Instrumental Insight • Dee Lilly

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Hometown: Washington DC • Follow: Twitter // Soundcloud

Essential Listens

Dee Lilly's beats come to life, a producer grooving across piano keys and dodging conventional production. Layers of sound folded into each song, auditory stories going down the assembly line - from mind, out the fingers to the piano and into the computer. What comes out the other side is production unlike anyone else's. Dee Lilly’s combo of intuition and experience make for beats that hit hard in the heart and mind.

"I went to an arts high school in DC, the funny thing is I couldn't really sing like that...being in the vocal music department, I took piano classes, and prior to that I watched Purple Rain - when his dad shot himself he went to the piano and played "Purple Rain", I was like 'damn, I don't know who little dude is but he's killing that shit'. I was into piano, music and instrumentation, and in my second year of college one of my friends told me 'I'm gonna be honest with you, you're not the greatest singer.' I was like 'damn' - at that point I thought my career would be singing, but I had bought a pin from Jugrnaut that said 'I MAKE BEATS'. I don't know if it was some sign shit because I wasn't making beats at the time, I just liked the button. But I decided I'm gonna make beats, and that's how I got into production."

From there, he would hang at Guitar Center fiddling with equipment, eventually picking up a Prophet 6 keyboard. The rest is history, and piano has remained essential to Dee Lilly's process. See him work the keys in person and you'll see why his beats stand out. Sound jumps from his fingertips, and the piano is an extension of him.  Those white and black keys are the filter through which he views beat-making, his foundation to build off of and come back to.

"I always start with just playing some chords. Even if that's not the initial sound, I'm gonna use the piano sound, I just have to get some sort of melody  going and build around that...Every time I go to practice keys real quick, I always end up making something. I'll like this melody, go to lay it down, and then before you know it I'm making a beat and not practicing the keys no more. I get up really in the morning time, turn on my equipment, start making music, scrap a lot of ideas, listen to them, bring them right back...that's pretty much how my process goes, and it starts with the keys, always."

By building off his talent on piano Dee Lilly has been able to forge a sound and brand that is uniquely his, with certain tells that you'll only hear in a Dee Lilly track. The bright aesthetic is constant, as well as the piano slide, featured in many of his songs and addictive to the ears. Go deeper under the surface, and you see more levels. For example, the stop-and-go sound, a conscious choice to keep the the listener engaged by interrupting himself here and there. With Dee Lilly, it's all deliberate. 

"It's exactly how I'm feeling, the beat is going and then stops. I want to put people, not in a daze, but make your body do something. Straight beats sometimes, they're great, has to be something interesting. The stutters are the thing that kind of people in for a while, like 'oh damn, that's a little twist, what happened right there.' A vocalist, but not a vocalist."

He continues,

"It's the way I try to do chord structures, stuff like that, and I always try to make the keys sound a little drift-y, it's gonna drift a little bit, you know what I mean? It's not like a specific thing, but it's specific in the way that when you hear it, you know 'that's Lilly, he did that shit, he definitely did that shit'"

Dee Lilly's understanding of music gives his tracks balance. The raw energy is there, but his songs are polished to a shine with expertly crafted composition. A student of music who attended art school at just about every level of education, Dee Lilly's output reflects someone who has been preparing for this his whole life. It's this insight that's put him in demand with artists like Mick Jenkins, Jamila Woods and more.

"The thing that it's taught me is that there's a difference between live and in the studio - you have to be two different musicians. Live, there's more room...On the track, it can't be too complicated...If you have 18 chord changes,  you can't ever get in it because the shits always changing, when you think you're in it, you're not in it...Being musically trained, I understand that. And getting into production, I had the learning curve when it came to sound, where to put the right sounds, when enough is enough... It was great, having that musical knowledge, to understand what your inspirations are doing."

His process is responsible for taking that musical knowledge and executing with it. His weapons of choice are the Prophet 6 keyboard, Juno keyboard / synths, minilogue, various FX, soundtoys, maschine for drums and Logic. But above all else, it's his love for the craft that makes his beats so deadly. You might describe him as a workaholic, but he just loves creating.

"I get up really early in the morning time because I'm an early morning creator. My body just naturally gets up, and when I wake up I'm staring right at my equipment so I'm like 'alright, I'm about to go in right now'. I wake up, and no funny shit, I don't take a shower, I don't brush my teeth, I don't do none of that shit - it's all wasted time... If I can make 20 beats in a day, I'm not learning shit. I just can't because I'm used to it, It's always got to be hard for me to do."

Now, Dee Lilly is signed to DC based Fête Records, who reached out to him after he gained traction with his song "Relax". Look back at everything, and its no surprise that the defining characteristic of his music is that it's very, very, hot. Good luck getting on his level, though - Dee Lilly has already been working all morning.