Beat Break: DJ Khalil Shares the Story Behind His 5 Biggest Songs

By | 6 days ago
The Aftermath producer goes deep about his work with Jay Z, Eminem, Drake and others.
2017-05-19-dj-khalil-interview-beat-break
Photo Credit: YouTube

A$AP Ferg and Remy Ma’s “East Coast,” Big Boi and Adam Levine’s “Mic Jack,” Joey Bada$$’s “For My People”—DJ Khalil has been keeping busy in 2017. With work on upcoming albums from Big K.R.I.T. and Nipsey Hussle, plus new music on deck from Self Scientific, his group with Chace Infinite, this year is about to get even better for the Seattle-born, Los Angeles-raised producer.

Khalil’s production credits stretch way beyond this year, or even this decade, though. After working with local West Coast acts like Ras Kass, DJ Muggs and Xzibit in the early ’00s, Khalil’s résumé began to read like a rap producer’s wish list: Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre, who signed him to Aftermath in 2003 after hearing his work for one of his lesser-known signings, Brook Lynn.

Amazingly, Khalil actually met Dre long before that deal ever happened. “When I was like 13, 14, he and my sister were really good friends. My parents threw her a birthday party at my house and he came over,” he recalls over the phone. “I walked up to him and was like, ‘yo, I’m trying to be a producer just like you!’ He talked to [me and my brother] for like 45 minutes to an hour, telling us all these stories. It was a huge moment for me.”

While the encounter probably meant more to a young Khalil than it did to the N.W.A member at the time, Dre recognized the budding producer immediately when he brought him over to the studio years later. “When I walked in he was like, ‘yo, I remember you!’ He told everybody in the studio the story. He remembered the whole thing.”

Despite his track record and OG status, DJ Khalil doesn’t actively seek the spotlight. Those who follow him online will know he barely cares about Twitter or Instagram. “I’m not a social guy like that,” the soft-spoken producer says. “My focus is to make music and to take care of my family.” This philosophy is also at heart of his craft: DJ Khalil doesn’t pride himself on his hits, but those often emotional album cuts that resonate a little deeper with the artist, the fans and even himself.

“I think I really made my most profound music during that time. It was therapeutic to me,” Khalil says when reflecting on his father, former NBA player and UCLA coach Walt Hazzard, who passed away after a long battle with illness in 2011. “Whether it’s ‘I Made It’ or ‘Fear’ or ‘Talkin’ to Myself,’ they’re always airing out their feelings over my production, which is dope — I wear that like a badge of honor. I love that people use my music to talk about things that are true to them.”

Here are the stories behind five of DJ Khalil’s biggest songs.


Jay Z — “I Made It” (2006)

"I just walked up to [Jay Z] and I was like, ‘yo, I just wanted to let you know I produced ‘I Made It.’ I work for Dre, my name’s Khalil.’ He was like, ‘oh, that’s crazy! Man, great work.’"

“I started making my own samples a long time ago and I hooked up with Dontae Winslow, he started making samples as well. He gave me that sample and I was like, ‘dude, this sounds like a real soul record.’ I couldn’t believe it. He’s a super talented trumpet player and his wife [Mashica Winslow] is one of the most incredible singers I’ve met.

“I used Reason so once he gave me the sample, I just flipped it and chopped it up. Basically, the beat made itself. At the time, you had CDs so I sent a beat CD to Dre. I had no idea he was going to choose that record but that was his favorite one out of the whole batch. He kept it for Detox. I was like, ‘amazing!’

“When Jay Z was working on Kingdom Come, he was pretty much finished and Dre sent him a bunch of beats—Dre mixed a lot of the records on the album and Jay was supposed to write for Dre, so I guess they swapped favors—and that ended up being one of the beats. Jay Z heard it and went crazy over it. I think he already cut the song and called Dre like, ‘I gotta have this record!’ And Dre was hesitant at first ’cause it was for his album, but he was gracious enough to say, ‘man, keep it, you already cut a song to it.’

“That ended up being the last song he recorded for Kingdom Come. They mastered it and threw the song on the album last minute. I remember Dre called me and was like, ‘congratulations, you made Jay Z’s album!’ I was like, ‘you’re lying!’ He was like, ‘nah. I need the sample information.’ I said, ‘that’s not a sample.’ He’s like, ‘no, for real. You don’t want to get sued.’ I was like, ‘Dre, that’s not a sample! My boy played that.’ And he was like, ‘what?!’ The way Dre looked at me from that point was different.

“It’s funny because [‘mama, I made it’] became an expression for athletes or whoever—they still say that. It was a big thing for me because I always wanted my mom to be proud of me. It was like my coming out party for my mom to see like, ‘wow, this is the biggest rapper in the world and [my son] just did a song on his comeback record.’ It was a big moment for all of us.

“My dad worked for the Lakers and we had these family passes so I could go into the locker room and whatever. So I’m walking down the tunnel and Jay Z’s there with Steve Stoute. I just walked up to him—the album had been out for months—and I was like, ‘yo, I just wanted to let you know I produced ‘I Made It.’ I work for Dre, my name’s Khalil.’ He was like, ‘oh, that’s crazy! Man, great work.’ We talked for like a split second and that was it! I had to walk up to him and say something [laughs].”

Clipse — “Kinda Like a Big Deal” ft. Kanye West (2009)

Co-produced by Chin Injeti

"That beat came on and [Pusha T] woke up and started rapping! I was looking at this like, 'what is happening right now?’"

“Me and my production partner Chin Injeti, we have a group called The New Royales, we were just cranking and experimenting. He plays pretty much everything: guitar, keys—he’s a genius. I started using Guitar Rig at that time and got good at making guitar pitches. We were listening to The Meters a lot and were like, ‘man, let’s do something like that!’ So I made this guitar patch which didn’t really sound like The Meters that much, but that was the intention [laughs]

“[Chin] started playing these riffs and they were so crazy. I was like, ‘just keep playing what you’re playing!’ I just started chopping up each riff [in Reason]. As soon as I got the chops done, I found a percussion loop and started messing with the drums. At that point, everything was unquantized so it was all complete feel. We added the organs, Chin added the bassline to it, then we started adding these other effects. People think it’s a scream [in the background] but it’s actually the guitar. There's a video on YouTube [about it].

“Once the beat was done, it was on a beat reel I had that was circulating. My manager Greg was like, ‘yo, the Clipse are in town.’ Their manager Steven Victor went to Morehouse, so did I. They came through super late night, Pusha was tired so I was playing beats, Steven was listening but Pusha T was knocked out. That beat came on and he woke up and started rapping! I was looking at this like, 'what is happening right now?’ He was like, ‘yo, I need that beat!’

“Months passed by, they come back and they’re like, ‘yo, Kanye jumped on it.’ You know, Kanye’s the biggest thing at this point. They played me it and I was like, ‘dude, this is insane.’ That’s how it happened creatively, but it took a while for us to mix it. I worked with Mike Dean, we went through so many different mixes just to get it right. It was hard to finish that record because they were so in love with the two-track that if it sounded anything different, the energy was gone. With my production, if you take any element out, everything kinda falls apart.

“When it came out, the impact was crazy. Especially younger producers, that’s always in their top five which is crazy to me. I love that beat but you never know how it influences another generation or who’s listening. That’s what you’re aiming for: something that’s timeless and that’s different. No one had ever heard [the Clipse] on anything like that before. They’re one of my favorite groups and Pusha’s one of the best ever. It was incredible just to work with them.

“I got so much crazy footage. I got Pusha T rapping. I have the funniest video of me and DJ Khaled. Everybody mixes our names up and he’s like, ‘people are always coming up to me talking about the shit I did on Game’s album! Dude, that ain’t me! I’m not DJ Khalil, I’m DJ Khaled!’ It’s so funny.”

Drake — “Fear” (2009)

"I just saw [Drake] not too long ago and he still says that’s one of his best songs. He’s like, ‘man, we gotta top that song one day.’"

“It’s a heavy story. Me, Chin and Danny [Keyz, aka Bēkon]—he did a lot of stuff on Kendrick’s new album—we did a jam session at three in the morning. We were all basically falling asleep but still playing. I get up early and come back the next day and listen to what we did and I’m like, ‘yo, this is insane!’ But also, I was going through some personal stuff with my dad being sick and taking care of him. I was in a weird space, very… depressed. So when I heard that music, it just hit me. It made itself. That beat ended up being very therapeutic. I was able to pour everything out on it.

“I made the initial part of the beat—the loop—and when Danny heard it, he put live strings on it and they came out insane. Then Daniel Seef came in and played live bass on it. It all happened over the course of a week, working on this track off and on. I finished it, didn’t really think anything of it, then my manager at the time put me on a conference call with Drake—before he was really blowing up—and was like, ‘this dude, his name is Drake, he’s hot right now, we should take his call.’

"[Drake] was like, ‘man, I’m such a fan.’ We were just chopping it up. We ended up keeping in touch, I sent him a batch of beats and that beat was on there. He loved it and called me back like, ‘yo, I need this beat. I’ma put Marsha Ambrosius on the hook. It’s gon’ be crazy.’ Probably like a year or so passed, he’s blowing up, So Far Gone is huge. He calls me like, ‘I’m gonna release So Far Gone again and I want to put our song on it. Is that cool with you?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, of course!’ I hadn’t heard the whole thing yet. He was trying to figure out the hook and ended up just singing it himself.

“The song comes out and everybody's going crazy. At that point, I only talked to him on the phone but when it came out, maybe a day later, he was like, ‘yo, Jay Z just hit me, he said this song is one of the most incredible songs he’s heard in a long time. Dude, come to the studio.’ That’s when we really met face-to-face. I think he was kinda shocked because people, when they meet me, they can’t really picture me making this music [laughs]. But we hit it off. We’re still cool to this day. I just saw him not too long ago and he still says that’s one of his best songs. He’s like, ‘man, we gotta top that song one day.’"

Eminem — “Survival” ft. Liz Rodrigues (2013)

"I remember he performed at Wembley Stadium... and you could hear the whole crowd singing the lyrics and it was like, ‘wow!’ That’s what we were going for."

“My group The New Royales, we’re a writing and production team as well. At the time, we had already worked with Eminem and Slaughterhouse and we’d developed this sound that was like a combination of hip-hop and rock—I’m a huge Rick Rubin fan and that was a big influence. That beat was made around the same time [as Recovery], we were just cranking it out at that point so we had so many ideas for him and he was really into the sound. Liz Rodrigues, who’s singing on the hook, she’s just incredible.

“So Erik [Alcock, member of The New Royales] and Liz, they would send me different ideas for Eminem. We would talk about what we were trying to do and then they would get together and write, then send guitar and vocals. ‘Survival’—and pretty much all of the Eminem placements—was already a concept. It was really just arranging it at that point.

“We wanted to do a stadium song because Eminem is a stadium artist, so we wanted to do something that was huge, reminiscent of Queen or whatever [laughs]. It had to be a motivational record so I put these big, raw drums on it. The original beat is super distorted, it’s deafening. But we were really trying to make it edgy and raw.

“They had held onto that beat for a while. Paul Rosenberg ended up cutting it and they used it for the new Call of Duty game. It got synced a lot, we got a lot of TV and film syncs off of it. It was just a moment. I remember he performed at Wembley Stadium which was a big deal, and that was either the first or second song and you could hear the whole crowd singing the lyrics and it was like, ‘wow!’ That’s what we were going for.

“He’s very particular about sounds. He wants it to sound how he hears it. Sometimes you get demoitis. It’s like with Dre, if you change anything, they’re gonna pick it up. You change the snare, they’ll be like, ‘what did you do to the snare? That’s not what you did on the original. You gotta take that out.’ They don’t want you to mess with that vibe at all. They want it exactly how they heard it the first time. I was going back and forth with him and his engineer just making sure it sounded how he heard it.

“[There was a version with] Travis Barker and he killed it, too. He’s so cool because he’d be like, ‘what do you think? How should I do this take?’ I’d be like, ‘man, just go crazy.’ I came home with like a billion drum tracks [laughs]. Maybe it didn’t work because [Eminem] was so used to hearing it how it was already recorded, but he murdered it, that was a legendary night. Just working with the best drummer in the game at that point. He’s a rock star and a hip-hop head on top of it. He understands hip-hop.

“Dre introduced me to [Eminem] right after they won the GRAMMY for ‘Crack a Bottle.’ He was in L.A., Dre was in the studio and he was like, ‘yo, Marshall’s here, he’s got some stuff he wants to play you, I want to introduce you.’ I ended up being in the room with Dre, Eminem and Scott Storch, and they’re listening to my music and Em’s writing to one of the joints. It was pretty incredible.

Dr. Dre — “All In a Day’s Work” ft. Anderson .Paak & Marsha Ambrosius (2015)

Co-produced by DJ Dahi

"Dre was really focused. I think he just wanted to prove to everybody that he’s an innovator and he’s evolved."

“Me and DJ Dahi, we both jumped on Ableton Live around the same time. We collaborate a lot together, he’s one of my favorite producers. We were just vibing out one day and I had this sample. He was like, ‘yo, lemme start off.’ He found the loop and was like, ‘you gotta do the drums. Your drums are crazy!’ I worked on the drums, started mixing that and kept handing it back and forth. He did the bassline which is incredible.

“We had the main part of the beat done and went back to the intro. We wanted to do this marching thing that fades in. That took a few hours just to get that right. It was dope because [Dahi and I] had been working on beats together but that was the first time we really locked in and finished something to where it’s like, ‘yo, this could really be something.’

“[Dahi's] manager, Brock [Marciano], took a bunch of beats to Dre and played him the beat and they were like, ‘yo, this is crazy.’ Then Dahi called me and he was in Hawaii and was like, ‘I think Dre’s gonna take that joint.’ I’m tripping. So yeah, they ended up cutting the song, Anderson jumped on it—I think that was the first record he jumped on when he met Dre—I remember going to Record One [Dr. Dre’s studio] and they were playing it and I was like, ‘this record’s insane.’

“The closer Straight Outta Compton was to being released in theaters was when [Compton] became a reality. Once the buzz around the movie started happening, then it was like, ‘ok, he’s really doing this. This record is coming out.’ He was working on it for months ‘til like eight in the morning. Dre was really focused. I think he just wanted to prove to everybody that he’s an innovator and he’s evolved. He always says Quincy Jones did Thriller when he was 50—that’s his philosophy. ‘I haven’t even done my best work yet.’

“When you listen to Dre, he doesn’t waste any sound. Everything has a unique purpose and that’s what makes him incredible. I feel like he tries to teach that to everybody. I can come up with an idea and make my own samples and he’ll be like, ‘yo, this idea’s dope. Can you take this sound out?’ And it’ll be ingrained in the sample and I’ll be like, ‘I can’t take it out.’ And he’ll be like, ‘well we can’t use it then.’ So we’ll have to scrap it and start something new [laughs].

“When I’m working with him, I have to be prepared to remove certain things and do things on the fly because his whole thing is, when you’re in the moment and he finds something that’s inspiring, you gotta capitalize on it right there. You can’t come back to it. It either happens right now or it’s not going to happen because you may not get it again. It’s a good position to be in to learn from a master of his craft.

"To work with [Dre] over 10-plus years has made me such a better producer and a better person. He’s just as hungry as he was when he first started. You can’t have an ego because you’re watching a person who has nothing to prove outwork the youngest producer in the studio! It’s not about what didn’t come out or what did come out, it’s about learning from one of the best. I’m just trying to apply it to what I do every day.”

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