"You're gettin' all kinds of stuff out of me," says DJ Khaled backstage at the Grammy Awards. He's bluffing. The boisterous hip-hop producer hasn't given away all that much about his imminent new album, the follow up to 2017's Grateful, but he hints that it will involve Kendrick Lamar.
"We've been talking about it," the 42-year-old producer says of the Grammy-winning rapper. "I know when I do get my opportunity to present something with Khaled and Kendrick, I want it to be something monumental … and I got something up my sleeve."
It seems feasible – just like everything seems feasible in the world of DJ Khaled – largely because his reputation for benevolence in the hip-hop world is unparalleled. He reminds us all the time. "We the best!" But when his album Grateful unseated Lamar's Damn. as the Number One album on the Billboard charts, he proved his mettle beyond the mantras. The Palestinian-American based in Miami scored Hot 100 hits for artists who needed them (Bryson Tiller, Migos, Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne) and artists who weren't hurting for them (Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Drake). Now he hopes with personal and professional track records cooking together, the wins, as he likes to say, will come easier.
The role of music producer is nebulous to those who've never entered a music studio. That's why it's hard to understand what exactly Khaled does. His viral persona over the last two years complicated the picture. After the media caught onto his quirky and constant Snapchat updates in 2016, he was called a "living meme." He graced covers of business magazines, published an inspirational memoir and attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner on the arm of Arianna Huffington. He doesn't rap. He doesn't write. He contains zero of the dangerous allure hip-hop bosses are supposed to possess. But the box Khaled does check is a pretty important one. "These icons trust me," he says. "That right there is the beginning of making timeless records."
How does he know? They tell him.
"People, artists call me all the time for advice, to lift them, even if I don't know it sometimes," Khaled says, shaking his head as if he doesn't quite grasp the effect his positivity has. "They'll tell me a month later, 'I called you because I was going through something and I needed to hear your vibe.' They just wanted some of that energy. They know when I pick up the phone it's, 'Bless up, We good! What we doin'? We gotta win more! Let's go!' That's all I represent – that love, that unity."
At Sunday's Grammy Awards, Khaled walked the red carpet in a matching suit with his one-year-old son, Asahd. A half-hour before he joined Rihanna and Bryson Tiller onstage to perform his hit "Wild Thoughts," he was walking around shirtless in a circular makeup room he commandeered as his personal wardrobe. ("Gotta let 'em know – Khaled isn't playin' around; Khaled's out here changing in the hallway," he says with a laugh). He pauses to kiss his diamond chain that reads Allah across his chest ("Bless up") and then kiss his son, who was in his mother's arms ("that's my queen") before they left for their seats.
"Fatherhood is a constant learning," Khaled says. "Asahd is the realest, purest definition of love. When you're a mother or a father, that L.O.V.E. is a different love. They haven't made words for it yet. Maybe I can get with the people that invented the dictionary to help them find more words."
Khaled became a father in 2016. He views music and family as two points on a continuum. "My family always brought me around their ways of taking care of us, which made me who I am: respectful, hard working, a family man." It also helped him stay out of trouble ("That's very key"). Now the bulk of what Khaled blasts on social media (to "Fan Luv") is related to being a dad – and not in any kind of artsy, Cat Stevens sense – but in the loud, cheering-in-the-bleachers sense.
"I'm a hip-hop dad for sure," says Khaled, adjusting the YSL pin on his plush blazer. "I love saying that, [because] being a father is something I dreamed and prayed for." He name-checks some of his dad friends like Jay-Z, Fat Joe and Busta Rhymes who appreciate him repping fatherhood as a totem of success. "They use the words, 'I love that' and 'thank you' and 'keep spreading that love.'"
"Everything we do, we do for our kids," says rapper and Terror Squad Entertainment CEO Fat Joe, who knew Khaled when he was a local Miami DJ. "When we grew up, we didn't have much. We want to provide them with a future and the things we didn’t have. And the most important gift we can give our kids is love."
Khaled's biggest album – which is always going to be the one he has yet to release – will again have Asahd executive producing. Last year, Khaled told Jimmy Kimmel his creative decisions on Grateful were based on how his infant son reacted. Ridiculous? Maybe. But a year later, Grateful is Khaled's best record by multiple measures. Maybe there is a something to be said for his willingness to show the world his joy.
Outfit secured, Khaled turns toward a woman ready with her iPhone: "Second suit for the night – about to hit that stage – Fan Luv, tune in," he says, jazz hands out. It's a Snapchat video, which they re-do to work in an intentionally awkward upward pan from his white Jays. Khaled spouted another line like a woke windup doll that had his staff giggling.
"I feel like my purpose and my son's purpose is to bring love to the world," Khaled says. "When people see him, they tell me a story, something personal – like Asahd makes them smile – and that means a lot. Love is the most powerful thing in the world, especially in times like these."