If you were anywhere between Los Angeles and Lesotho in 2012, you inevitably heard Kendrick Lamar's "Money Trees." Amid the many indelible songs on the Grammy-nominated Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Lamar's anthem to home invasions and impossible decisions stood out for its ferocious rapping and woozy psychedelic melodicism. Blending a Beach House indie-rock sample with the ectoplasmic vocals of singer Anna Wise, the track captured the imagination like a burning palm tree crashing onto white sand.
What you might not have known is that its producer, DJ Dahi, was then still working as a resident adviser in the Marymount California University dorms in San Pedro — busting kids for smoking weed, often while they were listening to his beat.
"That was when I knew I had to quit that job," Dahi, now 34, laughs a half-decade later. "But until then it had been great because it allowed me so much time to make beats."
The Inglewood native is now one of the best producers in music. His résumé includes collaborations with both mainstream rap hitmakers (Drake, Big Sean, Dr. Dre) and pop stars seeking a more muscular sound (Madonna, Banks, Kelela). He's not the guy you turn to for the radio smash but, rather, the quietly brilliant deep cuts that slice into your marrow.
"I never cared to be the biggest producer or the No. 1 guy; that's when people try to steal your sound and run with it," Dahi says, whose garb is as understated as his philosophy: classic black-and-white-striped Adidas and a Vince Staples Summertime '06 hoodie (another album on which his production played a vital part).
"You have to challenge yourself and work with artists that help you grow, rather than just trying make music that's momentarily hot," he continues. He describes his latest work with Kendrick, heard on several tracks on last month's Damn, as "trying to take stuff to the future — where, when people hear it, the first thing they'll say is, 'What the fuck?'"
The best hip-hop producers usually mirror the experimental impulses of boundary-pushing chefs. They mix esoteric instrumentals and incongruous textures that ostensibly shouldn't go together — yet the alchemy yields a strange brew, initially odd but eventually addictive.
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Born Dacoury Natche to a father from the Ivory Coast and a mother from North Carolina, Dahi grew up playing drums and went on to play the tenor sax in school bands at Morningside High. His religiously devout mother banned music with curse words, which meant that most of his adolescent exposure came from his dad's classic soul records and Buzz Bin–era MTV. During the era when 2Pac rapped "Inglewood, always up to no good," Dahi wasn't even allowed to hear it. He was busy listening to The Verve, Third Eye Blind and Goo Goo Dolls.
Hip-hop didn't take over until he matriculated to UC Santa Cruz. Drawn to Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan's work, he studied film, DJed and began making beats for fun. There were no illusions of hip-hop stardom.
After a stint in San Francisco, he returned home a decade ago, working odd jobs in education by day, passing off beats to the rising crop of L.A. rappers at night. His first underground hit, Dom Kennedy's "My Type of Party," led him to Drake and Kendrick Lamar. His talent, intelligence and assiduous work ethic handled the rest.
"You can't let money cloud your creative process," Dahi says. "I never try to make hits. I just try to make music that sounds dope to me. If you're passionate and love what you're making, everything else takes care of itself."