To get a camera into some of the sessions Armen Keleshian has been in would be “mission impossible” for anyone without his reputation. For example, he’s one of the few people to hear Dr. Dre and Sean “Diddy” Combs (fka Puff Daddy) recording together for the first time.
“You know how Puff has his own boss demeanor? That demeanor was definitely present in his voice and his words. But it was all about love, unity and coming together while reminding everyone who he is and what he does,” Keleshian told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the respected fly-on-the-wall photographer describes the presidential extravagance of Dr. Dre’s home studio, watching Wiz Khalifa record with his favorite artists of all time, and an upcoming book spanning his 12-year photography career. Read our exclusive conversation below.
You photographed Dr. Dre and Diddy’s first session. Walk me through what it was like getting into and being at Dre’s studio.
Dre’s house is deep up into the hills. You have to go through a gated community at the bottom of the hill to go through another gated community to get to Dre’s house that has its own security. It’s like its own gated community at his house. His mansion is huge. It’s not a house; it’s a state. I went through two separate securities. There were two armed security guys outside. It’s like the White House. You go downstairs, and it opens up to this big lounge area and that’s it. You don’t see anything else. The interiors are so well-designed that the studio door perfectly blends into the wall. Once you go through the two-door entrance to the actual studio, it has to be the best studio I’ve ever been to. It’s very well-maintained, very clean, and very professional. The bathroom has an iPad where you can turn on lights, heaters and all kinds of crazy stuff. You can’t just go to the bathroom and flush the toilet. You have to interact with this iPad (laughs).
When I opened the door to the studio, Puff saw me and went, “Yo, come in.” He tells Dre who I am. So I shake their hands, and I just disappear into the corner. I’m wearing all black. Puff likes red lights, so they start putting on the red lights. When I got there, there were these two lines they kept repeating — the hook. They were so happy when they finally got it, cheering and dapping each other up. It was a moment. I’m just sitting in the corner like, “Bro, what the f**k am I doing here?” It was pure greatness. I ensured the photos matched the level of what was happening. I had two cameras, and I was switching lenses. Puff’s video guy was filming video of it as well. I really hope that, that song comes out one day.
I have to know. What was Diddy giving on his verse?
I think it was a balance between both [Puff and his alter ego Love]. You know how Puff has his own boss demeanor? That demeanor was definitely present in his voice and his words. But it was all about love, unity and coming together while reminding everyone who he is and what he does.
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I’ve also seen your photos of Snoop Dogg talking with Dre. What were those conversations about?
Since they talked about it publicly, I can say they discussed the rollout for the album they’re doing together. When I first entered that lounge room, I opened the door, and Snoop was having a conversation with Salehe Bembury… just sitting there having a conversation. Snoop actually walked into the studio to listen to what they were working on and was like, “This s**t is crazy.” I captured that photo as well. I can’t wait to share that. I’ll definitely put that in the book I’m working on. I got all that, and I was only there for about an hour and a half.
How do you get these intimate and candid moments of artists without disrupting their creative process?
I’m always a fly on the wall. Whether in the car, at a concert, backstage, or anywhere. I don’t try to be the guy with the camera running around trying to get the shot. If you see JAY-Z walk by, you don’t want to just run up and try to get that photo. I’ve been doing it for a long time; it’s my acquired skill. I have confidence in myself, knowing I will have two seconds to get that shot when the opportunity presents itself. And when I do, I have to wait for it to be the right moment. You’re in such an intimate setup with these people… up close. Some people might have somebody in the background [who doesn’t] want to be in photos. Some people might have stuff on the table they don’t want to be seen. You have to be very careful in those situations. I’ll enter the room and won’t shoot for about an hour. I’m just hanging around, roaming around. I want people to understand what kind of a person I am. I’m not on my phone. I don’t want them to think I’m recording or leaking stuff. I’m just sitting there vibing, nodding my head, and going with the flow.
Legendary hip hop manager Steve Lobel helped usher you into some big studio sessions early on in your career. One in particular was between megaproducers Scott Storch and Zaytoven.
That’s crazy that you know I was there. I had forgotten about that session. I was rolling around with Steve. We had actually gone to see Nipsey [Hussle]. We were in Crenshaw. We went to hang out with Nipsey. Right after that, on the way back, Steve was like, “Yo, Scott’s going to be in this session with Zaytoven. They’re working on some stuff. Come get some photos and do your thing.” We went to the session — some sessions you go into and it’s the artist, their manager, the engineer, and the producer. Sometimes you go into those big sessions, and there are 30 people in there, and you don’t know what’s going on. This was a balanced one. It was about six or seven people, but it was all focused. Once the creative juices started flowing, Zay and Scott were going off, bouncing off of each other. Zay would play a beat, Scott would play on it, and Zay would be like, “Hold on, you’re playing in this key, let me switch the BPM.” It’s cool to see people go back and forth and bounce off each other. You don’t see a lot of people get in the studio together anymore. Some people just send each other stuff.
Are there any other sessions that impressed you with their historical gravity?
I was in the studio with Wiz [Khalifa] and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Steve [Lobel] was also one of those people that actually put that together. Wiz’s favorite artists of all time is Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Steve was managing them then, and I was cool with Wiz for an entirely different reason. I used to work at the Apple store where he used to come. I’ve helped him so much that I became his guy. I would fix his phone and his computer whenever he needed. He’d just hit me up. But then he’d see me at shows and say, “You’re taking pictures now?” He gave me a lot of opportunities that way. It was that studio session where they had all the members of Bone there in LA. So, Wiz was like, “Dude, we have to record something.” So, when they all came together, they had a good time in the studio and recorded something really good. The song [“Reach For The Stars”] ended up coming out.
We were in there for maybe 12 or 14 hours that day. I witnessed everybody come in, come out, take a smoke break, eat, and take a nap (laughs). Four would be there first, and the fifth person would be running late. It’s those moments that you just can’t plan. That chemistry of coming together and seeing the final product is cool.
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What do you have coming up in 2023?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed on Instagram and stuff, but I haven’t been going out to shoot a lot of events lately. I’m trying to move to doing more studio, close-up, one-on-one photography. I’m trying to do some next-level s**t. To go to the next level, I have to challenge myself creatively. I want to put myself in situations where I’m experimenting with lighting and shooting something like a Billboard cover, an album cover, or something like that. I’m 31 years old, and I’m starting to realize longevity in this game is more in capturing iconic moments. But it’s also about staying relevant and true to who you are after all these years.
There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t put out because it’s coming out in the book. That’s what I’m working on this year. It’s something that’s taken up a lot of time. It takes a lot of preparation to make sure that it’s a cohesive story that’s being told because I have 12 years worth of stuff coming out in that book. So, I have people’s entire careers captured from before they took off. The biggest thing is to stay healthy and be able to do what I do. If you’re healthy, you can do anything you want. The brain is a very powerful tool, but it can control you. It could be the reason why you stay in your comfort zone. Nothing can stop you if you’re healthy and you can maintain your mental and physical health.