It Pays to Be VLAD: How a Ukrainian Software Engineer Became a Top Name in Hip-Hop News

As VLAD TV, a go-to source for hip-hop news and hard-hitting interviews, approaches its 15th anniversary, founder Vlad Lyubovny has to curb his enthusiasm slightly. As a native of the Ukraine, where his family faced anti-semitism and defected to the United States in order to escape it, Lyubovny has his yes on the raging war with Russia, while he keeps his ear to the ground for the pulse of the culture he’s covered exhaustively since 2007.

Today, VLAD TV boasts nearly 5 million subscribers on YouTube. Its most popular videos? His interview with Boosie Badazz is at 21 million views, Keefe D at 18 million, Mob James at 17 million, Michael Franzese at 16 million, and Mike Tyson at 14 million views. Of these, Keefe stands out to Lyubovny, as the interview provided a first-hand account from someone who was in the car when shots were fired at Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas, killing the rapper. Lyubovny also makes the bold claim that Tupac is the “most important hip-hop figure of all-time.”

Beyond the numbers, Lyubovny’s VLAD TV has cultural cachet — its name has been dropped by 2 Chainz (the song “VLAD TV” appears on his latest album, “Dope Don’t Sell Itself”); on Lil Durk’s “Golden Child” (he raps, “I don’t fuck with Vlad”); and Pusha T is said to reference VLAD on his forthcoming project. But it’s his news-making interviews that have drawn the most exposure. For instance, comedian D.L. Hughley’s most recent VLAD TV interview, which prompted Kanye West to post on Instagram: “D.L. Hughley is a pawn, but I address everything and find addresses, D.L. So, don’t speak on me or my children. I can afford to hurt you.”

With VLAD TV, Lyubovny has earned the respect of musicians and public figures, but he’s also invited criticism. “The bigger you get, the bigger the hate,” he says.

Variety spoke with Lyubovny (pictured below) at the THC Design facility in Los Angeles.

Tell us about your youth in the Ukraine.

I was a little kid at the time. We were a Jewish family living in the U.S.S.R., which was antisemitic. Even though I was too young to remember, my parents would tell me how they couldn’t get into certain universities or get certain jobs. Society as a whole didn’t really like Jewish people. I was about four years old at the time, and my parents felt I’d have more of a future in the United States than in Russia.

Now when you look at what’s happening — literally I was born in Kiev, which is the capital of the Ukraine and where they’re all bombing. There’s a reasonable chance that I’d be in Kiev right now, had my parents not moved away, and that I’d be caught in that. I’m even probably military age right now. I could be in a war had my family not made certain decisions, it’s weird when you think about it.

What are your thoughts on the war?

It’s fucked up. Because when I was born, Ukraine was part of Russia. Then it became independent, and now they’re trying to make it part of Russia again. Here we go again, the same bullshit I was in, with the same sort of oppression that’s been going on there. I do remember as a kid saying something, and my parents were like “shhh.” They’d point to the ceiling because everyone was scared of the KGB and the walls being bugged.

And that’s still happening. You look at Russia today under Putin: if you refer to the Ukraine war as a war instead of a “special military mission,” you could go to jail for 15 years — for speaking the truth or saying something against the war.

You grew up in the Bay Area and went to school at UC Berkeley. What did you study?

Computer Science. It was rough — a lot of math classes and programming classes. In retrospect, VLAD TV is where it is because it’s as much of a tech company as it is a content company. There’s so much behind-the-scenes that we’ve built. I have a full-time programmer, and he and I architected the whole backend. People who work for other companies that come to VLAD TV say, “Yo, this system is so much more advanced than even the big corporations I’ve worked for.” Because it’s a specialized system that’s designed for us, as opposed to most companies will get a software package and have to fit their business into that. With us, the software fits around what we do.

How did you get into the YouTube space? I read you were making beats, but didn’t think you were good at it…

Look, I was a hip-hop kid my whole life. When I got to Berkeley, that’s the first time I met rappers. I remember Souls of Mischief and Del the Funky Homosapien were all hanging out on the block on Telegraph Ave. That inspired me: maybe I can do some of the hip-hop shit. I started off with making beats. I spent years trying to get better until I finally realized I’m not going to be all that good at it. I won’t be as good as the greats: the Dr. Dre’s, the Pharrell’s, so forth.

So I started DJing, and the DJing came very easy and natural to me. I’d been making beats for so long that the first time I jumped on turntables, it was easy. It made sense. I started making mixtapes. I realized if I wanted to really do it at the highest level, I had to move to New York in the early 2000s. That’s where all the big DJs were: the Green Lanterns, the DJ Clues, the Kay Slays, the Whoo Kids, all these guys.

How old were you?

I was 29. I was at this interesting stage in my life, because I had my own tech company after graduating from Berkeley, then the dotcom crash destroyed it.

It was a staffing company called Gigastaf. Being an engineer, I’d help place high-level engineers at all these start-up companies popping up. In 2001, the dotcom crash happened and all my clients got wiped out. I could go get a 9-to-5 job and do something I’m not really enjoying. And lots of people were hiring me — I had a UC Berkeley degree, I had experience. Or I could pursue my dreams of being a DJ. I know this is probably going to be my last chance to do that, at that age. If I’m ever going to do this, let me at least try it and see if I can do it. I moved to New York, and did well. I won Mixtape of the Year at the Mixtape Awards. I won Mashup of the Year a year later, it was really a thing. But then CDs were going away, so trying to support yourself selling CDs was becoming unrealistic.

So I moved to DVDs, I started doing with video what I was doing with audio. In 2008, YouTube started their partner program, and I thought, oh, this is the next shit. This is what I’ve been waiting for — a free internet platform for video where you own everything, you’re distributing everything. I tried to get jobs DJing gigs at Hot 97, no one was fucking with me. Here’s a chance for me to do it on my own without going under a bigger company, going under a large corporation. I could start small and build up. In retrospect, it turned out better.

When you first started on YouTube, what were your goals?

When I saw it early on, I’d already understood the way the internet was working. I’d been fucking with the internet before there was a World Wide Web. At Berkeley, I remember when the first web browser came around, so I’d really been there from day one. I understood that there’s so much content out there and so much need for new content — that you’re never going to be able to overflow the internet.

With traditional television, you have a certain number of slots. If you have a channel, you have 24 hours and that’s it. You fill it up with the best shit you could find during those 24 hours, then you’re done. With the internet, if you put out a thousand new pieces of content a day, a lot of that content will be consumed. The thinking on day one was, “Everyday, I’m going to put out something new.” Since I can’t record a new interview each day, I’m going to chop up the interviews because people aren’t going to sit in front of their laptop or their phone for an hour to watch something. They want a five- or 10-minute something, that was already my thinking in 2008. In 2022, I’m doing the same thing, just we’re putting out more shit but the same format. The original thinking 15 years ago is still the same thinking today, just more of it.

Is there a sweet spot in terms of the length or curation of these snippets?

No, it’s just in order. There’s a whole hour, or hour-and-a half-interview, and it comes out in five- to 10-minute chunks until the whole thing is done. The way I look at it is: a lot of people try to avoid this format because it potentially could be more abrasive. You’re zeroing in on all these different parts of the person saying in that clip, as opposed to saying, “Here’s a J. Cole interview, y’all can do with it as you please.” The reality is, when you go to whatever the big social media sites are — the Shade Room, Baller Alert, No Jumper, Breakfast Club or Akademiks — they’ll find that part and title it that way anyways. Like Latto’s interview was 40 minutes long, but everyone’s zeroing in on when she’s saying how a rapper wouldn’t clear a sample because she wouldn’t flirt with them. So I figured, why let everyone else do it and they profit? We’ll just do it ourselves. With that, start building a content library that’s exponentially bigger. In the process, all these clips react in their own type of way. I remember I had to go through my whole catalog recently to clean up a bunch of shit, we have over 20,000 clips we all own.

What do you mean by “clean up?”

We cleared out some third-party content we didn’t own that was causing some problems. Someone will tell you five years ago to upload their video, then you do it. Five years later, they file a copyright claim because they forgot they told you they cleared it. You have to go through the process of getting it removed, it wasn’t worth my while. We have 20,000 pieces of content: not all of it is getting viewed every day, but the majority of it is.

And the content can be reutilized as flashbacks, too. For example your Fredro Star interview, that’s a piece of content that’s already been sitting there on YouTube. But the flashback on its own has 100,000 views. Are you monetizing that content twice?

Facebook became a viable video platform, so the same content was on Facebook as well. It’s really a sense of: how do you figure out this puzzle to maximize what it is you do? Because everyone’s doing interviews, everyone’s doing podcasts. You’re not always going to get all the hottest people. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. But how do you withstand that year after year and continue to build a company knowing the ups and downs? The uncertainties of who you can and can’t book?

That was the whole thing of building a system that over time has grown and created a real business. Now, we have 16 full-time employees with full health benefits, vacation, the best equipment they need, the whole nine.

“Some people love it, some people hate it. But that doesn’t change the fact that people still tune in.”

Did you set out to make money from YouTube? When did you figure out a business plan?

From day one. From 2008, I saw the way this business works. Because I went from the DVD world — “Let’s put together a DVD, sell it to a wholesaler, get a check, come back, make more DVDs, go to stores, etc.” — where you had to press up product. There’s a lot that goes into that. Whereas with YouTube, you make the video, upload it, and then, boom! You build up your subscribers.

The business plan was there in the beginning, and over time it’s developed. Now we have a membership program where you get the interview on the first day, instead of waiting a month-and-a-half to run through all the parts. With that, we have thousands of people signed up and paying $5 a month just to get stuff early. That creates a whole new business where it’s not based on views.

The advertising cycle changes — fourth quarter is always way more than first quarter — so you have to adjust for that. With a membership, people are resubscribing every month and you’re getting new members. This is why the Netflixes, the Hulus, the Disney Plus’ of the world are where they are. It’s all based on members, and you have to give them dope content.

Have you always been a content person?

I’ve been a lifelong fan of hip-hop. I’d purchase every XXL Magazine and the Source magazine. I watched the Sway & Tech Wake Up Show. I always listened to Big Boy and Chuy Gomez interview people.

You have platforms like “60 Minutes” where they do these interviews that become important historical pieces and change policies worldwide. Then you had hip-hop journalism, which I always felt was promo for the artist. It was very softball questions — don’t ask anything uncomfortable; don’t ask about all this shit you rap about in your songs. The Sways of the world, they still conduct those types of interviews. I’m not saying that one is better than the other: that’s how they do it, that’s their style. But for me, why aren’t we doing real journalism here? I don’t get it. Why aren’t we doing the “60 Minutes” shit, here? This guy’s rapping about all this stuff. Let’s talk to him about it. You claiming this gang shit, let’s talk about it. Let’s ask the real questions that everyone else is not asking.

If you’re into this particular artist or actor or athlete, you really get into their mentality. People have compared it to therapy sessions. We ask the tough questions to get into the real shit, where you walk away like, “Yo, that was a dope interview.” The interview stays and continues to be relevant over the years. What you call evergreen content where, five years later, you can go back to it. If the artist is still out there, that interview’s still going to be viable, not just of the moment. That was the approach I took at the beginning, and I never really deviated from it. Some people love it, some people hate it. But that doesn’t change the fact that people still tune in.

What was the initial intent behind not showing your face? 

When I first started doing DVDs, I couldn’t afford a cameraman. It was me holding the camera and adjusting it. If you go back to the 2007, 2008 VLAD TV interviews, you’ll see a shaky camera with my voice. We continued to use this style and I started to realize a couple of things. One: the interview wasn’t about me, it was about the person being interviewed. If it’s documentary style, when you don’t even know who’s behind the camera, it’s focused on the person being interviewed and not so much everything else. As the platform started to grow, I realized more and more that I didn’t like the celebrity aspect. For example, look at the situation recently with D.L. Hughley: he’s having lunch with his family at Nobu, and this dude starts filming him in the bathroom and asking about Kanye. Security from the restaurant has to step in.

 

I like that I could go to a grocery store or the mall, and I’m always not having to have security with me or being distracted in terms of what I’m doing. Daylyt said he feels sorry for Eminem, he can’t go to the bathroom without someone waiting outside the stall. People know Eminem’s in the bathroom, there’ll be a crowd of people waiting. Kendrick Lamar can’t just go shopping. It will turn into a thing, the store will get shut down.

The fame comes with a price and for me, that’s a price I didn’t really want to pay. So sitting behind the camera, not doing a ton of interviews, not being on Instagram all the time, it’s allowing me to remain as private as I can.

Lil Bibby made you go on camera to interview him.

Me and Bibby go back. I put him up on stock investing. He’s made a ton of money doing that. So I’m, like, “Yo, you made a lot of money in the stock shit, do an interview with me.” And his thing was, “I’ll only do it if you’re on camera.” He was adamant about that shit, he wouldn’t budge. … Juice WRLD had passed not too long [before] and he had never really spoken about it. I knew that with our rapport, he’d give me leeway in terms of questions to ask — that it would be a very serious and emotional interview.

Bibby comes from the streets of Chicago, and he shed tears on camera. What do you do in that moment?

I just try to give the person the space to get their feelings out. We’ve had over a dozen people cry on our platform. … With Bibby, it was real. I figured that would happen. There’s an art to doing this where, when I do a life story-type interview, I set the stage and really build up to that point. … What I try to do during my research is to have a story arc and a climax, and at the end, try to close it all up and have some lesson that’s learned. Bibby was a very powerful interview. He even said that he wanted to use it for an upcoming documentary, I said “no problem.” I can see why he’d want to do something like that. He won’t react to that story like that ever again, we captured it. Juice WRLD was such an important artist. Here’s someone that’s so integral in his story, as the person who signed him and believed in him first. It was important historically to capture it.

Every major publication covered the D.L. Hughley interview where he talks about Kanye’s mental health.

We go viral a few times a year. It’s not that we plan it out. He’s talked about Kanye a bunch of other times. It’s not the first time, it’s the third or fourth time. It’s not like the stance was any different those other times, it’s just this particular time, Kanye caught wind of it and he decided to respond.

Then he started to jump out the window with his responses. The responses were threatening and somewhat ridiculous. But it comes out, you know your video’s behind it. I can tell you there’s parts of that interview with more views on YouTube than that part. That part did okay, but it didn’t do unbelievable numbers compared to the amount of press it was getting based on Kanye talking about it. When it happens, alright cool. It’s not a bad thing, it’s still a good thing. There are platforms associated with a big story like this, but we’re back to work five minutes later.

What are your thoughts on how the media covers Kanye’s public struggles?

Kanye knows exactly what he’s doing. He always does this around album release time. It’s been a very clear pattern. The way I’ve always felt about social media and bullying is it’s not a real thing, because you could always put down your phone. The internet’s not a real place. Twitter’s not an actual location. It’s all a virtual world.

What would be your advice to him?

Just put your phone down. Spend a week without your phone. Someone like a Kanye does not need their phone to communicate. … The thing with Kanye is he’s choosing to do all this. He’s choosing to communicate with his baby’s mother on Instagram. He’s choosing to repost people’s text messages. He’s doing this all on purpose, knowing it’ll get a big reaction. … You don’t see Kendrick on social media like that. I heard Kendrick doesn’t even carry around a phone. [Kanye] could do that. You’re not a typical 9-to-5 worker where you’re always on your phone for work reasons. You can’t help but look. You have enough money and resources to isolate yourself in any way you want to, and you choose not to.

When you were coming up and building your following, did negative comments affect you?

Listen, there’s been times when the public has turned against me for whatever it is, and my DMs are flooded with hate mail and death threats. Before VLAD TV, I was already DJ Vlad and people knew who I was, so the negative comments were always there. I had years of dealing with these negative comments. When it got bigger, comments didn’t really shocked me all that much, it is what it is. … Ultimately, all it really does is grow your brand that much bigger. There’s no one out there that’s universally loved by everybody. People hate Obama. People hate Biden. People hate Halle Berry. People hate Jay Z. People hate Drake. Drake has an army of haters and an army of fans. All of it goes hand-in-hand. If you keep focusing on the negative, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

“Kanye knows exactly what he’s doing. He always does this around album release time. It’s been a very clear pattern.”

You’ve interviewed Boosie multiple times. What’s your relationship with him?

We started doing interviews as far back as 2005, and the interviews were taking off. He knows I’ve always been supportive since he started. I’ve never had any negative intentions towards him. Boosie’s very different from me, and we don’t really even converse a lot off camera. We keep it separate so when we’re on camera, we have a lot to talk about. It started off as him coming in doing interviews, they’d almost always go viral. Over time, it turned into more of a business relationship. Me and Boosie worked out a deal for 2022, for him to do a certain number of interviews, and we worked out rates. This is how we’re moving business.

Oh, he gets paid?

Absolutely. All of our regular guests get paid. That’s when you’re on every couple of months talking about current events. Boosie, T.K. Kirkland, BG Knocc Out, John Sally, Gilbert Arenas is about to be a regular guest. There’s a bunch of people that work well with our audience. We turn into a business where they’re benefiting financially off of it as well as we are.

As podcasts become bigger businesses you’re seeing that the hosts are benefiting off of it, like Joe Rogan’s deal with Spotify, or Big Boy on the radio, or Charlamagne, Adam22, Shawn Cotton, Akademiks…

Historically, people have always done interviews for free. We’re one of the leading forces of actually changing that over time. We negotiate with people, like, “Alright, how much does it take to do this interview?” We’ve had $100,000 conversations with people. There was a conversation over an interview for $150,000, but we weren’t going to get to ask all the questions. Spending that type of money, we wanted to have a no-holds-barred conversation.

What’s your take on the Joe Rogan controversy?

The whole n-word thing? I think it’s lame. A white person shouldn’t be saying that word. I’ve got 20,000 clips on my channel, I’ve never said it. I’ve done just many interviews as him, if not more. There’s no reason to use that word as a white person. Just period. Under any circumstance. I don’t care if you’re quoting, I don’t care if your best friend is Black and they’re cool with you saying it, there’s no reason for it. With Joe, once that Spotify deal came to fruition, suddenly he’s now big leagues. He’s no longer in the niche market where people may not care.

I’ve spoken about Joe saying that negatively, so I got the Joe hive people now come to attack me regularly. These mostly middle-aged white guys are trying to somehow defend that. I don’t think there’s justification for that. Your life will be just as impactful without using that word.

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