. Everything is consolidated.
How do people treat you in Pittsburgh when you’re just going about your normal routine?
It got to a point where it was kinda crazy. Like pumpin’ gas and buyin’ chips, turned into me having to take hella pictures, or tryin’ to escape. But it’s cool—it’s good to have that love and know that people admire me for what I do, and wanna greet me with positivity instead of fuck me up.
What about paparazzi out here?
OH my gosh, paparazzi out here! It’s new. But it comes with the game. I never looked at myself as important enough to take pictures of me drinking Vitamin Water—I just look at me like a normal guy. But if you guys wanna take pictures of me fuckin’ buyin’ shorts, cool.
You’ve said a couple of times you don’t think of yourself as being on people’s radars—like Kanye or Jay-Z. When did you start to notice that tide turning?
Well, probably now—cuz I said their names! Ummm—just as more and more people started reaching out, rapping over the record [Black and Yellow] and going to big markets and they play the song every couple of minutes; I was like, ‘I KNOW people’s hearin’ that.’ But for me, I’m just so into the work, and trying to be better than myself, that I don’t really even look at that other stuff.
It seems like the decision to release ‘Roll Up’ was a strategy geared towards further breaking into the mainstream. How do you see yourself straddling the divide between the hardcore Taylor Gang’ [Wiz’ longtime name for his fans] and your new audience?
It’s gonna be the same. Anybody who’s willing to grow, and willing to be a real fan and see the whole movement succeed, is gonna see how it pans out. The album is definitely gonna make things more clear, but I’m not gonna leave it up to the album. Like ‘Black and Yellow’ was a great song, and people didn’t think that it would do as well as it did just based off of how hardcore it might’ve sounded or how edgy it was. It wasn’t really as poppy as most records, but it sold as much as those pop records. Even when we released it, we only thought of it as a set-up record, so I think when we calculate it and put these mainstream records out and I’m still bein’ me—I’m not compromising anything—we have no choice but to really capitalize off that buildup and buzz.
Are you concerned at all about losing that rabid underground audience?
Nah—when the album comes out, it’s gonna make everything clear. Everybody’s gonna understand what music comes with it. But to sell the album and open it up, I do need those new fans. If I have just the same fans, I’ll have the same success. I’ll be doing the same things. You can’t be scared to make big records. So when I go out and reach and grab those new fans, and I keep my old fans still entertained … it’s a funny relationship, but at the end of the day, the people who understand it are the ones that I’m kinda doin’ it for.
What’s your response to detractors who say all you talk about are women and weed?
I say they’re right! But if you take the time to really really dissect it, and find the genius inside of it, then you’ll figure it out! And if you don’t care to take the time, then I don’t blame you for that, either. I feel like different people are into different artists for whatever reason, and sometimes it takes a long time for you to really understand where an artist is coming from or what they mean. I just gotta do what I gotta do to remain long term. And maybe, you know, whether it’s this year, next year, year after that, I could still win that person over as a fan because they might just not understand it right now.
Thanks for letting me crash your video shoot.
Thanks for crashing! Hopefully you sat in here long enough to get a contact high.