Producers repeat themselves. Even the legends — take Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Timbaland, or Pharrell — are guilty of recycling the same motifs. So far, DJ Dahi has somehow managed to avoid this problem. Though he hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of crossover success as producers like DJ Mustard or Mike Will Made It, he’s built an interesting and wide-ranging discography.
Just this year, Dahi — born Dacoury Natche — helped revitalize Lupe Fiasco, contributed to Big Sean’s and Mac Miller’s most exciting albums to date, and worked on an acclaimed debut from Vince Staples. He’s also put together songs for the R&B singers Tinashe and Ty Dolla $ign, and helped a pair of legends with very different backgrounds: Madonna and Dr. Dre.
Dahi’s unorthodox beats often force artists to change their approach, frequently with thrilling results. In recent years, he has soundtracked at least three career-shifting moments. The first was Drake’s “Worst Behavior,” which appeared on the rapper’s 2013 album, Nothing Was the Same. Though Drake is known for melody, this beat is an unremitting barrage, and it provided the template for the bruising textures that dominated the MC’s next release, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
Fast forward almost exactly a year, and you’ll find another Dahi-abetted statement of purpose on Tinashe’s major-label debut, Aquarius. “Bet” is the second track on the album, and it sets the tone for the entire project: The drums make a saw-toothed racket, like sewing machines gone berserk.
This summer, the producer extended his streak when Dr. Dre released Compton. Again, a Dahi beat appeared in the album’s key second slot: after the intro, “Talk About It” serves as a warning to those expecting nostalgic production. Instead of the laid-back G-funk that Dre helped perfect, you hear a beat bouncing violently from one side of the speakers to the other. Dahi returns later on the record with “Deep Water,” one of the year’s most unruly compositions.
Rolling Stone spoke with the producer earlier this month about working with Dre, Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Let’s start with “Worst Behavior,” since that was such a big beat for you.
“Worst Behavior” was literally, like, a mistake. I was waiting for my friend — he didn’t show up, or he came late. I was in the studio, and I was just like, let me try to make some beats with the new software that I had. I went to the booth and started humming and came up with a dope, creative drum idea. I just made it, set it aside. I really wasn’t expecting to send it to anybody, because I didn’t expect anybody to know how to write to that beat. The groove is a little different. [My manager] sent the beat out to Drake, and I guess they hit him right back immediately. You listen to the album [Nothing Was the Same], it’s pretty melodic, but that’s the main energetic part of the record. I didn’t really make that beat for anybody in particular. I don’t cater beats to anybody unless I’m in the studio with them. Most of the time I just make what I want.
Maybe in the future, you’ll hear more beats like that. It takes a while for people to kind of mimic it — a lot of rappers don’t know to approach a record. A lot of beats scare rappers, and they can’t really see themselves on it. And that’s why sometimes you have to dumb down the record for people to actually see themselves on it.
It seems like your beats — “Worst Behavior,” Lily Allen’s “Sheezus” — often encourage an artist to take a tougher stance than they usually do.
It’s really about me bringing out something that’s a little different in an artist. When people hear my music, they’re in tune to something they haven’t been able to see on other records. And people are going to come for that. They’re not going to come to me like, “I want the hit.” My goal is to have the best actual record on the album, even if it’s not the most successful one. I want to have the more memorable record. We live in a McDonald’s era: in and out. You want people to remember what it tasted like.
Your beats got more ferocious in 2014 — there’s a new vigor in Schoolboy Q’s “Hell of a Night,” Mick Jenkins “Dehydrated” and Tinashe’s “Bet.” Did you change your approach around then?
At the time, I was working a lot with my friend Blood Diamond; now his name is Blood. It really got my ear to look for excitement — just knowing what it means to have energy in your record without compromising the integrity of what you’re trying to do. I don’t think of music as just a beat; I think of it as colors. A lot of what I made at that time were beats that were dark red or neon. It hits you so it feels like you’re in a new space; that’s what neon colors do. That’s how I approach it now — I’m like, if I want to make something dark, I have to go this route. I had a session with Kendrick for the last album. I didn’t get on the album, but we made some really dope records. That’s how he was trying to describe his album — “I want this song to be this color.”
What types of colors did you and Kendrick explore?
Oh, man! It was like jungle, some safari shit. Green like the rainforest, monkeys running around, very vibrant, very religious — it was like fire, green leaves burning in the fire. It didn’t fit the album, but hopefully, people will hear it one day. I still listen to it and I’m like, “Man, we’ve got to do something with this. This shit is incredible.”
You helped produce “Deep Water” on Dre’s Compton album, which is one of the year’s craziest beats. What was it like working with Dr. Dre?
To be honest, I was like, “This ain’t going nowhere. Dre ain’t coming out with an album.” You almost feel a little like you’re being played. I was super hesitant; it didn’t make sense to me. My manager always tries things that I won’t try.
Dre, the first thing he said was, “You’re one of my favorite producers right now.” I was like, “Oh, shit!” That’s one of the compliments you don’t really expect to hear, but it made me think “OK, I’m doing something right.” The whole process of that album, it never really felt like we were making an album — we were just making some songs. I kind of thought it was going to come out with the movie coming out. It felt like Dre had to put out something. “Deep Water” was one of the last tracks we made for the album. Cardiak had an idea; I came in with my boy Dem Jointz, and it was like, “Let’s work on this beat together.” It was like Voltron — we all did different parts of the record. I did a lot of the melody ideas; Cardiak actually did the drums. We all contributed equally. I really like working with people because you learn a lot. Dre took that record further; he wanted the whole experience of being underwater. He did some crazy effects. It still hasn’t hit me, to be honest, that I worked with Dre.
“To be honest, I was like, ‘This ain’t going nowhere. Dre ain’t coming out with an album.'”
As a producer, how do you avoid repetition?
You can’t get too comfortable. You’ve got to be able to grow with technology. You’ve got to be able to love what you do. If you’re trying to change something, every time you make a beat, you’ve got to be like, “I never made a beat before in my life.” You have to constantly be on the search for new things. I just want to put myself in situations where I’m challenged. And I want to give artists something that they’ve never heard.
I’ve really been working on my own album. Getting that started to go. It’s going to be a compilation type of project, but a little different — unique to who I am. I’m going to have some friends on there, have some cool people doing some records. I’m excited by what I have so far. It’ll come out for sure next year. Don’t know when.
Are there any beats you heard this year that you wish you made?
Not really. I appreciate hearing dope records. Musically, I like a lot of stuff that’s come out this year. I want everyone to win. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s an exciting time.
Are you going to be on Drake’s next album, Views From the 6, or is that a mystery?
If I knew something. I would tell you. I’ve worked with those guys for a while — we’ll see. If I end up on this Future-Drake tape that’s supposed to happen — people are saying I’m on it but I have no idea. That might be a situation where I might just hear my shit on there. I’m waiting for it to drop to see if I’m even on it. I just want to hear it anyway.