Q&A With Grammy-nominated Music Producer DJ Dahi

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Dacoury Natche, also known as DJ Dahi, an Oakes College alumnus, sat down for an interview with City on a Hill Press after performing alongside rapper Buddha G at the 35th Annual Multicultural Festival at UCSC. While at UCSC, DJ Dahi participated in student organizations such as Engaging Education, Black Men’s Alliance and Destination Higher Education. He is most recognized for helping produce “Money Trees,” a song from Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” as well as Drake’s “Worst Behavior.”

In 2013, Complex Magazine listed DJ Dahi as number nine of the “10 Best Rap Producers Right Now.” He has also worked with ScHoolBoy Q, Dom Kennedy, Pac Div, Smoke DZA, SZA and Lily Allen, and currently has projects with Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, Jazmine Sullivan and Elle Varner, among others.

City on a Hill Press: What got you into music?

DJ Dahi: I’ve been doing music since middle school and high school. I was playing in jazz band and doing a lot of stuff in concert band — saxophone, flute, that kind of stuff. When I got to college, I stopped doing it all and then I ended up DJing. I didn’t want to play it formally, I was kind of tired of playing jazz stuff and wanted to do more contemporary stuff. When I got into college, I really just started listening to rap music. I didn’t really listen to it much in high school, but then I started listening to groups and others and got familiar with J Dilla beats — he was the first person I thought, beat-wise, “oh, this is really dope.”

From there I kind of stopped DJing after college and just started making beats and progressing in that range. Then it just took off, so I think it was just a combination of me making different stops, but always doing music and trying to figure out what music I really wanted to do.

CHP: What kind of music were you into in high school?

DJ Dahi: I was into rock and classical, and I used to listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. Just for fun because it was super emotional and they mix it up. My favorite soundtrack was probably for “Shawshank Redemption.” It’s just dope. It’s like a super moody sound, but it just hits home like really, really dope.

After that, rap was one of those things I just picked up. It was around me because I grew up in L.A. and there were a whole bunch of bands that I loved, but I didn’t really know who they were — stuff on MTV or on the radio that people play. I don’t know. Rap was one of those things where, as I sonically started to pay attention to production style, I figured out “oh, this is how they sample.” In rap, you can sample almost anything. For me, I started sampling soundtracks and rock stuff.

CHP: Have you done anything with the “Shawshank Redemption” soundtrack?

DJ Dahi: I’ve sampled it — not anything that anybody has heard or anything — a couple people, but I’ve tried it, just to try and make beats and flip it. That’s why my stuff, sonically, has a different edge because I listen to that stuff and try to bring it to some of the rap stuff.

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CHP: In “Money Trees” [by Kendrick Lamar], you had Beach House, but backward. Were you into them too?

DJ Dahi: Yeah, I didn’t really know Beach House, but I probably got the CD from a friend of mine who gave me a bunch of alternative music because he know I’d like it. I just got this song and thought it was really dope. I was listening to the music and I was like “let me mess around with it,” and from there, it just came to being what the record was. It was just a beat where I tried something to see where it would go. I listen to that stuff to get ideas because, sonically, it’s very open and there aren’t a lot of rules to it. It just feels like energy.

CHP: What kind of instruments did you play? Do you still?

DJ Dahi: I play piano now, and drums. Those are the two that I want to make beats with. Before, I played saxophone, flute, clarinet — pretty much all the woodwind instruments, and then I stopped near the end of high school, but I played for about eight years.

CHP: What program do you use?

DJ Dahi: I was on Logic for years. I tried the NPCs, the drum machines and all those other things, but Logic is what I got used to. From there, recently, I just switched to Ableton.

CHP: How come?

DJ Dahi: There are a lot of things you can do in Ableton that you can’t do in other programs. You can do pretty much anything in Ableton. You can mix records, doing a lot on automation. A lot of different edits, and there is a kind of a quicker workflow to the program. I just fell with it, and thought it was really dope. It allowed me to try a couple new ideas — I’m still learning. I haven’t totally dove into it, but it’s definitely something where I can see myself learning for years and years.

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CHP: There tends to be a lot of voices in the beats you put together. Why is that?

DJ Dahi: For me, language, talking, verbal sounds is one of the easiest things you can make music out of because you don’t need instruments, you can just say something. I fell in love with vocal productions where you can really make a beat out of someone just humming. A lot of the songs I’ve done, like the “Worst Behavior” beat I did, I literally was just practicing sounds on a mic. I’d take the sound and tweak it on a program and see where it goes.

It’s just different — my whole mantra with music is that you can make it out of anything, you just got to pay attention. You never know when you get a good idea or hear a good idea. You hear it and you’re like “oh, this beat is crazy” or “this idea is crazy.” I’m literally just walking down the street, and I can hear it. You know, when you’ve been at the store or hear something and it just triggers something, and you think “oh snap, what’s that?” Even today, when I was listening to the dancers and hearing dope music, I got ideas. It’s just about paying attention, and voices are one of the easiest things to pay attention to. I’m all about that.

CHP: When you hear something, do you have a process to make sure you get it down?

DJ Dahi: You know, it’s funny — a lot of times I just take my phone and use Shazam. I’ll just record the song. Sometimes I’ll just put on voice record and, later, hear the rhythm. I’ll just catch it and go back. That’s what I appreciate about technology now — you can really document everything. It’s easier to hear things and get an idea and go back and listen to all the ideas you collect. It’s literally practicing and paying attention, and it doesn’t make my beats easier, but it makes my job a little more inspiring. You can capture something in the moment. That’s the thing about music that I think a lot of people don’t realize. As a producer, your job is to capture the moment. It’s a recording of someone’s best performance, so you always have to record and pay attention. It’s cool.

CHP: When you were here at UCSC back in ‘04, ‘05, what would you do to capture sounds?

DJ Dahi: Back then, I would go to Streetlight [Records]. I would go there and raid the soul section or some vinyl that was 25 cents or a dollar. I’d take that and see if I can hear anything. That was also when sites or blogs started to get heavy, so blogs would pop up with peoples’ albums, so I’d go there, listen to stuff and try sampling. I don’t really sample anymore — if I do, it’s usually from players.

It’s really cool because I think we’re at a good time, especially now, where it’s not as hard to find good music. People collect stuff and throw it up online. You know how people say “there’s only bad music out there?” They’re wrong. There’s just so much more, it just depends on what lens you’re looking in. If you only listen to the radio, then you’re going to think that this is all that’s in the world. Even this music [SambaDá, afro-Brazilian samba funk, is playing in the background], it exists, and you just have have your ears open.

SoundCloud has really opened the door because you can upload your songs, people hear it or write about it, and then it’s on some website. It’s kind of crazy. It really just depends on your lens and not just settling for what other people give you. That’s one advantage, as a college student, that I really wish I had took advantage of. You have the time to go look for other music. Me, it’s like I really depend on my friends to send me stuff because I don’t have as much time. It really just depends on, like I said, your ears and your eyes, and being open to stuff.

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CHP: You work with dynamic vocalists like Kendrick, SchoolBoy Q, Pac Div. You’re also going to work with Big K.R.I.T — what do you think it is about your beats that attract those kinds of rappers?

DJ Dahi: One thing I’ve learned about production is that you kind of have to make beats where the rapper, writer or singer can see themselves on the record. You almost have to lay it out for them and allow them to try and have some ideas. A lot of the stuff I do is very rhythmic, but also melodic, and it allows people to have ideas. Melodic stuff allows them to get kind of spacey and try new ideas. The main thing is trying to figure out what the artist wants. Sometimes they’re in the mood for a particular kind of record, so you pay attention, see what they want and try to gear the track towards that person.

It’s a good situation because now I’ve been able to be in sessions with people pretty heavily and just talk to them. When I talk to them, we get ideas. I look at it as it not being about me, but that I do some work on it, and help get what they want. At that point, I just want to try and make them feel comfortable. In doing so, we can make a dope track. It’s been great. It’s been a blessing to see how they turn out. People wanting to work on their melodics because they hear something in my music that allows them to write. It’s cool.

CHP: What would you say to a young artist who is trying to do something similar to you?

DJ Dahi: Quit school (laughing). Nah, I’m just playing. I would say in my experience — with music in particular — money, fame, all that is secondary. You can’t think about that at all. You just got to have the love for being creative and learning. Just try not to be like everybody else. That’s what I strive for. Obviously, I take a lot of great ideas from listening to dope stuff, but then going back home, and figuring out a way where I can do my own stuff and have it be recognizable. Try to do original things and pay attention to a lot of music. Don’t box yourself in with a particular sound because ultimately music moves. What’s happening now won’t be what’s poppin’ five years from now. You have to keep that in your mind and adapt. Stay with the young hearted people because they have the ear.

CHP: Do you have anyone you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?

DJ Dahi: Of course. Right now I’m working with a lot of people I wanted to work with, but one band I’d like to work with is Coldplay — I’d like to work on one of their albums one day. I’d love to work with Missy Elliot, that would be really cool. I’d love to work with The Killers. The Black Keys. I like a lot of stuff like Radiohead — so many great bands I’ve been a fan of for awhile. It would be cool to do sessions with them. In the rap world, I feel like I have a good clutch of who I’ve worked with, but outside of that there are so many bands who I’d like to sit with and just see what comes up.

CHP: Is there one track you’re particularly proud of?

DJ Dahi: I really feel like my best work hasn’t come yet, but I do think — I don’t know. That’s a hard question. I think the songs that I’ve put out have done different things for me, so I don’t really have a favorite. It might be other peoples’ favorite, but for me, I appreciate having the opportunity to work with Kendrick, with Drake and Lily Allen. I appreciate them trusting me for a sound and seeing something different in what I do because they don’t sound like everyone else, but they have a cool groove to it. I’m just happy that they all messed with me and really wanted to work with me.

Check out more of DJ Dahi on his SoundCloud, or follow him on his Twitter @DJDahi.