When Wiz Khalifa (born Cameron Thomaz) was 17 years old, hip-hop stardom was still only a pipe dream. But the kid was serious about his craft, and he displayed it by getting his rap moniker tattooed on his arm on his 17th birthday.
“The story behind my name is: I would always hang out with older guys, and I was good at everything I do, so they would be like, ’He’s a young wiz,’ so that’s where that came from,” the “Black and Yellow” rapper reveals on the next episode of MTV’s “When I Was 17,” airing Saturday at 11 a.m. “And ’Khalifa’ is Arabic for ’successor’ and ’leader,’ and my granddad is Muslim, so he gave me that name; he felt like that’s what I was doing with my music.”
Of the now-thoroughly inked-up Wiz’s early tattoo, Benjy Grinberg, CEO of Rostrum Records, said “That pretty much solidified his direction and was a symbol of his commitment to his craft.”
It was Rostrum, the Pittsburgh-based label Wiz is still signed to, that released the hip-hop wunderkind’s first official project, Show and Prove. “It was my first street album,” Wiz says. “That album got me out there.”
But Wiz didn’t settle for just saying he had a record in stores. “When he was 17, he knew that he couldn’t just make an album and that’s it,” Grinberg says. “You have to do more things, you have to help promote it, you have to help sell it, and he really took to it.”
While Wiz currently hawks his music by appearing on the covers of magazines like Rolling Stone, XXL and Complex, and performances like his recent stop at the South by Southwest festival, as well as relentless airplay, back in high school, he was making his moves on a more grassroots level.
“It became a little craze around school,” Wiz says of pushing Show and Prove. “I had flyers, and I had little T-shirts that I was wearing. The girls wanted T-shirts, and I used the girls to promote everything. I would bring, like, 25 to school, and I’d probably give five out to some girls.”
The savvy marketing quickly paid off — literally. “I sold CDs in the hallways,” Wiz remembers. “I sold them for 10 bucks. I was making, like, a good grand a week. It wasn’t every week that I was making that, though. It was like, when it was hot, I made like a grand a week, for like, a week,” he said, laughing.
With his major label debut, Rolling Papers, out Tuesday, Wiz is going to be laughing all the way to the bank.
“When I Was 17″ airs Saturday at 11 a.m. ET/PT on MTV.