How DJ Khaled Has Made Confidence a Brand—and a Formula for Outsize Success

'There are things that you've seen me do already, but we're going to put steroids into it'

'Social media is really not a strategy for me,' Khaled says. Rose Marie Cromwell for Adweek
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

We’re only a few months into 2020, and DJ Khaled has already had a banner year. The music mogul and social media personality, whose real name is Khaled Mohamed Khaled, won his first Grammy, starred in his first Super Bowl spot, appeared in the movie Bad Boys for Life (and produced the soundtrack) and welcomed a new son.

And he has no interest in slowing his roll. Khaled is planning to release his 12th studio album this year, expand his acting career, draft plans for a youth center that he and his wife want to open through his We the Best Foundation and launch a new business venture.

Rose Marie Cromwell for Adweek

All the while, of course, he’ll be updating his many followers—including 18 million-plus on Instagram and nearly 5 million on Twitter—about his progress. Every day, Khaled takes to social media to tease upcoming projects, offer fans intimate peeks into his life and showcase branded partnerships with the likes of Cîroc, Luc Belaire and Jordan.

Is he ever not working and promoting himself? Probably not. When Adweek caught up with Khaled, he was sitting by the pool at his Miami home getting a haircut and taking in the view while mapping out plans to continue the “good vibes” he’s already known for championing.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Adweek: When you first graced our cover in 2016, we focused on your Snapchat strategy and the 14.3 million followers you had on the platform. Now you’re on Instagram with over 18 million followers and Twitter with more than 4.8 million, and you’re still getting millions of views on Snapchat. What is your social media strategy, and how has it changed in the last four years?
DJ Khaled: Social media is really not a strategy for me. It’s just me being me. And I just think—not just for myself—I think everybody should always be themselves. On social media, I like to put out good energy and bring awareness to my greatness, whether it’s some music or albums or movies or brand opportunities that I really love. And then sometimes, things can be entertainment, where you might get a laugh and a smile, or I might post a beautiful family photo. … It’s about putting good energy out there. I feel like when you put good energy out there, great energy returns back.

You live your life in a very public way through social media. Your son has 1.8 million Instagram followers and over 45,000 followers on Twitter. Is there anything you won’t share on social?
Yeah, of course. There’s always super-personal moments. You might see a lot, but there’s so much more that you’ve got to keep and cherish. Just those special family moments. And then sometimes you have moments that you might want to share with the world later for inspiration for yourself and to motivate others.

DJ Khaled's We the Best Foundation launched on the same day Khaled's son Asahd was born (Oct. 23, 2016), and each annual event is timed to his birthday. The foundation supports local nonprofits like the Overtown Youth Center and Urban Promise Miami, but has also done work in New York and the Bahamas. We the Best Foundation established Asahd's Initiative specifically to benefit programs meant to help a child advance in life.
Rose Marie Cromwell for Adweek

You did a Super Bowl spot this year with Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez for Hard Rock Cafe. What were some of the highlights of working with them?
The highlights were incredible. There were so many. Michael Bay [known for the Transformers franchise and past Bad Boys movies] was the director, so that was unbelievable—somebody I’ve always wanted to work with. And J.Lo and Alex are great friends of mine and two icons that I wanted to work with. And I’ve been blessed to work with J.Lo on music before, and I always told her I wanted to do something on camera, meaning movies or a TV show. And we ended up doing this commercial with Michael Bay.

Do you normally pay attention to Super Bowl ads?
Oh, all the time. I’ve always wanted to do one. I told my management, I told myself, I told my agent: I need that Super Bowl commercial. And when I got it this year, I was like, man, God is great all the time. And, again, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I spoke that into existence. I knew it wasn’t just going to happen. I knew I had to work hard. I was blessed with a big brand like Hard Rock. And then not only did I do a Super Bowl commercial, I did the biggest one. With Michael Bay, J.Lo and Alex and [Pitbull]. … We’ve got to be honest; we can’t be afraid to say that’s a big, big, big accomplishment.

You recently won your first Grammy for “Higher” featuring John Legend and Nipsey Hussle. What does this award mean to you, especially in the wake of Nipsey’s untimely death?
First of all, I’ve been blessed to work with Nipsey Hussle. And “the marathon continues.” [A reference to Hustle’s 2011 studio album and his clothing line of the same name.] When I made this record and I got in the studio with Nipsey, we talked this into existence that, God willing, we’ll get nominated and bring home a Grammy. So it was just an honor to work with a legend, an icon and a king. But at the same time as when we were in the studio creating the record, I always said, “This is going to be my Grammy record.” And it ended up being our Grammy record [for] me, John Legend and Nipsey Hussle. … It was a beautiful moment that we created into music. And to represent our brother Nipsey, it’s so powerful. When we performed that at the Grammys, I felt his energy; we were on that stage together.

Speaking of music, you produced the soundtrack for Bad Boys for Life. What inspired you to say yes to this project?
Well, the Bad Boys for Life project, I was blessed to have a relationship with Will Smith, meaning I kept in touch with Will Smith for a few years about this film and I also kept in touch with [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer. Jerry Bruckheimer called me one day to meet with them. It was about four years ago, and he said he just wanted to meet me. And he’s like, we haven’t gotten it greenlit yet, but I’m working on Bad Boys to get greenlit and Top Gun and all these other great movies. … I told [Bruckheimer and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah] that I might not have been in acting school, but I want to say this—and I mean this—some people are just born with it. And that’s how I felt. I felt my opportunity. …

Khaled has 18 million-plus Instagram followers, 4.8 million-plus on Twitter, 1 million on TikTok (and 3.7 million likes) and over 17 million monthly listeners on Spotify. He also recently won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance for 'Higher' featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend (2020).
Rose Marie Cromwell for Adweek

Do you have plans to pursue more acting in the future?
Tomorrow morning, I jump on a jet to Atlanta. I’m on my way to see Tyler Perry. I’m not going to see Tyler Perry just to go see him. He’s directing something that I’m in.

You’re known for two catchphrases: “We the best,” which is also the name of your nonprofit foundation and music label, and “Another one,” which is pretty much in all of your songs since 2014. Is there a story behind them?
Yeah. I mean, “We the best” is who we are. It’s like Nike’s “Just do it.” We the best over here. It’s a music company, it’s a charity, it’s what we represent, it’s who we are, and it’s what we are here to motivate and inspire the young world.

And what about “Another one”? 
What happened with “Another one” was one day I was in a studio, and I made another hit. And when I was in the vocal booth, it just came out naturally, and I just said, “Another one.” I had the headphones on, I was listening to it, and I was about to say, “DJ Khaled.” But I was like, hold up. I said, “Another one.” And ever since that day, I continue to make another one. The goal is there’s always going to be another one. It’s just not going to stop.

‘When you put good energy out there, great energy returns back.'
Rose Marie Cromwell for Adweek

You’ve been an ambassador for WW International, formerly Weight Watchers, since 2018. And you’ve had deals with Apple, T-Mobile, Zappos, Cîroc and a ton of others. How do you decide which brands to work with, and what type of brand would you turn down?
First of all, I definitely want to be able to say I can enjoy the brand so I can connect with it well, so I can bring awareness to the brand correctly. At the same time, I’ve been blessed to have great partnerships, and our partnerships have been blessed to have longevity. … Anytime I work with a brand, I always try to give them my advice and tell them some of my direction the way I feel that, organically, it’d be a vibe. And that’s what I bring to the table.

What’s next on your docket?
I’m in the studio right now. I’m always working. I’m doing some more films, TV and movies. I want to challenge myself and open up another business. I want to challenge myself [to be] an entrepreneur, like if that’s me investing in something or having equity in something or actually opening up a store. I’m challenging myself to do more of that this year. Me as a music executive, besides putting out my own album, I’m looking at signing some new artists. I’m looking out there for new talent. … There are things that you’ve seen me do already, but we’re going to put steroids into it.

Do you have any specific plans for the business that you want to open up?
Well, it’s two things. I want to open up a business and I want to have my own product. I’ve been blessed to be able to connect with other products I like, and I want to find my own one where maybe hopefully the same way people call me [to endorse it], I could call them to be a part of mine. … I’m going to find my product that is going to be a blessing to others as well as me. I’m figuring it out what’s that one thing.

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@neco_ornot Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.