The guitar tune with a Middle Eastern feel in Blackpink’s How You Like That, the whistling intro of S-Class by Stray Kids, the saxophone melodies in Money and Lalisa by Lisa, and the crowd chants at the start of Seventeen’s Super are all easily recognizable to K-pop fans. Surprisingly, these sounds did not come from the usual Korean super-producers, but from one individual who is thousands of miles away.
Not many individuals connect Niles Hollowell-Dhar with K-pop. He is currently known as Kshmr and initially gained recognition in the mainstream pop scene as a co-producer of the 2010 electro-house track Like a G6. Over the past ten years, he has acted as a DJ at various festivals such as Coachella, Ultra, Sunburn, and Tomorrowland. “I have never been asked about my samples being utilized in K-pop before,” he says with a warm tone, speaking through a video call from Croatia where he is scheduled to perform at the Noa Beach Club. “Let’s get started.”
Hollowell-Dhar has gained a reputation as a prominent figure among music producers due to his popular sample packs, known as Sounds of Kshmr. These packs, which offer a variety of diverse sounds, are shared on the virtual music production platform Splice. The sounds are typically short in duration, ranging from a few seconds, and may include loops (repetitive musical phrases like a guitar riff) or one-shots (a single sound, such as a cymbal). They can also be overlaid with the main instrumentals to enhance the overall sound of a song.
Currently, all of Kshmr’s sound packs are free from royalties. This means that artists do not need to pay or give credit to the creator when using a sound on a track. Those who subscribe to Splice have the option to purchase a sample pack as a one-time buy and can use the sounds as many times as they wish. Generally, Hollowell-Dhar sets a maximum price of $99.99 for each sample pack he uploads to the site, with the largest pack containing 7,000 sounds. This may seem like a small amount to the average person, especially when their work ends up on popular, hit songs.
However, Hollowell-Dhar has a different perspective. He compares the situation to making a guitar and selling a million of them. Some of those guitars may end up being used in the latest rock hit single. Should the creator of the guitar receive royalties from the single? It would not be reasonable to expect that.
Hollowell-Dhar was born in California to an American mother and a Kashmiri Indian father. He began experimenting with music production at the young age of 11. In the early 2000s, he would mix different loops, add his own recordings, and share CDs with other students at Berkeley High School. Some of his classmates included rapper G-Eazy and actor-comedian Andy Samberg. Despite his lack of musical expertise, he reflects on this time with humor, admitting that his music was not very good and he couldn’t even play a single chord.
Hollowell-Dhar often invited fellow students to his makeshift recording studio at his home. During high school, he even wrote a diss track about his classmate David Singer-Vine’s acne. However, their shared passion for music brought them together and they formed the hip-hop duo, the Cataracs, in 2003.
They steadily worked on creating three albums, but were unable to achieve widespread success. However, in 2010, everything changed when they collaborated with Far East Movement on their popular song, “Like a G6.” The track quickly rose to the top of the charts in the US for three weeks and has since gained over 608 million streams on Spotify. This sudden success propelled them into the spotlight. Hollowell-Dhar reflects, “At the time, I was producing for anyone who would hire me. But about eight months later, ‘Like a G6’ came out and completely transformed my life.” After Singer-Vine left the Cataracs in 2012, Hollowell-Dhar continued producing for mainstream artists like Enrique Iglesias, Robin Thicke, and Selena Gomez. Two years later, he shifted his focus to dance music and began releasing songs under the name Kshmr.
At approximately the same time, representatives from Splice reached out to him. The initial purpose of the platform was for producers to work together, but it expanded into a marketplace for sound and a library of samples. These loops have been featured in numerous popular songs, such as those by Lil Nas X and Justin Bieber. “I was pleased to see someone in the music production industry being innovative, so I invested a small amount of money into it,” says Hollowell-Dhar. He was also the first artist to release personalized sound packs on Splice. After eight years, these packs have made him a significant figure in the K-pop scene.
He is aware that his samples are being widely used. “I can’t pinpoint which ones initially caught my attention, but when I saw my samples being used in fan-made compilations in K-pop, it amazed me,” he says with a smile. He doesn’t have much interaction with the industry itself – the closest he has come to the world of K-pop was through his 2021 release, Echo, featuring Indian singer Armaan Malik and K-pop star Eric Nam. “I am open to exploring different genres as long as I am educated about them,” Hollowell-Dhar shares. “Eric has an incredible singing voice, and I am very proud of our collaboration.” He has no plans to raise his prices as he wants his sounds to be accessible. “I am always surprised by how little I care about money compared to others,” he explains. “I am content with being able to order pizza or pay for my dog’s surgery without hesitation.”
Furthermore, he is experiencing success in his career. His most recent project is a hip-hop album called Karam, showcasing solely Indian musicians. “I no longer try to impose my Indian roots on my creations,” explains Hollowell-Dhar, using a stage name that pays tribute to his Kashmiri background. “There was a period where I was determined to introduce Indian elements to western dance music fans, but now I only incorporate it when it fits organically.”
Throughout his career that has shifted from rap to pop to Indian hip-hop, one thing has remained consistent: a deep passion for music. This passion ultimately led Hollowell-Dhar to abandon the lucrative pop industry years ago. He came to the realization that he was more focused on the technicalities of creating a popular song, rather than the music itself. “After some time, I couldn’t distinguish between what I genuinely enjoyed and what was simply making money.”
Ironically, even though Hollowell-Dhar is not interested in achieving fame in the popular music industry, his samples have still allowed him to collaborate with some of its most well-known figures. As a musician, his use of samples is a means of compensating for not having enough time to explore all of his creative interests. He describes it as an offering to the music gods, acknowledging that he cannot produce a thousand Kshmr songs in a year, but by sharing his samples, he is able to inspire thousands of new ideas.