March 2nd, 2012 | Published in Uncategorized
Wiz Khalifa’s High Earnings
By Zack O’Malley Greenburg
The Pittsburgh-bred rapper has transformed his affection for marijuana into a moneymaking marketing tool, and in the process, turned himself into a lucrative lifestyle brand.
The Camp Bisco music festival in upstate New York is a morass of sunburned teenagers stumbling around drunkenly in the mud–a distant echo of Woodstock, for better or worse. But when I knock on Wiz Khalifa’s trailer behind the main stage, I find myself tumbling down a slightly different rabbit hole.
The door opens, releasing a cloud of marijuana smoke that dissipates to reveal the rapper sitting by himself on a couch. His wispy, heavily tattooed frame is hunched over and he’s clutching a pair of scissors, cutting a white towel in half. “Arts and crafts,” he mutters. He’s the night’s headlining act, but his setup is minimal—just a skeleton crew entourage and a small table adorned by rolling papers, an iPad, two dozen baseball caps, and a football-sized Ziploc bag of marijuana.
“I’m not bougie where I need all of that other shit,” he explains with a grin, starting to roll a fresh joint. “I need some food, I need some weed, I need a place to smoke my weed.” He licks the joint to seal it and produces a lighter from his pocket. “It’s not my weed, it’s up-here weed,” he adds, almost apologetically. “It ain’t bad, though.”
For Wiz Khalifa, just 23 years old, marijuana is more than just an illicit hobby—it’s an identity. His latest album is called Rolling Papers; he appears on the cover in a cloud of green smoke. He releases YouTube videos of himself smoking up in his “Puff Bus” and once claimed he spends over $10,000 a month on weed. He might be the artist most closely associated with marijuana since Bob Marley. But Khalifa has transformed his affection for the plant into a moneymaking marketing tool, and in the process, turned himself into a lucrative lifestyle brand.
Khalifa raked in $11 million over the past year, enough to land him the No. 11 spot on our annualHip-Hop Cash Kings list. Millions of Americans first heard his music this winter when his smash single “Black and Yellow” became the unofficial theme song of his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl run; the single was certified triple-platinum. But FORBES estimates that the bulk of Khalifa’s earnings came from touring and merchandise, including 133 shows in a 12-month stretch from May 2010 to May 2011.
“We identify him at our company as one of the next potential superstars in the genre and as someone who will develop into a major hard ticket act,” says Randy Phillips, chief of concert promoter AEG. “You know it’s getting really big when it crosses over to suburban kids.”
Khalifa’s appeal as a so-called crossover act—evidenced by popularity on the college campus circuit and at festivals like Camp Bisco—is underscored by the startling success of his merchandise. Most hip-hop acts tend to gross $2-$3 per head per show; Khalifa’s take is typically north of $5 and sometimes soars as high as $15. That’s territory generally reserved for the likes of mom-approved pop acts like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.
But the merch peddled by Khalifa and his crew is far from PG. There’s his black-and-yellow hoodie with a dimebag-sized zipper pocket on the inside of a sleeve ($60); at every show, he sells 150-200 packs of Wiz Khalifa branded rolling papers ($10); for $42, he even hawks a limited edition “420 Kit” that comes with papers, a t-shirt, an herb grinder and baggie (online, a disclaimer: “Wiz Khalifa 420 Kits and Rolling Papers are for adult use and are not intended for use with illegal or controlled substances.”) The artist himself seems to not feel compelled to disclaim.
“Everybody smokes weed,” he says. “My music and my fan base is really built off of my lifestyle … and from older people to doctors, plenty of really successful people function off weed.”
Stoned or not, these people want to buy merchandise—at shows and beyond. Though he sells an average of 700 shirts a night on tour according to industry insiders, roughly one for every three attendees, Khalifa is also the all time top-grossing urban artist at teen-focused mall retailer Hot Topic.
“He built a fan base the way an old-school rock band would build a fan base—get in the van and go,” says Matt Young, Senior VP of Warner Music Group’s merchandising arm, which works in partnership with Khalifa and gets a cut of sales. “Merch is about wanting to identify and wanting to be part of something … I think the pot smoking thing is a big part of it. He’s proud of his lifestyle and people want to share this.”
Adds Hot Topic’s Robert Thomsen: “In the end, the biggest factor to his appeal is that his music speaks and relates to our teen fan.”
Despite his young age, Wiz Khalifa is already something of a hip-hop veteran. Born Cameron Jibril Thomaz to a pair of military parents, he moved from South Carolina to Germany to Japan before settling in Pittsburgh at age nine. He wrote his first song, a rap called “Kool Kats,” when he was in third grade (“It was just about, like, being cool as f*ck,” he explains)
His stage name is a nod to both past and present. “Khalifa is Arabic, it means successor, leader, shining light,” he says. “My granddad is Muslim and he gave me that name … ‘Wiz’ just came from me being the youngest guy around everybody. I was pretty good at anything I tried to do, so they called me a young wiz.”
Khalifa released his first mixtape, Prince of the City, in 2005; the next year, he launched his first album,Show and Prove, on an independent label. Hip-hop heads began to gravitate toward his lively flow and unique sound, which seemed to resist characterization in the genre’s hyper-regional classification system.
“I always feel like that gave me an advantage,” he says. “When you’re from the East Coast or you’re from the South, people expect you to sound a certain way. So if you don’t sound that way, people won’t label you as that type of artist. For me, I had a whole new lane to create for myself being from Pittsburgh and being a Midwest artist.”
In 2007, still a teenager, he signed with Warner Brothers Records but left after his planned album experienced numerous delays. He resurfaced on the indie scene, releasing Deal or No Deal and a series of popular mixtapes in 2009 before coming to a new agreement with Warner-backed Atlantic Records last summer.
Along the way, Khalifa adopted the term “Taylor Gang” to refer to himself and his entourage; the name adorns much of his merchandise and has become synonymous with his music.
“Taylor really just came from me wearing Chuck Taylors,” he says. “A lot of people in Pittsburgh didn’t really wear them, that was sort of my thing. Then it became less of a Chuck Taylor thing and more about if something’s tailored, it’s for you, you’re an individual. It became that individuality thing.”
Expressing one’s individuality sometimes involves breaking the rules, and that’s certainly the case with Khalifa and his love for marijuana. But so far, he says, he hasn’t had any trouble with the law at his concerts (one exception: a November arrest for marijuana possession between gigs; charges have since been dropped). Some venues are “420-friendly,” others aren’t—and he and his fans deal with it either way.
“When they’re not, we respect it and the fans respect it. And when it is friendly, then people know,” explains Khalifa. “The high, I don’t think that ruins anything, it makes people chill out. And then when you tell them they can’t smoke weed, they find other creative ways to get high that’s less constructive.”
He laughs. “It’s just weed!”
By this point, Khalifa has polished off two joints since I joined his trailer party; he’ll blaze up another on stage in an hour, and who knows how many in between. And although he’s shown an (endearingly) goofy side—at one point rolling up his sweatpants to ask my opinion of a new tattoo on his ankle, just above an older one depicting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—he’s more coherent than many people are sober as he explains his plans for the future.
“I just want to expand the brand organically and naturally, like people are used to seeing from me, and I don’t want to move too fast,” he says. “The work I put in five years ago got me where I am now … Every day I wake up is a work day, and I don’t plan on chilling out anytime soon.”
With the clock ticking away toward his headlining performance, he tells me it’s time to bid each other adieu.
“This has been an awesome interview,” he declares, showing me to the door. “All right, man, I’ll see you out there, foo!”