Fans have been waiting for Kendrick Lamar’s latest album for a long time. Mr. Morale & the big steppers — 1,855 days, to be precise. And while writers, Twitter enthusiasts, and Gen Z TikTokers have been busy deconstructing the Compton native’s lyrics, it’s useful to remember that Kendrick remains one of hip-hop’s most underrated beat selectors. his debut, Good kid, mAAd city, played like a feature film, and his subsequent releases have continually redefined the boundaries between jazz, hip-hop and film scores.
Unlike all of Kendrick’s previous albums, there is no prominent radio single or obvious hit Mr Morale, meaning that the attention to the sonic details in the music is all the more striking. From Florence + the Machine to Gary Peacock and Kadhja Bonet, every sample used on the album feels like it was handcrafted for every emotion it was trying to evoke. It’s all thanks to a free-flowing creative process that Kendrick and his producing team have developed over the years.
This trusted group of producers includes DJ Dahi, who has worked with Kendrick for over 10 years and has also produced for everyone from Drake and Travis Scott to 21 Savage and Yebba. Dahi spoke up Rolling Stone after the release of Mr. Morale & the big steppers about the five-year creative process that led to the album.
How did you come to make this album?
I mean, Kendrick and I just talk about life in general almost every day. What our life experiences are and what we planned to do. We’re always wondering things like what are you doing, what are you working on or what are you listening to – that kind of vibe. So we are always in exchange about where things are culturally, where things are musically. To DAMN IT., I remember he got off the tour and was kind of just chilling. With us it’s really just easy not really knowing exactly what things are going to be but just exchanging ideas to see if it inspires a sense of inspiration or something.
How did you come to make such an ambitious album like this in the first place?
We have very picky ears. At least for me – I hate everything. So unless it’s something that ignites an idea or something that triggers a certain creative mood, we’re just going to keep bringing things to the forefront. For myself I think the heart of the album really started about four or five years ago; I remember he was just writing. Writing songs without a beat, without instrumentals. Just literally writing ideas, writing notes, and writing songs. It was cool to see his trial. Having a concept, an idea of what the album would be like. I particularly remember walking in and hearing him write Auntie Diaries and they were literally skeletons of ideas. That was interesting because for me as a producer or a writer, it’s funny that in hip-hop sometimes a lot of the artists I’ve worked with write to the beat first. The beat inspires the concept of the song. But with Kendrick it’s kind of an old way of songwriting where you either write something on the piano or you write something to a simple kick snare rhythm and then you kind of let the music play and be. The whole point was to just walk in and listen to him write certain songs and then play him little loop ideas. [With] A lot of stuff comes from minimal ideas now, either from a few jam sessions with my guys or from samples. Just snippets of things.
You mentioned that the work took five years, but was there a pivotal moment in the making of the album that you remember?
One of the biggest moments for the sound of the album came from a session we did in London. That was me, Sounwave, Danny and Keem. The cool thing about how we create is that in these sessions we create like a band. Literally everyone working and jamming together. Jamming ideas, recording and getting a whole bunch of ideas and stuff. It’s cool for our process. Free Flow Creativity. A lot of records started from there, like “Father Time” was definitely a record that came from that camp of ideas in those sessions. Keem’s “Vent” also emerged from these sessions. A lot of it is just that we just throw paint on the wall and then we see how it inspires his narrative about where he’s trying to go, where he’s from.
Did you know it would become a personal record?
When I heard “Auntie Diaries” and also “Father Time” I knew for sure that it was going to be a personal album and more about where he was in life. As, DAMN IT. was such a big album. DAMN IT. had smash hits and big quoted “pop” records. But even records that we didn’t end up using on the album, just the stuff he wrote would tell a lot more about who he is and what he really stands for. How you should really look at him and not like this rap messiah. I could only make out from the early writings his ideas that he laid down for hooks and things like that.
So much on the album is personal and you talk about Kendrick writing first and then the music following. How did that translate into jam sessions?
Our conversations are about what actually moves you, what drives you to want to do something that day or to spark an idea. We’ve been working on this for five years, so there’s been so many mood swings where we’re going in that direction, then OK, now we’re doing that away. So it’s a constant journey. I knew lyrically he had a perspective that he was trying to express, but I think musically the real job was trying to find something that evoked the best emotion. The great thing about this album, which I really love, is that he’s such a popular artist, and making the kind of album that he’s making is kind of dangerous. Taking that risk… I mean, people kind of expect that from him now, which is cool, but in a way it’s still a challenge musically. But I’d much rather live in this space than with safe things.
I wanted to go into the breakdown of a few tracks. I remember watching a beat deconstruction video of yours and the beginning of the beat creation was nothing like the finished product. What was the case with tracks on this album?
There are a lot of such records here. Specifically, I can talk about “Count Me Out”.
This is for sure one of my favourites.
Thanks bro. It’s funny because originally this piece of music was actually for my album. That was from a jam session I did with my boys Eli and Danny – Danny McKinney is an amazing guitar player. We were just in the house jamming out ideas. Originally we had been working on this song idea and I had hired a choir to work on a bunch of ideas I had for my album. I was like, “I’m using this, this shit is fire.” But I sent it to Kendrick, like, “What do you think?” And he said, “Yo, I love it.” He said, “This shit is crazy,” and he started writing on it, and he said, “Yo, bro, I think I might need it.” That’s exactly what I need.” Knowing him and his process is like, okay, yeah. Maybe it’s good or bad, but I’m not attached to the music. When I trust other artists or what they’re doing creatively, I let things go because it’s more about the messenger. There are so many versions of this record. I can think of about 10, no, actually 20, 30 versions of this record that we’ve tried and made and shaped. That’s because we thought about how it could fit into today’s world, and that’s the biggest thing. How does it fit into a specific type of space where people can get that feeling? I think at the end of the day my motto is: “A record is a demo until it actually comes out.” Lots of tries, but I’m really happy with the end product, simply because I think the heart of the record is still there , which is cool. The way it feels, the way it absorbs the energy, the message it has is still there. That’s the most important. You can even make an acoustic version of this song. I literally came up with this idea about three or four years ago.
Songs like “Rich Spirit” and “Die Hard” have that LA feel and jump along. Since Kendrick and yourself are aboriginal, does that play a role in how these records came out?
Good question because I don’t think there was a specific thing we were trying to get this to work. At least for me. It didn’t feel like we were doing some funk stuff today. From my point of view it felt natural, the certain things that we do, you know? Certain people in the room add a certain taste or attitude to the music. This created a melting pot of interesting drum grooves or interesting sample choices or interesting playing styles. Then a pool of ideas emerges that feels a bit unexpected. But I think since we’re from an era and our ears are tuned for certain things, we’re going to create that naturally.
With Rich Spirit, this idea came from my friend Frano from New Zealand. He’s amazing, a really great producer who I work with a lot. He gave me the original chord progression for the idea. It was something like an automatic mood record. Then I started playing around with the drums a bit and Sounwave played with the vocal chops that came into the record. Then that groove, the last one added Soundwave – that kick. Originally it was just this raw tune, and I gave it to Kendrick, and Kendrick said, “Oh, that’s perfect, I think I’ve got something.” He made that flow, of course. But that second verse he said sounded like a West Coast rapper, the bag he spat in was hard. I thought it was some West Coast thriller song.
What do you think was your biggest contribution to the album?
All I can say is that I brought my ear, in simple terms. I brought what I would pick. There are certain things I like to hear independently of others. Like, oh, that’s what I’m gonna do. Depending on who I work with, I focus on what they are doing or want to do. I think it’s cool with Kendrick because I can literally tell him, ‘Yo, that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m feeling’, and he can actually get dressed too. It’s also a matter of trust. We’ve obviously been working together for 10 years, which is crazy.
Finally, has it been speculated that Kendrick recorded over 400 songs for this album?
I can tell you for sure he probably has about 30 songs of mine – I mean he obviously has songs that he’s going to finish but also a lot of that is an idea and it’s a really dumb idea. Then we insert that idea as a hook or verse line. That creative process is really just about coming up with those ideas and then coming back and saying, ‘Oh, I can use this or that part of it.’ His recording process is pretty crazy. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we look at the hard drive and he has thousands of songs.
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/dj-dahi-breaks-down-the-five-year-process-behind-kendrick-lamars-new-album-1357269/ DJ Dahi Interview: Producing the New Kendrick Album