The Making of Wiz Khalifa's "Kush & OJ" | Finer Notes

Wiz Khalifa (2011). Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The biggest stars often have the humblest beginnings, and Wiz Khalifa is no different. After his seminal 2010 mixtape Kush & OJ was released as a free download on April 14, 2010, Rick Ross tried to sign the burgeoning Pittsburgh star, the Pittsburgh Steelers used the "Black and Yellow" record he released five months after Kush & OJ as their fight song during Super Bowl XLV, and the then-22-year old signed his second major-label deal with Atlantic Records.

For many, Wiz’s star began rising once Kush & OJ dropped. For his longtime producer and friend Eric Dan, it started years before Kush & OJ was even a thought in teenage Wiz’s mind, as he was answering phones and doing chores for studio time in Dan’s ID Labs studio in Lawrence, PA, just outside of Wiz’s hometown of Pittsburgh.

Wiz Khalifa - Black And Yellow [Official Music Video]

Dan was an early believer in Wiz’s talents after meeting a teenage Wiz at his studio around 2005. After seeing how hungry he was to make music, Dan worked out a deal: Wiz could have free studio time after Dan was done working with paying customers as long as he answered phone calls and swept up. "That shit lasted for a week. He answered the phones a few times and was like, ‘I ain’t doing this shit," Dan told me, with a laugh. "By that point, I didn’t care. We had started working on music I felt like was the best music I had ever been a part of at the time. So, I stopped sweating him about sweeping the floor and we kept working."

While the barter system ended, the work only intensified, with Wiz taking any and all opportunities to squeeze in recording time to craft what would become the breakout project for one of the most successful rap artists to debut in the last decade. I had a chance to speak with Dan about Wiz breaking rap conventions, recording a classic with whatever they had, and Wiz’s smoked-out sessions.

Kush & OJ was recorded mostly at the old location of Dan’s ID Labs—a really small, one-story office space in a once rundown section of Pittsburgh. The studio was as DIY as it comes. Wiz split his recording of Kush & OJ between two rooms: a back room equipped with a Neumann TLM 103 microphone going into a Universal Audio LA 610 preamp, Yamaha 01V mixing console, Digi 002 audio interface, and Event 20/20 BAS monitors.

The front room of the studio was one Dan described as the size of a bathroom. "That front room was so small, we bought a little Whisper Room—those little iso boxes—for a mic booth. In there, we had a TLM 103 going into a Universal Audio LA 610. Since Wiz was the only artist at the studio not paying for studio time because he was a part of what we were doing, he would float back and forth, depending on where there were sessions going on. If there was a paid session in one room, he’d go in the other room."

Kush & OJ, with its soul and funk influences, paired with a rap melodic flow anachronistic of the era of autotune-heavy, gangster rap of 2010 hip-hop. He wielded his naturally smooth voice as an ethereal vessel for airy singing on the breezy "Up," which sounds more Roy Ayers than Rick Ross. Rapping over an ‘80s-inspired dance track for "The Kid Frankie" sounded like a number one hit on Soul Train. Wiz broke through to the mainstream with Kush & OJ by experimenting with conventions to the point of embodying the classic records that inspired the project. Dan admits he "didn’t see the vision until he was 90% of the way done with the project," but still did what he could to bring Wiz’s vision to life.

"It was an experiment to not use samples. For ‘Good Dank,’ I plugged a ESP-LTD [electric guitar] directly into a Great River (Mercury Edition) pre-amp, and tried to create a sample sort of sound. That was a lot harder to do then than it is to do now with all of the plugins available that make anything you play sound like a sample."

The impetus for Dan’s early reservations about Wiz’s experimental sound was the purgatorial career space Wiz was in while making Kush & OJ. Nine months before Kush & OJ would change his life, Wiz ended his two-year stint with Warner Bros. Records after constant delays on his major-label debut. His Deal or No Deal mixtape released four months after the dissolution of his Warner Bros deal was a success, reaching the number two spot on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart days after its release. Still, the energy in ID Labs was anything but content.

"We were in this limbo. We had been working with Wiz for five years at that point, and it was unclear where things were going. There were hopeful moments that sort of got dashed, false starts, and things that looked like they were going to happen but didn’t," Dan remembered. "Personally, I was wondering, What are we going to do next? What is Wiz going to do next to turn the tide and get people to connect? At the beginning of the process, I didn’t get it."

Wiz Khalifa - Up

To give context on how foundational Dan was to Wiz’s rise when E. Dan first met a 16-year-old Wiz, he doesn’t remember the young rapper smoking—a revelation which is tantamount to meeting Flavor Flav before he wore his clock. By the time 22-year-old Wiz was working on Kush & OJ, he and the other artists were smoking too much cannabis for the modest-sized studio to handle. "The building we were in was so small and the ventilation was so terrible, there were nights when you would open the door to the studio and the smoke would just pour out. It looked like it was a fog machine pointed at the door. It would look like a cartoon."

For the creation of songs, Wiz was writing lyrics down in the studio on notepads as opposed to now he’ll freestyle through a verse by recording a few lines at a time, punch in until he forms the picture. As a result, Dan remembers most of Kush & OJ being recorded in one take, illustrating the zone Wiz was in and the experienced guidance Dan provided the young MC. "When I started working with him at 16, I was the older producer dude being like, ‘You have to write the verse and practice the verse. You don’t have to one take it necessarily, but you want to get through most of it.’"

Wiz Khalifa - Good Dank

Up until this day, Kush & OJ is revered as a watershed project for the legitimacy of independent music in the purgatorial era between the fall of CDs and digital downloads and the rise of streaming. Wiz, E. Dan, Big Jerm, Sledgren and their collective of collaborators turned family created a project that impacted the world immediately as the #kushandoorangejuice hashtag was the number one trending topic on Twitter on the first day of the project’s release. Twelve years and millions of records in sales later, hip-hop is lucky Dan believed in an unproven teenage rapper with a hunger to create.

"Vibe-wise, it opened people up to a vibier sound that wasn’t happening as much. There was a lot of aggressive rap happening at the time, which Kush & OJ is not. It helped usher in that movement of mellow hip-hop."

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