Aside from the fact that he likes to smoke lots of weed, there’s not much about Wiz Khalifa that is patterned or predictable. Born Cameron Thomaz, the 23-year-old rapper hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a city not exactly known as a hotbed ofhip-hop wonderfulness. Still, Khalifa started writing rhymes as a pre-teen and managed to score a record deal with Warner Music in 2007, releasing his first single, the Eurotrance-tinged “Say Yeah,” soon after. The marriage, though, wasn’t a good one, and he eventually parted ways with the label—which, ironically, is when his fledgling hip-hop career really started to take off. After extricating himself from the industry machinery,Khalifa decided to release his records independently, the second of which, 2009’s coyly titled Deal Or No Deal (Rostrum), became an underground hit and presaged the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response he would receive to a subsequent series of free mixtapes capped by last year’s Kush & Orange Juice (Taylor/Gang/Rostrum), the title of which became a top trending topic on Twitter.
As if on cue, the major labels came calling again, with Khalifa eventually signing last year with Atlantic and releasing his first single, “Black and Yellow,” which not only reached the top spot on the BillboardHot 100, but grew into a pop-culture phenomenon, becoming the de facto anthem of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl run.
His full-fledged major-label debut, Rolling Papers (Atlantic), entered the charts at No. 2 when it came out in late March—and with his increased profile has also come increased scrutiny. But Khalifa still seems to float above it all—and not just because of the prodigious amounts of pot he smokes. We recently caught up with him on tour in Florida.
MATT DIEHL: Hey, Wiz. Where are you?
WIZ KHALIFA: Tallahassee. I’m actually on my tour bus.
DIEHL: How have you personalized the bus and made it feel like home?
KHALIFA: Well, the main thing is keeping it clean—and free of smells, of course.
DIEHL: I’m impressed that a stoner feels the urgency to keep his immediate environment clean.
KHALIFA: I think there are people who aren’t stoners who like to keep the area clean. Everybody gets a little messy, but there’s different people on here, so we gotta keep it clean.
DIEHL: So what do you think the world saw in you that made you stand out?
KHALIFA: I don’t know if it was anything necessarily different. I just worked really, really hard to stay in people’s faces, so it would be hard to forget about me. I’m just trying to stay popular and do the same thing over and over. I think that consistency kind of makes what I do gravitate towards becoming a movement. Honestly, I’m just consumed by the work. Everyday, I’m trying to come up with new stuff and do new things. I don’t take time off. I’m always recording and working on my brand beyond just the music. I just try to keep that connection to normalcy. I never want to lose that, being normal. People connect with me just as a cool, around-the-way type of guy. I never want to confuse people or go over their heads.
WHEN you THINK ABOUT a REBEL, you THINK ABOUT PEOPLE WHO are GOING AGaINST THINGS. I DON’T REALLY GO AGAINST ANYTHING; I JUST do EXACTLY WHATEVER the FUCK I WANT TO DO.” Wiz Khalifa
DIEHL: To get to where you are now, what did you do differently, that other rappers or rock stars did not?
KHALIFA: From the outside, people can really see the differences, but I wasn’t really focusing on doing anything completely different—or doing anything absolutely better than everybody. I was just concerned with doing things how I felt like they were supposed to be done. That was really just about getting the people to know me for me. My fans grew to a point where they trust me—where they know that if they come to a show, or they download a mixtape, or if they do anything that involves me, it’s going to be at a certain level. There were people who didn’t believe in what I was doing at first, so I just took a lot of time to build that up, being on top of things to make everything better. I started rapping so I could fit in, and then I got kind of good at it. When I was, like, 14, I told my dad what I wanted to do, and he bought me some equipment. Then I just made it happen.
DIEHL: Many of the great hip-hop MCs have been historically tied to their environments: There’s Lil Wayne and New Orleans; Jay-Z and Brooklyn; N.W.A and Compton. You’re different from a lot of rappers in that, because your dad was in the military, you lived in places like Japan and England growing up. When you returned to the U.S., you settled in Pittsburgh—not a city known for its hip-hop. How does that all figure into who you are?
KHALIFA: Every artist picks what they want to put out there, what image they want to portray, and what they want people to know about where they’re from. There are a lot of different types of people in Pittsburgh. There are a lot of different things going on as far as art and the communities. There’s pop, there’s rap, there’s everything. There is also the darker, street side to Pittsburgh, but I just choose not to elaborate on that. What I bring is more fun and positive—an outside, worldly feel. But being from Pittsburgh, you have room to make up your own sound. People don’t have expectations. We’re not as East Coast in Pittsburgh as people are in Philly, so our vibe is just a little bit different. We’re a little bit more country, more Midwest in general. We have a different way about us when it comes down to music. The beats are really melodic and musical, but they’re still really heavy. They just ride out, almost like down South mixed with West Coast.
DIEHL: One of my favorite lyrics on Rolling Papers is “Every day is a holiday, so we celebrate it.” You’re 23, when a lot of people are just beginning their lives. What are some of the milestones that just made you look back and say, “Oh, shit. This is my life?”
KHALIFA: Seeing the whole thing from movies and TV and then really living that out—and it being my thing—has been pretty incredible. Now, I’ve got the tour bus, production managers. I’ve got staff. A lot of that could be overwhelming for an artist who’s young. But I’m really learning every day and just taking control of thesituation. Where I had it all locked down onthe underground level, now I’m doing the same atthe industry level, which is pretty exciting.
DIEHL: Tell me about your tattoos.
KHALIFA: I started getting tattoos when I was, like, 16—that’s when I got my first one. My mom actually took me to go get it. I got it on my left arm. It’s the name of the first rap group that I was in.
DIEHL: What was that group called?
KHALIFA: I never say the name. It’s more of a personal thing, like my family. But even before I got my first tattoo—since I was young—I knew that I wanted to be covered. I just plotted out what I felt and put it on my body to sort of tell my story.
DIEHL: So you’ve turned your skin into a diary.
KHALIFA: Yeah, all my trials and tribulations. I still leave little places and spaces to add stuff. I want to be getting tattoos forever. I don’t want to run out of space while I’m young. I just really want my tattoos to be meaningful. Every one is spiritual—the names
of people that I either come in contact with or have lost. They’re all important in their own way.
DIEHL: You got your stage name tattooed on your 17th birthday. What was the significance of that event?
KHALIFA: That name was given to me by my granddad. In the Muslim religion, khalifa means “spread the word.” It’s about the word, the message, and the impact that I’m having on people’s lives.
DIEHL: Do you see yourself as a rebel?
KHALIFA: You could say that, but there are connotations that come with that word, rebel. When you think about a rebel, you think about people who are going against things. I don’t really go against anything; I just do exactly whatever the fuck I want to do. I just do what’s natural, and go for it, and deal with it later.
DIEHL: A lot of hip-hop artists used to seem afraid of the Internet, but with the way you’ve used it, I feel like I know where you are all the time, that I’m in your world. How do you think it has impacted your career?
KHALIFA: [coughs] Well, anybody who cannot embrace the power of Internet is just limiting themselves. I just had to make it work for me. Before my album came out, when I was releasing the whole mixtape project online, I would just do songs or concepts and put them out there to the point where people eventually got to know me, or know what to expect from me and my personality. They know that I smoke weed and like a laugh and have fun and jump around and make up words and stuff. People can get all that about you now, whereas, back in the day, they just got the album, and videos, and then you might see some behind-the-scenes footage if you were lucky, but that was it. So the Internet did let me bring people into my world—and for free, so that when it came time to support what I’m doing and pay for it, they wanted to. They’re not being forced to support it; they want to support it. The main thing is keeping it all in your hands. I’m as involved now in everything I do as I’ve been since day one. I mean, I used to make all these videos on my own, and I don’t make them by myself anymore but I’m sitting here right now with my camera guy, who is making a day-to-day thing of me on tour that we’re gonna put up at night. So, you know, you gotta keep it movin’.
Matt Diehl is a contributing music editor of Interview.