Beat Construction: DJ Dahi

Photographer Valerie J, Bower
October 31, 2013


The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction. For today we spoke to Dacoury "DJ Dahi" Natche, the 30-year-old Los Angeles producer who most recently contributed the show-stealing "Worst Behaviour" to Drake's Nothing Was the Same. Here, he talks about alternative rock, going to college with hippies and why it's important to recognize your own limitations and seek help from others.

What was your upbringing like? I grew up in a church house, in a super-duper Christian household. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap music. Weirdly, my parents have now become super-duper whatever about everything. They were strict with me, but they were super lenient with all my brothers and sisters. As the first born, I got the Christian hardship. I listened to Christian music and classical music. In middle and high school, I started to listen to a lot of alternative rock. I was big into the ‘90s bands like Fastball and Eve 6. The Verve was like, my shit. “Bittersweet Symphony” was my song for years. I was in marching band and I played saxophone for 9 years, but eventually I was like, I don’t want to play jazz anymore. I loved the melodies, but I just didn’t really gravitate towards it, so I stopped. In high school I also listened to a bit of rap. Being in LA, everybody’s a 2Pac fan. So I knew about Pac but I didn’t listen to him as much as everyone else. I really didn’t get into rap until I got to college. I kind of exploded, like, Oh wow, this is it.

You went to college, but not for music. Does what you learned in school impact your work now? I went to UC Santa Cruz and majored in film and American studies. Everybody smoked weed and lived in the trees and loved hummus. Being around that environment didn’t change me, I didn’t come back not wearing sock and shoes, but it was really different from growing up in a city. It made me more aware of things and kinda like, Oh okay, this is cool. That was a big part of my progression in music—I realized that music is universal and everyone can relate to it regardless of content, because it’s all truth if it comes from the heart. My Freshman year is when I got introduced to Dilla, checking out his whole catalogue, the stuff he did with Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu. A couple of my college friends were in a rap group, so I was like, Alright, I’ll start making beats for them, for fun. I started DJing, too—that’s when I got DJ Dahi, because Dahi’s my middle name and my dad’s first name. But I was studying to be an English teacher and work in film; music was really on the side. I graduated in ‘05, then lived in San Francisco for a couple years, working as a resident director at the Academy of Art University.

How did you decide to take music off the back burner and make it your main focus? The biggest hurdle that I had to get over was, when you have to depend your art for everything in your life—I wasn’t ready for that at the time. I was like, What do I want to do? Around 2007, I decided to move back to LA and start the process of going back into music. I just said, Let’s see where I can go, see where I can take me. I went to engineering school for production and started taking production seriously. Moving back, I didn’t know anybody, but I started building my name up. Everyone was really fresh to me.

When did you fall in with the LA production collective D.R.U.G.S.? Around 2010, at a barbecue. I knew of [D.R.U.G.S. producers] Chordz and of Ty Dolla $ign. I ran into like Chordz and he was like, “Yo, just come to the studio.” When I hooked up with them, it was cool, because there was a natural respect for what I can do, but mostly were were learning from each other. That’s what I really loved about LA at the time—there wasn’t any type of division of people’s sounds or people trying to keep things to themselves. It was like, Yo, we can make great music, we can make it together. Being around those guys helped me feel more confident and really go out on my own limb. I’m 30 now, probably older than a lot of the newer people, but I always wanted to have an original sound. If you can have your own sound, people gravitate towards what you do.

In 2010, the dominant idea of what a rap producer was Lex Luger—one guy behind a computer, making a beat in 15 minutes. At that time, what was different about your approach, or the general approach to production in California? People know how to play music out here! Even me, I’m not the greatest, but I can play a few instruments. My biggest asset is that I have ideas. Being around musicians who can help you get an idea out and play it really helps. They’d have me bring in crazy stuff to their songs, like jungle, hard beats, or melodic elements, bringing in homegirl Tiff who plays piano. It would be collectively about 10 people working on a project, instead of one producer who could make that one beat that always sounds the same. LA is a really dope creative spot, because there’s a lot of talent and people are willing to work together.

"I don’t want to be that dude making 100 beats a month. I want to make maybe 10 great ones that go to someone and become great songs."

When you’re working on your own, how do you turn an idea into a beat? My approach to music is very spontaneous, based on how I feel. I just pay attention to sounds around me all day—if I’m sitting down and watching TV, and I hear something that just triggers something, I’ll start trying to build around that. I’m very melody-first. I like to have melodies that trigger emotions. So I’ll use ambient-sounding stuff, or vocal samples as a structure in the beat. I love to use voices; I love to use language. From there, I can build drums around the melody. If you really want to make something sound great, you have to have a story with ups and downs.

Do you sketch out that whole narrative, all the ups and downs, in one session? Or do you build onto an idea over time? Some beats I can finish up within a few hours. Most of the time, I’ll play with a beat up until I go to a bed. If I feel it the next morning, I’m like, Alright, it’s good. But sometimes you wake up in the morning and you’re like, Ahh, this beat don’t sound that good—then I’ll get rid of it. Over time, I’ve realized more and more that it’s not about quantity. It’s just quality. I don’t want to be that dude making 100 beats a month. I want to make maybe 10 great ones that go to someone and become great songs. Lately, I’ve been working with songwriters. So I’ll make a beat and then we’ll put the melody to the song and write some stuff. In the hip-hop world, though, I just make beats and send them out to people. You can’t overproduce for a rapper. Sometimes the beat is too crazy and too good, and they’ll say, “I can’t see myself on it, because it’s too much going on.” I always have to dumb it down a little bit, to where the artist can see themselves on the beat. The good thing that’s happening now is, I think people are starting to get what I can do, and they’ll gravitate towards me: Oh, Dahi has this sound that we’re looking for, let’s get a session with him.

What gear do you use? I use Logic Pro and pretty much anything Native Instruments. Logic is very musician-friendly, it’s easy to jump into the music program and not really have to think a lot and just play some stuff. Native Instruments have big sounds and crazy functions and everything that I’ve just grown to love over time.

According to Sounwave, Kendrick is uniquely hands-on with production. For “Money Trees,” did he seek you out? What role did he play in how that song came together? I knew Kendrick had heard of me. I’d been listening to Beach House and was like, Let me try something with the sample. My manager sent Kendrick a folder of beats and Kendrick was like, This is crazy. He wrote to the song and had it recorded with his people, then he asked me to come to the studio. We went back and forth—like, Can you beef this part up?—and added a little melody part. Now that we have a relationship, I always send him stuff and he responds back, like, Can you change this part, can you do this? I like that, because I want to make the song to fit what he’s in. It’s better when you actually talk about music. Kendrick doesn’t just take a beat, he’s like, Yo, let’s make it right together.

Did you make “Worst Behaviour” with Drake in mind? I never make a beat with a name in mind, because if I do I feel like I’ll mess it up. If I think like, This is gonna sound like a Future beat, I just know it’s not gonna come out that way. For “Worst Behaviour,” I was at my studio waiting for a session that was running late. I got on the mic and started recording myself doing sounds, then looped my voice and pitched it and did some crazy stuff. I knew Drake had pushed his album back—when I heard that, I was like, Alright, sweet, they’re looking for another joint. I’d been sending them songs already because, Oliver, who’s a part of OVO and picks a lot of the production, had reached out to me. So I sent it, Drake made it and was like, Let me get the files and all your information and paperwork. That album doesn’t have a lot of uptempo, big-sounding, aggressive records. Drake was saying he needed a song like that, and that it was one of the best beats he’d ever heard because he could find his own pocket on it. I wouldn’t have ever thought about the beat that way—I just made it as silly, circus-type beat or whatever. I’m pretty sure it was the last song to make the album. It was definitely a blessing. I was like, Alright, I’ll take that to the bank.

On top of having ideas, you’re very comfortable with equipment. Lots of the young producers I’ve talked to—like Iamsu! and WondaGurl—learned production in a program, with mentors that helped them master tough programs and gear. Is it important to really know how to use a studio and talk with people about what you’re doing? Or is it just as good to just figure stuff out on your own? I take from both sides. I’ve been trained in reading music and playing music, and also the opposite: producing based on strictly feeling. But having teachers or people to talk to you is so vital, so you’ll know how things become great and learn that nothing is a fluke. Making music that means something to people has a connection to the time it was made in, the environment, what people are going through. One of my biggest mentors is DJ Khalil. He’s done stuff with Eminem, Jay Z, Nas, and to me is one of the best hip-hop producers I’ve ever heard. We work on some music together, but sometimes it’s good to just talk to him about the mindset you can have when making music—being able to hone in on things and try new things. That really helps me find purpose in what I do every day. Because sometimes you can get too comfortable and too good, or lose a passion for something. To progress, you have to find different things. I see in rap music, everyone using the same drum kits, the same sounds and the same kind of feel. Overall, a good thing for pushing forward is to find something that is maybe not a part of rap, and make it rap. If you listen to alternative music, gospel, country—you can make it rap. You just gotta make it sound dope. Just try something different and don’t get too comfortable. That’s why collaborating is super important. You have limitations to some degree—somebody else is better than you at this, you’re better at that. Why not work with that person and make something that’s worth sharing with the world? I work with other producers, I work with other writers, I work with whoever. As long as we can make something good, that’s all that is important to me.

After the Drake placement, has your schedule picked up? What do you have coming up? I’ve been working with Big K.R.I.T. on his new album. We’ve had a time to really go in on some records and make stuff I’m really excited about. I think with this album, people will realize how musical he is, and I think my production style can help him bring attention to that. I’m gonna try and work with the band Purity Ring, too. I’m a huge fan of their stuff and met them at a show a few months back. Now I’m trying to go to Toronto and work on some beats, not necessarily for them to use, but just to see what we come up with. I did some stuff with Jazmine Sullivan and Elle Varner, R&B singers. Things have been getting a little busier, but I’m still really meeting people. I like doing rap, but I’m also really trying to merge and work with some other people. I love alternative music, so hopefully in time I’m able to collab with other bands and help get their sound together, or they can help me get my sound together. If you know any bands that need some people, let me know, because I’m down.

From The Collection:

Beat Construction
Beat Construction: DJ Dahi