Meet DJ Vlad, Hip-Hop's Reigning Beef Maker
Video kingpin Vladimir Lyubovny gets people talking about musicians' private lives in public. Does that make him a trailblazer for hip-hop journalism, or just a meddler?
A few weeks ago, Lenard McKelvey, known professionally as Power 105.1's morning-show firecracker Charlamagne Tha God, walked into VladTV's itty-bitty studio in the back of a co-working space in New York City's Flatiron District. McKelvey was wearing a black Gucci bucket hat, black sweatpants, and the cleanest pair of Jordan 11 Concords the world has ever seen. He sat down on a blue couch that he has sat on many times before; lamps caught the shine of his enormous large diamond watch. His longtime friend — "we're family" — Vladimir Lyubovny, better known as DJ Vlad, sat across from him and asked him a pointed question.
"Papoose called out Jay Z for flinching during the fight with Solange. What do you think about that?"
It was the ultimate Vlad question: one that asks for comment about a beef between two rappers — and also just happens to implicitly weigh morals and masculinity. Is a man wrong or right for remaining stone-cold in the face of attack from a woman?
McKelvey pondered this for a moment, and then responded that Papoose, the past-his-peak Brooklyn rapper, was really just baiting Jay Z to step to him, and that he didn't fault Jay Z for flinching in the face of attack. The next morning, Vlad's manufactured controversy was shared by some hip-hop blogs as "news." For Vlad, this was another notch in his belt as the self-anointed ethicist of hip-hop, a world whose tales are spun around the provocateurs and pseudo-celebrities he's helped make famous.
In the last six years, the 10 or so exclusive daily interviews on VladTV have become essential fuel for rap's content farms — sites like Rap Radar, Nah Right, and Global Grind. And occasionally, when Vlad has the right person on his couch and pushes from the right hot button a shocking revelation, the videos break through to mainstream audiences — like when he got the Young Outlawz to admit they smoked Tupac's ashes, a peculiar item that was run on TMZ and in the Daily News.
And if Vlad hasn't necessarily become a respected journalist thanks to his videos, he's still established a strong personal brand within the rap world. He may not have the inside line on big stars, but his manufactured drama and ethical questions are the stuff reality-television dreams are made of.
"I'm not a big Clear Channel radio station," Vlad said in a recent interview in the small studio he uses to shoot videos. VladTV has around 500,000 followers on YouTube, but also exists as a stand-alone site; a typical video gets around 20,000 views. "Lil Wayne and Drake and Nicki Minaj, whoever else the big hot artist of the time is, is not going to do VladTV," he said. "I realized that I had to create my homegrown talent and build up people who I have access to, as opposed to try to follow what's hot." And so he's created a band of hip-hop world pundits — including hip-hop's resident conservative and former Brand Nubian rapper Lord Jamar, disgraced Hot 97 and Power 105 show host Star, pimp Don Magic Juan, rapper Immortal Technique, and McKelvey — who appear on his show regularly and weigh in on everything from the ethics of snitching to all questions around what it is to be a man.
"Lord Jamar and I, we're of a certain age and wisdom," Star said. "We can speak on topics the average person can't."
Star is 50 and Vlad is 40; their "wisdom" may just be the freeness of opinion that is rarely seen from people other than your grandpa or a freewheeling Fox News commentator. But Vlad's lowbrow-despicable — occasionally brilliant! — interviews sometimes make rappers and followers of hip-hop lose their minds.
Rapper Jay Electronica went on a Twitter rant about Vlad in April, saying he never liked him and eventually "issuing a fatwah" against him. But the point the rapper kept coming back to was that Vlad, who is white, is a "culture vulture" and a "poser."
Vlad seemed reluctant to address directly the issue of race, simply responding: "So many people go on VladTV and say their opinions about other people that I cannot get mad at all over someone having an opinion about me. We are a hard-edged site — we got to where we are by being hard-edged and asking tough questions."
A current editor at a large hip-hop site explained the situation like this: "Everybody hates Vlad, but he is way too connected with everyone for anyone to say anything bad about him." Hip-hop journalism has matured in its 20-some years of existence, but an obligation to support hip-hop culture — by not asking unflattering questions, or stirring up shit for page views — is core to its old guard. Vlad breaks this unspoken rule, putting everything in his path on blast. He doesn't only air out dirty laundry, he manufactures it.
One of Vlad's juiciest topics — which Vlad and Jamar seem to be obsessed with — is LGBT representation in hip-hop. In various VladTV videos, Jamar has accused Macklemore of pushing a "gay agenda," said that the skirts Kanye West has worn on stage have "no place in hip-hop," and saluted Eminem for the 2014 song "Rap God," which uses the phrase "gay-looking" as an insult. (Eminem has insisted the song is not homophobic.)
Jamar's tirades are among VladTV's most popular videos, and over time, Vlad has not shied away from asking artists for their opinions on the issue. T-Pain told Vlad in February that rappers won't work with Frank Ocean because he's gay. The Game said in 2011, "It's not cool to be in the closet. If you gay, just say you gay. Be gay and be proud." Fat Joe gave one of Vlad's most candid interviews ever on "hip-hop's gay mafia" in 2011.
"It'll get a lot of views and people talking, and subjects like that, I try to push them as hard as I can," he said.
I decided to flip Vlad's favorite question on him — what does he think of gay people?
"I honestly don't care, honestly," he said. "I think that I'm a heterosexual male, always have been, always will be, as far as I can see. I don't have any fear about it."
He then told me that he just flew ("first class") back from Atlanta and sat next to Real Housewives of Atlanta star and out gay man Lawrence Washington. They talked about gay rappers and Atlanta drag ball culture during the entire flight; Vlad says they're supposed to record a video soon.
Vlad with Power 105.1's Breakfast Club hosts, Amber Rose, and Sway.
Vlad was born in 1973 and grew up in San Diego, where he was a "serious" breakdancer and briefly tried his hand at graffiti; he said he started listening to hip-hop in the early '80s when he was in fourth or fifth grade. When he went to college at University of California, Berkeley, he started producing music, which led to DJing and some minor mixtape releases.
He moved to New York after graduating and adopted the persona of DJ Vlad and nicknamed himself "The Butcher," after Daniel Day Lewis' character in Gangs of New York. He used to do some of his shows in a blood-soaked apron and even wore one in a 2003 issue of Vibe that called his mixtape series Rap Phenomenon the best of the year.
"That's when I started to feel the mainstream success," he said. "It moved from being a hobby to a career."
Vlad next decided to pick up directing. His 2008 documentary of Bay Area culture, Ghost Ride the Whip, and his 2009 episode of American Gangster that profiled the rapper Mac Dre are key documents of the Bay's hyphy movement.
When he saw people uploading parts of his documentary to YouTube, he began looking into the form and started to put up his own content on the site. He realized he could make money through the YouTube partner network and started interviewing rappers he knew through his mixtapes and cashing in some ad dollars.
Today, Vlad says his site is "very" profitable. He runs ads through Complex's ad network on VladTV and SneakerWatch, a satellite footwear blog that he also runs. The two sites employ about 20 people who work in the same co-working building that the small studio is in. He also rakes in cash from YouTube's ad partner program. When we met, he was decked out in head-to-toe Gucci — a matching brown jacket, shoes, and belt — and was carrying a Louis Vuitton backpack. He immediately began telling McKelvey about the Calabasas mansion Vlad moved into last year. According to Vlad, the property is 7,000 square feet and has four ovens, even though he does not cook.
Still, he has bigger ambitions. And to build his empire up, he will have to keep cranking out reactions to every single squabble rap fans might care about. For a man obsessed with asking what's right and appropriate, he's predictably obsessed with arguments. Over the course of his interview with McKelvey, he asked about Joe Budden battling Hollow Da Don, Jay Z's alleged beef with his sister-in-law Solange, people making comments about Kid Cudi's crop top at Coachella, Nelly dating Floyd Mayweather's girlfriend, and the aforementioned seeds of a fight between Jay Z and Papoose.
Vlad emphasized that beefs have always been part of hip-hop and said that he's never started beefs between people — he just asks about feuds that are already out there. Star, one of his most loyal interview subjects, doesn't think he's a troublemaker either.
"I'm not a fucking gangbanger, I'm not a thug, I don't sell drugs. I'm on the microphones, all I do is talk," Star said. "I don't talk about simpleton things. I don't have feuds, I don't have beefs. I have don't have any interest in silly shit like that."
The one dispute Vlad isn't willing to discuss is the $4 million lawsuit he filed against Rick Ross in 2010 over an alleged 2008 incident. Vlad claimed that Ross had orchestrated an attack on him at an awards show in Houston; it was reported at the time that Vlad won $300,000 in a jury settlement.
In a 2013 appearance on Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club — the show that McKelvey co-hosts — Vlad said he always travels with security, and when he showed up to the studio with a younger guy, I asked if that was his personal detail. It was actually Mysonne, a Bronx rapper who did seven years in prison for armed robbery charges and who Vlad is hoping can go from neighborhood favorite to YouTube star. He sometimes appears on Vlad's channel. Ever trying to get at the truth, Vlad casually mentioned to me that Mysonne was innocent. He's an old friend, not a bodyguard, but Vlad said, "If there are issues like that, he'll step in and take care of them."
When our interview finished, Vlad sat Mysonne on the couch and started peppering him with questions. A few days later a video appeared on the site, which goes against what McKelvey had said. The video is titled: "Exclusive! Mysonne on Jay Z vs. Solange: Next Time Grab Her."
Vlad endorsed the two conflicting opinions equally, drawing out both sides in the name of letting the audience decide who is wrong and who is right. In running this game, you could say Vlad is creating a sort of op-ed page for hip-hop. But in practice VladTV, with its low-blow subject matter and attention-hungry talking heads, feels more like a pitbull fight, where Vlad has money on both dogs. If you're cringing, he's doing his job right — even if there's blood on his hands.