Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was released more than 50 years ago, yet scholars, music critics and the sort still look at it from time to time. Beyond karaoke musings of “Like A Rolling Stone,” the album does contain Dylan’s look into politics, societal awareness and more. As often as critics labeled Dylan an outsider, he was prone to putting the lens right on them, asking all the right questions with all of the same bite attached.
On “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he raised a question about a man visiting the circus just to see the geeks for his entertainment. Only thing is, the geeks look back and wonder if he’s satisfied with what he’s watching. "How does it feel to be such a freak?” a geek asks. The man, startled, feels that he’s above this and shouldn’t be compared all the same. And yet he very well may be the freak in all of this.
The legacy of “Ballad of a Thin Man” is similar to that of WorldStarHipHop, the website and video platform that became a bastion of all the good and evils of 21st-century viral entertainment. For every underground and emerging rapper that managed to land placement on the platform, there were fight compilations, random acts of violence, dancers, porn stars, video vixens and other items that one would view as a glimpse into a decaying society. Where the site stood as a look into the ills of the world, its founder, Lee “Q” O’Denat, always countered that it was user-generated content that people wanted.
“On WorldStar, it’s right there in front of you,” O’Denat told The New York Times in 2015. “Just trust us to entertain you. That’s what we did.”
That entertainment suddenly stopped early Tuesday afternoon, when word began spreading that O’Denat had died at 43. TMZ, pioneers in their own right of feeding the world content it didn’t know it wanted (or needed, in some aspects), were the first to report it. Confirmations began rolling through, condolences made. All the while, every condolence was both praising for WorldStar while also understanding its controversial tone and nature.
Q's homegoing should resemble something similar to the artwork for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There should be women who claimed fame via twerking videos with the WSHH insignia on their bikinis. There should be bums and random men who claim residency in New York, only to get stomped out by Arizona truck drivers. The pallbearers no doubt would be the elastic group of rappers, whether it be RiFF RaFF or anyone who dared pay WSHH’s extortionary fees for a post. Kat Stacks would give the benediction, and Q would be eulogized by any number of people who routinely visited the WSHH to get their kicks, or simply a glimpse into the non-mainstream world.
Many a rapper has used WorldStar as a platform to release music videos. After all, the original concept of WorldStar was to release and host nothing but music videos for rap acts. Its YouTube channel boasts an impressive subscription number (4.2 million), while the original site still draws millions of hits every day. As often as Q was hailed as someone poisoning hip-hop and minds across the globe, he was an influencer beyond belief. New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis continually cited WorldStar as the vehicle that taught him American culture.
The mere mention of the word “WorldStar” also beckons people to pull out their phones to record fight footage in public. Q saw the Internet for what it really is, the Wild West that allows us a peephole into some of the highest and lowest common denominators of human behavior. As humans, we're drawn to car crashes, both literal and figurative. Traffic comes to a complete halt on the forever-under-construction Highway 290 because people want to watch what possibly could hold everyone up. The same goes for any wreck, visual of a fire truck ensnaring people on various roadways and stretches of asphalt around the globe. WorldStar exists in the same way man can view our boastful, braggart and admitted purveyor of sexual assault Head of State with shining gleam.
Notwithstanding all the videos of people wilding out at McDonald’s, murder, torment and violence that populated WorldStar, Q attempted to shift his site into a second act. Shedding the label in order to obtain more funding was part of his next step. WorldStar wasn't mainstream, but it could have transitioned into doing so. He told the Times in that 2015 feature, “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be standing up with the Snapchats, the Vines. We’re missing that piece to make a full picture. It’s all about finding the right team.” There was the documentary series “The Field,” which focused primarily on the crime, glamour and poverty of select hip-hop hotbeds such as Miami and Chicago. Q recently inked and finished production of a ten-episode series called World Star TV, set to air on MTV next month. He was forever a fan of classic hip-hop; born in Queens, he found himself drawn to acts like DMX, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang and more. Slicing the hip-hop off of WorldStar would be pointless. Q was too deep into it.
The WorldStar show will move on. Its feverish ecosystem, built off “CRASH”-style video content and other moral depravities, somewhat remains king. Its style may be the counterpoint for what “going viral” came to mean, or FOX News segments in which Bill O’Reilly wanted to see him and more. Nothing was off limits to Q. To him, the rawness was the culture itself, for better or worse. Was he a vulture, someone who profited off the misfortunes of complete strangers he’d never meet? Probably. Was he a capitalist in the same way we teach our children to be in order to obtain a shrewd version of the American Dream? Definitely.
Ask a wide number of Houston rap acts — their videos and names gained a bit of authenticity and notoriety thanks to WorldStar. Where YouTube held firm to label wants and censorship, WorldStar bypassed all of it. It gave the people what they wanted, all the while feeding into a life that wanted to enjoy the macabre more than anything positive.
In starting Day & a Dream, a pop-culture website framed mostly around Houston rap, I was weary of WorldStar — of its tactics, and an editorial process feeding off the worst the world had to offer rather than striking a more uplifting balance. I saw other sites attempt to mimic what WorldStar was doing, but I never wavered. I loathed the embed format and its video player to a point of near-boycott. But I knew of Q. There was no way to miss him, his presence looming over the Internet the same way TMZ does. By surreal timing, the advance of technology and camera phones, Q had found a way to show us behind the curtain. We saw the worst of America’s circus. He ended up funneling it into an addictive, if not destructive, platform that also influenced millions.
Making it onto WorldStar meant authenticity. An authenticity that was going to be copied and shared with the advancement of other video platforms whether it be Twitter, the recently killed-off Vine, Facebook and more. In a world where the very word can be seen as alternative, Q developed an ecosystem that shone a light on the lowest fare of human behavior. Ultimately, both the legacy of Q and of WorldStar are tied to this very notion. The best of us tried to claim we were better than it. Yet we still knew of its existence — and some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, turn away.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.