The Man Behind the Web's Most Controversial Video Site
We’re 35 floors high above midtown Manhattan and Lee O’Denat occupies the seat across from me. His is a physically-commanding presence—a bull of a man—and I begin to think everything I have read about him up until this point is true. The designer shades. The diamond-encrusted chain. The deceptively knowing smile that spreads across his round face from time to time. He knows something that you don’t.
And here he is, the Hollis, Queens-raised kid turned internet entrepreneur who built a media empire off shock and awe, the man who understands that maybe, deep down, all people really want is to be entertained, and whether that pleasure comes by watching two kids fight or some girl shake her ass—well, that’s your choice, not his. Because it is your choice. Right?
O’Denat’s speech is deliberate and gentle, and not at all what you might expect from a man his size. “I believed in it so much,” he says. “And we’ve grown so organically based on the trueness of the site.” O’Denat is talking about WorldStarHipHop, the video site he created in 2005 as a means to provide for his family. He’ll later tell me of the time he pawned his son’s video games so he could buy food at Wal-mart, struggled to pay rent, but kept at it because he knew he was on to something (he admits WSHH did not turn a profit until 2009). But all of that was almost 10 years ago, and he goes by Q now.
As it stands today, WorldStar has become a household name among a generation of kids raised on Facebook and Lil’ Wayne lyrics. The site, though, is not without controversy. Aside from featuring music videos, both regional and mainstream, it regularly posts videos depicting unimaginable violence (the killing of 16-year-old Chicago student Derrion Albert in 2009, for example) and bare-ass nudity. The easy argument: It’s all just click bait, and isn’t every website doing that these days? But to Q, it’s more than that. WorldStar’s mission, so he believes, is to provide coverage of communities that larger news organizations like CNN or MSNBC might ignore. It can be ugly at times, but so is reality.
Really, it’s all part of Q’s larger plan to provide the masses with the “realness” that made hip-hop such an unstoppable force. “Hip-hop is profanity, it’s violence, it’s all of the above. Watching NWA, 2Live Crew, and Eminem being themselves, being real, and getting criticized—and Tupac with Delores Tucker—this is who we are,” he says of WorldStar. A slight grin gives way before he continues. “If you don’t like it, go fuck yourself.”
Gawker: Before WorldStar you were in the mixtape game, right?
Q: In 1999 I reached out to a longtime friend of mine, DJ Whoo Kid, who I’ve known for over 25 years. He had a little buzz circling in the streets with his mixtapes. At the same time he met 50 Cent, and I told them, ‘Hey, I can help you guys. I’m learning the internet, I need to make some money, so let me help you get these mixtapes out.’ Back then, no one wanted to buy. It was hard, because I was living in Baltimore for a few years at the time, and a lot of stores didn’t really know who Whoo Kid was. Long story short, I just kept hustling; I got a couple on consignment based on what they sold. Then I noticed, in the internet space, there weren’t many mixtapes being sold online. So I spent eight months reading and studying and learned how to build a mixtape website. It officially launched on September 11, 2001. I got the email at around eight o’clock in the morning that the site was officially open, and then a couple hours later the planes hit. At the time, there were maybe two or three other sites doing it. It was slow in the beginning, because I made it 100 percent Whoo Kid mixtapes. It was NYCFatMixtapes.com; that was my first website. It just took off, and kept growing and growing.
Did you have a background in tech? Or did the hustler in you feel like it was just something you needed to pick up?
It’s the mentality. I grew up fast. My brother left for the Marines when I was 13 and I had to learn on my own. No father in the house. My mom worked a lot so we really didn’t spend much time together. I didn’t know anything about “family day” or “family time.” It was a Haitian home—you learn early that you’re on your own, and that this is life. I learned that I had to work hard for myself, because no one gave me shit. Family, aunts and uncles, nobody gave me anything. I just thought that that’s what life is about. I had to go out, work, hustle, find ways to make my money. I used to shovel snow all over Queens, in the hood. I found my own ways to make money and understood that I was in control of my own life. And that’s what people need to realize, no one owes you anything.
So what eventually led you into video aggregation?
I was booking a lot of after parties for Whoo Kid and G-Unit, and I found myself on the road a lot. So the site blew up based on that, and me hustling on the web side to put a nice site together for the artist, because the label wasn’t. Being on the road all the time, I wasn’t home to ship the CDs and people kept complaining. I was doing everything by myself, and it was hard. I was like, I gotta find a way to make people download this shit, so I don’t have to be home to ship it. Then 2005 came around, and I figured why not just create a site where people can download. So WorldStarHipHop was a download mixtape site in the beginning. But it also had other things: you could watch crazy stuff, read crazy stuff; it had sex tapes. I knew I wanted to be different. Most of these sites were boring, not really showing that realness of hip-hop. You know, hip-hop is profanity, it’s girls, it’s fights. That’s why the culture is loved worldwide—it’s real. And I wanted a site to be real like that.
Do you remember the very first video posted to WorldStar?
It was a lot of that DVD stuff. People didn’t have ways to go into the hood and buy these DVDs. So we would buy it, chop up the best part of the interview with an artist, usually two to three minutes, and people started loving it. Here we are showing these real interviews, not the ones on BET or MTV, not the PG-13 interview; we’re showing them being real, back of the tour bus, with chicks, fights, cursing—it was all crazyiness. We decided to move forward in that direction. I relaunched to make it an official video website in 2008, because in 2007 we got hacked and the site was down for seven months. When we relaunched in January 08 we never looked back.
When did you realize WorldStar had truly made a name for itself?
I guess when news started wrenching us. I remember Bill O’Reilly shouted us out twice. He said the government should pay us a visit. And I’m like, ‘Whoa I’m just the video guy, why aren’t you going after YouTube’s CEO. That’s where I got it from?’ People kept talking about us, telling me we were on Fox News. The media outside of the internet space, when people talk about us, freaks me out. Now it’s part of the norm. I remember the first official music video premiere we had exclusive to the site—Ace Hood’s “Cash Flow” featuring Rick Ross—that DJ Khaled gave us. That was five, six years ago. We had buzz, but we weren’t the top yet. I think AllHipHop.com did better numbers than us. SOHH.com, too. Khaled saw we were growing fast, and we got that first exclusive video, and that kinda made people realize we just didn’t have crazy videos, but we premiered music videos too. Then more people started premiering videos with us, and that started the price charts, the banner sales. I was one of the first guys to come up with the price plan. Labels usually do net 60, net 90, and I was the first to be like, ‘I want my money now, or you get no banner space.’ So I changed the game. I made labels pay the check first, then I’d put the banner up. And I was doing everything myself, handling all the business and advertisers. Being organic, and the way we do business—we’re pretty much flat rate—it made people feel like, ‘Whoa this site is growing and keeping it 100.’
WorldStar has become known as a shock site, and is famous for the fight videos it posts. Was that your intention going in—to sell spectacle?
I wanted the site to have a hip-hop influence. I wanted it to be like the games that I liked growing up, and like Grand Theft Auto—video games where it just shows everything, where it shows what’s going on in the streets, where I’m from. These kinds of videos were popping on YouTube, and they were entertaining. It was something we couldn’t deny. People love to see that stuff. I didn’t think the site would move so much in that one direction, but WorldStar shows the good, the bad, and the ugly. And if it’s going to show something that’s ugly, we’re just providing the medium. We’re just providing the news.
What do you mean by the good, the bad, and the ugly?
We show things that are inspirational, but that are bad, too. But that’s just the way news is. CNN and Fox News do the same thing. This is part of our history, our culture. Culture as a whole. People. Not just black people, but whites, and everybody—every culture has its bad side. People want to watch an ugly side of someone then blame us for showing it, but what about the people actually doing it? Why click on it? It’s like why watch porno on HBO at midnight? You have the choice to watch what you want. The remote control is in your hand. People will click it, watch it, then hate on me for watching the video. Then why did you watch the video? It’s a choice we all have. You can’t point fingers. It’s your guilty pleasure. Point at yourself.
You once referred to WorldStar as the “CNN of the Ghetto.” Do you see the site giving voice to unheard communities?
Yeah, definitely. We do a lot of community work for people that gets unnoticed. I’m not looking for a lot of exposure on that. If it comes, great. But I know, deep down, we give back to charities.
No, I’m talking about the site specifically, the videos that you put up. Do you see them giving voice to communities and people that go unheard?
Yeah, they get heard. These communities—for example, when the WIC in LA was shut down, we were the first to go talk to those people who were in line waiting. CNN didn’t do that. FOX News; they’re not out there. It’s not gonna be a big headline. So we like to give voice to the communities that are hurting, and let people know even though some of these videos may look ugly to people, it’s still our voice, and they need help. But fighting is a part of life. You gotta get over it. People complain to me about the fighting, but people have been fighting before camera phones, before I was born, and this is the way life is. As long as they are not shooting each other, I have no problem with people wanting to squab it out. That’s how this country was built, on fighting. We fight all the time, every election day there’s fights. People need to stop thinking that everyone is going to walk around and sing Kumbaya.
But don’t your good intentions get lost in all the fight videos, sex clips, and twerking montages? Is the message lost in all that noise?
Yeah, I mean—the site’s mission is to just capture what we find real in the world, you know? As a leader of the internet entertainment world we understand that we’re going to be critiqued for everything that we post. You still see shock TV on cable. Ridiculousness, the MTV show, mocks people all the time with their videos, Tosh.0—but no one ever talks about them.
So why do you get all the criticism?
Because I’m black, and from the hood. [Laughs] Tosh does it and he’s great, Rob Dyrdek and all the white people on Ridiculousness hurting their balls, falling down, cracking their heads open—it’s funny. But someone fighting in the back of a Waffle House? Oh, Q’s the devil! I accept that. That’s just being a black man in America. If you make it doing something someone else can easily do, they’re going to blame you. Black people look at me because I’m black and think I’m doing harm to black communities. But I look at this as a positive. It’s all about how you look at things in life. I bring awareness to those that don’t want to be on WorldStar in that way. Somebody might say, ‘I don’t want to get drunk and then start a fight.’ They can, but they’re going to end up on the site looking foolish. People are now thinking two or three times before they want to fight someone, or act ratchet and crazy. People have camera phones, so whatever you do—if you’re acting silly, stupid, belligerent—they’re gonna record it and send it to us. People have to realize and look at it as a positive.
But if somebody non-black comes to the site they are being sold a very specific brand of blackness. Do you see WorldStar as fueling negative stereotypes within the black community?
Stereotypes? I don’t think so. If a white person comes to the site and sees black people fighting or twerking, he likes the culture. We just like to have fun, man. Black people are admired by different cultures because we’re free. We like to be free. Some people live trapped. They don’t want to get wild because they feel like they’re being judged for this. With black people, we’re just ourselves. If we fight, we fight. And we’ve always been shaking our asses. Since the slave ship we’ve been shaking our asses. [Laughs] We love to do these things. And now, people are attached to it. We’re a very influential race all over the world because we keep it 100. We have negative stereotypes, sure—we like chicken, we like to drink, we go the the strip club—but every race has negative stereotypes. We just have to love ourselves, admire ourselves. Know that only God can judge you. Don’t worry about the critics.
[Image by Sam Woolley]