The founder of WorldStarHipHop.com, Lee “Q” O’Denat, passed away in his sleep Monday at 43, according to TMZ. O’Denat launched Worldstar in 2005 back when social media culture was still in its infancy and the landscape of digital urban media was barren.
Q built the site into one of the most visited web properties in the world by 2010, thanks to a simple format, word-of-mouth marketing and a shameless dedication to delivering unfiltered urban media in a time when many believed such content wasn’t profitable.
“Where most sites were like, ‘No, I don’t want to touch that because advertisers are gonna run away,’ I was like, ‘Forget the advertisers, this is the Internet.’ So I was never into the money first, I was more into the art. The money will come later… That’s why the audience fell in love with us, because we kept it real.” – Lee “Q” O’Denat on The Champs Podcast
The Hollis, Queens native and son of Haitian immigrants was a high school dropout with no formal education in the tech world. After working a job at Circuit City as a teen, Q fell in love with computers and recognized the Internet as the next wave of the future. “I just read up on (the Internet) around ’97,” Q said in an interview on The Champs podcast in 2015 (click link to listen). “I fell in love with creating (HTML) pages, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is the future right here, I’m home.'”
In 1999, the self-taught webmaster launched his first site, a porn aggregator called “cybergirls69.com.” “I would pay $500 and they give me a site and I name it (on) my own,” he remembers. “It was a site with webcam girls and my job was to market and promote. I’d get like 30% (of revenue). But I had no money to promote it… I spent like a thousand dollars the first month and a half and I was like, ‘Yo, I can’t do it anymore. I (was) going broke… I had like ten members.”
After his first venture failed, Q didn’t lose his faith in the Internet business. “I (was) broke, just working at bullshit jobs like Subway, (the) gas station, Pizza Hut,” he remembers of the time prior to hooking up with childhood friend and G-Unit affiliate DJ Whoo Kid. In 1999, just before rapper 50 Cent started buzzing on the New York City mixtape scene, Q convinced Whoo Kid to invest in an e-commerce site that sold the the DJ’s mixes to fans around the globe.
Their site, “NYCFatMixtapes.com,” went live the morning of September 11, 2001, just hours before the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. For the next few years, Q booked parties for Whoo Kid and G-Unit and designed websites for artists within the camp when labels wouldn’t take the time.
But the opportunities Q was getting through G-Unit began to take away from his core business, the mixtape site. “Being on the road all the time, I wasn’t home to ship the CDs and (customers) 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.” In 2005 he had the epiphany that led to WorldStar: “I figured why not just create a site where people can download? So WorldStarHipHop was a download mixtape site in the beginning.”
Worldstar’s mixtape platform quickly expanded to include related Hip Hop content like rare interviews, webcam editorials and music videos. But it wasn’t until Q began uploading videos of fights and other absurd moments he found on YouTube that WorldStar really began to take off.
“With everything going digital, I figured why not tackle the market and start putting the stuff that’s happening outside onto the Internet?… Since the birth of YouTube, people had the liberty of posting whatever they want… And I was a big fan of watching those videos, so I was like, “Why not get these videos on our site?”… So instead of people spending hours all day looking at YouTube videos, (we) found the best ones and (said) come here.” – Lee “Q” O’Denat to Gawker
As the site’s popularity grew, the name “Worldstar” became synonymous with the raw viral videos Q was masterfully curating to fit his own taste. Street fights, celebrity sex tapes and various anomalies of urban culture became the site’s calling card. The unapologetically ratchet content was complemented by bizarre clips from mainstream news outlets and exclusive premiers from street savvy rappers who recognized the site’s unique reach.
“It was just all word of mouth,” said Q on The Champs. “Our audience grew organically… The first music video we had was Ace Hood “Cash Flow” with Rick Ross (in 2008). DJ Khaled hit us up like, ‘I got a video we want to premier with you guys.’ At that time we were still a baby, but we were getting a heavy buzz because we were posting stuff that no one else would post… (We were getting) about 100,000 hits a day… Just bizarre videos of somebody peeing themselves in a subway, crazy shit.”
As more artists came to Worldstar to premier their work to the streets, Q began pricing banner ads and video placements at his own discretion. “I was one of the first guys to come up with the price plan,” he told Gawker in a 2014 interview. “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.’”
But as he tried to replace the bootleggers, hustle men and mainstream outlets that had long supplied the streets with new content, Q struggled to create a solid business model within the wild west of digital media. Before memes and hashtags were household entities, and when monetizing views and clicks was still the biggest challenge facing many of the largest media companies in the world, Q was still living check to check and re-selling his son’s video games to afford rent and groceries. His faith and persistence paid off in 2009 when WorldStar officially turned its first profit.
“They think it’s luck… I don’t believe in luck. It’s hard work… Luck is when you get a scratch-off lotto and win five bucks, man. That’s luck.” Lee “Q” O’Denat in The New York Times
Thanks to its low cost business model and strong branding, WorldStar instantly became the pace-setter for digital urban media. Established brands like Complex, XXL and Viacom began studying the site’s blueprint for clues on how to drive audiences and advertisers to their pages as traditional media like magazines and television lost hoards of viewers to the Internet.
And WorldStar wasn’t just a game-changer in urban media. Aggregators and gossip sites like TMZ, The Huffington Post and Gawker all owe homage to the simple but Cinderella site, which was rated among Alexa.com‘s top 500 websites in the world at its peak. But the success didn’t come without controversy.
“They say I’m putting Black people back, I’m promoting violence. But these guys have Grand Theft Auto, Call Of Duty… 10-year-olds… watching Family Guy and ‘giggity-giggity.’ And they’re blaming me for violence and sex and all this.” – Lee “Q” O’Denat on The Champs
Q never let the many critics of the site slow his momentum. “I just laugh at that,” he told The Champs when asked how he feels when more highbrow outlets and audiences turn their nose up at Worldstar. “I look at 2Pac, 2 Live Crew, Eminem, NWA, they all got that kind of criticism,” he said. “They don’t get it. They don’t understand… We’re in a digital world and this stuff’s been going on hundreds (of years) and now (that) it’s being broadcast… people are like, ‘Oh my God, this is disgusting.’ If I turn the cameras off and turn WorldStarHipHop site off, this stuff would still occur.”
Q frequently insisted that WorldStar’s success and impact had nothing to do with racist or classist stereotypes. “It’s not a Black or White thing,” he told The Champs. “I think it’s just what people see going on everywhere… I tell ’em that you can’t sweep dirt under the rug. So if the site is alarming to you and makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you should try to do something about it as far as teach your kids to be careful… We’re raising awareness. I’m sure a lot of people now have in the back of their mind that if I’m gonna drink this extra shot, I’ma be careful and not start shit because I might end up on WorldStar… I think about it too when I’m drinking, because I don’t wanna get (put on there).”
Q said he sometimes struggled to set proper boundaries for his posts. “Anything to do with animal cruelty or kids, it’s kind of tough (to put up),” he admitted. But he remained vigilant about resisting any and all forces of censorship, no matter what his friends, enemies or personal taste dictated. “These things I think raise awareness. We’re the medium for what’s going on. And even though it’s hard to look at, this is still the society we live in… I just think we bring awareness into the world… We got murder videos and sex with animals and weird shit like that… We just post whatever (is) fucking crazy.”
As the brand grew, Q made an effort to leverage the platform for the greater good. He sponsored charity events serving homeless citizens on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and constantly sought new ways to provide platforms for young content creators and overlooked legends. He never expressed public guilt about the impact of his site’s content on the world, but Q also never hesitated to exert WorldStar’s influence beyond the fight compilations and twerking videos that helped build his fortune.
Q first realized his site’s reach had exceeded his wildest dreams when Bill O’Reilly mentioned his name on Fox News in 2009. The O’Reilly Factor host and chronic Hip Hop-hater smugly suggested the FBI arrest Q after a controversial video featuring a young boy threatening to assassinate George W. Bush was embedded on the site. The same year, 50 Cent successfully sued WorldStar for copyright infringement over an image of the rapper that was used on the site’s masthead. Worldstar’s reach was clearly expanding, and Q refused to lose his grasp of the rapidly-evolving web culture or fall behind the growing demand.
By 2015, companies like Comedy Central, Progressive and Subway were regular advertisers on WorldStar and the industry elite CAA talent agency was representing the brand. With a staff of just 10 employees, Q was the self-made leader of Hip Hop’s first digital Goliath.
WorldStar staples like the “Vine Comp Of The Week” and “Fight Comp Of The Week,” compiled from user-submitted videos of street fights, soft-core porn and emerging memes, soon established a lane for more ambitious original content while helping shape social media “meme” culture we know today.
The original documentary series “The Field,” which profiles the crime and music scenes of cities like Chicago and Miami, has accumulated over 33 million views on WorldStar since launching in 2014. “I felt like it was our duty to step up to the plate and speak to these kids out there that thought the guns were the way out,” Q told MTV when the series launched. “These kids feel like the leaders are ignoring them, even the networks don’t go out there and talk to them… That’s one of the biggest things for me when I was struggling, when I get on top I’m gonna do these charities, do documentaries and show people what’s going on in these streets because I feel CNN and Fox aren’t doing that… I think it’s my job as a leader in the Internet space to do so.”
And although Q was far beyond the point of proving himself as a web leader by 2015, he still wasn’t satisfied enough to cash out of the game. He told The New York Times that he turned down an undisclosed deal from Sean Combs because he wanted to remain the face of his own brand. Q also denied a $40 million offer for a 40% stake in his site around the same time frame. In March 2015, Q finally agreed to a deal with Russell Simmons‘ AllDefDigital brand to develop projects for television. Sadly, Q passed before the world could experience his next wave of content.
“Q has created a brand and platform like no other, with no outside funding or support, making him one the great entrepreneurs in our space… It is my privilege to help extend that voice to the world.” – Russell Simmons on Lee “Q” O’Denat
At the time of his death, Q was reportedly producing original content that included movies, TV shows, animation, comedy tours and more. Competitors like VICE Media and Complex Media will continue to produce more refined versions of the edgy content that first made WorldStar a hit with the 18-34 demographic, but we must never forget that their media empires would likely not exist if not for the trail blazed by “WorldStar Q.”
In 2015, Q told The Times, “A lot of websites come and go. I wanted people to look at WorldStar as something that’s here to stay.” Long after it’s founder’s passing, WorldStarHipHop will be remembered as a game-changer in digital media, and Lee “WorldStar Q” O’Denat will be remembered as a father, entrepreneur and pioneer who turned the Internet’s most ratchet moments into an online empire.
Rest In Power, Lee “WorldStar Q” O’Denat.