How DJ Khaled went from broke and in jail to making $24 million, working with Jay-Z


Even DJ Khaled, whose real name is Khaled Mohamed Khaled, doesn't know just what to call himself.

"I am a music mogul, I am a producer, I am a DJ, I am an executive, I am a CEO and I am an artist," Khaled said on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in March 2016.

"For the last 10 years, I put some of the biggest anthems out, number one records out like, 'I'm On one,' 'All I Do Is Win.' You know, the list goes on. 'Hold You Down.' I have done records with Jay-Z. By the way, Jay-Z is my manager now," Khaled added.

In fact, Khaled's lastest single, "Top Off," released Friday, features Jay-Z as well as Beyonce and Future. The single teases the release of his upcoming album, "Father of Asahd," according to Billboard

"I am like the hip-hop Quincy Jones, you know what I am saying? ... I am an entrepreneur. I am a young mogul," said Khaled. 

"I am blessed, you know what I am saying?" 

As Khaled told DeGeneres about being a music producer and founder and CEO of his record label and management and production company We the Best Music Group, he leaned back in his chair. Wearing a brown silky jumpsuit, a wreath of gold necklaces and displaying a patch of dark chest hair, Khaled gestured to the audience confidently and rubbed his carefully coiffed beard in conversation with DeGeneres. (Khaled celebrates being well groomed. He recommends getting a hair cut twice a week as well as a weekly pedicure and manicure.)

At the end of his six-minute bit with DeGeneres, Khaled thanked the talk show host for having him. He was wide-eyed with excitement.

"I want to let you know, I am very inspired by you. I love everything you do," gushed Khaled to DeGeneres. 

"I always watch Ellen's show. To be on here is real amazing for me," he told the audience.

Indeed, Khaled has a knack for constantly promoting himself while still appearing agog at his own success. So it's hard not to be charmed when listening to Khaled riff — and he does riff, rising and dropping his words to some ever-present internal vibe. 

It's at the heart of his appeal and it's helped turn the pudgy 42-year-old Palestinian-American into social media star. 

"Being authentic always wins," Khaled told CNBC in June, about how to be successful on social media. "When people see somebody that is just real, they love it. It ain't no act. It ain't no fake."

Music mogul DJ Khaled on how he conquered social media
Music mogul DJ Khaled on how he conquered social media

That's certainly been the case with Snapchat. According to a March 2017 Wired story, his posts on the platform were seen by 3 million to 4 million people each at the time. (Snapchat does not share follower counts.) Khaled now has more than 9 million followers on Instagram and more than 4 million on Twitter.

Doubtless it was Khaled's social reach and influence with the millennial set (as well as men) that helped score him a spot as a Weight Watchers ambassador alongside Oprah Winfrey, who owns 10 percent of the company. On January 2, the day after the deal was announced, the brand's stock rose 8 percent.

Welcome to #WWFreestyle. Can't wait to see you #blessup this program

"DJ Khaled has an incredibly authentic drive and passion to inspire others through his wellness journey and experiences" on Weight Watchers, said Mindy Grossman, president and chief executive officer of Weight Watchers International, in a statement. "By capturing and sharing his process, he will enliven and inspire his community."

In mid-February, Khaled announced via social media he'd lost 29.2 pounds so far. 

But it's not just Weight Watchers. Khaled is everywhere — and it's paid off nicely. Khaled brought in $24 million in total pretax earnings in the 12 months ending in June, according to Forbes' September 2017 ranking of the wealthiest hip hop stars.

And Khaled's embraced the good life: He has a small collection of Rolls-Royces, for example.

Since 2006, Khaled has released 10 albums. His most recent, "Grateful," which dropped in June, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart, ranking the most popular albums in the U.S. He has produced videos with the likes of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Chance the Rapper and Drake — just to name just a few. 

In 2016, his music label, We the Best Music Group, was signed to Epic Records, a division of the Sony empire. (An Epic Records representative declined to share the financials of the deal.) At the time, Khaled had sold 15 million singles worldwide.

Khaled was also featured in a TurboTax commercial in 2017 as part of the "Relax, there's TurboTax" campaign for the personal finance software. He appeared in the movie "Pitch Perfect 3" as himself and is a host and judge on "The FOUR Battle for Stardom," a music competition show on Fox. He is a restaurateur and an author. He's also produced a song for the new Disney movie, "A Wrinkle in Time," which stars Winfrey.

Young, broke and determined

It's part of Khaled's relatability, though, that he hasn't always been so successful.

Khaled's mom and dad are Palestinian immigrants who arrived in Louisiana in their 20s, according to Miami New Times. His father came with $20 in his pocket, so his parents sold clothes out of their van at a local flea market to make money. Khaled was born in New Orleans in November 1975. 

"They worked every day, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day," Khaled told Miami New Times. "If I wanted to hang out with my mother and father, I had to hang out with them hustling." 

His family later moved to Orlando, Florida, where Khaled started DJing in his garage when he was 13, he says. At the time, he had a keyboard, turntables, a drum machine and records, according to the New Times.

When he was "barely old enough to drive," his parents were robbed, Khaled says in his 2016 book, "The Keys." At the same time, his parents "ran into some financial trouble with the business," says Khaled. "These two events combined finished them." His parents moved back to New Orleans to stay with family.

Khaled stayed in Orlando, trying to get his music career going. He had just started to get a few gigs DJing at clubs and was occasionally invited into local studios to play his music. He was broke, though, making only about $100 a week.

"I was just a kid and I got evicted probably 10 times," he writes in "The Keys." "My friends would come over and I would have no furniture. Nothing in my fridge. Just records. Records were my furniture and the floor was my bed when I went to sleep at night." 

He was so broke he had to move back in with his parents in New Orleans. There he worked at Shoney's as a busboy and at Odyssey Records. At the record store, Khaled met rappers Birdman and Lil Wayne, both of whom are from the city. At the time, Lil Wayne was indeed little — he was only 12. Both would go on to be some of his first musical collaborators, according to Miami New Times.

After a year, Khaled won $5,000 in a DJ contest, rented a U-haul to carry his records and headed back to Orlando, according to "The Keys." 

Back in Florida, Khaled was pulled over one too many times for driving with a suspended license. A frustrated judge sentenced him to a month in jail, according to the Miami New Times. A month was enough. Khaled was scared straight.  

"The day after I got out, I moved from Orlando to Miami. I just had to. It was like a big switch just got flipped on in my head," Khaled writes in his book.

He arrived in Miami in 1994, according to the New Times. "I had less than $20 in my pocket, just like my dad did when he moved to America, and I had the clothes on my back. ... It was time for me to conquer Miami. I didn't know exactly how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to." 

Khaled struggled to get his career as a DJ off the ground. He DJed anywhere he could pick up a gig, and lived between his girlfriend's mother's place and his black Honda Civic.

In 1996, Khaled talked his way into a job as a DJ at a Caribbean pirate radio station, Mixx96, according to the Miami New Times. "I used to sleep at the radio station," Khaled told the publication.

At 22, Khaled got a spot DJing a Friday-night show on Miami hip hop station 99 Jamz, then later a steady Friday gig at a Miami party called Rockers Island. 

Slowly, his career gained momentum. There was no social media yet, "But the word of mouth in the streets talked about it," he told NYC radio host Ebrohim "Ebro" Darden in 2015.

"That's how I came up. Going city to city. On pirate radio, giving a beats CD, whatever! That's how I came up." 

In 2003, 99 Jamz gave Khaled his own show, where he stayed for another 10 years, according to the New Times. Gradually, Khaled got the idea that he wanted to produce his own music. In 2006, he started We the Best. 

His first nationally recognized album, "We Takin' Over," came out in 2007 and featured half a dozen guest appearances, including Lil Wayne, Birdman and Akon. "Making the most ambitious collaborations in the history of music is what I do. It's all I do," writes Khaled, "The Keys."  

"The King of Snapchat"

Though Khaled didn't work his way up in an era where he could leverage social media, his fame has skyrocketed in the last couple of years because of it.

"I tell people all the time that Snapchat changed my life," says Khaled in his book.

Khaled joined the platform at the end of 2015 while spending some time at home recovering from being on the road, according to a 2016 interview with Ebro. Khaled shared his daily routines, inviting fans into the more personal aspects of his life.

While posting videos of himself doing everything from watering his plants to giving pop-psychology ruminations on success, Khaled was becoming a bona fide Snapchat star. It took him from a well-known name in the hip hop world to a staple influencer for the millennial set. 

"I was home for literally like a month. … So one day, my phone broke," Khaled told Ebro. He went to the mall to get it fixed. Suddenly, he was surrounded. "It's like the whole mall is in the Apple store now 'cause I snapped, 'fixing my phone.' There's like 10,000 people!

"I only seen this with the Beatles! You know what I am saying?" says Khaled.

Shortly thereafter, he was in Las Vegas for work and was again startled by a crowd gathered at his hotel. "There's like 10,000 people downstairs by the elevator," says Khaled, remembering the event to Ebro.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian

"DJ Khaled has completely cracked the platform," said Emmanuel Seuge, senior vice president for content at Coca-Cola (one of Snapchat's major advertisers), in a 2016 Bloomberg feature. "He's the king of Snapchat."

Khaled went so far as to broadcast the birth of his son on Snapchat. At just 1 year old, Asahd is already a phenom on social media with 1.8 million followers on his own Instagram.

"I've always been the guy who can walk into a dark room and be the light bulb. I bring joy and light," Khaled told Rolling Stone shortly after having his son. "Now, I'm a father. If you thought I was going hard before, now I'm going super hard."

Part of what has made Khaled such a breakout sensation on the platform is that signature casual, positive language of success. He uses it with his followers, calling his lessons "the keys" (hence the title of his book and his liberal use of key emojis). For example, Khaled always talks about the importance of staying away from naysayers, who he calls "they." 

"You hear me saying, 'stay away from 'they'' all the time, but who are 'they'? I'll tell you: 'They' are the enemy," explains Khaled in his book, "The Keys." "'They' want to keep the keys hidden and block you from the pathway of more success, and 'they' want to see you to fail. ... The person who wants to distract you from your studies or your career with their drama? That's a 'they.' That's a big 'they.' But here's a major key: As long as you stay away from 'they,' you will prosper."

Khaled has also famously adopted the phrase "bless up!" from Rastafarian culture. "It's almost like a prayer," says Khaled in his book. "Like just a reminder to myself and those around me that God is good. I love that it's something I am known for."

Khaled does have a lot to be grateful for. 

"My journey in life, I have always been told, 'no,'" Khaled told Ellen Degeneres on the show. "And I always took them 'nos' and turned them into 'yes,' you know what I am saying? I always believed in my path, my vision. Even though I know you have to go through trials and tribulations in life — but I do know there is sunshine on the other side." 

See also:

'King of Snapchat' DJ Khaled explains how to succeed on social media

How DJ Khaled's parents have been key to his success

How Barry Manilow's biggest money mistake left him with just $11,000 in the bank

How Barry Manilow's biggest money mistake left him with just $11,000 in the bank
How Barry Manilow's biggest money mistake left him with just $11,000 in the bank