DJ Khalil On How Kendrick Lamar Influences Him, Dr. Dre Update & Timbaland Controversy
The art of sampling, while seemingly forgotten, remains one of the most integral parts of hip-hop culture. Just ask DJ Khalil, though he’d also give you a briefing on the business side of it. His approach to sampling has changed since working on G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy highlight, “Lay You Down.” The album went on to become 4x Platinum yet Khalil didn’t see a cent of it. Since the song sampled Canadian prog-rock band Klaatu’s “Doctor Marvell,” they took 100% of the publishing. This led Khalil to start experimenting further with live compositions and approaching those like vinyl; providing the feel of hip-hop without the actual hassle of clearing samples.
Still, crate-digging and sampling remain invaluable to the craft of producing. If not for the simple sake of finding samples, then to get familiar with different sounds, instruments, and textures that the greats created, or themselves studied. It’s why someone like Dr. Dre has an otherworldly ear for music, incomparable to most. Khalil’s understanding of instrumentation and sound is exactly why someone like Dre has been a big brother to him over the years.
G-Unit – “Lay You Down”
“I have such a love for East Coast hip-hop and production. And then you combine that with Dre, Battlecat, and DJ Quik, and like, what I was raised on, and it’s like the blending of two different styles,” said Khalil in an exclusive interview with HNHH. “I’m just trying to give people the best of both worlds. I think that’s why me and Dre hit it off creatively because that’s kind of what he was. He listened to East Coast hip-hop. He was influenced, but he brought the West Coast element to it and I think that created a whole new sound. The NWA sound. That’s The Chronic. It’s like drum breaks and all these different things but then you got the heavy baseline and the funky guitars and all that kind of stuff.”
Khalil’s career stretches over the course of nearly two decades with countless credits to his name, including Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and 50 Cent, to name a few. We recently chopped it up with DJ Khalil who divulges on the full-circle moment from listening to “Dope Man” to meeting Dr. Dre at his sister’s birthday party, his array of influences, working with Kendrick Lamar, and why he looks at hip-hop as an extension of jazz music.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
HNHH: Who are the forefathers of your career? Who were the musicians and producers that came before you that you feel directly influenced you or opened the doors for what you brought to the game?
Khalil: Aww man, there are so many. Definitely Dr. Dre. Definitely Pete Rock. Definitely DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Marley Marl. I mean, man, Rick Rubin. J Dilla, which is crazy because we’re pretty much around the same age, but he’s definitely a huge influence. I’m definitely forgetting some people, but those are the more — I mean, Larry Smith. Those are like the main — Erick Sermon. You know, people like that. There’s just so many incredible people that I’ve studied to even get to this point, to even be who I am.
In terms of the producers, and generally, the artists and the music that came before you. What was the feeling that you got from that music? You could even pick just one of them individually if you want and tell me about that because I know it’s a pretty broad question.
Yeah, I actually didn’t mention the Bomb Squad. I have to put the Bomb Squad in there, too, and I have to put — I’m sorry. I’m naming all hip-hop guys, but even outside of that, like Quincy Jones, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You know, people like that are a huge influence.
Hip-hop, to me, in my opinion, it breaks all the rules of music. So, it’s like when I first heard [Public Enemy’s] “Rebel Without A Pause,” I was like, “What is this?” Like, I’ve never heard anything like this before. Sonically, like, these crazy loops, these crazy sounds, these drum breaks, all these different things that are being thrown together. And then, this voice on top of it.
It’s just really — We’ve never heard anything like that before. It’s like a new thing. It’s like, if you took rock and took all these different elements but you blended it with this raw emotion and this message. It just broke all the rules, you know? We never heard anything like it. I mean, I guess when jazz first made its way onto the scene. Jazz broke all the rules of what music was supposed to be, so I feel like hip-hop is the extension of that. It just breaks all the rules, sonically to the way songs are written, to the language of it. The new vernacular, the new way things were being said. It’s poetry, too, on top of it and it’s a reflection of the times. So to hear all these things, to hear N.W.A for the first time, I mean, it’s crazy.
N.W.A – “Dope Man”
When I heard “Dope Man” for the first time, it was like, “What is this?” You know what I mean? It exposes you to a world you didn’t even know existed ‘cause I’m in my own bubble. I was raised a certain way, so I don’t know street culture like that. It was a way to look into another part of society that I didn’t even know about. Even conscious music, like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian. I’m not saying I didn’t know about it, but it opened my eyes to so many different things, you know what I mean? To a whole new world, to the different types of people and just what’s happening in the world. From social justice, oppression, everything, slavery, just the history of America.
All these producers and artists have opened so many eyes, I feel like that’s why hip-hop is the number one genre because it’s as raw as you can get. It’s the most honest music you can get to me, at this point.
It’s interesting that you mention “Dope Man” because of your history with Dr. Dre. I don’t know if Wikipedia is correct, but it says you met Dr. Dre at a party your parents were throwing?
That’s an interesting full-circle moment. Can you talk to me about meeting Dr. Dre after hearing songs like “Dope Man” that changed you?
It was crazy because we already heard his music. A lot of people don’t know that Dre made mixtapes back in the day. So, I heard all of his mixtapes and he was heavily influenced by The Bomb Squad and East Coast music. He was already a name at that point. When I met him, it was at my sister’s birthday party and they were friends. He talked to me and my brother for, like, 45 minutes about how he got started, how his mom didn’t believe in him at first, and, you know, all that stuff. And at that point, I was a DJ trying to become a producer. I told him that day, “I wanna be a producer just like you.” He was like this is what you have to do, this is what I did. It was so cool. He was so open to sharing the information. Seeing two kids who were super inspired by him, it was just like — I’ll never forget that.
“I think that’s what makes [Dr. Dre] a great producer. His passion for people and how he connects with people makes him really special. And I’ve seen him do it in the studio. He’s so humble and he doesn’t even have to be. He’s one of the most humble and gracious people I’ve ever met in this business.”
So, later on, when I reconnected with him in 2003 or 2004, he remembered that because he saw me and then he knew my sister. They were still friends. He told people in the studio that whole story. He remembered the whole thing. I was like, ‘That’s crazy. How do you remember that?’ It just showed me his mind, man — he’s just another level. I think that’s what makes him a great producer. His passion for people and how he connects with people makes him really special. And I’ve seen him do it in the studio. He’s so humble and he doesn’t even have to be. He’s one of the most humble and gracious people I’ve ever met in this business. And, he’s at the top of the food chain. It’s crazy.
I wanted to talk to you specifically about sampling. For you, where does the process begin when it comes down to finding a good sample?
My process is interesting, especially when I was buying a lot of vinyl. It’s really looking at the records and looking at the instruments, you know what I mean? And really learning, like, “Okay, what’s an ARP string ensemble? What’s a clavinet? Okay, that’s a clavinet. What’s an electric harpsichord? Oh, wow.” So, you’re just getting familiar with, like ‘what are these sounds I’m hearing?’ So, then you just start looking for records, the credits on the back and you’re like, ‘Okay, I know this is going to sound cool because all the records that I love have these instruments on it.’ So, you just start learning as you’re listening to music and you’re internalizing everything.
The crazy part of being a DJ and being a producer, especially if you collect vinyl, is that of your internalizing melody and harmonics. I think after listening for so many years, you just naturally — you have this library of stuff to pull from and you have these textures and sounds in your head. So, when you sit down and either recreate it or try to create something new, you have these examples to pull from.
I’ll throw on a record and you know off the bat what kind of record it is. I was into a lot of prog-rock. I wasn’t really into soul, you know. I was into jazz, for sure. I went from jazz to Latin jazz, to Bossa nova, and then prog-rock and then I got stuck in prog-rock for a while. It was just the instruments on the back of the record and just listening. I would just listen and let the record run. I would listen for hours and hours and spend the whole day listening. That was my routine, and if I found something that was crazy, I’m doing it on the spot right then. It was just curiosity and looking on the back of records and being like, “what are these instruments?” And just learning.
“When you find a sample, you’re finding a moment. I mean, music is about moments, right? It’s like when you hear a song playing on the radio, that’s a 4 minute to 5 minute moment. So, when we’re listening to these records, we were just trying to find that one moment that’s just magic. It’s like a payoff that’s over and over and over again. That’s really what hip-hop is.”
When you find a sample, you’re finding a moment. I mean, music is about moments, right? It’s like when you hear a song playing on the radio, that’s a 4 minute to 5 minute moment. So, when we’re listening to these records, we were just trying to find that one moment that’s just magic. It’s like a payoff that’s over and over and over again. That’s really what hip-hop is. We’re listening to the payoff over and over. If I listen to “Crooklyn Dodgers Pt. 2,” it’s like, I’ll never get tired of that loop. I can be anywhere and hear that song and immediately, I’m like, ‘this song is incredible.’ That moment is just a payoff. It just makes you feel good, and you want to hear it over and over and over again. Hip-hop just gives you that feeling and once you’re in it, you’re in it. That’s what we’re searching for, those moments. When you hear, “They Reminisce Over You,” I mean, that moment is incredible. Hip-hop brought that whole song, that whole sample back to life because that would have been forgotten forever. It’s just crazy what hip-hop has done for music, in general, you know what I mean? And all this music that would’ve been lost forever. All these producers and artists have resurrected it, it’s crazy.
Trisha Leeper/WireImage/Getty Images
As you mentioned, sampling is a history lesson of sorts. You’re jumping back in time and referencing pieces from the past to create something new. Nowadays, it feels like a lot of those moments in hip-hop from the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s, are being sampled and introduced to a new generation that may have not known about these songs otherwise. Can you expand on that a bit more?
Music is like the only known time machine to me. You can hear a song and you’re immediately transported back to when you first heard it. I think that’s why certain records keep getting reused because it represents so much in the culture of music. Music is so powerful. It’s like magic. So, you can literally be transported by just hearing a piece of music. Hip-hop is, like I said it, just resurrects songs that we would’ve never known about. I’m going back to old records that I would’ve never known about and these are some of my favorite songs ever. I listen to these albums now just in my free time.
My dad was a huge jazz head. Like, he listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, you know, everything, and I was not into jazz growing up. I was like, ‘That’s your generation’s music.’ Then, I heard A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr and they’re using jazz records. I was like, okay, now I’m getting into jazz because they’re into jazz and it sounds so cool in that context. So, that made me dig deeper into jazz and that became one of my favorite genres ever. So, it’s kind of a trip that, like, my dad introduced me to jazz, but I was fighting it. But of course, when I heard, like Pete Rock or C.L. Smooth or Gang Starr or whatever, it made me like — you know, when I first started producing, I was sneaking jazz records out of my dad’s collection to go to the studio and loop ‘em up. Like, “where are they finding these loops from?” I didn’t even know that jazz had loops and that you can find stuff that was that cool. It drew me to the genre.
That’s literally the power of sampling to me. It’s definitely an education ‘cause you’re like, ‘where did that come from?’ And now, you can go to YouTube and find anything. You can also go to WhoSampled or whatever and then from there, you can just literally find other things like it. So, it’s a lot easier now. Before you had to literally go to a record store and sit there for hours and buy all these records. Now, you have access to the information. It’s a trip, man. It’s definitely like a time machine, it makes you go back and relive certain things in your mind and it takes you there.
You mentioned Tribe. Is there a particular hip-hop record, or a record in general, that made you fall in love with the original sample more than the song that introduced you to the sample?
Man, there’s a couple. I mean, “Electric Relaxation” and even, like, “Sucka N***a.” That song where they used “Red Clay.” I had heard “Red Clay.” My dad had the Freddie Hubbard version and I always thought that was an amazing record. The way they used it in that song, it was just dope. Even “Excursions.” I can’t remember what that sample is, but the way he flipped that because it was in a different time signature or whatever. You come across so many samples, and you’re just like, “this is just so good”. You know, it’s just a feeling.
“Electric Relaxation” is one of my top five beats of all time. When I heard that original song, I didn’t know it until after the fact — even when I hear it now, I’m like, “I wish I would’ve made that beat.” It’s just one of those beats where it’s like, “I wish I made something that dope.” That’s like the pinnacle. When I’m listening to records, I’m looking for that moment, like, man, I wanna find something that good. Dilla is the same way. He finds stuff and you’re like “How’d he flip that? How did he hear it?” That happens all the time.
A Tribe Called Quest – “Electric Relaxation”
It’s funny because I’m a vinyl guy, but there are guys that are way more qualified than I am to speak on specific songs. I’m not great at recalling, “This is what they used. The drums are from this.” I’m definitely not that guy but that started off as my thing until I realized that I could make my own samples now which is — everybody’s doing that. Which is great. It’s dope. I feel like hip-hop is taking a new step. It’s evolving to something new. These kids are composing now, which is incredible. My whole philosophy is that we can make what we used to listen to, what we used to sample. We can make that, if not as good, then better. Where hip-hop is now, I feel there’s a whole generation of musicians and creatives that are going to take the genre even further. There are cats now that are making stuff that’s just as crazy. Antman Wonder, and even, Frank Dukes, and you know, cats that are composing and it’s just as good as the stuff we’ve heard. You know, it’s a trip.
I wanted to talk to you about your sampling technique, specifically on Jay-Z’s “I Made It.” I read on a DJBooth article that Dr. Dre couldn’t believe that you didn’t use an actual sample on the record but instead used live musicians. You’re composing while merging the principles of sampling into it. How has that process evolved since that record? Was there someone who did it before you that planted that idea in your head?
What inspired me to do it, to be honest, is when I worked with G-Unit on Beg for Mercy which sold like 3 million copies. That was a big record. I remember my manager, at the time, telling me — because I sampled this Canadian prog-rock band. I just looped it and built around the loop and they took 100% of the sample. And I was like “Ok, so what does that mean?” ‘Cause I didn’t know anything about publishing. So, they took 100% of the publishing and then, I found out how much money I lost on that record. It was like a crash course on sampling and the business of sampling.
From that point on, I always use musicians and all that kind of stuff and try to make original songs with my group, Self Scientific. I was already incorporating that, but it made me go even further in terms of [learning] how to compose and come up with my own music and work with dope musicians. With “I Made it” with Jay-Z, I worked with a musician named Dontae Winslow and his wife. She’s an amazing singer, Mashica Winslow. I would always hit them up and be like send me some samples. I would give them examples, but they’re just so soulful. They would just start sending me ideas. He sent me that idea and I made it in 5 minutes. I was like, this is done. I put the bass line on it afterward and sent it to Dre. Dre was supposed to use it for Detox, but he sent it to Jay-Z to write the record for Detox. Jay-Z heard it and was like, “I need to have this for my album,” and he had already finished the song. Dre was like, “Alright, you can have it,” then he called me. He was like, “Yo, I need the sample information.” I told him that it wasn’t a sample and I told him, “that’s my boy, Dontae and his wife.” He was like, “No, you still have to clear it. Did you replay something?” I told him that it was all original. And he was like, “Wow.” He couldn’t believe it. It sounded like a real moment. It sounded like it came from a record. It just proved to me that we can still generate the same feeling that we get from records and still make it feel like an authentic hip-hop song.
“I put the bass line on it afterward and sent it to Dre. Dre was supposed to use it for Detox, but he sent it to Jay-Z to write the record for Detox. Jay-Z heard it and was like, “I need to have this for my album,” and he had already finished the song. Dre was like, “Alright, you can have it,” then he called me.”
I didn’t really get that from anybody, really. I was already doing it. I think it was just our necessity because I wanted to have a long career in this business. I felt like if I really want to do this the right way, then I have to figure out a new way to do this, especially if I want to make money and still be artistic. It was never just a money grab or just motivated by money, but I wanted to challenge myself to try and make something that’s comparable to what I used to sample. And literally, that’s been my goal every day. It’s funny how there are a million sample makers now, but I was doing this in 2006, 2007. Having jam sessions, having musicians come through, buying old keyboards and synthesizers that I would find on the back of records. That just came from me. I didn’t really get that from anybody. It was like, I’m already doing it with Self Scientific, but I need to really use that to do what I’m doing with commercial artists and it just paid off, it just worked. I went through a super wack phase, but when I finally made something I was like, “Okay, I can do this,” then I just stuck with it.
I still listen to records because it’s the feeling. It’s the feeling and the sounds and all of that. that you’re still trying to capture that because you still want it to feel like hip-hop. You don’t want it to sound like an adult contemporary record. You want it to have some edge to it. I think that was like the motivation. That’s really where I am and where I still am. It’s funny because I’m back into vinyl. Now, I’m buying more vinyl, I’m sampling, but now, it’s like you have the tools you can do so many innovative things with sampling. It’s crazy. It’s not like sampling back in the late 90. Now it’s like, “Oh my, God! I can do that now?” It’s crazy.
Has Dre used a similar approach to using live instrumentation?
I think Dre now is like — he’s Quincy Jones. He’s going to bring the best people at what they do and he’s going to orchestrate it. He’s like a conductor. His ears are impeccable. It’s like a jam session but he’s way more in control than I am. He’s definitely getting all the mistakes out of there. I’m like I want more mistakes in my music. He’s like, “Nah, we gotta take that part out. Okay, refine this part.” It is like Quincy Jones. He’s gonna refine everything ‘cause no sound is wasted with him and that’s what his magic is. No melody is wasted. There’s no background noise. Everything has a function. I think when he works, he brings in people that understand that and that’s his method of producing and it obviously produces results. I mean, he’s a perfectionist, but it’s not even like he’s trying to be that. That’s just how he hears things. It’s just a level of excellence that not too many people have. It’s like an elite level. It’s like, how did you hear that? Or why did you change that part? That’s just God-given to him.
For me, I just wanna see what happens and if a cool moment happens, cool. I love that. Let’s loop that up. That’s done. I’m not precious with it like he is. He’s Dr. Dre. When you hear the result, you’re like, okay, I mean, back to the drawing board for me. It’s a master class.
I wanted to touch on the sound of G-Funk with you because you’ve modernized it over the years on records like The Game’s “Drug Test” and even Snoop’s “I Don’t Need No Bitch.” I know you mentioned that you had a moment where you were deeper into prog-rock more than anything. For you, what’s the importance of incorporating and revitalizing that sound over for a the modern era?
Well, LA is like a funk culture. It’s like, gangbanging, funk, car culture. So, that’s what we grew up on, listening to Zapp, Parliament, all of that stuff. Dre is known for that, you know what I mean? Ohio Players, like, we have a funk culture, whereas, on the East Coast, it’s a little bit different. It’s more soul and jazz. There’s so many different cultures in New York, so it’s like a blending of all these different styles.
My style is like a combination of Dre and, like, a Pete Rock. I’m trying to incorporate both. The funk part of it where it feels funky and you get the claps, but you get the weird sounds or loops, or things that you normally wouldn’t hear with a funk bassline. That’s kind of what became my sound, the blending of both coasts. I have such a love for East Coast hip-hop and production. And then you combine that with Dre, Battlecat and DJ Quik, and like, what I was raised on, and it’s like the blending of two different styles.
Snoop Dogg – “I Don’t Need No Bit*h”
It’s like the musicality of “I Don’t Need No Bit*h” or the choppiness of “Drug Test.” I’m just trying to give people the best of both worlds. I think that’s why me and Dre hit it off creatively because that’s kind of what he was. He listened to East Coast hip-hop. He was influenced, but he brought the West Coast element to it and I think that created a whole new sound. The NWA sound. That’s The Chronic. It’s like drum breaks and all these different things but then you got the heavy baseline and the funky guitars and all that kind of stuff. For me, it’s like combining both coasts but in a new way. With the influence of Pete Rock and Dilla, all those differences — even when I think about Nottz or Hi-Tek or Jake One, we all kind of have the same approach. We just all hear differently. Everybody does it differently, but we were influenced by both coasts. It’s funky, but we got the crazy samples and melodic things happening on top, and the swing and all of that. You know, it has to be funky. That’s what gives it its staying power. When funky and musical, I feel like it just lasts longer. If you hear “The Blast” by Reflection Eternal, it’s like, you’re never gonna get tired of that. Every time it comes on, you’re like, this song is ridiculous. It’s the blending of both coasts, in my opinion. That’s what you’re hearing in terms of what I do. I just add my own sounds on top of it to make it sound different than something else you heard before. Like, what is that sound. I want whenever someone hears my music, I want them to be like “What are you doing? What are these sounds?” I think that’s what Dre was into like, “what are you doing?” It is always trying to bring something new. Like, I’m always trying to search for a new sound, always.
So what sound are you seeking these days?
I mean, it’s really just a feeling. I’m looking for people that are expressive with their instruments the best. They are tapped into their emotions, you know what I mean. I think, technically, you could be really dope with your instrument or what you do, but do you have something to say with your instrument? That’s what I’m looking for. It’s not a particular sound. It’s like what can you do with these instruments that’s unique to you and that’s going to make somebody feel something. I think it’s just more the feeling. I think, now, everything is so technical and not about the feeling of it.
I’m searching for the feeling of just like — if it’s sad I wanna hear, I wanna hear some sad music. I’m gonna go find the records that speak to what mood I’m in. I think that’s just the main thing I’m searching for, now. Not a particular sound, but more like a feeling. ‘Cause there’s like a million sounds now. Everyone has access to the same sound. It’s like when you find a voice that’s unique and that’s expressive, or you find a guitar player that brings their own sound and their expressive, that’s what I’m looking for. If you have something to say with your instrument because you’re going through something or you have something to say. That’s everything to me, at this point in my career. Or in music in general, that’s what I’m searching for. Am I getting the feeling or is this tapping into something? Am I getting goosebumps when I hear it?
Just to go back to sampling, do you even think the younger generation even appreciates the art of crate digging or looping? I don’t know if you’ve seen this on Twitter, but a few weeks ago someone was kind of showing all the different ways…