The unlikely rise of Lee O’Denat, the founder of Worldstar Hip Hop. Also, we reopen a cold case.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
PJ: Lee O’Denat died of a heart attack last month. He was 43 years old. Everybody called Lee ‘Q,’ and everybody had an opinion about him. A strong one. The one thing people could agree on is that lee reshaped a huge part of the Internet. Reply All producer Chloe Prasinos has the story.
CHLOE PRASINOS: Stacey O’Denat met Q when he was 17. He was this big, burly guy–always laughing. But she says what most people didn’t get about about Q is that he was a people watcher.
STACEY O’DENAT: You know for such a big guy, he was just really, um–he could melt into the background. You know? And he enjoyed it. He loved being in the background and just watching how people, you know, relate and – and little ticks and–and everything. He just enjoyed it. So. You know, he always would tell me, “Stace, if you could see what I saw.” He always wanted me to see what he saw.
CHLOE: Q was smart and ambitious. But he was trapped. He’d dropped out of high school, and spent a decade working a string of minimum wage jobs. And so, he decided that the way out, the secret to the life he wanted, was the Internet.
In 1999, he buys a porn site. It doesn’t work out. So Q tries something else: selling mixtapes online. That’s not a hit either. And then, he makes a new site. All about hip hop.
It has interviews, articles, mixtapes, reviews. Q’s dream is that it’s gonna be the definitive hiphop website, so he names it WorldStarHipHop.
It launches in 2005… and it doesn’t go anywhere either. There’s no traffic, no advertisers, no money. And Q is desperate. This is a clip from an interview he did in 2014.
Q (LEE O’DENAT): I was broke.
JASON PARHAM: Mhm.
Q: I was pawning my son’s video games to feed the family. Um. This is–this is 2007. And I had Worldstar two years deep. And I’m over there pawning games, I’m – I’m a- I’m crying to myself trying to find ways to pay rent, rent’s due. ‘Cause money wasn’t coming because people were afraid to invest advertising dollars.
CHLOE: The best he can do is to sell these small banner ads to local underground artists. He’s been betting on the Internet for years, and he has nothing to show for it. But then, in 2009, everything changes.
[clip from the NBC Nightly News]
BRIAN WILLIAMS: We got the first look today at what Apple says is the next big thing. …
CHLOE: Smartphones get video. Which means that all of the sudden anyone can record any mundane thing they see.
iPHONE RECORDING: We’re in Hawaii we just arrived, we’re on the Likelike Highway. And, uh, it’s quite nice. It’s, uh–
CHLOE: And Q, he’s like, “Oh! That’s it! Forget articles, forget reviews. Q wanted people’s videos. And they start pouring in. The only rule was that they have to keep your attention — they gotta draw a crowd, which is HOW YOU END UP WITH A VIDEO OF A GUY IN A BATMAN COSTUME BREAKING UP A STREET FIGHT, NEXT TO A VIDEO OF A GUY WEEPING ABOUT HOW GOOD HIS WEED IS.
[clip from Worldstar video]
GUY: Thank god (sniffs) for my reefer, man. That shit good! (crying)
CHLOE: Next to a video of a street brawl where a guy accidentally hits his own girlfriend..
[clip from Worldstar video]
CHLOE: Next to a guy proposing to his girlfriend in song.
MAN: (singing) Well, I’ll be standing right beside you, my sweet baby. My sweet–
[clip fades under narration]
CHLOE: Next to a guy who’s just too high at a Popeyes.
DUDE: We at Popeye’s on Broadway, Houston, Texas. That boy trippin’ man–this gotta go on Worldstar, bro.
CHLOE: As Worldstar got bigger, so did Q. Here he is on the podcast, Shots Fired.
LEE: I love hip hop ‘cause it has it attitude, not everything’s so wonderful. It’s like World Star, it’s not everything wonderful. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly.
HOST: There’s a lot of bad and ugly on Worldstar.
HOST: Alright, so, you click on, like, a music video. Alright, then you click on, like, one of those rappers fighting another dude, then one of them bitches that was in the back of the fight, she has, like, this video where she’s just, like–
HOST: –you know, in a bikini. You click on the bikini, there’s this whole bikini roll thing-
HOST: Then there’s like … then, like, two video girls fighting–and it’ll just send you into this endless loop–
LEE: (smiling) Yeah.
HOST: –of like, you know—
HOST: Yeah, I about to say hedonism, but OK.
CHLOE: So it’s those fight videos that actually what got the most attention on Worldstar. Some of them become legends.
[sound of Worldstar clip under narration]
CHLOE: Like the one where a bus driver just uppercuts this woman.
[clip from Worldstar]
PASSENGER 2: Uh-ohhh!
BUS DRIVER: You going to jail now!
WOMAN: That’s OK, do somethin’, nigga!
BUS DRIVER: You going to jail now!
WOMAN: [indistinct] something, nigga.
BUS DRIVER: You going to jail [uppercuts woman].
PASSENGERS: (exclaim in shock)
[clip fades under narration]
CHLOE: Worldstar is a giant, towering over the competition. I talked to one of Q’s competitors, Elliott Wilson. Elliott runs Rap Radar, and he remembers what it felt live in Q’s shadow.
ELLIOTT WILSON: BET started this award, the Website of the Year award. And every single year, Q would win. Worldstar would win every year. Like, they literally won like five, six, seven, years in a row, and I’m like Susan Lucci and I can’t win any year. And even even one year I remember Q was just like “you guys should win, you guys should win,” and then he won again, [Chloe laughs] so you know hey. He’s a winner, he’s a winner. He used to win that award every time.
CHLOE: And what would go through your head when they’d announce like “And the winner is…”
ELLIOTT: I’d be mad, I would genuinely be mad, B Dot would be disappointed but I would be mad in general that we never won. But if you just did purely by numbers, he was out the park with it. So he kind of set the standard of how successful, a hip hop website could be.
CHLOE: Huge stars start doing exclusive videos with Worldstarhiphop.
DJ KHALED: BLESS UP THIS IS DJ KHALED.
CHLOE: DJ Khaled told me that as the site got bigger, advertisers started showing up.
DJ KHALED: Anybody that had something to promote on the internet had to go through Worldstar. And it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t music or not. It was like, if you were to promote soap, you would go to Worldstar, because that’s where everybody was going.
CHLOE: So now, Q had influence. He could help a rapper blow up by featuring them on Worldstar. Trinidad James–
[TRINIDAD JAMES – ALL GOLD EVERYTHING CLIP]
CHLOE: Chief Keef.
MUSIC from Chief Keef
CHLOE: You could get famous on Worldstar without a record label backing you. You could be super amateur-ish, and just like, weird, it was fine; you just had to be captivating. One of the best examples is this rapper named Lil B, the Based God. Lil B writes songs like “Cash In My Tiny Pants,” or “I’m Miley Cyrus.”
[Lil B – Miley Cyrus plays]
CHLOE: He goes on TV to talk about the curse he placed on a basketball player… While wearing a lace dress and earrings. Lil B didn’t look or act like anyone’s idea of a famous rapper but he told me that Q got it.
LIL B: He just really supported what I had going, you know? He believed in me, he didn’t think I was funny. Um. ‘nothing was –, you know, he took, uh, Lil B very seriously.
CHLOE: What do you think was the thing that – that Q figured out that no one else did?
LIL B: I think he got it early. Just, just the magnitude of the internet. He knew the power of hip hop and the internet very early. And that’s something that I figured out too, and I think that’s why we, you know, got along and we had a mutual respect for each other.
CHLOE: What was your internet strategy?
LIL B: My algorithm?
CHLOE: No, I don’t need to know your algorithm, just at the moment…
LIL B: [silent laugh] You wa- you, like, you tryin’ to get million dollar answers, man.
CHLOE: Like Q, Lil B knew how to work the internet. For instance, at one point, all these rappers were using myspace to promote their songs. But there was a cap on how many songs you could post. So, Lil B found a workaround.
LIL B: I had 155, uh, MySpace pages. I – I controlled all of them. And I had a minimum of five songs each page, but you can put at least 10 songs on there.
CHLOE: And then, he starts starts making a tone of videos. These homemade, funny, janky videos. Q liked them, and Worldstar posted them.
CHLOE: How quickly did you notice the effect? Like that day? The next day? In a month? Like, how quick did it happen?
LIL B: Oh, that day. Just – just y- … once you’re on Worldstar, it happens right there. The effect [snaps fingers] pops right there. You know? It’s a – it’s a [snaps] instant. Instant gratification.
[Lil B – Unchain me plays]
I was a part of the WorldStarHipHop family, you know? Like, uh – u- and I take pride in that, you know? I still am. Like, you know, it’s Worldstar ‘til the end.
CHLOE: Of course for every funny, bizarre Lil B video that’s on Worldstar, there’s dozens of videos of violence. Of people just beating the crap out of each other. One of the most famous videos became known just as “Sharkeisha.” It’s of two 17-year-old girls, they look really young. They’re talking quietly for almost a minute, and then Sharkeisha suddenly yells at her. She punches her in the jaw, the girl falls down and Sharkeisha keeps hitting her, and then kicks her in the face.
[clip from Worldstar video]
GIRL: Hold on, no!
GIRL RECORDING: “Sharkeisha, no!
SHARKEISHA: [indistinct yell]
GIRL RECORDING: Don’t–don’t kick her, Sharkeisha! Don’t kick her.
[fades under narration]
CHLOE: Millions of people watched the video.
MAN: When Sharkeisha punched that girl in the face–
WOMAN: She had (the camera set up)–
MAN: –they had a camera ready to go before–
WOMAN 2: [indistinct]
MAN: –she swung, that camera–
WOMAN: [clap] Set [clap] up.
MAN: –was in position and set up. They were definitely–
CHLOE: This is from a panel discussion back in 2014. These academics and artists debating Worldstar on Huffpost Live..
BRITTNEY: And then we’re seeing young women, th- there’s a sort of celebration of them hurting each other. So in our communities, we are very disturbed by the ways in which black men are killing one another–and we should be–but we are sort of snickering off to the side about what seem to be these kind of harmless fights—
RHYMEFEST: Why you so mad?
BRITTNEY COOPER: S–
BRITTNEY: I’m mad?!
BRITTNEY: C- I’m mad–I’m mad–
RHYMEFEST: [indistinct] so mad?!
BRITTNEY: You know what? I have the right to be angry–
BRITTNEY: –’cause little black girls are getting punched in the fucking face. [indistinct]
RHYMEFEST: (yelling) Little black girls and the black boys! Black people–
RHYMEFEST: –are being hurt.
BRITTNEY: –[indistinct] this is not–
RHYMEFEST: Why are you dividing this–
BRITTNEY: I am not–
WOMAN: Why are–
[clip from the Champs plays]
Q: They call me the devil now.
MOSHE KASHER: Who calls you the devil? Tell me about some of the shit that you’ve gotten.
Q: I mean, they say I’m putting black people back, uh, I’m promoting violence and–but these guys have Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty in the deck–
Q: –like. 10-year-olds playing Grand Theft Auto, picking up hookers and watching Family Guy–
NEAL BRENNAN: Right.
Q: –and “giggity giggity gee.” (slight laugh) And they’re blaming me for violence and sex and all this, I’m just I just laugh at it. If I turn the cameras off, I turn Worldstar’s hip hop site off, this stuff will still occur.
CHLOE: In other interviews Q says, “Listen, human beings have been fighting each other since the beginning of time. Worldstar didn’t invent this.” But the same way Instagram taught people to take artful pictures of their brunch, Worldstar taught them what to do when something violent happens. Take out your phone, and yell Worldstar.
DAVEY D: Perfect example (laughs), I was at a protest the other day, up in Berkeley, you know this is the one where they set the fires.
CHLOE: This is Davey D, he’s a hip hop journalist and historian.
DAVEY D: And one of the neo-nazi cats gets knocked out. And now you have white kids pull out their video and go “Worldstar” when he gets knocked out. Now [slight laugh], we could laugh, ’cause I think most of us are like, “Well, that neo-nazi needed to get knocked the hell out.” But what happens when it’s the young man that knocks the girl out on the bus? Or pulls her skirt up? Or does something demeaning to that and people pulling out their video talking about Worldstar, knowing damn well that that’s gonna get a – a play on, on his channel.
CHLOE: I spoke with Jason Parham–he’s an editor at The FADER— he actually interviewed Q a couple years ago. I wanted to know what Q would have said his legacy was. And Jason told me that for Q, the most important thing was that he’d never sold out. WorldStar was his site, his vision.
JASON: I know he was always looking to evolve and grow, but also in that – in that way keep ownership over everything that he had, you know? Um, But it was, I think it was a success to him. Whether it succeeded in the eyes of the larger culture, I don’t… I don’t, like, I don’t think so.
JASON: Well, [indistinct] personally, like, my own personal politics th- like, I do love the site and I think he’s important and he’s a gatekeeper and that he… very much believed in black youth culture and rap and hip hop and documenting all sides of it, but it’s like… at some point it became about something bigger, that I don’t think even he could control.
He, I mean, I remember in our interview when we spoke, he brought up CNN, he brought up MSNBC, he kept saying he want to be the news. He wanted to be a part of the global conversation. I mean it was certainly an ambitious goal.
JASON: He made, you know, lemonade out of lemons, you know? I mean, he was given very little, but he was able to work with what he had.
CHLOE: I talked to a Worldstar employee named Jay who told me that, yes, the company will keep going without Q. It’ll be run by the same small team that’s been there for years.
None of them saw Q’s death coming. He’d been working on big plans for the future — like a tv show for MTV. It premiered a week and a half after he died. DJ Khaled told me Q had worked really hard on the show, and thought it would take WorldStar to the next level.
DJ KHALED: I just seen him two days before he passed. And when I seen him, he was happy. it’s just… it hurts to see the man not be here. I was inspired, because I’m like man this man not only took over the internet, now he’s on TV with it. He just opened another door for the culture, ya know what I mean, and I just want to let him know like… we got you bro. We love you, and we got you.
PJ: Reply All Producer Chloe Prasinos. After the break, we go down the stormdrain.
PJ VOGT: Welcome back to the show. Um, so, we are here in the studio with Damiano who just got back from vacation in California. Damiano, hello.
DAMIANO: Hey guys.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome back, man.
DAMIANO MARCHETTI: Thank you.
ALEX: It hasn’t been the same without you.
DAMIANO: I wanna say it’s good to be back, but… it’s sunny.
ALEX: It’s fucked up, I was like, I was like welcoming you back with open arms and you were like ‘I wish I could say that I enjoy it here, but-” [everyone laughs]
PJ: So I don’t know what’s going on.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Neither do I.
PJ: I don’t know why we are here.
ALEX: Yeah, why are we here?
DAMIANO: Um, we are here because I have a small update about the tortoise.
PJ: [gasps] What is the update?!
ALEX: Yeah, how small are we talking?
DAMIANO: Oh, don’t get too excited. Just a couple of interesting things have happened.
PJ: Well there’s like, it’s a binary story in my mind. [laughs]
PJ: The tortoise was found, or not found. It’s not like, I don’t know, like there are rumors that the tortoise is living a happy life down in Mexico under another name.
DAMIANO: Flash is a complex character!
PJ: [laughs] El Flasho?
DAMIANO: So okay wait wait, so, let me give a little bit of context for people if you haven’t heard of the story or don’t remember the story, like five months ago, I went to California to visit a family who had posted an ad on Craigslist about their tortoise named Flash, a tortoise that they’d had for like, 30 plus years, and the reason they’d posted the ad is because Flash had escaped.
PJ: And then–
PJ: -in looking-
DAMIANO: -in the process-
PJ: -for Flash, they had found a different tortoise that wasn’t Flash.
PJ: Which led to, like, it ended up feeling like maybe there was an epidemic of tortoises just fleeing constantly.
DAMIANO: Exactly. Like, we were in this weird position of having somebody else’s tortoise, while were were like looking for our tortoise.
PJ: It was like an Alanis Morrisette song.
ALEX: Wait, there’s-
PJ: Well, w–
ALEX: There’s an Alanis Morrisette song about-
ALEX: No. That’s not what irony is.
PJ: It’s-the way she describes irony, like, it’s like rain on your wedding day-
PJ: -it’s like looking for your tortoise and finding another tortoise,
PJ: It’s like a free ride you just didn’t take.
ALEX: It’s good advice that you just didn’t take.
ALEX: Who woulda thought?
DAMIANO: So, um, anyway. We looked everywhere for Flash, couldn’t find him. And so, since I was back in California last week,
[knocking on door]
I paid the family a visit.
DAMIANO: How’re you doing, [indistinct]?
MIKE: How’re you?
MIKE: It’s good to see you.
DAMIANO: There were still, like, so Benny – is Benny, it’s, uh, Mike is the dad and Trisha’s the mom, Benny’s their kid. So we sat down in their kitchen,
DAMIANO: So how long I’m just trying to back up to when I last saw you. How long ago was that?
MIKE: It was definitely before when he normally starts to hibernate, which is October-ish.
DAMIANO: They told me that since we talked back then, the mood in the house has gotten a lot more grim.
TRISHA: It’s been raining a lot like–
MIKE: And It’s been really cold, like, unseasonably cold for this area.
TRISHA: And I just imagined him, because when they hibernate, they burrow a little bit, they sort of like, burrow in wherever they’re sitting, and I just imagined the rain just flooding him out and him drowning.
DAMIANO: Benny their son had a different idea.
BENNY: Is, – I – I thought that he went down the drain… but you guys kept saying that he wouldn’t fit in the gutter.
DAMIANO: Benny kept trying to get Mike, to climb down into the storm drain to like, retrieve the tortoise, but, um, there’s these huge raccoons that live down there and, like pop up from time to time. One of the raccoons came out of the storm drain and killed their chickens.
ALEX: Oh my god!
DAMIANO: So they had- were, like, chickenless and tortoise-less, and all of their pets were gone and potentially dead.
PJ: The whole thing is like a vicious Disney movie.
DAMIANO: Mmhm. But the other possibility is that he’s like miles and miles away like if it’s been walking since I was there, like it could be like, in Virginia or something.
DAMIANO: So Trisha decides, like, at this point we just… we need to, like, we need to come to terms with, like, the fact that Flash, our lifelong pet, is – is, like, most likely gone forever or dead. Um. And s they wanted to do something to get some closure, like, bury a box in the backyard or something. But then they get a text, and the text says, someone has found your tortoise
ALEX: Get out of here!
PJ: Actual tortoise, or just another tortoise that looks like Flash?
DAMIANO: Someone has found your tortoise. And it’s your neighbor two doors down.
DAMIANO: They were cleaning out their garage, they moved away some boxes, and there was Flash.
PJ: Ah! [laughs]
ALEX: Shut up! Really?
DAMIANO: Sleeping away.
ALEX: That’s the best!
ALEX: That’s the best! I told you that he could’ve survived any-
PJ: So did you just, had you, had you knocked on the door of that neighbor’s house?
DAMIANO: Yeah, so when we were searching, they live at, like, the end of this court- and when we were searching, we had talked to her, we had gone through her whole backyard, and, like, we hadn’t found him. The thing that I keep thinking about is, like, he… did he like walk for miles and then just like came back?
PJ: That does not seem like-
PJ: -the Occam’s Razor solution.
ALEX: No, he did not.
DAMIANO: And then just go in the garage?
PJ: I think there’s a, I think you’re trying to invent a scenario where there wasn’t a tortoise right under your nose.
DAMIANO: Well, anyway, um, so Mike picked up Flash and carried him very carefully back to their house and now he’s hibernating in their garage. And I got to go meet him.
MIKE: You have to be careful, um-
[door squeaking open]
MIKE: -picking him up, ‘cause you don’t want to wake him up.
MIKE: ‘Cause then he’ll pee, and if you startle him, he’ll pee and all his-
[sound of garage door opening]
MIKE: -you know, that’s his, what he lives on-
MIKE: -for the next couple months.
[garage door sound ending]
DAMIANO: On this shelf, there’s like – just like a big cardboard box. And he pulls it out-
And opens it up-
-and Flash is inside, just sleeping.
DAMIANO: you see the scratch on his shell, is that it right there?
Mike: Yeah he’s.. he works hard, and uh [indistinct]
Benny: It’s like.. there, and there.
PJ: What… what were your impressions of him?
DAMIANO: He’s, like, a little smaller than I thought he was. He’s, like, very charming. And he’s like… do you know when-
ALEX: Can you describe his charm a little bit for me please?
DAMIANO: He’s just like, I don’t know! He’s just like a-
PJ: You’re clutching yourself in joy!
DAMIANO: He’s not an intimidating size, he’s, like a nice size, and he’s got, like, a nice sheen to his shell. He’s got that one toe gone, which is like-
PJ: Very cute.
DAMIANO: –Little bit of character.
DAMIANO: His little head, he’s sort of, like, his little beak is, like, kinda popped out of his shell just slightly. And he was like… you know when animals sleep and they’re, like, moving slightly? Sort of like because they are dreaming about-
DAMIANO: -something? And so his, his legs are just kind of, like, very slowly, like, swimming back and forth.
DAMIANO: So, that’s my update.
ALEX: I have to say [clears throat] i’m very happy for the family.
ALEX: I’m super excited.
ALEX: My one regret-
ALEX: -with the way this turned out-
ALEX: -is that I was so excited to be like, “Look. I will go into the sewers.” [slight laugh]
ALEX: “With a recorder. And a BB gun. And I will fight off those raccoons, and find that tortoise.”
DAMIANO: Oh my god.
ALEX: That, to me, sounds like a great adventure. But-
DAMIANO: You should‘ve been a Ninja Turtle.
ALEX: Turns out I wasn’t needed.
ALEX: That’s great. Welcome home, Flash!
DAMIANO: Welcome home.
[CREDITS SONG PLAYS]
PJ VOGT: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We are produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. We’re edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Production assistance from Sangita Rayasam. We are mixed by Rick Kwan.
Special thanks to Jay Sang, Jeff Weiss, Dr. Treva Lindsay, Steven Kurtz, And Jon Caramanica. The audio of Q on podcasts came from the Shots Fired podcast and the Champs, and from Jason Parham’s interview with Q a couple years ago.
Matt Lieber is hoodie weather. You can find more episodes from the show at itunes.com/replyall, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our website is reply all dot soy. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.
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