Rock the Bells' Wiz kid runs with the big dogs

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010

This year's Rock the Bells festival features no shortage of hip-hop heavyweights, many of whom will be revisiting their glory years by performing classic albums in full. Snoop Dogg resurrects his 1993 debut, "Doggystyle," Wu-Tang Clan will re-enter the "36 Chambers" and A Tribe Called Quest will tackle "Midnight Marauders." Rakim, KRS-One and Slick Rick take the nostalgia trip even further back into the '80s.

But the all-day mega-show isn't just a trip down memory lane. The lineup also includes performers who are just entering their prime and are positioned to be the superstars of a new generation of hip-hop. Wiz Khalifa is at the head of that class.

The 22-year-old MC is a near-perfect representation of the current musical landscape. His success has come not from major label grooming (his career has taken off since he parted with Warner Bros.) but from a grass-roots Internet presence. His breakthrough album, "Kush and Orange Juice," wasn't one that topped the Billboard charts, but a self-released mixtape that topped Twitter's trending topics on the day it dropped. He doesn't hail from the media or hip-hop hotbed, but from Pittsburgh. Ask Khalifa (born Cameron Jibril Thomaz) about his methods, though, and he'll tell you they're really the same as they've ever been.

"It's the traditional way, it's just been updated and made modern for 2010," he said a few days before the first of this year's Rock the Bells shows in Los Angeles. "Back in the day when somebody had a label or people working for them, if it took them going state to state and selling CDs out of their trunk, that's what they would do. If it took them going on a small club tour, that's what they would do. We went on the smallest tours, we went on big tours. I stayed on the Internet and really capitalized because that's what's working for now."

It also helps break down the barrier between artist and fan, allowing for a more personal connection between the two, something that has propelled Khalifa's career.

"It's like all access," he says. "You get to see who I really am as a person. That pays off because they're not buying into a character or anything that's fictional, they're getting the real deal."

And the real deal is someone who in addition to being a dynamic rapper with natural star appeal is also just a generally likable and relatable guy. Also one who really, really enjoys smoking weed.

"waken . . . baken . . . some people snap their fingers. i snap my bong," reads one of his recent tweets. Many are in the same vein. His album is titled "Kush and Orange Juice" because kush is a strain of marijuana and orange juice is, well, a beverage that Khalifa enjoys drinking with his kush. His lyrical content is filled with odes to smoking, sometimes almost exclusively. "Why can't everyone just smoke like me?/Just get up out my face and lemme roll my weed," he offers on "Still Blazin," one of the many songs on "Orange Juice" with appropriately relaxed beats. It's like Snoop Dogg without the gangsta pedigree and the dodged murder charges.

Khalifa may be one of the most motivated stoners around. He has been honing his rap skills since elementary school -- "I first started writing in third or fourth grade," he says -- and had a self-produced CD by the time he was 14. He has various family members to thank for helping him into the hip-hop game early.

"I always hung with my cousins and my uncle, and at the time my uncle was doing his own thing. Rapping and writing. So I latched onto it," he said. "When I got to 13 or 14 I told my dad what I wanted to do and he bought me some equipment. He said if you're going to do it, take it seriously. That's when I really took it into my own hands -- writing songs, making beats, putting together a whole project."

So even though he turns only 23 next month, Khalifa is something of a hip-hop veteran and already has his eyes on other projects, including developing a fashion line and getting into acting and modeling. But he promises that music will always be his main focus. Well, with perhaps one exception.

"If I can get to smoke with Snoop at least twice on the tour, I'll be straight," he says with a laugh. "I smoked with him one time back in the day, but I need to smoke with him again. Orange juice while we smoke."

Wiz Khalifa Appearing with Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan and more at Rock the Bells Festival on Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Doors open at 11 a.m. Tickets: $66-$150.50. 410-715-5550. 877-435-9849. The Download: For a sampling of Wiz Khalifa's music, check out: From "Deal or No Deal": "This Plane" "Goodbye" From "Kush and Orange Juice": "Mezmorized" "The Kid Frankie" "Never Been" Wiz Khalifa

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