Wiz Khalifa stands alone.
Swathed in a baggy T-shirt, he's utterly alone onstage at Mr. Small's Theatre. His lanky frame sways to the track as he works the packed house, and the mic:
Who's the kid spittin' flames, changing the game? His name is Wiz Khalifa, man ... I got that Pittsburgh sound, I'm gonna hold this whole Pittsburgh down.
Many see that lone figure as either a mascot or messiah. Many are looking to him to put Pittsburgh's hip-hop scene on the map. "If Wiz blows up, we all gonna blow up," is how local emcee and promoter Basick Sickness sums it up.
"On top of Wiz's raw talent, the time is right for an artist from Pittsburgh to come out," agrees Benjy Grinberg, president of Rostrum Records. An industry insider and Pittsburgh native, Grinberg put out Khalifa's mix-tape earlier this year and just released his debut album, Show and Prove. "Wiz is that guy," he contends.
Sure looks like it. Khalifa's new single, "Damn Thing," has shot up national college and mix-show radio charts; at home, it's been in the Top 40 on 106.7 WAMO for over two months. He's featured on the new album by hot globe-trotting producer Nicolay; his mix-tape has sold thousands and earned critical accolades. Allhiphop.com speculates, "Wiz Khalifa may inch out Big Ben Roethlisberger for the youngest star in the Steel City." And they were referring to last season's Big Ben.
You couldn't blame the 19-year-old Khalifa if the pressure was a little alarming. "When I was younger, making music, I was hoping somebody else was gonna do it," says Khalifa.
Tonight, he's the one up on stage, feeling the adrenaline rush. He's the top-billed opening act for his heroes, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Behind his gritty, observational lyrics and mature delivery is a young, connected rapper on the rise. But as he surveys the mostly white, suburban crowd at Mr. Small's, he knows that in the world beyond those doors, nothing -- not fame, not love, not respect -- comes for free. There have been setbacks along the way; thanks to one of them, he's taken the stage tonight a full month behind schedule.
If Pittsburgh's self-proclaimed "Prince of the City" lives up to the title, he'll inherit a territory often torn by neighborhood rivalries. Out beyond those doors lies a splintered kingdom ... one Khalifa himself calls "Pistolvania."
Khalifa relaxes in an armchair behind the studio console, pushing his ball cap back on his head. Not 24 hours after Show and Prove hit the streets, he's at Lawrenceville's ID Labs, working on a whole new set of recordings. In the studio, Khalifa looks perfectly at home -- probably because he is. "I'm down here every day." He shrugs. "And when I say 'every day' ... every day."
Posters and news items bearing his likeness adorn the studio's entryway, which today is clogged with signs of change. Eric Dan apologizes for the mess of gear and musicianly rubble: He's installing a new wooden floor in one of the tracking rooms. A veteran producer and one-time member of the band Strict Flow, E-Dan says the Prince's regal access to the studio is "something I haven't done before or since. He just caught our ear that much. We don't ... nurture every artist who comes in the door."
Khalifa's relationship with ID began in 2002, when the then-15-year-old came knocking on its door. He'd just returned from a year of living in Oklahoma with his dad, an entrepreneur who had recently invested in a recording studio. There, Khalifa experimented late into the night, learning to make beats and put together his own tracks. Initially, Khalifa was "just a paying customer" at ID Labs. But before long, E-Dan realized Wiz might be a valuable customer. Chad Glick, DJ Huggy and Juliano and others at ID began getting him in touch with Grinberg -- and getting him a record deal.
"Wiz was the one guy we felt like was the most talented, and also the easiest to work with as a person," E-Dan explains. "There are a lot of people that I would say are talented, but I wouldn't necessarily want to hole up in a room and make a record with them."
It's been a fruitful arrangement. For Show and Prove, Khalifa tapped the studio's larger circles for the production talents of Nesia Beatz, Black Czer and Champ Super, emcees Boaz, Kev Da Hustler and S. Money, and the soaring vocals of Kelly Porter. From those ingredients -- and classic influences like Jay-Z, Snoop, Biggie, Three 6 Mafia and Cam'ron -- Khalifa has devised what he calls "the Pittsburgh sound."
"To me, we're pioneering what the Pittsburgh sound is right now," he says. "So I figure I might as well go ahead and put a stamp on it while it's hot."
As he describes it, that sound reflects the city's geography, history -- and simply what people here like to listen to. Pittsburgh, Khalifa notes, is both a literal and cultural crossroads, caught somewhere between the East Coast and the Midwest: "We're kinda the Mid-East, or make that the Middle East," he jokes.
As a result, the Pittsburgh sound as he defines it "has a Southern beat, but it's not a Southern song, because a lot of [those] rappers don't rap as clear as I do," Khalifa explains. "They don't have as much substance in their lyrics; the picture that they paint in their verses isn't as vivid. So I can bring an East Coast swagger with some down-South bounce. And I'm rappin' fast, like Bone or somebody who's from the Midwest."
On Show and Prove, that translates into a surprising musical variety. Warm R&B horns and prog keyboards sidle up alongside harder club beats and the occasional menacing gangsta hook -- all contrasted with Khalifa's precise delivery and observational lyrics. Khalifa offers a wide-angle view of both the fleeting joys and the daily grind of city life: street violence, drugs, the petty humiliations of poverty and, of course, fake emcees. (See sidebar, "The Wizdom of Wiz Khalifa.") At times celebratory, at times aggressive, his sketches can also be cautionary tales: "The first kid that acts silly, first kid, he droppin' / It's too late, there's no way you could really stop 'em / A bloodbath will put the nail in the coffin."
"People say I'm an old soul," Khalifa says of his often bleak, world-weary perspective. "But since they're warmer beats, it's easier to listen to, and some of it might just be real feel-good beats. We try to get that good contrast so we keep the streets and also like a wider audience of people."
Assuming, that is, he can be all things to all ZIP codes.
"Pittsburgh is a hatin' city," Khalifa says with a wry smile. "It's hard to be an artist, 'cause you might be from this area, and these other people will fuck with you 'cause you're not from that area. And if you're from East Hills and you go to Hazelwood and try to sell your CD, it's not gonna happen. You're probably gonna get stomped down and shot."
Khalifa learned early what many older hip-hop heads have known for years: As Caz Lamar puts it, "If you're not from here, you're not gonna come in and start selling any product on any streets without knowing somebody." A nearly life-long Hill District resident, Lamar is a veteran hip-hop and R&B producer. (In that capacity, he also crossed paths with another who was supposed to put Pittsburgh on the hip-hop map: Dre protégé Mel Man.)
"It depends on what these kids are saying on their CDs," he clarifies. "If you're calling another neighborhood out, then that puts you in direct danger. Rap has always been, historically, a battle-type thing." But once neighborhood rivalries are dragged into the music, "it's gonna be very dangerous."
"If your scene is from Wilkinsburg, you can pretty much only sell in Wilkinsburg," agrees Lee Davis, who works in neighborhoods across the county for First Works, a job-readiness training program of the Community Empowerment Association. Helping people get their lives on track in troubled neighborhoods, he's seen his share of conflict. Loyalties can ebb and flow, he says: "Like, Wilkinsburg might be cool with Braddock or Swissvale, so that's where you might be able to sell your CDs. But outside of that nobody's probably gonna buy it, not from the area."
It wasn't always this way. Back in the early-to-mid '80s, things were different. "Whether it was breakdancing or hip hop, the whole city was together," Davis says, "People would support you wherever you were going."
The animosity, both Davis and Lamar agree, began in the late '80s with an influx of drug trafficking and exploded in the early '90s with an increase in gang activity. Davis says, "But once that drug thing hit and the neighborhoods started separating, and the whole gang-color thing came, man, it was over. It was like one neighborhood against another."
And those changes also affected the content of the music, introducing a more gangsta focus. "A lot of these kids are using drug money to put out these CDs," Lamar explains. "So that's what brings the streets into the music. And once you bring the streets into the music, then that's when all the drugs, money, gangsta this, gangsta that [comes in]. Then it becomes a beef."
In that, Lamar doesn't see Pittsburgh as very different from Los Angeles, New York or Atlanta. Yet Pittsburgh's small size makes the neighborhood issue especially difficult for artists here: Everybody knows everybody, and despite the city's many bridges, Pittsburgh seems to have a knack for breeding as much contempt as familiarity. That drastically limits your ability to network with other talent and promoters, swap spots on mix-tapes -- the things that might help you catch the ear of a label and score that big deal.
"It's just weird," Davis muses. "When you go to a lot of cities, the whole thing will get behind" an artist, he says, citing Houston and others. "But here, you gotta be specifically from that neighborhood in order to sell from it. It basically limits your sales. You can sell nothing, 'cause the neighborhoods are so small."
"Everything intertwines and there's so much unnecessary beef -- garbage -- going around that people won't support you for it," says Khalifa.
On a national level, sometimes-violent rivalries are practically part of a successful publicity campaign. But pursuing gangsta glory here is unlikely to translate into celebrity outside a single neighborhood -- or even a lone street.
The resulting frustration feeds what E-Dan describes as a cult of failure. "Everyone around here just waits for everyone to fail," he says. "I think the neighborhood thing is just an excuse people use. It's a place to start in their hate for what somebody's doing." As soon as someone starts making things happen, "before people even necessarily hear the music or see what's going on, they want to break down everything wrong with it."
If Khalifa is able to represent all of Pittsburgh, it may be because he's never been tied too closely to any one part of it. Instead, he paints his association with the city in broad strokes -- a gift for crossing borders he was given by accident of birth.
A child of military personnel, Khalifa grew up living in Georgia, South Carolina, and on base in Germany and Japan. After years of living in North Side, East Hills, Wilkinsburg, Homewood and the Hill District, Khalifa and his mother just left the inner city for somewhere he will only reluctantly describe as "out toward the South Hills." He regrets saying even that much, "because things be getting kinda crazyish with people."
"It's real wild," Khalifa says, "I try not to say what area I'm from, and I can't even claim any one area, 'cause I've lived so many places and I chill in so many places."
Insists Benjy Grinberg about neighborhood jealousies, "When we say it's a problem generally in Pittsburgh, it's not a hindering problem for Wiz. There is hate out there, but it's not stopping him from what he's doing. It's a problem, but it's not a problem. To me, it's more like an annoyance."
Khalifa has inspired at least one dis rap already. One local rapper, Zio, has taken issue with Khalifa's "Prince of the City" title -- and he's cut a rap that calls out Khalifa for lacking street cred.
"I ain't never did nothing, I'm a bitch in my city" one line of the song has it. "I ain't never came out, I'm a snitch in my city."
Khalifa's refusal to pick sides in local rivalries may invite such criticism. But Lamar contends that if you're going to make it out of Pittsburgh, "You've gotta transcend every neighborhood, and you have to be able to deal with every neighborhood. And that's what guys won't do." Any rapper who aspires to put the 412 on the map has to chart his own path through it, he says. He has to sidestep neighborhood loyalties and represent the city as a whole.
The constant shuffle of his upbringing, Khalifa says, "made it easier for me to be more outgoing with my music, 'cause I was used to meeting new people and having to reintroduce myself all the time. So I wasn't as scared to meet new people and try to get my product out there when I really was ready to make music." While most 19-year-olds will take years to settle on a plan or career, "I'm grown," Khalifa insists. "And I gotta eat."
That maturity -- and hunger -- are plain to see.
"There's people that I went to school with, or that I knew when I was younger when we were all just regular people." Khalifa looks a little wistful. "We had the same little bit of money in our pocket, and nobody knew who we were. It seems like people like you more when you don't have nothing, when you're on the same level. When they see you trying to do something for yourself and better yourself, and they don't exactly have the same route." That's OK, he says, "because everybody can't rap. I was just blessed with being able to rap."
And instead of singling out one neighborhood or another in his music, Khalifa focuses on what they all have in common.
"Poverty affects everybody," Davis says. "Police brutality is affecting everybody in any neighborhood where hip hop is really big, where these artists are coming from." Rap, he says, should [t]alk about things that everybody can relate to, not just about your neighborhood, or about Wilkinsburg killing Braddock, or Braddock killing Homewood."
It's advice that Khalifa has taken to heart. "I just write the whole city," he says. "And that's worked for me so far."
Although not every night.
In the basement of the Millvale Borough Office, Police Chief Dean Girty reads off the station's call log from his blue computer screen. A call came through on Aug. 4, the computer shows, threatening that if that night's "Steel City All-Stars" show at Mr. Small's went off as planned, "Crips and Bloods were going to have a shoot-out."
"Do I take that serious?" Girty asks rhetorically. "Of course I do. I have to. I'm the police."
The show -- which was slated to feature Khalifa and other area artists including Basick Sickness, Broken Wingz, Pricelyss, Blender and J. Rec -- was shut down, and relocated at the last minute to the tiny Future Tenant gallery Downtown.
The official story is that Girty reported the call to Small's owner Mike Speranza. Opus One Productions head Michael Sanders ultimately made the call to cancel. Although the room rental terms didn't require it, Sanders eventually refunded promoter Basick Sickness's deposit; the venue "lost thousands of dollars that night" on the rental and liquor sales, Sanders said.
"They never pressured me" to cancel the show, Sanders says of the Millvale police; he cites a good working relationship with the local authorities. Had the show gone on, he says, Girty would have simply provided more officers at the venue. But Sanders felt that, having received the threat, "it would be reckless to do the show." He hints at a larger backstory, and says that the call contained "specific references to the Touch shooting." Whether there was a connection or not, the July 31 shooting at the Strip District club heightened fears of violence in area venues.
On the Mr. Small's Web site, the cancellation was attributed to a transformer failure: "It's just not in our interest to put signage on the building to talk about an incident," Sanders says. He emphasizes that the cancellation was an isolated problem, not a usual occurrence in the local hip-hop scene.
"In good faith to that scene," he says, the venue went ahead with plans to host Bone Thugs-N-Harmony a month later -- a show that featured many of the same local acts. The show took place without incident.
Even so, speculation about the motivation, and even existence of the phone call, has circulated widely. Some in the hip-hop community say another artist's professional jealousy cancelled the event. Others suggest it was a member of the Millvale community who wanted to scuttle the concert.
"That doesn't even sound legitimate," says Caz Lamar of the phone call. As a police officer with the Port Authority, he says, "We get these anonymous silly calls all the time. That's not something the Bloods or the Crips would do."
He reflects for a moment. "Maybe somebody [else] knew somebody was gonna get shot there, and called. Maybe they stopped it. We won't know."
E-Dan's not convinced. "They still had the show right?" he asks hoarsely. "And nobody got shot right? There you go."
From Khalifa's perspective, it was just "bullshit for the city. It makes the city look bad.
"I don't know exactly what went on -- I just heard things, and I don't like to talk about what I hear," he continues. "If they planned on bangin' out at the show, they would just bang out. They wouldn't call the cops and be like, 'Yeah, we gonna shoot!' That was somebody who wanted to shut it down 'cause they didn't want hip hop in their neighborhood. ... There are racist people in this city. And they're not exactly like 'We hate blacks,' but they don't like the urban culture. ... [T]hey think we're all out here smackin' and robbing people. So they just don't want that around them."
He mutters under his breath, "I don't bring no Bloods or Crips."
Whatever the motivations behind that phone call, a month later, Khalifa was back on the Mr. Small's stage. In Pistolvania, the loyalties are tenuous. The music can get you hurt. But one thing is certain: The words are powerful. And Khalifa was standing there alone -- packing a Pittsburgh sound he wants to share with the world, holding court with a mic in one hand. And as we take our leave of his royal presence, we'll let him have the last word:
"It's Wiz Khalifa, and I gotta let the people know
How a nigga feel grindin' for the bigger dough
With the city on my back, 'Prince' and that's official yo."