“I can’t believe I went there,” says Armen Keleshian, the photographer who shot Sean “Diddy” Combs’ first studio session with Dr. Dre. “It’s like going to the White House.”
Keleshian’s photos captured the two moguls in their happy place — recording, creating, vibing and making history. As Diddy himself wrote in a lengthy caption: “I remember the first time I heard @DrDre’s production. It gave me clear direction on the level of Producer that I wanted to be. Last night, I got the chance to work with this man and to see his genius as he coached me through vocals. He reminded me of myself, but with a different style and way more focused. I gotta step my focus up! lol But it was a great experience and I thank God for it. I hope one day ya’ll get to have the same experience with someone that you always looked up to as a hero.”
The session was held at Dre’s house in Los Angeles, where visitors included Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Tank, and, per the Rap Radar podcast, intended for a future Dr. Dre project. Variety spoke with Keleshian, who first met Diddy in 2017 at Complexcon and works a day job in IT, about being a fly on the wall in a room full of heavies.
How did you end up shooting the Diddy and Dr. Dre session?
He reached out to me on Instagram and said: “We need to make some art, text me.” And he passed along his number. Three hours later, he goes, “I’m in the studio with Dre. Where are we at?” It all happened that day. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like we talked for months. He shot me Dre’s address and I pulled up. When I got there, I had no idea what the fuck I was walking into.
What was the vibe in the room?
I got there at midnight and they had been there for a minute. I walked in, and Puff’s already on the mic. … It was a cool, catchy beat Dre had on, and they were vibing and feeding off each other. They were joking around, dabbing each other up.
Dr. Dre was doing his magic, that’s his coaching. “Let’s say this or remove that part. Add this, say this word like that.” He’s the master of his craft. It was good times. There were musicians there: someone playing bass, playing guitar. There was a bunch of producers. I thought it was his studio crew, people he normally works with.
But he was on the board the whole time. It’s not like he left. He was the one saying “let’s do another take. Let’s bring it back, cut it here.” On point.
What else stood out from the evening?
There were snacks all over the studio. It was a very nice, clean, professional set up. It wasn’t one of those studios where you walk in and there’s blunt ashes everywhere.
Dr. Dre’s work demeanor and the people around him is one thing that stood out to me. This man’s been doing this for a very long time. He recognized the flaws of other people, and he’s brought it to life and made a better thing out of it. As I’m shooting these pictures, I’m looking at these guys who, at some point, ran hip-hop on each coast, and they had beef with each other. And all these years later, they’re recording a song together, which is dope.
How did you get into photography?
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. When I was 15 years old, I was bored at home and my dad had an old camera. I picked it up. I was fucking around: shooting landscapes, sunsets, my friends in school, just trying to learn how to use the camera.
At 16, I started interning at a radio station that threw all these festivals and got all these artists to come. I started shooting and wasn’t really good at it, but I was the only guy doing it. I started a Facebook page, that slowly gained traction. It’s a small country, everyone knows everyone. Every event that was happening, I was there shooting. I gained a little following, maybe 500 people.
The other day, I literally found the first concert I’ve ever shot: a Shakira show in Lebanon in 2006 or 2007. This is 15, 16 years ago, I remember like it was yesterday because I was so passionate about it.
I moved to LA in 2011, and was going to school for business, but kept shooting. Fast forward to 2017, I was shooting a Power 106 concert and got a photo of Post Malone backstage that blew up on Complex. They saw it on my Instagram and posted it. … I built a relationship with the social media team, went to New York and met them in person. It wasn’t just an Instagram thing, I built those relationships. One thing led to another.