Los Angeles producer DJ Khalil has an incredible discography of credits on his rap sheet, with his layered production backing some of recent years’ most memorable songs (i.e. Clipse and Kanye West “Kinda Like A Big Deal”) and putting in work the legendary names like Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem and Dr. Dre, of whom he is signed to as an in-house producer. But to him, landing blockbuster deals seems less important than conveying emotion to make the best record possible. In a detailed interview with HipHopDX Producer’s Corner, he drops knowledge about the emotion behind Drake’s standout song “Fear,” working with artists who have established sounds, and why he’s one of the few people who isn’t frustrated with the delays of Dre’s album Detox.
HipHopDX: First off, what have you been working on lately?
DJ Khalil: Still working on [Dr.] Dre’s [Detox], The Game‘s [R.E.D.], I did a record on Snoop [Dogg]’s [Tha Doggumentary] album, the Raekwon [Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang] joint that just came out, and really just working on beats. More [Eminem] stuff, hopefully. That’s pretty much it right now. Just doing a lot of writing and working on some pop stuff, alternative. Working on stuff for my group Self Scientific and The New Royale, another group that I’m in. a lot of different things. That’s pretty much it right now.
DX: One of the more recent things is your work on Eminem’s Recovery album, which recently won a Grammy. First off, congratulations on that. How did working with him happen?
DJ Khalil: I’ve been signed to Dr. Dre [and Aftermath Entertainment] as a staff producer for about six years, so I’ve been working with the camp for a long time. I’ve never had a chance to work with Eminem. I worked with 50 [Cent], G-Unit, and other acts that Dre signed. But this is my first time working with Em. Just through all my work with Slaughterhouse, Clipse, Fabolous, and doing a lot of work that year, Em was just a fan of what I was doing. I talked to Em and his manager Paul Rosenberg, and I just started sending records. That’s pretty much how it happened.
He started recording, and it seemed like they were going in a different direction. He was already working with Just Blaze, and he had a wish list of people he wanted to work with. All the hard work I had put in that year and all I was doing up to that point helped me get on that record. But in particular, the Slaughterhouse (“The One” ) and the Clipse and Kanye record (“Kinda Like A Big Deal” ), he really liked those.
DX: There are certain people in Rap who can get beats from whoever they want, and Eminem is one of those. What was it like to get that request from Eminem, especially on his first record with outside producers?
DJ Khalil: It was incredible. That’s the mountaintop. You do stuff with Dre, Em, and I’ve done work with Jay-Z. After they won a Grammy for “Crack A Bottle,” Dre called me like, “Em wants to meet you.” I had never met him before. I had been talking with them, but not with Em personally. I went to the studio and Dre introduced us. He was like, “I’m a fan of your work,” and he’s naming stuff that I’ve done. I’m like, “Wow, he really pays attention.” He asked me if I wanted to hear the records he had done, and he’s like, “I really want your opinion on them.” To be in the studio with Dre and Em…I’m a part of the family over there with Dre, but for Em to be like, “I love your production, you’re a big part of this record and you’re driving the sound of where it’s going.” Him telling me that was a huge honor, one of the craziest things you can hear from an icon. One of the biggest rap artists in the world. … You work because you want to work with the best, and fortunately, the hard work pays off.
DX: After looking through your catalog, one thing that really sticks out is you work with artists that have really established their own sound already. Talib Kweli had done an entire album with Hi-Tek, Eminem’s material was almost entirely with the Bass Brothers and Dr. Dre, and Clipse had established a sound with The Neptunes. And you don’t just land one song on these projects—you usually land at least two songs. How do you go into these situations and make the artists comfortable, to do something they’re familiar with while still making it worth their time to work with someone different?
DJ Khalil: They’re artists, first and foremost, and all artists want to expand at some point and go for something different. It seems like we’re in a climate where it’s all about being creative, and everyone wants to express themselves even more and break away from their original formula. But they don’t want to break too far away from it. For me, I just make music. Not with anybody in mind; you just make music and hope they hear something in it. With the Clipse, when they came in, Pusha T didn’t really know me like that. It was his manager. He had heard stuff that I’d done, but he wasn’t too familiar. It was a new situation, so when they come in, you just hope that they grab onto something. You may completely miss the mark, but if the music is good and sparks them, they’re going to gravitate towards that.
I just try to make music and be as creative as possible and stick to my sound. I think that’s what all great producers do. Timbaland, Pharrell, or Dr. Dre, they have their own particular sound. When you hear their music, you can identify it immediately. I’m trying to identify myself as a producer that has his own sound. I have my own way of doing things. I have hooks that aren’t conventional, and I try to stray from the norm. I feel like my production is real heavy in terms of instruments and layering. Every artist has a time when they want to branch out and do something different, and I’ve been fortunate to be in the position to have something for them that connects with them. I put hooks on my beats, and sometimes you have to sell them on it.
With Pusha T and Malice, there were certain joints they were unsure about. After talking about it—and it’s not even selling them on it, but just giving them your vision of what you hear them on as a fan of their music, because everyone I work with I’m a fan of, so I try to give them my twist or my version on what they can do. And they get it. They’re like, “Okay, that sounds dope, let’s try it.” It’s just connecting with the artist and understanding where they’re trying to go. As creative people, we want to go to the next level and try something else. In the case of Em and the Clipse and everybody else that I’ve worked with, they’re looking for the next sound, and I was fortunate enough to work with them. … Hopefully it matches with what they’re trying to say at this point in their careers. I try to make music that has some type of emotion to it. Everything I do has some type of emotion. I don’t really make club music; I try to make something that you’re going to feel and what to speak your mind over, or talk about their lives or where they’re at. That’s why I think I’ve been able to connect with so many artists.
DX: I’m glad you said that, because that’s something else I’ve noticed. Your beats usually do have some sort of purpose for them. How do you develop that ability to evoke emotion with beats the same way a rapper would with his lyrics?
DJ Khalil: As a creative person, you create from your own perspective. I let it out in my music. I go through a lot personally, and I have a lot to say, but I’m a quiet person and I kind of keep to myself. But I let everything out—whether it’s aggression, or I feel like putting however I feel into my music. It’s a personal thing. It’s really putting everything into your art, and that’s what I’ve done up to this point. I can sit and work on something, and you actually get emotional over it. I know I have. I’ve actually teared up with music that I’ve made. Even when I listen to older stuff that I do, it’s like a diary. I can tell what I was going through at that time when I listen to the music. You just have to put it in there. That’s what art is there for, to give your perspective or your feelings on whatever, and being able to convey something without words. Picking the right instruments, the right sounds, and the right notes, to tell this story without anything, just music. It’s just a personal thing. You have to let your emotions out in your music, and that’s what I do. I have emotions that I want to get out, but I don’t speak on them—I just let them out in the music.
DX: Are there any beats you can specifically think of, especially if they’re notable beats that readers would know, that evoke memories of things you were going through?
DJ Khalil: One is “Never Let It Go” by Fabolous, it was on the Japanese release of Loso’s Way. I use musicians and we make our own samples, and I started putting together the track. All the music that was played on that, I was definitely going through something at the time and I wasn’t at my best mentally, but I used music to work through that. I literally started crying, because something about that track, when I listened to it, just made me… [Pauses] even with the hook, this guy Timothy Bloom that I work with who sang the hook on it. When he came in, I had a concept and I pitched it to him, and he went in and laid the hook. He nailed it. That was something I wanted to say, just the words and the hook. I got really emotional with that, because I wasn’t feeling great that day, but I was able to let it out through the music, and I got really emotional.
It happened with that and working on “Fear” for Drake. I did that track with my production partner Chin Injeti, who’s from Vancouver. We were putting the strings and everything on, and it really described how I was feeling at that time. Just has this somber, epic feel to it. When you hear that beat, that really describes my emotion at that time. A lot of music I made around then really described how I was feeling, and I just use music to get all that emotion and all that angst out. So those are two tracks that definitely stand out in terms of being emotional, and hearing where I was in terms of being down or having doubts about anything.
DX: Is it too personal to ask about what was going on around those those times?
DJ Khalil: My father played in the NBA and coached men’s basketball at UCLA, and he’s a hero of mine. And my dad got sick, he had a stroke 15 years ago. I started really making music as a way to deal with it, because it changed my life and my family’s life. That was a big part of it. And other personal things that you go through as growing up. Something like that can change your life and your family’s life, and you’re just affected forever. It changes everything. That’s a big part of making music and using it as a vehicle to express myself. That’s something you just deal with, it’s real life. Every creative person deals with something in their lives, and they use music to deal with it. That’s definitely one thing that was affecting me at the time.
DX: “Fear” seems to be a song that even Drake’s toughest critics really admire, and I think what you were just saying, along with Drake’s lyrics on the song, really evoke the emotion of the song.
DJ Khalil: When I heard that, especially when I heard the hook, I’m like, “Wow, he really nailed it.” It’s just a great record, and he’s a great artist. He picked the right topic, the hook said so much, and he’s saying so much on there, I just think it’s a great record. People can relate to it, and I think that’s why so many people like it. Even when I talked to him, he’s like, “Jay-Z called me about that, and everybody’s loving it. People are saying it’s my best song.” It’s great to be a part of that, but also, just the fact that it’s a great song. I’m proud of that record, because so many people can relate to it, especially me.
DX: You also have songs on Kweli’s album Ear Drum. He has a really unconventional flow, and I’ve always wondered, what is it like to have to produce around such a different flow?
DJ Khalil: [Talib] Kweli is a great artist, and he’s really consistent. He picks what he likes, and even with that record, I wasn’t in the room with him when he recorded it. I knew he picked a couple joints, but I didn’t know which ones he picked in particular. “Oh My Stars,” I remember being in the studio and he played it for me, and it had Musiq Soulchild. I had goosebumps, I thought it was really dope. But that’s just Kweli. His flow is unconventional, but he’s such a dope lyricist. I feel like he makes great songs. One of my goals in working in this business was working with Kweli and having some sort of working relationship. I loved Reflection Eternal, Black Star, and all of his work until this point, and I feel like he’s one of the most consistent artists out there. He brings it every time.
I feel like his flow is unique. It’s unconventional, but he still knows how to make great music and great songs. It’s not that you have to do anything different, but you have to accept that he’s going to do something unconventional over your beat. You can’t really tell him don’t do that, because that’s like telling him not to be Kweli. He’s going to do what got him to this point, which is to write and do his thing. It’s not that hard to produce for Kweli, because he’s such a seasoned artist. But every artist wants direction. At that point we didn’t have that type of relationship yet, but now it’s a little different because we’ve worked with each other. But we connected with the music, he played it for me, and he gave me feedback. We have a good relationship now in terms of working together. He knows wherever he’s trying to go, he can hit me up, and I’ll understand where he’s going.
DX: You also made the beat on the new Eminem and Royce Da 5’9” leak, “Echo.” Did you get to see them do that in the studio?
DJ Khalil: Nah, I wasn’t in the room with them. I didn’t even know they had recorded that until the leak came out. [Laughs] I was in the dark and I looked on the Internet one day, and I saw, “Oh, ‘Echo’ .” … It was just in a batch of records that I sent him. You just never know what they’re going to pick, so there’s no particular project [I had pitched it to]. They just record a lot of stuff. [laughs] They record a lot of music, and for some reason, people hack into emails and all that stuff, and everything was getting leaked at one point from their camp. I think they were trying to figure out what was going on. I don’t even know what’s going to happen with that record at this point, I’m in the dark just like anyone else. But I was shocked to hear it, it sounded crazy.
DX: You also produced “Mama I Made It” on Jay-Z’s album Kingdom Come, which didn’t receive the critical acclaim that most Jay-Z albums have. Are you happy with how your work came out with that album, and if not, do you have any plans or hopes to work with him on something different?
DJ Khalil: I think every producer wants to work with Jay-Z. The way that happened was that he was already done with his record, and he got the track from Dre because he was supposed to do some writing for Dre. He ended up loving it and recording it, and they held up the masters so they could add the song to the record. That was one of the biggest moments of my career, to be on a Jay-Z album. I definitely want to work with him again, that’s definitely on my checklist. I want to establish a relationship with him on a creative level one day, but it’s really about the music before anything else. And I believe if I continue to make great music, that’s going to happen.
I’m proud of “Mama I Made It.” I feel like a lot of people can relate to that, especially when you work so hard and you have somebody that supports you to help you get to the next level. My mom is a big reason I’m even doing this right now. I felt like he was speaking for me, or anyone that’s successful who has a mother in their lives, or a mother-type figure. The fact that the album wasn’t received well with the critics and all that, it’s music, and it’s a moment in time for him. He was going through a transition and he was just coming back, and he had stuff he wanted to say. I know people that actually like that album, and even when you go back to it, there’s some gems on that album. He makes great music, and at the time, maybe it was a different climate and people didn’t want to hear him at that point, because he was way more mature than what people were used to hearing from him. I felt like [Kingdom Come] was a good album, and part of an evolution for him that led to American Gangster. And he’s still rolling, still making good music. I’m just glad to be a part of his legacy. How many people can say that?
DX: You’ve also been an in-house producer for Dr. Dre for a while now. First off, how did that happen?
DJ Khalil: Dre signed an artist named Brook Lynn around 2003, 2004. She demo’d some of my beats, along with other producers. He signed her and loved the records that she did, and they wanted to keep the beats, so they called me in to play some more stuff and track some of those beats. The crazy thing about it is that when I went over there and met Dre, it was like a reunion, because I met him when I was 13 years old at my parents’ house. He was there for my sister’s birthday party. It was crazy, because me and my brother stood there and talked to him for 30 to 45 minutes. I was asking him questions about producing, and I said, “I’m going to be a producer, just like you.” I was just a huge fan, I had everything he had done. So when he saw me, he was tripping out, like “Yo!” He told everyone in the room that story, and it was coming full circle.
At the time, I was making so many beats. They asked if I had anything else, and I kept giving them joints, record after record. He sat me down and he was like, “Yo, I want to bring you into the family. I’m working on my next album, we’ve got 50 over here, we’ve got Em.” They had all these new artists at the time. It was one of the craziest days ever, I spent the whole day with him. I’m like, “Of course, I want to be a part of this.” He’s one of my idols. It was crazy to be over there and just work with him, but it’s weird how it all came full circle after meeting him when I was 13.
DX: A lot of people talk about working with Dre, and point out how much of a perfectionist he is. What’s one thing about working with him that people may not know?
DJ Khalil: I don’t think people understand how unbelievably humble he is. To be on his level and to be an icon, he’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met in the music business. He’s confident in what he does, but he’s not arrogant. He’s very humble, very approachable. People can be intimidated by him because of his track record, what he’s done up to this point and the music he makes. But at the end of the day, Dre is a fan of music, he’s a creative person, and he’s open to things. I’ve seen him play classical music on the piano. He’s really a student, and once he dedicates himself to something, he goes all out. He’s taken piano lessons for years. People don’t understand how much work he puts in. And he remains humble. He’s a humble, good person. And people on that level can’t even stay that way, but for him to be through all that he’s been through and to still be in a place where he’s approachable and open to things and a fan of music, and a fan of creative people and the creative process, it’s really incredible to work with him. That’s probably the biggest thing, he’s a very humble person.
DX: Fans have been chomping at the bit for Detox for a while, and people were also really excited about Stat Quo’s album Statlanta. Fans are always anxious or frustrated, but what is it like for people in the actual camp?
DJ Khalil: [Pauses] For me, I enjoy it. I enjoy the process, because it’s just a blank slate, and it’s really open. Obviously, you’re dealing with Dr. Dre, one of the biggest producers and artists in the world. Some people would get frustrated, but for me, it’s exciting because no one really knows the big secret, even amongst the camps. It’s like a big secret, and Dre is a true artist. He has so many ideas and different directions he wants to go in, and I feel like sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. Sometimes, not having a direction can hinder progress. But for me, it’s exciting. I think everybody in the camp has different opinions about whatever, but I feel like it’s exciting. Especially now that we’re starting to see videos and see it actually unfold, it’s pretty crazy. After going on this journey with him and trying to see where everything is going to fall, and now you’re starting to see it come together. And even after seeing the video for “I Need A Doctor,” it put it in perspective for everybody. … The song is like, “Wow, he really has reinvented himself.” And it’s dope to see that happen.
I never got frustrated. It was always exciting. My job is to give him music to inspire him. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you keep going. You try to see, “What do you think of this, Dre?” … Just having those conversations is kind of exciting. It’s not frustrating. You’ve just got to keep swinging, and hopefully, you’ll knock it out the park. Even with Dre, he’s been trying to figure out—he’s an artist at the end of the day. He’s the biggest artist on Aftermath next to Em. He’s a producer, but he’s also humble enough to understand, “I need to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it.” There’s a certain thing and a certain image he needs to keep his integrity in tact. It’s exciting to me to see everything unfold as a fan, because you kind of see the finish line now. Just like we were just talking about Jay-Z, everything is an evolution. He’s been going through this process for so long, and now, you’ve just got to let it go. And I think he’s just at that point where it’s like, “This is a new time and new day, so it’s time to move on it.” I’m glad to be a part of it, I’m glad to have been around to try to help him figure it out with everyone else that works over there, and I think it’s exciting, I think it’s dope. Of course there’s pressure because we’re in a business, but creatively, it’s pretty exciting.
DX: It’s weird how your work as a solo producer, to many others, doesn’t always refer back to your work with Self Scientific. People refer to other producers as “Havoc of Mobb Deep,” or “Juju of the Beatnuts.” Why do you think people don’t refer back to your group catalog as much?
DJ Khalil: It’s really because Chace [Infinite] and I don’t put out music that much. We’re not dropping out an album every year; we’ll drop an album every four years. Right now, we’re probably going to make the best music we’ve ever made, and we’ll have the best chance of our music breaking through. Before, we were just an underground group. We have fans, and we have a following; people respect us, and that’s a good thing. We’ve maintained artistically to where people really like our music. Even when they look back and listen to it now, they’re like, “Wow, they were ahead of their time.” I think if we would have put out music consistently, there definitely would’ve been a different story. People would’ve made that association.
We both have separate things that we do as well. Me with the production, and Chace does a lot of things on the fashion side, and he’s still an artist. We have other interests too. We don’t promote the Self Scientific brand as much as we should, and that’s probably our fault that people haven’t made that connection, because we don’t drop music that much. But the reason we make Self Scientific is because I can express myself however I want. I don’t have to worry about the label, the A&R person, or somebody’s manager. We can control what we want to do, and it’s really helped me become the producer that I am right now, because I’ve produced Chace for so long that I have these production skills. But we made a promise to put out more music and be more consistent and to help promote the group even more. But we don’t put out music a lot; we do it as we feel, and I feel like we need to be in the right place to create. We go through these periods where we weren’t in the creative mode. But now that all these things are happening, we’re all in a good place creatively, and we’re going to start dropping good music.
But people are starting to discover Self Scientific, hopefully because of the work that I’ve done. And with Chace dropping mixtapes and doing a lot more stuff, him being on Kweli’s last album was huge. Because before, even though Chace was on that level, he wasn’t respected on that level. Now, all his peers really appreciate his music and what he’s done up until this point. But we’ve only dropped two albums really. Our next statement is really going to solidify us among the Kweli’s, Mos Def’s, Jay Electronica’s. Chace has always been on that level, but just where music is and the climate is, this is the perfect time for us to start dropping music. So we’ll be doing that within the next couple months actually.