Interview with DJ KHALIL, producer for Dr Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Drake, Pitbull - May 9, 2011
“In terms of publishing I was getting killed by sampling.”
The fateful day one summer when 18-year-old Khalil Abdul-Rahman made a trip into New York to buy very his first sampler marked the launch of an extraordinary production career ascent. From garage beatmaker to underground heavyweight to chart royalty, DJ Khalil’s restless innovation, unflinching dedication and disarming humility have seen him chart a enviable vocational path, taking career defining turns by signing to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath production house in 2003 and contributing to Eminem’s recent ‘Recovery’, as well in working with some of hip-hop’s heaviest hitters, including G-Unit, Game, Clipse, Jay-Z (US No.1), Drake (US No.1), Pitbull (FR No.1, US Top 3, UK Top 5) and Snoop Dogg (US No.1). Where next for someone at the top of the game?
In this exclusive interview, the Grammy Award-winning producer talks to HitQuarters about how Europe offers his next big challenges, why he started recording his own samples, and reveals the recipe to Dre’s intoxicating Kush.
How did you first start producing hip-hop?
In the very beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was around ‘91 when I started taking a bunch of my dad’s records and looping different breaks. I didn’t really know anything about music and so everything was out of key – it was just like a collage of different loops [laughs] - but I was just experimenting and it was so much fun.
So when did it become a serious venture?
Officially I started producing in ’93 because that’s when I bought my [Ensoniq] ASR-10. I had some money saved up from a car accident that I couldn’t touch until I turned 18, and one summer, as soon as that money was available, I went to New York and bought my ASR-10 and took it back to my school in Atlanta, Georgia (Moorehouse College).
That’s when I started making beats every day, and doing remixes, getting in remix contests and just playing my beats for random people. I didn’t think I could make money doing it - I just loved doing it. My friend Frank ["Nebula" Correa] had a studio in his garage. He and I later started a record label called S.O.L. Music Works.
How did you then start building your network and your reputation?
I worked with everybody. I was doing sessions for free - I just wanted people to hear my music. The main thing is you want people to hear what you’re doing.
I started off working with lots of different underground artists. I also had my group Self Scientific (together with Chase Infinite), and we were putting out 12-inches and had some critically acclaimed full-lengths. Doing the Self Scientific stuff was the jump-start for me building my name.
After working on that I started branching out, and it just developed gradually. I began working with Ras Kass while he was working on the album ‘Van Gogh’. That was my first major label cheque and my first real opportunity to start working with bigger artists. After that I started doing stuff with Keith Murray, Raekwon, and then it turned into G-Unit.
The G-Unit song ‘Lay You Down’ on the ‘Beg For Mercy’ album was a huge deal for me and launched my career to the next level. I then got introduced to [Dr.] Dre, and it just snowballed from there.
How did you get involved with Dr. Dre? Hadn’t you already met him as a teenager?
Dre knows my sister and I met him when I was like 13 or 14 at a birthday party at my parent’s house. Me and my brother sat in the back and talked to him for like 45 minutes, just picking his brain and asking him how he got started and all of that stuff. I told him I was going to be a producer just like him.
In 2003 he signs this artist named Brooklyn. I’d done a bunch of songs with her, and he loved them and wanted to keep the beats. They called me in to track them and when I walked in Dre was buggin’ out, “Oh my God, you’re the one making these beats?!”
We got reconnected, and he told everybody the story about how we first met. We have a connection and it’s just been a great relationship ever since. He’s like a mentor.
Dre then signed you to Aftermath as a producer. Beyond being impressed by the quality of the of the stuff you’d done with Brooklyn, what did he hear in your music at that time that he felt would be a good match for his production house long-term?
I was experimenting a lot; blending different genres, sampling a lot of progressive rock and classical music. I was in full creative mode - probably making eight beats a day. So by the time I met Dre, I had so much music to show him that he was just blown away.
But I definitely wasn’t there yet. He just has an ear for talent, and saw that in me.
A major breakthrough came when you produced four tracks from Eminem’s most recent album, ‘Recovery’. How did that come about and what made Eminem decide to broaden his collaborator circle to work with you?
Through working with Dre all these years and also with G-Unit and 50 [Cent], I know the A&R people; I know Riggs Morales (HQ interview) and Dart [Parker] at Shady [Records], and also [manager] Paul Rosenberg. And they knew about me, but I’d just never had the opportunity to work with Em.
Before it was always kind of in-house with Dre producing the records, but this was a record where he wanted to branch out and go in a different direction.
I’d built a nice track record; he loved the Slaughterhouse record ‘The One’, and also [Clipse’s] ‘Kinda Like a Big Deal’ and the stuff I did with Fabolous and Drake.
At first when they called me I was intimidated because I didn’t really have anything to send and had to like work for like a month putting stuff together, and then finally like Paul was like, “We really want some stuff.”
I had recorded all these records with The New Royales with Liz [Rodrigues] singing the hook. I sent stuff, and Eminem recorded a bunch of records. I then met him the day after the Grammys when they won the award for ‘Crack a Bottle’. He played me the records and we just started building from there.
The Eminem recordings were done in collaboration with your band The New Royales. How did you first get together and begin working together?
My manager Greg [Johnson] had first introduced me to Chin Injeti years ago. We started making beats together and, being from different music genres, we were experimenting a lot and making tons of beats. I co-produced a bunch of records with Chin, like ‘Fear’, on the Drake record [‘So Far Gone’ EP], and ‘Kinda Like a Big Deal’ [on ‘Til The Casket Drops’ by Clipse].
He started the group and pulled everyone together. He introduced me to Liz and Erik [Alcock] out in Toronto and we ended up recording for like a week out there and it was incredible.
We didn’t officially start the group there, I came back to LA and they went off to Vancouver, which is where Chin is from. They sent me a couple of songs they were working on, and Chin called me and was like, “Yo, we’re gonna do this group!” We didn’t even have a name then. Before it was just The Royales, but there was already a group called The Royales, and so we ended up changing it to The New Royales.
Everybody came out here to LA and we just started playing every other month, and we’d just knock out almost two songs a day. We were all on a creative roll and had incredible chemistry. We started to build a name for the group and a little bit of a buzz.
Eminem’s ‘Recovery’ won a Grammy for Rap Album of the Year last February. How much of an impact has that achievement had on your career since?
Just having that under my belt now gets you in circles that I couldn’t get into before. I mean, just working on the album period, even if it hadn’t won a Grammy, just took my career to another level. But definitely having ‘Grammy Award-winning producer’ in front of my name helps a great deal in getting my foot in the door.
What’s the latest on Dr. Dre’s long-awaited ‘Detox’ album?
Nobody really knows where it is exactly, but he is ready to drop it, just because he’s dropped two singles (’Kush’ and ‘I Need a Doctor’) and now he’s getting really geared up.
What have you contributed to the album?
I did ‘Kush’ and hopefully a couple of other songs will make it. Nobody really knows yet though because it’s not finalised.
Can you talk us through the production process of “Kush” featuring Snoop Dogg and Akon?
I work with a songwriter named Kobe Honeycutt, and I was going through a bunch of his vocals from other sessions - I keep little snippets and tuck them away so that I can build tracks around them later on.
The beginning of that track is Kobe saying, “Roll up, wait a minute, let me put some kush up in it”, which I’d saved. I knew I wanted to make something out of it but never did, and when Dr. Dre was like, “I’m looking for a single”, I was like, man, this would be perfect for Dre.
So I started off with that and the drums. I tried to make the drums sound pulsating and clubby. Most of my beats have so many layers to them, but this is probably the most simple beat I’ve done [laughs].
I looped the Kobe vocal in Reason and then with Danny [Keyz], my keyboard player, we set up a bunch of keyboards and he just started playing this little synth line. I then filtered that out, washed it out with a reverb, and then that became the basis of it. We then started adding a piano and other ear candy, but at the same time we still wanted to keep it kind of open.
We started adding hook parts and different vocal things so that the song is constantly moving - there are so many different parts and bridges and all kind of stuff. We had to speed it up; originally it was an 89bpm and that was really slow, and so we sped it up to 96, and it turned out better that way.
That song took like three or four months to complete, just because it went through so many stages.
The process of creating ’Kush’ highlights how you no longer sample other people’s records and but instead rely on original music. What triggered that shift?
In terms of publishing I was just getting killed by sampling. I was sampling all these obscure European progressive rock groups. And we’d send out a request to use it and they would just take all the publishing. I just felt like, I’m not going to sustain myself doing that [laughs].
It took me at least a year and a half just to get to the point where I felt comfortable replaying stuff, and it forced me to play a little bit more. I then met Danny Keyz, my keyboard player, and now he’s popping samples. We just plug up keyboards and just jam. I also have my guitar player Daniel Seeff and then Chin Injeti. I’m around so many incredible musicians, and all we do is sit around and jam and try to come up with ideas and make our own samples. I spend more time doing that than I do actually making beats. I also collect a lot of old keyboards and make a lot of my own sounds.
So it’s really no different than taking it from a record, it’s just that we’re actually creating the music we sample. I have a hard drive full of keyboard playing - no click track or anything, just sounds.
What are your primary tools at the moment?
Reason and Pro Tools - and a lot of analogue keyboards.
What people do you have as part of your team, either working with you or on your behalf?
We have a team of people that I work with. My manager Greg Johnson, Joey Castillo Jr. and Tone Lopez. We split the duties up; we have Tone doing more overseas stuff because he’s always on tour over there.
I’m trying to work with a lot more artists from Europe, from France, because there’s a lot of huge artists over there and they’re trying to work with more American producers, and higher profile producers.
How did you get your tracks licensed for the video games Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and Fight Night Champion?
I met this guy Ivan [Pavlovich], who works for Rockstar [Games] and he was doing a lot of music.
I did this song (‘City Lights’) with Bishop Lamont and The New Royales and he wanted to license it. After that Greg and I started developing a relationship with them and they’re always trying to work producers into their games and get original music, just to make it more authentic.
We’re trying to get into more TV and film stuff. There’s so many ways to make money now, you don’t have to just rely on the music industry.
What should young producers be doing now to draw attention to their skills and further their careers?
I’m always in favour of working with up and coming artists, people that are going to gain exposure. So at the beginning, you build with them and start getting your name out there. You look at Drake with Boi-1da and [Noah] “40” [Shebib], and how they all help each other, they’re like a team, and they’ve been a team the whole time.
Work with everybody, and not always for money, just to be heard; that’s the best thing you can do, you can’t sit on your music. Also you want to study the greats but you want to develop your own sound out of it too.
And then just learn the business, and have people handle your business for you because that’s very important. People just take you more seriously and they respect the situation. I went through periods where I didn’t have a manager and it was a disaster.
Of the young artists that you know that are coming up who should we be looking out for?
I definitely like Odd Future (OFWGKTA) and what they stand for. I’ve known Chase and Krondon for a while. They have the ear to the street, so they turned me on to them. I’ve done stuff with U-N-I and Pac Div. And I’ve just worked with Kendrick Lamar and he has Dre endorsing him now.
As someone with a Twitter account, how important is social networking to your career ventures?
I go to the hip-hop blogs, I go on Twitter every now and then. I’m not the biggest social person, so I stay off the radar a little bit. I do the Facebook thing just for my family and just to keep up with my friends. That seems to be how everybody keeps up with each other [laughs].
I want to use Twitter for other producers that are coming up. I’m going to use it as a platform to build my own community, especially people that use Reason. I’m thinking about for the month of June giving out a free Commander patch per day, and eventually I’m going to put out my own ReFill. But to start off, I want to build a following and show people what I can do and why they’d want my ReFill.
You’ve returned with a new album with Self Scientific. Why is now a good time to return?
Our fans are growing because we haven’t put an album out since 2005, so we’re pretty much a new group to a lot of people right now. It’s great because it’s kind of a new start for us, and musically it’s the perfect time because everybody is really open. I feel like we’ve always been cutting edge musically, and so this is the perfect time for us to put out new stuff.
What are you working on in the studio today?
I’m working on more stuff for Dre. I’m always working on stuff for him, and it’s like the whole camp are still searching for something for him because he always wants to hear something new. I’m also finishing up The New Royales’ mixtape.
Which artists are you working with at the moment?
I’m working with John Legend doing some writing. And also with Game. I did another record with Eminem and Royce da 5’9” - I’m on an EP (Writer’s Block) that they’re going to be dropping pretty soon. I just did some records with Snoop. Everything else is just pending; I’m submitting for a lot of stuff, so it’s like, wait to hear back and all that.
Are there any specific artists you would like to work with in the future?
I want to work with Lil Wayne, Kanye, André 3000, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris …
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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