“Q was a brilliant businessman who championed urban culture, ultimately creating the largest hip-hop website in the world. But more than that, he was a devoted father and one of the nicest, most generous persons to ever grace this planet.”
— WorldstarHipHop statement
While legendary hip-hop and street fight website entrepreneurs might not be one’s first guess for ultra-sedate Rancho Santa Fe residency, WorldstarHipHop founder Lee O’Denat, known simply as “Q”, was a hip-hop video website CEO about town who stood apart from the Paseo Delicias crowd.
O’Denat, only 43, died this week of a heart attack at a Del Mar Heights massage parlor, according to the San Diego County medical examiner’s office. Paramedics arrived and attempted to revive him with CPR, but he was pronounced dead at about 5:30 p.m Monday, Jan. 23. The cause of death later was announced as heart disease, with obesity considered a contributing factor, according to the coroner’s office.
TMZ first reported O’Denat’s death. WorldStar issued a statement confirming the news, said the site would continue O’Denat’s “various endeavors” and asked fans to “raise a toast to the sky in his name.”
The Hollis, Queens-bred founder of the influential music and urban culture website WorldstarHipHop.com, the surprisingly soft-spoken and not surprisingly super-intelligent father of three school-age children had a known history of heart trouble, according to sources.
Q’s Rancho Santa Fe neighbors probably didn’t know much about his efforts, but despite the name, and its origins and popularity as a hip-hop news and gossip site, WorldStarHipHop is arguably most famous worldwide as a vast repository of shaky footage of street fights, submitted by smartphone-wielding onlookers.
Rapper T.I. posted his own tribute on Instagram, calling O’Denat a “real solid, stand-up dude.”
“We can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for all of US!!! You were always pleasant & positive through all the madness,” T.I. said. “You built a brand that changed the course of culture. Your legacy will live on.”
Over the years, bystander footage of violence became one of WSHH’s primary calling cards
“WorldStar, at this point, is as much a kind of street-fight battle cry as it is a recognizable brand name.” O’Denat said.
“You’ve got a lot of people who stay indoors all the time, looking at their computers and what not,” O’Denat said. “They don’t know what is going on right outside their house, in their backyards. We’re showing the reality of the situation, giving them a dose.”
Building WSHH into a Net juggernaut came in stages, O’Denat said.
Like others on the scene, he started by selling mixtapes, audio assemblages of commercially unavailable work of rappers distributed by hole-in-the-wall vendors around the city.
By the middle aughts, street-merchandised DVDs (the best-known of these appeared under the label Smack DVD) were including “behind-the-scenes” action such as rappers duking it out with other rappers and swatches of near porn.
Similar material was inevitably moved to the web, with OnSmash.com the best-known purveyor. WorldStar followed in 2005, more or less appropriating OnSmash’s setup, engendering some bad feelings.
“Yeah,” O’Denat said, “there was some back-and-forth between us and them, some savage street-hacking attacks. It got hairy. Once we went 100 percent video, showing that original hood stuff, we prevailed.”
In years since, as the web has grown somewhat more centralized and social networks have come to dominate many of WSHH’s functions, the site and its social-media offshoots managed to maintain the charmingly garish attitude and aesthetic of an earlier era of the web.
Thanks to its strong brand recognition and O’Denat’s keen eye for viral video, WSHH has managed to maintain its presence near the center of the viral internet even as Vine and Instagram made sharing videos with wide audiences easy.
Its weekly Vine compilations, which collected from Vine and Instagram the kinds of videos that once would have appeared first on WSHH amateur routines, slapstick pranks, and, yes, street fights still found more than 2 million viewers week after week, until Vine shut down last year.
It is unclear what the future of WSHH will be, but given its influential presence near the center of the viral landscape, particularly among the black users that power much of internet culture, it’s unlikely to go away.
According to a 2015 New York Times profile, O’Denat was of Haitian heritage, raised by a single mom. An early job at a Circuit City store encouraged his love of computers.
“Hip-hop is for the sex, the drugs, the violence, the beefs, the culture,” O’Denat said. “That’s the competitiveness of hip-hop, so I felt like the site needed to be R-rated.”
He added: “People may be offended by some of the content, but, hey, the Internet is not a censorship boat. We’re the Carnival cruise, man. You don’t have to log on.”
One of his first web ventures was an e-commerce site selling mixtapes by his famous friend DJ Whoo Kid, known for his collaborations with Queens rapper 50 Cent.
O’Denat later harnessed the power of YouTube and crowd-sourced videos to create his wildly popular WorldstarHipHop website in 2005.
He often courted controversy by featuring street fights, stunts and sexual content, but he steadily grew his brand, attracted advertisers and evolved.
In recent years, O’Denat had sought deals to bring WorldStar further into the mainstream. MTV2 announced earlier this month that a series based on the site, “WorldStar TV,” was set to premiere Feb. 3. He was actively working on that latest venture in recent weeks.
The weekly show, hosted by comedian Chris Powell, is expected to feature comics and cultural figures giving commentary on Web clips.
The show’s host, comedian Chris Powell, said he was “heartbroken” to lose a mentor and “icon.”
“This can’t be real,” he wrote on Instagram Tuesday. “We literally were just talking man about our plans and you was schooling me on how to maneuver through the business.”
He said O’Denat “treated people with respect, always shared wisdom.”