Producer Dakari on His African Roots & How He Became G-Eazy's Top Engineer
Hip-hop may have originated in the Bronx but not even Kool Herc could have imagined the reach and impact that his art-form would soon achieve. Rap officially kicked down the door in 2015 when Spotify reported that hip-hop was the most listened to genre in the world. In 2017, Nielsen’s Music year-end report showed that R&B/hip-hop had taken the crown from Rock to be the most purchased music in the United States.
That kind of global reach has empowered new creators from all over the world. For Zimbabwean producer Dakari, hip-hop has provided a way of life for him that he couldn’t have dreamed of. After moving to Dallas, DG would have his coming of age moment in high school that would eventually lead to a world class internship and writing and producing for G-Eazy.
Billboard was able to catch up with Dakari to discuss everything from his African roots, how an internet search led him to an interview at the world renowned Quad Studios, working with G-Eazy, and now building his own album.
How much of your life did you spend in Zimbabwe?
I moved to the U.S. when I was 12. [It was a] huge culture shock. It was really interesting moving because I had always dreamed of moving to America. I had just kissed a girl [for the first time] when I was 12, then I moved to America and kids were talking about third base, fourth base. It was a lot. It was simple things that made things a little bit harder. I actually flew to America [just] 10 days after September 11 so it was really crazy. My dad had to come in [the airport] to get me because I was a minor and he had to have [had] six to eight, huge S.W.A.T. dudes with him to come in and get me. When I landed, everybody was just bigger. I was the big kid in Zimbabwe. I think there may have been one or two kids bigger than me. When I came out here, everybody was just big.
Were you into music in Zimbabwe?
I was in to music but I never knew of it as a career path. My dad at the time lived here in the U.S. so he sent back a keyboard and I used to play on it. I couldn’t record on it because it wasn’t a sequence so I’d play a drum pattern and memorize it and be playing a beat in my head while I play a melody. I would pick [it] up and play with [it] for a month then I’d forget about it for a few months. Then I’d randomly come back to it [and] that’s how it always was. That was music for me back then. I didn’t really listen to music either growing up besides what my mom would listen to but that was all African gospel [and]I didn’t know people made money off of music. We have artists there but I guess being that young I never thought people were making money off of it. There wasn’t that culture for me to be like, “let me go to a concert.” My first real concert I went to was with [G-Eazy] in 2015. That just wasn’t the culture [in Zimbabwe]. Even when I moved here, I didn’t go to shows in high school. I went with my dad once and we saw this Soweto gospel thing that was in town in Dallas but that was it.
Did you pick up music when you moved to Dallas?
My older cousin listened to music. He was with the current stuff, burning CDs from Bearshare or whatever it was. That’s when I kind of started listening to music but even then I wasn’t thinking that I was going to do music. That came about when I was like 16 years old. I stumbled upon people making instrumentals online, selling beats for $20. It just hit me, “People make these instrumentals and they sell them. I want to do that.” That’s really when it started.
What was the first album that stood out to you?
Backtrack to Zimbabwe and the Walkmans -- they were probably played out here -- but my mom had gotten me one shipped to Zimbabwe because at this point she had already left. The CD that came with it [was] a Bad Boys 2 Soundtrack. That was the first CD I had and it was the only CD I ever had. I don’t even know if I listened to it front to back but it’s all I had to listen to. So when I got to America, I pretty much just listened to whatever my cousins listened to.
At the time he was into Bone Crusher, Ludacris, they were crazy about Jay-Z, but I never really listened to people’s bodies of work. On top of that, I was never really listening to lyrics. It was really about the overall sound because I remember in Africa I liked Busta Rhymes but I didn’t know what the hell he was saying. He [just] sounded fire. So for most of my life I never listened to the words, really. It was about the energy. I connected to music because of the energy. [So] I just listened to what everybody else was listening to. I didn’t buy any music [either].
When I really felt inspired, it was [Justin Timberlake’s] FutureSex/LoveSounds. That was, to me, really creative. When I look back, what I liked about it was [that] it was organic and it had a part of home for me [in] the rhythms. It was just a good fusion. It didn’t matter where you’re from, people liked that project. People appreciated it. It didn’t matter who was on it; it was just good music. I aspired to be that. I aspired to be part of something like that.
How has your upbringing played into your career?
I feel like people gravitate towards you because of your experiences. One thing that has really played a huge part in my music is that I didn’t listen to lyrics. I believe that most songs that are big or work and connect, they have that effect. I don’t have to understand what you’re saying. Granted, now I listen to lyrics and bars but that is something that has really helped me. I’ll know if something sounds good or not, [even if] I don’t know what you’re saying.
I heard the songs that were big when I was in Africa at the time and whatever came there at the time that was cool, I heard it. It got to me because it was universally accepted so that’s something that really helped. It really helped having an ear from the other side of the pond. Sometimes, there are some things I don’t get. I might hear somebody’s music from a region and I won’t get it but I’ve learned to accept that I don’t get everything. The other thing [that helped] is that I really didn’t have any idols. Really, my only idol was Timbaland and what he was doing but other than that, I didn’t know music to the point where I had legends.
So you come from Zimbabwe, not really thinking about music until the age of 16 and you work your way into an internship at the legendary Quad Studios.
That was later [but] 16 is when I [decided to do] music and that birthday, the only thing I asked my dad at the time - my day is really strict - was could he please unlock the computer so I could install Reason on it. That’s all I wanted for my birthday. So he did it and I put Reason on it and that’s how it started. After high school, I went to a community college and I started working at AAA. [I] worked at the call center for maybe nine months and got promoted to cost performance analyst but I was just miserable.
It didn’t make sense to me to be paying for my school and working a job I don’t like, paying for school I don’t like, [and] investing in something I have no interest in. It was brutally painful so I found an audio engineering school, Media Tech, and it was [too] expensive for me at the time. It was $20,000 for the program so I dropped out because my idea was, “Well whatever money I was going to spend on that semester [at community college], I’m saving it so I can pay for this.” Eventually, my dad helped me out with my down payment because I was about to sit out a second semester.
I moved to New York [at the age of 20] and started interning at Quad [Studios]. The way I found Quad, because I had no idea about Quad, I went on Google. When I was finishing school at Media Tech, I realized [that] there’s nothing for me here. It was either I have to move or this is the end of it here. I could end up being the best guy in Dallas but that was never what I was after. I needed to be at the highest level so my gut told me to move to New York so I just searched on Google, “top studios in New York”, and Quad came up. I started sending my resume six months before I moved and eventually I got the internship.
While you were at Quad, you ascended really quickly up the ranks.
I was the chief engineer. Actually, I interned at Quad for about three months then the studio closed for a year because they were building a new room then I came back after that and I interned for another three months learning the new room. After I was done learning the room, I was broke. I said, “I think I should start getting paid. I know everything about the room,” and they were like, “we can’t pay you right now.” So I quit and I was doing regular shit. At some point, I had like three jobs. Eventually, I went back for some party and they were like, “You interested in engineering?” They would only call me on the sessions other engineers would get kicked out of. I took the sessions and artists liked me and I ended up becoming the Head Engineer.
How did you end up meeting G-Eazy?
G was no different from everybody else I had worked with. He just came to Quad and at the time I didn’t really know who he was. I didn’t really like to be in the room up until the artist was ready to record because before that people would just be vibing and turning up the music; sometimes artists don’t record until four hours into their session. I went in when he was ready to record and met him. He hops in the booth, I sit down, and we just start cruising. Right away I knew I was going to work with him. You know an artist who does this shit and other artists who are trying to do it; and then there are artists who have never done it. When I sat down with G, I knew right away. You couldn’t take away the fact that the man had been working really hard. When he came out the booth I was like, “Bro, you’re great. I’m going to work with you,” and he said, “Damn bro, I was feeling the same way.” We knew what time it was already. He talked to his managers and then fast forward a couple months [when] he came back from tour and [his team] hit me up and was like, “What are you doing at the end of August? Do you wanna mix the album?” So I left Quad and started working with G from then on. After we did When It’s Dark Out, I was done with New York and I moved to L.A.
What is it like working for G-Eazy?
That very first time we met he was like, “Oh so you produced too, right?” He could tell that I produced because of how I engineered but he actually had never heard any of my music. Fast forward to before [the Endless Summer Tour], he’s like, “Yo I want to produce my tape with you. We’re going to produce the mixtape together.” So we started working on Endless Summer 2 and during that process I think he had been reading the book The Beautiful and Damned. Throughout [recording Endless Summer 2] he was talking about the duality of him being a Gemini and it kind of fizzled.
After the tour, we start kind of working [on the album]. I’d spend time in the studio just building tracks in a way that I see as "beautiful" and "damned." That’s where the title track came from; it kind of sounded beautiful and damned to me. There was another friend of ours, Ed, he helped as far as putting songs together and it was really a vibe. It was very intimate and closed because G knows what he wants.
If [there's] one thing I love about G is that he’s seriously in touch with home. Every album cycle, we go to the Bay for like a week just so we can tap in with the producers and writers and artists that are in the Bay. It’s so dope because it’s giving that opportunity to come out of the Bay - the way he came out of the Bay - to everyone that’s there. G’s one of those people where he doesn’t have to search for people that are big to get on a song with him. If you’re the person that’s on the song and your verse is hard and and you’re a nobody, he’ll keep that verse [on the record]. That’s how he is and that’s fire to me. I really respect that about him. He’s just a cool dude.
Now you’re working on your own album.
I’m not really doing an album; it’s more like a playlist. What’s happening is that I’m doing a DJ/Producer project. I just wanna release my version of dope and connect with the people that connect with what I like. That’s what being an artist is, really, that enough people like your music. What I’ve kind of realized is just that sometimes other people’s version of dope and my [version of dope] just doesn’t match. I’m not trying to be old and have a bunch of music I thought was dope and it never existed because I never placed it with an artist or because it didn’t click with somebody in the business.
On top of that, it’s more so where I come from. If I was younger and there was somebody like me that I had to look up at like, “Holy shit! This dude came from here and he’s doing this?” Because growing up for me, having a studio like this or flying in a private jet was for other people. We only [saw] that on TV but that’s not the case now. It’s a weird place because I’m a shy person but this is not a humble business [but] t’s really exciting. It’s a cool project and I can experiment. I can try new shit. I’m not trying to conform to nothing [or] catch a wave. I might have a version of dope that’s pop or I might have a version of dope that’s straight, southern hip hop. I’m just putting out my version of dope [and] when it exists, it exists because I feel l’ll feel like this is my stopping point.