Enjoying a meteoric rise to fame after “Black and Yellow” went platinum just two years ago, native son Wiz Khalifa is helping transform Pittsburgh into a hip-hop capital.
By Robert Isenberg
Photos by Marc Hom
“It’s all real,” says Wiz Khalifa. “Everything in my songs is literally how I feel. Everything sounds better in song form. It’s just an expression of who I am.”
The phone connection is bad, and Khalifa, the master rhymer with perfect diction, is hard to hear during the interview. But when it comes to the most important question, he answers loud and clear: It’s all real.
Which means he believes in every lyric, song title and frame of his music videos. He believes in the 100-plus tattoos that quilt his body — from forehead to thigh. When a teenaged Cameron Jibril Thomaz adopted the stage name Wiz Khalifa, he didn’t invent a persona to go with it. His Pittsburgh pride is authentic. He really loves his fiancée, model Amber Rose — and his mother, his No. 1 fan. He really works hard and plays hard. He really says yeah.
“People know me — they know how much I don’t hold back [with] what I say,” says Khalifa. “And it’s always from the heart.”
Hip-hop has pervaded American airwaves since the 1980s, and the art form goes back another decade. Once derided as an underground movement, the genre now influences every facet of American culture — from TV commercials to adolescent fashion to everyday conversation. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have birthed thousands of performers. Some of them are pioneers, like Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg (Khalifa’s chum, frequent collaborator and fellow Steelers fan). Some of them are mainstream superstars, like Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. Others are cultural outliers, like Eminem and M.I.A. The family tree of hip-hop artists is vast and complex, and the power of its music cannot be overstated.
But until recently, all major hip-hop artists have had one thing in common: They’re not from here.
Pittsburgh should be a hip-hop capital. The city is earthy and honest. The landscape is urban and weathered. Our music scene thrives. Spoken-word poets are everywhere. Our youth are literate and verbal, and most have a lot to say. Yet no one — not one serious hip-hop performer — has ever made it big. We relish our local successes, like Jasiri X. The talent is obvious. The art is well-known. But no Method Man cometh.
In 2010, Khalifa’s track “Black and Yellow” changed all of that. He was 22 years old, and he had already performed broadly. Like fellow rap sensation Mac Miller, Khalifa was a graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School, where he really came of age. Coming from a military family, Khalifa had lived around the world, but he had long considered Pittsburgh home. He was young, energetic and well-known for his talents. His nickname “Wiz” was short for “wisdom,” but it also suggested his wide-ranging talent.
“Khalifa” was Arabic for “successor,” a name given by his Muslim grandfather. He had shared stages with local favorites like Girl Talk. He had great potential — not to mention legions of fans. Anything could have happened.
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