For over two decades, DJ Khalil has been putting his funk-tinged West Coast stamp on the entire hip hop scene. With a distinctive sound and a star-studded production catalog, he’s one of the most dedicated and sought-after producers working today (here’s a great playlist for the uninitiated). So who better to work with on an Artist Expansion? His personal treasure trove of smooth funk excursions and upbeat soul swimming in vintage analog synths came out just last month, but the story begins several years earlier.
Senior Sound Designer, Justin Myracks, originally met Khalil through Dr. Dre’s cousin, LA rapper/producer Sir Jinx (who’d previously paved the way for incendiary rap group NWA by introducing Ice Cube to Dre). Fast forward to 2014, and the former was meeting with Seattle production and songwriting team, Tha Bizness, who had cranked out hits for Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, and Kendrick Lamar, among many others. “We were doing a lot of work with them at the time, capturing the making of Kendrick’s record on MASCHINE,” he explains. It was during one of these sessions that Christopher John “Dow Jones” Whitacre reconnected him with Khalil via email.
Back in Los Angeles, Khalil was hard at work honing his signature sound: Applying the anthemic hooks, sonic signatures, and experimental instrumentation of prog rock to the world of hip hop. His wide sonic palette, stemming partly from a collection of rare, vintage synthesizers “on par with what your typical prog rock player would have had in the 70s” gave Myracks the conviction he needed to forge a creative partnership and begin work on what was intended to be the first Artist Expansion. These sound packs, at that time, were genre-focused, with more of an anthology-style approach. But Khalil had such a specific cross-genre sound that the team decided on a direction that would allow him to blend jazz fusion and prog with hip hop.
In late 2014, they started amassing a collection of marching analog rhythms, heavily-filtered synthesizer leads, and choir pads to add warmth and balance. By 2015, they’d created a few MASCHINE kits and begun to establish a clear direction for the pack. They also begun digging deep into Khalil’s extensive library of vintage synths: “It was a great opportunity to add a more analog-sounding palette to MASCHINE. Previous Expansions didn’t really tap into the vintage vibe, and we wanted to capture the classic sounds Khalil was known for: Playable, multisample synthesizer sounds, along with the Massive and Monark sounds that emulated the tone of his best records.”
In 2017, when he was promoted to Senior Partnering Manager, Myracks handed the project over to Sound Designer, Justin “DJ DNA” Adams – whose relationship with Khalil also predated his time at Native Instruments. They’d known each other since 2012, so when Adams got the call it was a no brainer: “I was already a fan of Khalil, and a friend of Khalil, so when I was asked to be a collaborator on this project, I was like ‘this is easy, that’s the homie.’”
Adams first met Kahlil at his old studio on the corner of La Brea and San Vicente. “There was a front room where you were supposed to chill, but you couldn’t because there were vintage synths laying on their sides and stacked up the walls. Khalil would swap them out constantly. At the time, he had the biggest record in Hip Hop [Dr Dre’s Kush], and great musicians and singers were stopping by left and right.”
To capitalize on the influx of talent, Khalil kept a live room perpetually set up for jamming, and rigorously cataloged these sessions. Then he went through those recordings and curated stems to build the Expansion’s kits – like La Vicente, which was named as a tribute to his old spot.
A lifelong keyboardist, Khalil prefers keys to pad machines, so patterns for the pack are all played into MASCHINE by Khalil himself on a KOMPLETE KONTROL S49. The team also painstakingly recorded each note of his vintage synths to create multi-sampled instruments – a big plus for producers searching for a unique analog vibe.
“When Khalil was working on Nipsey’s album, other producers were borrowing synths from his collection,” recalls Adams. “Some of these are very rare; but when it’s in Khalil’s studio, with the power that it’s drawing from that old building, some of the notes sound fucked up. Things aren’t pristine or perfect, and it creates this sonic character that you can’t get anywhere else. The only way you can get this sound is from Khalil’s synth. If we multisampled another Crumar Composer, it wouldn’t sound the same as Khalil’s.”
“I wanna emphasize the fact that we’re not making these packs and having the artist endorse them – we’re just assisting their creative process and giving them the freedom to express themselves.”
In keeping with this philosophy, every pattern in the kit was created by Khalil and played by hand, without quantization; there are custom MONARK patches like the Fairfax kit, with presets dialed to emulate the classic sounds of his vintage polyphonic analog synths; and unlike other expansions, a bare minimum of MASCHINE compressors, EQs, and limiters are used on the original sounds. He produced the Lakeshow and Olympic Blvd demo tracks himself, and when the time came to share the project with others, he brought Black Metaphor and Seige Monstracity to the table, ensuring that everything you hear is created by producers with deep roots in hip hop culture.
What was the toughest part of the process? Khalil’s schedule, it turns out. Work on the pack was regularly disrupted to allow Khalil the time he needed to churn out records for Eminem, Dr Dre, Nipsey Hussle, and Anderson Paak, among several others – but Myracks and Adams aren’t complaining. While these A-list interruptions certainly stalled production at times, work from their sessions turned into new concepts and sonic textures that were eventually incorporated into the pack – both adding an unexpected modern edge to Khalil’s vintage sounds, and serving as a record of his continued evolution as an artist.
Watch: DJ Khalil on his new Artist Expansion