Lee “Q” O'Denat, is the founder of WorldStarHipHop.com, a site once known mainly for rap videos that is now synonymous with grainy urban street fights. (When one breaks out nowadays, you can bet smartphones will come out and someone will yell “World Star!”)
Q recently came to L.A. for a round of press interviews, with outlets as hoity-toity as NPR's Marketplace, and, well, us. Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, he won't reveal how much his site is worth, but it's clearly extremely high-trafficked; he says he makes most of his money from rappers and their companies, who sponsor videos and ads. Indeed, those dollars that once made magazines like The Source as fat as phone books are now going into his pockets.
For our meeting we journey to the swanky Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. He shows up 30 minutes late, and we talk in a private cabana by the pool.
Just under 40, he wears a black tee, Knicks hat, and camo shorts. Oh, and diamond earrings, a pinky ring, Rolex, designer shades, and two iced out crosses.
Born in Hollis, Queens and of Haitian descent, Q was raised by his mother and dropped out of high school in 9th grade, founding WorldStar in 2005. Until a few years ago, he often struggled to pay the rent: “In the beginning, there was no money for me. The site was risqué and advertisers were hesitant… We were number one and I wasn't making a lot of money on the site.”
WorldStar began as a digital download site for hip-hop mixtapes. Then, after a hack crashed it for several months in 2007, Q re-launched it as a video aggregator. It's simple and somewhat antiquated layout hasn't changed much since, though he says he has plans to update it.
Its pages are filled, according to Q, with “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” The violent street fights are often user submitted, and they're what most gets folks talking. They're routinely lurid and shocking; and for those short on time there are compilations available! Q's defense of this content is not unlike how gangsta rappers defend their art: He's holding a mirror to society, and showing what's really out there.
But if there's one thing that the far left and far right can agree upon, it's that WorldStar videos promote violence and dangerous behavior. Bill O'Reilly wants the site taken down, and Afrika Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation has had strong words for Q.
For his part, he's quick to point out that there's lots of other content, including sports highlights, entertainment news, political news, and music videos from major label and unsigned rappers alike. (Oh, and lots of strippers.) Q says the site receives 4-6 million views per day.
The advertising breaks down like this, he goes on: Rappers can pay $4000/day for their videos to be posted at the top of the site, or $750 for a post lower down. (That said, some established MCs get freebies.) The cost is well worth it, Q insists. “What other site gives these unknown artists an avenue to be seen and heard [by so many people]?”
It's enough to make one wonder how all of this content falls under the umbrella of “hip-hop.” How would Q himself define the term?
“[S]trippers, drug talk, violent talk, fights, animosity, love and hate — that's just hip-hop culture,” Q says. “It's very aggressive and in your face.”
This would not, however, describe the man himself. Jewelry and fancy cabanas aside, he's a soft-spoken father of three. And, true to his New York roots, he's infatuated with old-school '90s hip-hop groups like Black Moon and Wu-Tang Clan.
He's an advocate for “strong parenting” and has content blocks on his kids' computer, although not WorldStar: “My oldest goes on the site,” he says. “He knows better than to watch any crazy stuff. He likes to watch the music videos. His laptop is monitored. There are worse things than WorldStar out there. I've seen some crazy stuff on the Internet. My website is definitely, borderline, not kid-friendly. So I try to put that on his computer so he doesn't see any type of nudity.”
Q also makes his case as a philanthropist. He says he plans to open a community center in Haiti, and to donate computers wherever he can. “I come from nothing, and hard work got me here,” he explains. “I want to teach the kids that you don't have to go to Harvard to be a smart guy.”
At the end of the day, however, many folks will remain dubious, insisting that Q has prospered by exploiting the misery of inner-city youth, rather than contributing to society. For his part, he maintains that he's providing a much needed service. “We need cameras in these inner city streets. How else are people going to know?” he says. “People are just afraid of the light. If you live in the dark, you're afraid of the light. But I'm not afraid. It's time that people see. Maybe it will fix [things].”
It's not like WorldStar invented violence, and it's not like the site is its only purveyor. Wrestling and boxing done by “professionals” is mainstream entertainment, while folks are paid to act out the most detestable human behavior (including physical fights) on “reality TV.”
Our interview over, the recorder off, Q concludes: “Man, I gave you some good shit.” This could be true, but it probably just depends on whom you ask.