2015 Power 50: Oliver El-Khatib
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It could be said in the backstage milieu of the rap industry that Oliver El-Khatib—Founder / Creative Director of Drake’s October’s Very Own (OVO imprint) and co-manager of the artist—is a type who speaks softly but carries the big stick.
While El-Khatib rarely gives interviews and prefers for Drake and OVO’s artists to be the ones on center stage, it’s reasonable to credit the Toronto native as being the real wizard behind the curtain for much of OVO’s success; for launching it into a global brand that includes a record label, concert series, and ubiquitous clothing line. Or in other words, considering how much Drake’s success is tied to the OVO identity, that El-Khatib is the guy behind ‘the guy’.
The story is one that has been told before. How Oliver El-Khatib and a fledgling Drake met at Toronto’s Lounge Clothing, a shop catering to hip-hop heads. How an immediate friendship and trust was developed between the two. Drake had faith in not only El-Khatib’s fellowship, but his creative instincts as well. With his penchant for music, art, lifestyle, fashion, and graphic design, El-Khatib initially served as the blogger for the upstart OVO, which was first used to publish his own commentary. Something of an open diary, his posts unconsciously laid the roots for the the heart on your sleeve maxim that would one day define the brand.
What’s not as widely known are El-Khatib’s roots before his fateful introduction to Drake. That he was a Toronto kid of Lebanese background enamoured with the cultures of music and skateboarding. Working any job he could to earn just enough to stock up at the city’s legendary Play De Record, El-Khatib would then go home and analyze everything from an album’s production to the artist’s craft. He even teamed with eventual OVO co-founder and acclaimed producer Noah “40” Shebib to form a DJ crew called the Lebanon Dons long before OVO was a gleam in their eyes. Hip-hop was a natural fixation to him, one very much self-taught.
It was a passion for style though that El-Khatib saw as his true calling at the outset. This is what brought him to Lounge, where as the store’s manager and buyer, he transformed the tiny shop into an urban hub to snap up the hottest brands, listen to the newest tunes, and network with the community’s many likeminds. And then one day Drake walked through the doors. The rest, as they say, is history.
With OVO, El-Khatib arguably pulled off something no different than what he did in his earlier days at Lounge, just on a much grander scale. Yet the evolution was every bit as grassroots, although a masterstroke all the same.
After all, OVO was only first heard when when Drake started getting national attention in 2009 simply because he would name-drop it in his songs. It’s since morphed into the successful OVOSound label, a garment variety whose omnipresent black and gold owl can be seen infiltrating one new urban market after the next, and the mammoth OVO Fest, which has established itself a Toronto institution every bit as famed for the blockbuster guests Drake brings to town as for his own performances.
Yes, what began as a shout-out has become a full-fledged movement—one mostly accomplished without any over-the-top marketing scheme or multi-million dollar ad campaign. Word of mouth, as they say, goes a long way.
For his part, El-Khatib claims that he knew that no matter how big Drake’s career might get and how vast his celebrity could grow, he wanted to offset that with something that always reminded everybody and himself of what they set out to do. That there would forever be a contrast of the internationally triumphant Drake with the local, ground-level energy of OVO. Something he has called untainted, uncompromised, and not for sale.
The strategy worked. OVO has developed into a cultural powerhouse the world over while calling one of the unlikeliest rap destinations in the entire hemisphere home. And the hard work hasn’t stopped. Most especially not here in Toronto, where El-Khatib remains strongly ingrained in the city’s urban artistic niches as a dedicated mentor to recording artists, songwriters and producers, as well as photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and illustrators.
And while you’ll never hear him take credit for his central role in OVO’s incredible fortune, Oliver El-Khatib has been very much the visionary quietly pulling the strings.