DJ Khalil and Will Claye Bond through Inspiration on “Wee Hours”
The world-class athlete and the artist talk the recording process, life experiences and the new film, "Elevate."
DJ Khalil knows a good collaboration when he sees one. Over the course of a 20-year career, the super-producer—born Khalil Abdul-Rahman—has gone from flipping samples to working with musicians to create their own primary source. Having worked with artists from Raekwon and 50 Cent to Drake and Eminem, Khalil has developed an eye for finding new talent to work with.
“In the first thirty seconds, you kind of get a vibe from somebody and how open they are,” he explains via Zoom. “I normally do things from scratch when working with an artist. I work with musicians and we do jam sessions. We try out different ideas with the artist and see what sticks. Most of the time, within two or three ideas, the artist is like ‘I love it’ and they can’t believe how fast it comes together. We can put ideas together like [snaps fingers] that. If they don’t like the initial batch of ideas, we come back 15 minutes later with a new idea.”
This method has served Khalil and his collaborators well since 2006. When he first got in touch with athlete-rapper Will Claye earlier this year, Khalil saw no red flags. He and Claye bonded over music and life before beginning to spitball ideas for a song that would eventually become their latest collaboration, “Wee Hours.” “I could feel the energy even through the phone. I’ve been listening to records Khalil produced for the longest [time], so I’m already a fan type-vibe,” Claye explains on a video call. “It was cool to take some gems from him. I ask him so many questions because he’s been with the best artists. Whatever game you got, give it to me.”
That game shines through in the Red Bull documentary “Elevate,” which is centered around Claye, his Olympic training, and he and Khalil’s work on the single “Wee Hours” (available today via Red Bull Records). The song is a rallying cry for those affected by mounting racial injustice, a chance for Claye to inspire a generation to find the courage to fight back against oppression.
On top of producing the song, Khalil also provides the score for Elevate, which contorts itself accordingly to match Claye’s compelling life story. “With scoring, you’re trying to capture a certain moment,” Khalil explains. “It’s almost like a roller-coaster: you have to be able to weave all these emotions through a whole scene.” According to Khalil, the most challenging aspect of creating the score was capturing Claye’s emotional range as shown throughout the film. The core sample of “Wee Hours” had a “momentum” that Khalil was able to harness throughout the process: “Sometimes, I would half-time it or pitch it down, just trying different ways to use it. It was a lot of work, but I think it came out really dope.”
The duo found kindred spirits in each other before they even made it to the studio; as music fans and as men in a constant state of evolution. By the time they came together to create “Wee Hours” in person, the stage was set for another fiery single. Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions disrupted Khalil’s usual process.
“Because of COVID, I couldn’t even have my musicians in there,” he elaborates. It might seem like not having his band would be a handicap, but Khalil had enough foresight to salvage the session. “I had jam sessions prior to [this] session, so I already had ideas because we’d done the work beforehand. By the time we got in there, I was just sifting through ideas. I tried to be as prepared as possible since I didn’t have the musicians coming in.”
Khalil and Claye only had about six hours to record and mix the song, so they wasted no time getting into it. Khalil would run the song back for Claye as he began to put his first verse and the song’s hook together in his head. Claye’s voice flows through strobing synths and cracking drums like a satellite through a meteor shower, leaving behind inspirational nuggets in its wake: “Ain’t shit sweet where we stay, and ain’t shit televised / You’d better stand close when I’m tellin’ mines, ‘cause the daily news fake; they be tellin’ lies.”
“As far as everything I’ve been through and everything that’s brought trauma to my life, it seemed like it would last forever when I was in the thick of it. But I always came out better. Continue to grow. Those hardships and valleys are for growth, and those spaces are where you grow the most."
Before either of them knew it, the first half of the song was done. Both of their engines were revved up, and the duo’s inspiration seeped over into the other. During a quick food break, Claye was even compelled enough to keep recording. “Something just spoke to me, so I walked out and headed to the booth and told the engineer I was ready and started cutting the second verse,” he says. “I see everybody come from the backroom into the control room and from there, the energy just erupted again. That was a cool moment to see how the sound was penetrating the walls.” According to Khalil, even the crew recording the session couldn’t stop humming the song under their breath when it was finished. The song was slowly becoming undeniable.
The energy in the studio was swirling, and Claye was skating over the pulsing beat. It seemed to have ignited a fire in him, pushing him toward something new. Khalil agreed with this thought: “I feel like [“Wee Hours”] was a departure from what he normally does, something a little more experimental.” That experimental nature proved to be contagious, as Khalil was bitten with the bug shortly after.
Even though Khalil is the artist with more experience, he’s not afraid to find inspiration in working with artists younger than him. Much talk is made of how hip-hop is inherently a young person’s game, but the creation of “Wee Hours” is proof that anyone willing to be flexible, no matter how old they are, will come out ahead. “We can tailor it to whatever and listen to references and samples or [the artist] can come with an idea and we can try to come up with something in the same vein,” Khalil says. “I’d rather it be spontaneous than some kind of calculated batch of beats. You can catch a dope record that way too, but I just love working from scratch because everyone’s more emotionally invested. That carries on through in the music.”
The inspiration shared between Khalil and Claye can be heard in the final product. After recording, mixing, and mastering, the intent of “Wee Hours” is clear: to inspire listeners to push through their own personal darkness and to take nothing at face value. Putting in your 10,000 hours and persevering through any field will keep you grounded, no matter what life throws at you.
Claye cites his journey from growing up in Tucson, AZ to juggling careers as a rapper and Olympic track and field athlete as proof of this philosophy: “As far as everything I’ve been through and everything that’s brought trauma to my life, it seemed like it would last forever when I was in the thick of it. But I always came out better. Continue to grow. Those hardships and valleys are for growth, and those spaces are where you grow the most."
In Claye, Khalil has found not just a partner in music, but a guiding light for a new generation. He sees a lot of Nipsey Hussle’s motivational everyman ethos in Claye’s music, the kind that will surely ignite the hustle in generations to come. “I think this is a record that people actually need to hear. Someone will connect with this record because it came from his heart,” Khalil concludes. “Seeing his struggle and what he’s been through, it just makes perfect sense. I think this is gonna help somebody and that’s ultimately the goal. That’s what we’re here for; to inspire people.”