The saying that one picture is worth a thousand words usually proves to be a mere cliche. Yet, the images of Hip-Hop icons Dr. Dre and Sean “Diddy” Combs working on music together for the time ever back in August, encapsulates a wealth of history. Those candid moments, which marked a studio session and collaboration decades overdue, were captured by Armen Keleshian, a 30-year-old Los Angeles-based photographer who’s love for Hip-Hop has taken him across the globe.
Born in the U.S., Keleshian and his family moved to Beirut, Lebanon when he was a child. The Armenian-American grew up in the Middle East, discovering his future career-path as a teenager after tinkering with a camera he found at home. Honing his craft while shooting at concert events for radio stations, Keleshian first made a name by shooting pop stars like Shakira and Evanescence before switching his focus to Hip-Hop.
Moving to Los Angeles at 19 years-old, Keleshian began scoring gigs with rising stars like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, Migos, and Nipsey Hussle. The shooter spoke with VIBE about his transition and capturing the formative moments of artists that would go on to become household names. “I mean, I’ve done a lot of work back home, but I wouldn’t really say out there it really stood out. When I moved to L.A., I kind of (took) a different approach where I was like going to these music video shoots,” Keleshian recalls. “Doing behind the scenes of connecting with directors, producers and all that.”
Over the following decade, Keleshian would build a reputation as one of the hottest young photogs in L.A., with his harem of superstar subjects and clients broadcasting his work across the internet. Before long, Keleshian’s portraits found their way to Sean “Diddy” Combs, who befriended him and ultimately contacted him with a chance at helming the shoot of a lifetime.
VIBE spoke with Armen Keleshian about documenting the monumental occasion shared by Dr. Dre and Diddy, the cultural significance of the moment, what actually occurred during the studio session and what fans can expect once the music is finally unveiled.
You recently captured images of Dr. Dre and Diddy working in the studio for the first time ever. What’s the backstory?
Honestly, it was just kind of crazy. I’ve connected with Puff before multiple times, we first met in Complex Con back in like 2017, I believe. And you know, I’ve been to his house. I’ve shot parties there through his team who’s hired me or like the teams at Ciroc who’s hired me to shoot promo content, but I’ve always been around them and his people. Back in the day, he followed me on Instagram, it was cool. I was like, ‘Wow, this is legendary,’ but I never really made anything out of it. I was just sitting at home and out of nowhere man, I got a message from Puff saying ‘Hey, man, we need to create some dope art. I love your vibe, we need to create some art together, text me.’ And he just sent me his number and I was like, ‘Wow, this is fucking huge.’ So I immediately text him, he goes, ‘Yo, I love your vibe, I love what you’re doing. Who do you work with, what do you do?’ And I was like, ‘I’m freelance, I can work with whoever I want.’ He was like, ‘All right, cool, I’m gonna keep you in my close contacts. I have a couple things coming up. I’m gonna be out of town, but when I come back, we’ll reconnect .’ And pretty much, that was it.
A few hours later that night, I was just at home getting ready to go to bed and I just got a text from Puff. ‘I’m at Dre’s house. We’re in the studio recording together for the first time. Where you at?’ I didn’t even know [what to say]. At first, I was like, ‘He’s at Dr. Dre’s house?’ Like just hearing Dre and Puff together, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t be missing this.’ So I was like, ‘I’m ready, just send me the address.’ He sent me the address, I got there, it was just like going to the White House. It’s like getting an invite to the White House, you know? It’s like so exclusive, you don’t really get to go into studio with Dre like that. So just being in there, man, I was just soaking it all up like a sponge. I was looking at these guys. I’m like, wow the history that’s in this room right now and just seeing what is happening in front of my eyes as I am witnessing history happen, you know what I mean. You hear all these stories, people talk about all this stuff, but like one day, I’ll be able to tell those stories because I’m part of something that iconic.
So, I just held my ground. I shot my photos the way I would, I didn’t really feel nervous or anything. I was just like, ‘I’m here for a reason. I was chosen to be here for a reason and I’m just gonna shoot this just like I shoot any other gig that I get.’ I didn’t let that moment’s weight impact how I would approach or shoot stuff and yeah, you saw the photos. I mean, it was just an iconic, legendary, historic moment. That’s the best way I can explain it. Til this day, I’m still processing it. It’s been a couple of weeks now and I’m still processing it. It’s still one of the craziest things that’s happened to me. But yeah, I’m very fortunate to have been called for that opportunity
How would you describe the atmosphere in the studio on that day?
Positive Vibes. Everyone was on a good vibe. Everyone was just connecting really well. Puff and Dre, they were feeding off of each other’s energy. Like they were going back and forth in terms of like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great. You know, let’s cut this part. Let’s add this. Let’s do that.’ It was very, very organic. It was very fluid. It was very nice to see. It wasn’t like one of those sessions where the artists will come and be like, ‘Yeah, send me that, I’ll look into it. I’ll record it or whatever. When I go home. I’ll check it out.’ No, they were there, they were working, you know. Like they were on point. They were there to accomplish something and they were obviously definitely working towards that. It wasn’t just a waste of time. A lot of times, you go to be sessions and people are sitting around, people are on their phones. People are texting, people come and go, like no. Everyone in the studio that was there, either the engineer, the runner for the studio, the musicians, it was people that needed to be there and work. It wasn’t a ‘Let’s come and have fun together’ type of situation.
Were you aware of their history? You know, the East Coast / West Coast rivalry between Bad Boy and Death Row? If so, what was it like seeing Dre and Diddy for the first time, working in a creative capacity?.
I’ll say this, any moment in time in anyone’s life you’ll have dark moments. And you can either take that moment and carry that with you for the rest of your life and and struggle with it and have negative outcomes because of it. Or with time, things could heal, conversations could happen. Doors could open and it could be the opportunities for people to reconnect. This was just one of those beautiful things that showed that no matter what has happened in the past [it can be resolved]. And these people being not directly responsible for it, but being involved in such a big impact on their community and the music scene itself, and now coming together, I think it’s just the right thing to do. Because they are the ones bleeding that, right? There’s a whole generation that grew up with them and seeing that divide and now that they’re seeing them reunite, it gives you kind of like this good feeling of ‘Wow, something positive came out of this.’
And I feel like anybody that was involved in that was happy to see this happen. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Finally, we’ve been waiting for this,’ you know. No one was like, ‘No that shouldn’t have happened.’ I love seeing that as a fan of Hip Hop. Forget about my photography, forget about my history. Just being able to see that as a fan of music and Hip-Hop, that kind of gave me this relief. I got the witness that one more time when Drake and Kanye put their differences aside and came together and did the Larry Hoover show in L.A. That’s a win for hip hop. Honestly, it’s just shows people. It shows the young people as well that you know what, this stuff on the internet or in the news or in the media could be portrayed one way. But the reality of it is, ‘Nah, we can put that stuff aside and come together, come to terms and have a conversation like grown men and get together.’ I like that part of it. You don’t really see this much.
What would you say was the most memorable moment?
For me, really just walking in and seeing both of them together, just hyped. You know how Diddy’s energy is, he’s always hype, on point ready to go and Dr. Dre always has this demeanor of like he’s serious? He’s ready and sitting down and working. So when they were serious, they were both serious together and working. When they were hype listening to the track, they were both hyped listening to the track together. Like they were matching each other’s energy, they were feeding off of each other. That was just a highlight of it for sure.
Was there anyone in the studio that you wanted to shoot a photo of that you weren’t able to capture?
You know, the only other person there with notoriety was Snoop Dogg. And Snoop was sitting outside of the studio most of the time, but he was just at Dre’s house. He wasn’t like on the song or part of any of it. He was just there as a homie. Maybe they were working on something before I got there. I’m not sure, but the song that I got to witness get recorded was a Puff and Dre. Snoop was in and out of the room and I did get a couple of shots of him in there with them as well, but it wasn’t anybody like ‘Yo, don’t shoot this’ or ‘Don’t shoot.’ It was just a very open [atmosphere], like, ‘Come here and capture history.’
Can you tell us anything about the song Dre and Puff were recording? Are they both rapping on the song? What can fans expect?
I got there for an hour, I shot the whole thing and I left. When I got there, Puff was recording a verse and that’s all I heard. The beat was on loop and Puff was recording a verse. I don’t know if Dre’s on there. I mean, I’m pretty sure that he produced the track, but I don’t know if he’s on it or not. I didn’t get to stay there that long to see it come to completion, they were just recording a specific verse that they were going over. So that’s all I have. I’m sorry [laughs].
Dre is known for being like a stickler in the studio. He’s kind of like a coach or a director in the studio. So was there that type of vibe when Puff was working his verse?
Absolutely, and I think Puff also addressed it in his Instagram post and he put it in there. He was just like, ‘Dr. Dre did what Dr. Dre does, you know. He comes in, he’s a doctor for a reason.’ He’s like, ‘If there was an orchestra, he would be the conductor for it, right? He would tell them, Bring this up, bring that down.’ I think he did a couple of takes where he didn’t like a way a word was pronounced, he redid those takes. But yeah, you could definitely see him. Like, ‘Let’s say [it] this way. All right, let’s cut it from there. Let’s bring this in. All right, wait for the beat, the drop and then say it right after.’ He was definitely giving direction. He was definitely coaching for sure and that was just incredible to witness. Even Puff himself, when he talked about it, he was just like, ‘Wow.’ I think he called Dr. Dre his hero when when he posted. When I saw that, I was like ‘Yeah, that’s the exact way I would’ve described it.
Looking at your work, you’re heavy into the Hip-Hop scene. What are some of the iconic images of rap artists from other photographers over the years that inspired you?
It’s two things. There’s the inspiration from the artists, for sure, but I also have a profound, deep love for Hip-Hop. I’ve always listened to it. I love the beats, the sound of it, the way it makes you move, the way it makes you feel. And when somebody rhymes really well, you can relate to what they’re saying. Even if you don’t come from [where they do]. That might be their voice, voicing their struggle growing up in their community or challenges or whatever it is that they’ve been through. I might not be able to fully relate, because I grew up in the Middle East, people grow up here, race, all that kind of stuff. But still there is a common ground that really attracted me that I was like, ‘Wow, this is this is amazing,’ you know? lt’s an amazing art form, more than any other pop song. These are individual people explaining their story, that was what was appealing to me. And then obviously photographer wise, I mean, Jonathan Mannion. He’s like a legendary photographer. He shot a lot of Jay-Z’s covers and early works. Chi Modu, he’s huge. Rest in peace to him, he was amazing. I mean so many, so many greats honestly… like Lenny S. from Roc Nation, his early work. All that stuff sparked me to get into this. And I look up to these people. I didn’t know ten years down the line, I would be friends with these people. Shake their hands, see them at events. Dap them up, say what’s up, connect and stuff. So that was really cool. That was also part of the part of the inspiration behind it. But really, it was just my love for the music. I just love the music and the community.
What’s next for Armen moving forward?
Honestly, it just keeps getting bigger when I don’t expect it [laughs]. I just keep getting these opportunities. I’m just blessed to be in this position where I’m doing work because I’m passionate about this and people are noticing it and calling me in to bigger opportunities. I have a goal of having a gallery and a book that I want to work on, which I am actively working on. I don’t really have like a release date or anything, but that’s what I’m looking forward to next. I think in terms of career growth, I’m focusing more on individual sessions or things like this where it’s not open to the public. It’s like a private session that I got to experience.
I shoot a lot of events, I go to a lot of concerts, which is great, but there’s so many other people that are getting to shoot those as well. I’ve gotta do something to keep my work standing out. So, I think what I’m working on next is to get those kind of iconic portraiture shots like Modu or Jonathan Mannion and all those guys. Like move to the studio or set up one-on-one shoots with a lot of these people. Over the years, I built these relationships, so now I’ve got to put those to use. I mean all these guys love me and I love them, so I don’t see that being an impossible task. I just need to start scheduling those out. And hopefully, I can shoot some magazine covers, have some publications reach out. I think that’s like the next big step for me. I’ve done a few of those, but that’s not what I’m known for yet, so I’d like to build more in that space. But that’s pretty much it. I just want to be able to stay healthy and keep doing what I do.
Where can people find your work and keep up with what you have going on?
Primarily my Instagram. It’s Armen Keleshian, you can find me there. My website also has all my photos, all my booking contact information as well. 90% of all the bookings come through Instagram, so feel free to reach out. I’m very responsive, I’m not one of those people that you’ll wait two weeks to hear back from. So [if] you reach out, I’ve got a response for you.