For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
If the Drake vocals come in, he knows. For more than five years, engineer Ayo Juan has been DJ Khaled’s righthand man, helping him mold recording takes into timeless hits.
“We’ve had so many long sessions. The longest was probably 24 hours. We worked on a couple of records with Future,” Juan told REVOLT. “Future works super late in the studio. He could go all night, until the next day and keep going.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Juan talks working with Khaled during the pandemic, Bryson Tiller giving Khaled headaches over “Wild Thoughts,” and the time Game and Trey Songz brought 50 women to the studio.
How did you link up with Cool & Dre?
Once I graduated from SAE Institute in the top 5 in my class in early 2008, I was in the streets. I was recording for every upcoming artist. I was mixing for everybody. It got to a point where my boy put me on to Cool & Dre needing an engineer. I went up to their studio and said, “I’m down to take on the internship.” From there, I made history. They accepted me in 2012 and took me in. I worked with them for about two years.
How did you get to DJ Khaled?
Before I was Khaled’s engineer, I was Fat Joe’s engineer. When I became his engineer, Joe got locked up for tax evasion (in 2013). So, working with him was put to pause. I was always working with Cool & Dre, but mainly with Dre because he would be the one writing music for artists. From there, Khaled would go to his studio all the time. Diddy would go out there and other celebrities. Khaled would go frequently. As Khaled was taking off, Khaled’s engineer Ben Billions was taking off on the production side. He started his own production thing and doing his thing. So, Khaled needed another engineer. That’s when the opportunity arose to go on with Khaled.
You were around Khaled in 2014, one of the few years in the last decade where he didn’t put out an album. What was it like being around him at that time?
That’s when I started working with him, but it wasn’t how I was working with him now. He was trying to find the right engineer. I’m not going to say him and Dre were fighting, but I know Khaled was either negotiating and talking with Dre about how to get me to work with him. They ended up figuring it out. What I love about Cool & Dre is they give everyone an opportunity. If you do right by them, they make sure to do right by you. They made sure I got my opportunity. I took full advantage of it and I’m where I’m at today.
What does Khaled like in the studio to make music?
Khaled is really passionate about what he does. The way you see him on social media is how he is in real life. Khaled just wants the job done and the job to be done right. That’s his name and his legacy. Me, as an engineer, I can’t mess that up for him.
With that dedication, what’s the longest you two have ever been in the studio together?
We’ve had so many long sessions. The longest was probably 24 hours. We worked on a couple of records with Future. Future works super late in the studio. He could go all night, until the next day and keep going.
I heard some of Future’s collaborations on Khaled’s albums are from him freestyling, and you two making choruses and verses. Is that true?
Yep, that’s what we do. That’s how we did “I Got The Keys.” Future is the type of artist who doesn’t write. He spits straight through. Once he spits straight through, he’ll go, “I know there’s a couple of good things there. You can chop it up. Do what you do, Khaled.” That’s what we do. We sat there and Khaled said, “Make this the hook. Make this the verse.”
That’s a very collaborative process. How do you two work together in the studio?
He’ll tell me what he wants to get done and how he sees the record, and that’s what I deliver. It got to the point where I know him and how he’ll want to hear the song. Now, I’ll give it to him how I think he’ll like the song. He’ll hear it and adjust it to the sound he likes. He’ll be like, “This sounds dope, but make these changes.” That’s how we work.
Are there any songs where your creative contributions are heard the most?
When I work on a record with Khaled, they send me the record. My job is to give it to him as if we’re about to send it into the label. I have to make it sound good. That’s what I do. I’ll mix it and add effects into it. I really got creative with “How Many Times.” If you see in the hook [where it stutters], that was me who did that.
How did ‘Nas Album Done’ come about?
We worked on that one for quite a bit — a couple of months. Nas ended up sending the vocals, we started tweaking it, and sending it back and forth on the mix. That wasn’t too hard. The one I spent a lot of time on was “I’m The One.” For that, I flew to Atlanta and ended up staying with Quavo for a few days in his house (laughs). So, I was hanging with him. He was the first verse we got. Then, Bieber sent his verse in with the hook. We got Chance the Rapper last.
How did Khaled even get the idea to put those four artists together?
He sits with his writers and they write the song. In this case, he already had in mind to put Justin on it, so he got with Justin’s writer to write the song. The way Khaled thought of Quavo and Chance beats me. He’ll ask me who will sound good on a song and I’ll give my opinion. He has his own method to his madness.
How did “Wild Thoughts” happen?
That one we went to Bryson Tiller’s house a few times for. Rihanna came over to Khaled’s house to hear the song and then go send it in. We had a few bumps in the road on that one, but we got it happened. At one point, Bryson didn’t even want to be on the song, so Khaled was having a heart attack. Bryson felt he didn’t fit the song well.
He didn’t want to be on the song before or after he recorded his part?
After. What happened was that Rihanna did her part and then we got Bryson on there. Then, Rihanna changed the pitch of the song. Her changing the pitch meant Bryson would have to re-record. Bryson was like, “Ahhh man, I don’t think I fit the song.”
When would you say Bryson was voicing his hesitancy?
Probably two to four weeks before the release. Khaled was having the biggest heart attack.
What was your favorite session?
There are so many of them. For instance, the session with JAY-Z was a definitive moment for me. Some people get put in those sort of situations and don’t know how to act, they freeze up. I’m different. I don’t do any of that. The way I see it is I’m on a mission and I’m locked in on the mission. This was for “I Got The Keys.”
Give us the backstory on Khaled’s “Everything’s top-secret” catchphrase.
I’m not a social media person. One day, Khaled came up to me and said, “Do this, I’ll say this, and then I’ll say that.” I was like, “OK. Whatever you need me to do.” Then, he went, “Ayo Juan, did the Drake vocals come in?” Then, I’d go, “Everything’s top-secret, my brother.”
Is that the feeling working with Khaled?
Everything is top-secret with that man. I have to make sure none of his music leaks. Do you know how many people would love to hear a Beyonce or Future song before it comes out? There was one song that leaked that I worked on with him. It wasn’t my fault. It was on the other end’s fault because the version that leaked was a version I didn’t have. It was a song he worked on with J. Lo called “Dinero.”
How has his studio evolved over the last four years?
We started in Warehouse Studios. Once Khaled got a new house in L.A., he put a studio there, so he’d stop paying for studios in L.A. Then, when he brought a house here in Miami, he ended up putting a studio in this house too. A lot of people use his Warehouse Studio, so he can give them the chance to keep working out of that studio and he can record at home. He’s more comfortable working from home.
Does he allow people to smoke in the studio?
The studio is separate from his house, so they can smoke in the studio.
He’s made albums while his wife was pregnant and when he’s had a newborn. Has his home life ever affected the recording?
Nah. He knows how to balance his time between home life, studio life, and work life. He has a lot of people around him helping.
What was the most packed studio session you’ve ever been in?
When I was working with The Game’s The Documentary 2, I’ve never witnessed so many women in one place in this one session. There were a lot of niggas in the studio. For you to surpass the amount of niggas in the studio with women left me speechless. There were at least 30-40 niggas and about 50 women. This was at Cool & Dre’s Record Room Studio. Game called over Trey Songz, Pleasure P, and a bunch of people. Trey Songz shows up with three sprinter vans full of only women. There were no guys. It was only women.
Trey didn’t do a single song on The Documentary 2. What was he doing there?
They worked on songs together. When that album came out, I was a little disappointed because I was like, “Damn, why didn’t they use this or that song?” He had a hit record I thought he should’ve dropped.
What’s Game’s recording process like?
He doesn’t write his music down. He gets in there and records.
Did the pandemic affect any plans you and Khaled had?
He made adjustments, but he still on work mode.
When was the last time you two were in the studio together?
It’s been a minute. The last time we were in the studio was probably the beginning of March, ending of February.
Have you and Khaled been working during the quarantine?
Yeah, we’ve been working from home. We’re sending files back and forth. He’ll send me what needs to be done and I’ll get it done for him. We have a lot of things in the pipeline. Stay tuned.