In the year of the Auto-Tune, Wiz Khalifa came to us au naturale, championing a DIY ethos and guerilla-style marketing campaign that refused to be ignored. At just 23, Khalifa (born Cameron Jibril Thomaz) made a name for himself by ditching the majors (specifically, Warner Bros. Records, back in 2009), releasing independently (see 2010’s Kush & Orange Juice), and using the Web to bring his music to the masses. This March, Khalifa unveiled Rolling Papers, his debut studio album and first at his new Atlantic-label home. Not surprisingly, the disc quickly hit #1 on the R&B, hip-hop, and rap charts, thanks in part to its ubiquitous (and anthemic) hit single, “Black and Yellow.” This Thursday, the Pittsburgh-bred rapper makes his lone Southern California tour stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I recently spoke with Khalifa from his tour bus in Nebraska.
What’s a normal day like for you nowadays? Wake up, try to find some breakfast, do a bunch of interviews, record, and perform.
Then sleep? Maybe … [laughs].
Do you have a studio on the bus? A lot of musicians seem to be adamant about not writing on the road. Yeah. But I don’t write stuff down, so if I think of it I record it. That’s pretty much how I get my stuff done. Every couple days I’ll put something down, even if it’s just a hook. You gotta get something out.
I saw you at Coachella and was thoroughly impressed with the energy you brought to the stage. What do you think it is that sets you apart from other rappers coming up? I think it’s just — I’m not just interested in the rap aspect. Rapping is one of the things that I do, but I try to put it all together and make it some really memorable music, and timeless music that will be experimented with and experienced later on down the road. I also bring different elements in to my music from other genres. And I’m really, really big on having a crowd being able to have their own intimate relationship with the music, whether that comes from a performance or from hearing the CD somewhere. I try to make the experience memorable, as opposed to being the best rapper in the world.
You went through a decent amount of back and forth early in your career, signing with and then leaving Warner Bros. Was there a moment where you started to think that you might hit it big? Yeah, it was probably around the time that I released Deal or No Deal when I started to kind of figure out that people were paying attention to me and are starting to see all the work I put in and what I’ve created. And not only that, but I started seeing that that was it — that there wasn’t any other method to me doing what I was doing, or to anybody topping what I was doing.
What made you decide to sign with Atlantic? I went to meet with the people over there, and they shared my views. I got to smoke weed in the office on the first day, so that was pretty cool [laughs]. I felt like they understood me, my project, and the changes I was going to go through. They understood how much control I needed to have over what goes. And just the support and the backing that I need, they’re all for that — they’re great for that — as well as coming up with new ideas.
Will you tell me a little bit about Pittsburgh and what the scene is like out there? Do you feel like the city’s hip-hop artists have kind of gathered around you? Man, I couldn’t even tell you. I haven’t been home for more than a week in, like, two years. But I can definitely tell you that there’s a lot more people flossin’ up and doing their thing, emerging and just putting their stuff out there and making a name for themselves. They’re seeing the benefits in working hard and continuing to work.
Your dad was a military man, and you spent a lot of your childhood moving around. Do you feel like that’s prepared you for life on the road? Yeah, totally. My home is on the road now, so I’ve kind of just accepted it. Moving around a lot just helped me learn how to not make too many attachments and to just be able to get up and go and be comfortable in other surroundings. I only get a little bit homesick. I live out in L.A. now and of course I want to go to my apartment and see my dog and stuff like that, but that only lasts for a bit.
You’ve acquired quite a bit of ink over the years. Can you tell me a little about your tattoos? I started getting them when I was 16, but I’ve been keeping my tattoos kind of personal lately, just because I don’t want it to be a fad thing. They’re really really personal and they all mean something to me and my life. The more and more tattoos I get, it’s just a symbol of what I’ve learned.
You’re only 23. Most kids your age are just graduating college and trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives. What’s still left on your list of goals? Just to keep doing it. I’ve already reached the point where I’ve made more money than I’d ever imagined making at this age, and I’ve done things with my career that people work their entire career to achieve, and this is just the starting point. So, just to really realize what I have in front of me and work hard, that’s the best thing and what’s going to guide me 20 years from now.
What’s your secret to staying grounded? I just keep the stuff that makes me happy around. I like to watch movies, I like to listen to certain music, I need the Internet. I smoke weed. I keep a couple things around me that make me happy and that’s what keeps me level headed.
What are you watching? I just watched this movie called Soul Power. It’s a documentary about the fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Africa. They put a music festival together for that — it was like three days before the fight and James Brown and everybody was out there. So I was watching the making of that.
What about music? Um, right now I’m listening to The Cool Kids.
Finally, your show up here is already sold out. What can ticketholders expect? It’s going to be a lot of energy, really fun. Anybody who’s been to my show before should know that we’ve been able to really step it up with the production and everything. It’s going to be the show that you’re used to, just on another level, you know? They should be excited about the album being performed live. That’s been a really good experience for me — and that’s what the tour’s about anyway, getting’ people to buy in to the album.
Wiz Khalifa plays the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday, June 23, with opener Big Sean. Call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for info.