Two very different kinds of education went into the music that has brought Rogét Chahayed a 2022 Grammy nomination for producer of the year, non-classical. One was traditional music school: the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Chahayed studied classical music and jazz and earned a degree in piano performance. The second was a studio apprenticeship of late nights and split-second decisions: playing keyboards and building beats for the Los Angeles hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre.
“The real me is a blend of classical music, jazz harmony and technique, everything together,” Chahayed said, speaking via video from his home studio in Los Angeles, where rows of electronic keyboards filled a wall of shelves, “So you’ll hear the voicings of Debussy and Ravel and stuff like that, that I really love, in my left hand, but maybe in the right hand I might be trying some Art Tatum. I love to try and see the connection between everything.”
Chahayed’s huge catalog includes Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More”; Jessie Reyez’s “Far Away”; Halsey’s “Bad at Love”; Big Sean’s “ZTFO”; Miguel’s “Sky Walker”; Kali Uchis’s “I Want War (But I Need Peace)”; Nas’s “27 Summers”; and two Grammy-nominated songs from previous years, Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later” and Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” His nomination on Sunday is for songs with Kali Uchis, Doja Cat and Anderson .Paak, among others.
Chahayed’s studio work draws on a store of music theory and music history along with instinct, attentiveness and luck. As a producer and songwriter, he can assemble complex harmonies and subtle multitracked orchestrations, reflecting his conservatory studies.
But Chahayed can also come up with skeletal, arresting, earworm riffs that he often enriches, spatially and harmonically, as a track unfolds. He doesn’t mind repeating just two or three chords. “A lot of my composer and classical instrumentalist friends might look at that as like, ‘Oh, it’s so simple,’” he said. “Actually, producing music today reminds me a lot about the way Mozart would compose. Obviously a lot of Mozart’s music is very simple and very digestible, and it’s so open that if you make a mistake, you can hear everything. The difficulty is finding the simplicity, finding that golden chord progression.”
Chahayed adeptly navigates the way songs are made in the 21st century: a process that’s at once musicianly, technological, intuitive and brutally Darwinist. Hooks and beats that were recorded in a few moments can sit for months on a hard drive, to be discovered, tweaked and augmented by collaborators who have never met. All that matters is whether someone hears that a track has potential, wants to finish it and finds something that works.
“If I have a philosophy, it’s that I want to be able to execute the vision of the artist first,” Chahayed said. “But also to do it in a way that’s innovative, that’s always finding a way to push the boundaries sonically.”
The Colombian American songwriter Kali Uchis has only released a few tracks with Chahayed’s production — including “Aguardiente y Limón,” cited in his Grammy nomination — but they live near each other in Los Angeles, and she often visits his studio to work on music.
A Guide to the 2022 Grammy Awards
The ceremony, originally scheduled for Jan. 31, was postponed for a second year in a row due to Covid and is now scheduled for April 3.
“He just loves to just create, create, create,” she said by telephone from Los Angeles. “Just for the pure satisfaction of making things that are unique, and not for any type of ulterior capitalistic motives. If it so happens to end up being a big song, then great. But with me and Rogét, I’ve never gotten in the studio and felt any weird pressure to go in any direction. It was alway very organic, very natural and very, just, free.”
After graduating from the conservatory in 2010, Chahayed moved back to Los Angeles, where he grew up; his mother is from Argentina, his father from Syria. He played jazz and chamber-music gigs and taught piano lessons; he also found a mentor: Melvin Bradford, better known as Mel-Man, one of Dr. Dre’s main producers since the 1990s.
“I’d go to his house and make five to eight beats per day. From 1 p.m. all the way to sometimes 2, 3 or 4 in the morning,” he said. “We would send countless beats to Dre every day, just in hopes that maybe something would click.”
He added, “It was definitely a big difference from sitting in a class learning about Bach chorales or ear training.”
Chahayed also collaborated with others, including the producer Wesley Singerman. In 2013, they sold outright some tracks they had made; their music turned up, uncredited, on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” in “For Sale?” and “U.”
In 2014, Mel-Man surprised Chahayed one day by taking him to an unmarked building. It was Dr. Dre’s studio. “This door opens, and I just see a giant S.S.L. and Dre is sitting there turning knobs with his hands,” Chahayed said, referring to a Solid State Logic recording console. “He told me that he heard I was nice on the keys and he was going to put me to the test.”
He passed muster and started working on Dre’s productions. “You have a responsibility to be the best you can be all the time and constantly portray musical excellence: technique, taste, flavor, rhythm,” he said. “I’ve had Dre right there, standing over everybody saying, ‘Hey, what you got?’ And when you have the biggest, most influential producer and rapper in the world telling you that, you’ve got to act.”
One of Chahayed’s first blockbuster hits was “Broccoli” by Dram (who now goes by Shelley FKA Dram), featuring Lil Yachty, which has been streamed more than a billion times. Its steady-plinking piano chords, Chahayed said, were a happy accident. He had packed up his equipment after a session with Dram, only to receive a last-minute call that Lil Yachty was on his way to the studio. He unpacked and plugged in a keyboard, playing a few chords to test the connection; those chords became the song’s central loop.
“Where and how I find most of my success as a producer and songwriter is, you know, just showing up,” Chahayed said. “Finding a sound and coming up with the progression, or a riff, or something identifiable that catches people’s attention.”
“Kiss Me More,” the hit by Doja Cat featuring SZA that is nominated for record of the year (the recorded track), song of the year (the composition) and as part of album of the year, could have ended up as one more stray computer file. Chahayed was working with Yeti Beats, Doja Cat’s longtime executive producer, at what he called “a beat cook-up session.” Yeti Beats suggested some “keywords” — “anime music” and “cuteness” — with Doja Cat in mind.
“I grew up with four younger sisters, and we all bonded a lot over anime and video game stuff,” Chahayed said. “This cute jazzy vibe from a lot of games kind of seeped in. So I tapped back into that realm that specific day, and we made a few ideas.”
He chose a guitar-like sound and recorded a twinkly little riff that “just kind of came naturally in the moment,” he said. “I knew there was something special about that track.” Yeti Beats repeatedly presented the riff to Doja Cat, and at one session, he sped it up; it clicked.
As Chahayed’s reputation has grown, so has his control over his music. He sometimes turns down requests to use his beats for particular songs. And, whenever possible, he tries to work alongside the main artist in real time.
“For most people, a general procedure is have tons of beats and melodies and ideas and things of that sort ready. A lot of artists have a different kind of attention span, and maybe react better to things that are ready-made. But I’ve adapted more to the spontaneity of just showing up with the instruments. I enjoy working with the artists who let me cook from scratch.”
He’s also looking ahead. “I always have a five-to-10-year plan,” he said. “Thankfully, I have been able to hit my last five-year goal: You know, get No. 1s, get Grammy nominated, accumulate tons of record sales and charting stuff. And it’s cool, but it only fuels me to go further. My real passion is that I want to score movies. I want to do what John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Bernard Herrmann do. Those guys are my true heroes.”
He added, “I’ll never stop producing. I’ll never stop making beats. I’ll never stop working with artists. But I would love it if you’re watching a movie and seeing ‘Music by Rogét Chahayed.’ That’s my obsession.”