Play-N-Skillz
Hip-Hop

Producer Duo Play-N-Skillz Break Down Their Biggest Hits for Chamillionaire, Lil Wayne, and More

For more than a decade, brothers Juan and Oscar Salinas -- better known as the production duo Play-N-Skillz -- have been leaving their mark on every corner of popular music, from hip-hop and pop to K-pop and EDM.

The Dallas natives got their start DJing house parties before landing their big break in 2004, when they produced Lil' Flip's second album, U Gotta Feel Me. But their career really took off two years later, when they produced Chamillionaire's breakout single "Ridin'." The track spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, was certified quadruple platinum, and opened doors for Play-N-Skillz to work with Lil Wayne on his landmark record, 2008's Tha Carter III. The Carter collaboration didn't just yield a hit single -- "Got Money," which the brothers looked back on for Billboard earlier this year -- it also helped Wayne & Co. snag the award for Best Rap Album at the 2009 Grammy Awards. "Some people just get one hit song," Juan "Play" Salinas says. "But to follow up with another one shortly after was big for us."

Since then, Play-N-Skillz have worked with Afrojack, David Guetta, LMFAO, Daddy Yankee, Steve Aoki, Becky G and most recently, South Korean group Super Junior. "We’ve figured out a way to rebrand and keep things within our hashtag: #NoGenres," Play says. "Whatever sounds great and whatever we’re feeling, we’re doing. Our mission statement is M.E.S.H., which is an acronym [that stands for] 'Mixing Every Sound Heard.' We’re trying to mesh the whole world together -- K-pop, Latin, electronic, urban. It’s just love, which is needed in a time like this."

Below, Play takes Billboard behind the scenes of seven of their biggest hits and shares the untold stories of how they came together.

2006: Chamillionaire, “Ridin'” featuring Krayzie Bone

Chamillionaire is from Houston, where we did a majority of our music for many years. When we were in our early 20s, we were going around doing shows with Paul Wall and Chamillionaire, who were in a group at the time. Chamillionaire is a very talented artist, and he was looking for production that was out of the box. We introduced him to Charles Chavez, who was managing us at the time and eventually ended up managing him too. He got a deal at Universal, and we began working on his album.

“Ridin'” was the last song that made it on the album. He actually didn’t want the song on the album. We were the last guys to work on it, even though we opened the doors for him to start working on a major-label album. Skillz actually sang the original version of the hook, and Krayzie Bone, who was our longtime collaborator and one of our mentors, put a verse down for us. He hadn’t even met Chamillionaire. We just told him, “Hey, this guy is about to explode.” When we played it for Cham, he was honestly nonchalant about it. I don’t think anybody knew what the song was going to be. [The label] put out the first single -- “Turn It Up” with Lil Flip -- and our manager leaked “Dirty” to radio. And history did what it was supposed to do. The song went to No. 1, and now he has a nice Grammy trophy to add to his name.

I thought it was a really good song, but we recorded so much material with him beforehand that we felt was so much better. I remember riding around in the car playing "Ridin'" for friends and telling them that it wasn’t the song I wanted to go on the album. So [its success] was a surprise to everyone except Charles Chavez, who pushed for the song. No one from the label nor Chamillionaire wanted that to be a single.

When "Ridin'" was No. 1, we were getting calls from every huge artist, every record exec, every A&R. I [remember getting] a call from a guy named Al, but this guy didn't sound like anyone I know, so I immediately hung up the phone. I hung up on Weird Al! He shoots me an email saying, “Hey, this is Weird Al. I’d like to cover your song.” And I was like, “Oh fuck, it is him!” When he does songs, he usually has his band remake the beat. But in this particular case, they couldn’t remake the track because there’s a weird synth that was actually a glitch. We hit a button on one of the keyboards that we played on, and it just kept repeating, but it sounded so good that we just kept it in there. There’s no way to replay it, so for the first time, [Weird Al] had to cover my actual instrumental. Once "White & Nerdy" came out and he did his thing in the video, it just took the song to another level. This was the ringtone era as well, so ringtones were going crazy on both sides. It was amazing how everything came together.

2006: Frankie J, “That Girl” featuring Mannie Fresh & Chamillionaire

Frankie was signed with our management team, and we wanted to do a song with more of an R&B approach. Being DJs and music lovers, it wasn’t that much of a transition. Maybe [it's because] there wasn’t as much weed smoke and [as much of an] entourage there -- the vibe was completely different. The session wasn’t a hip-hop party atmosphere. We had to respect his voice. And the process of producing for a singer is completely different because you have to do so many takes to make sure they’re hitting the notes right. But we’re friends with him, so it wasn’t an awkward thing at all.

[At the time] I was in multiple relationships. I got my first taste of success and I was traveling around the world -- that’s why the bridge [of the song] talks about all the beautiful women around the world. Now looking back, one of Pitbull’s dancers was the girl that I wrote some of those lyrics about. I don’t even remember her name! [Laughs] But I had never seen such a beautiful woman.

2007: Hilary Duff, “With Love” Remix

Somebody from Disney called us about doing the remix. We’re from chopped-and-screwed street music, but we quickly escalated to working with [artists like] Frankie J and Hilary Duff. Obviously I knew who she was from her acting. It was a big moment for us. It was our first time working with a big pop artist. It was our first experience of having a dinner meeting with paparazzi all around, but she was sweet and dope. Disney wanted us to give the song a more rhythmic, urban edge. They sent the a capella over, and I was closely working with Slim Thug at the time, so I asked him to do a rap verse on it. That was the first time he did a pop record like that. He went on to work with Beyoncé, but he stepped out his box for this.

It is very difficult [to do remixes] because you want to respect the body of work but at the same time put your stamp on it. I like to stay trendy as well and not step too outside the box of where the popular sound is. I take a piece of who we are and try to keep the same soul of [the original]. But I like to change the tempo a lot on remixes so it feels different. That’s our biggest thing: If the song is at 90 beats per minute, I like to boost it to 100. If it’s a slow ballad, I might make it into a house vibe so it lives in the club. Remixes are challenging, but we love taking songs and putting our own twist on it.

2009: Hurricane Chris, “Halle Berry (She's Fine)”

That song was inspired by the sound of the D-Town Boogie and all the dances that people were doing in the clubs in Dallas. I actually heard the original version of the song by a guy named Superstarr on Dallas radio and was like, “This is crazy! I want to work with this and make this bigger.” So we reached out to him and collaborated on the “Halle Berry” song. I was working with Hurricane Chris, and he was looking for a new single at the time. He had “A Bay Bay” and a song with Mike Jones [2007’s "Drop & Gimme 50"], and he wanted another club smash.

Hurricane Chris was really on the remix to Superstarr’s original song. When the label heard it, they were like, “Yo, we gotta make this a single and take it nationwide. This is bigger than Texas.” We worked it out [with Superstarr], and the next thing I know, the beautiful and gorgeous Halle Berry was doing the dance on Ellen! It just don’t get no bigger! It was great for the city of Dallas. It made that sound go nationwide and helped Hurricane Chris get back on the map. And I still hear that song everywhere. If you play it, people just start dancing.

“Stanky Legg” [by Dallas group GS Boyz] came out right after that. We didn’t do that one, but I remember going to Atlanta and playing “Stanky Legg” and “Halle Berry” [for Yung Joc]. He flew from Atlanta to Dallas, found the guys who did “Stanky Legg” and signed them. That whole D-Town Boogie was cracking because the youth were dancing and it was fun.

2011: David Guetta, “Where Them Girls At” featuring Flo Rida & Nicki Minaj

That was our first experience of being called in as songwriters. We originally wrote the song for Flo Rida, and it was supposed to be a Flo Rida song produced by David Guetta. But David heard the song and said, “Nope, I’m going to take this and make it mine. I’m going to get somebody really, really big to sing on this song.” And he got Nicki Minaj! That was the first time she did a dance record. I’m not taking credit for this, but that song took her career to another level. Shortly after, she did another David Guetta song [2011’s “Turn Me On] and sang on more big dance records. I don’t think people really knew how talented she was until she did “Where Them Girls At.”

I'll tell you, Skillz would rather produce all day than write. Skillz has to go in another room to write his part [of a song], and then comes to me to patch things up. It’s not like we sit down in a room together and rhyme cat with hat or whatever the case may be! [Laughs] But the cool thing about writing and not producing is that you get to transform into whomever you’re writing for. Let’s say I’m not a weed smoker, but I’m writing a song for Wiz Khalifa -- I get to turn into a weed smoker for a few hours! You go into a whole different world and tap into lyrics that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

2018: Play-N-Skillz, “Cuidado” featuring Yandel & Messiah

Being Latino is a beautiful thing, but we’re also very judgemental if [a portrayal of] our culture doesn’t feel authentic for whatever reason. So when we started doing Spanish-only songs, I had to be really careful about the wordplay and the sound. I had to respect the artists I was working with. Even though we’re all Latinos, Puerto Ricans are different from Dominicans who are different Venezuelans. Even some of our slang can be different. I’m fluent. I speak it, I live it. But the songwriting process is a challenge. It’s like learning a whole different art. I’ve been blessed to collaborate with songwriters who have helped us work with legendary artists like Yandel. It gave us a stamp of approval. We definitely have an electronic vibe to everything that we do, so our approach is just a bit different from the typical Latin artist.

With the current Latin takeover, I’m happy for the artists, I’m happy for my culture, and I’m happy the world is embracing [Latin music]. And it’s colliding different worlds together. Look at Cardi B’s "I Like It" record with Bad Bunny and J Balvin -- it’s trappy, it’s Latin, it’s English, it’s Spanish. It’s so cool to see them come together, because when we were starting in 2004 and 2005, there was no way we could’ve pulled that off. The world wasn’t ready for that. It did take a while for North America to catch up [to the Latin takeover], but technology also allowed us to live in different places. Now we can stream songs immediately and watch YouTube videos. Social media has helped out with the discovery of different people and different sounds. It’s a great time to be a Latin artist. People are now raising their flags and saying, “I’m half-Colombian! I’m half-Panamanian! I’m Afro-Latina!” It’s bringing a lot of people together in a time where it’s so needed.

2018: Super Junior, “Lo Siento” featuring Leslie Grace

Super Junior is part of S.M. Entertainment, which is one of the bigger entertainment companies in South Korea. They called us into a meeting early on in the year to listen to some music we were working on. I played them “Azukita” [featuring Steve Aoki, Daddy Yankee and Elvis Crespo] and “Cuidado” [featuring Yandel and Messiah] before they came out. They were telling me how these K-pop bands are gigantic in Latin America and Central America. I was blown away -- like, why would Spanish-speaking people from Argentina, Chile, and Mexico be into K-pop? But then I saw the stats and videos of their sold-out shows -- it's like some Justin Bieber shit. Fans were waiting days at the airport for these bands to show up. So I said, “If that’s your core fan base, and these people are crazy about it, then we gotta feed them something they already know: the Latin vibe. How much more powerful would it be if you gave them something in their first language?”

They loved the idea, and we actually got the opportunity to go to Seoul to work and shoot the video there. I wanted to be like Neil Armstrong, putting the flag down as the first Latin act to go there. It was a difficult process because the song is actually in three different languages. There were a lot of rewrites and translators involved: English to Korean, Korean to English, English to Spanish. But Super Junior killed it. A lot of people don’t know that these K-pop bands are built from the bottom to the top. They’re in training from a very young age. They learn five different languages, how to dance, how to dress, how to do media. So they were prepared -- and that’s why the Spanish doesn’t even sound bad when they do it!