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A few years ago, Hanni El Khatib decided to quit music. Then he made a new record.
El Khatib’s upcoming fifth full-length, FLIGHT, is a return to form of sorts. Before he was heralded as a prodigious garage-blues scrapper, and long before his songs were synced in movies, TV shows, and commercials the world over, El Khatib was a teenager sampling records and building beats in his Bay Area bedroom. Armed with a 4-track and an MPC sampler, he’d patch together hip-hop tracks that sounded like Latyrx and Souls of Mischief. But when the time came to put together a band, he veered away from these roots and grabbed a guitar.
“When I got burnt out on making beats, I just chose rock and roll,” says El Khatib. It was the beginning of decade-long miscommunication: He was officially a rock guitarist with all of that genre’s attendant constraints and expectations. “I never felt heavily connected to that style of music, [but] once that genre stamp gets put on an artist, you feel an obligation to work within that realm. I can make a garage song in 10 minutes. That’s how some of the shit happened on my albums. That’s fun, but I wanted to challenge myself.”
With FLIGHT, El Khatib is back in his bedroom. He moved out of his large Los Angeles home and moved into a smaller house where he set up recording equipment where he sleeps. “I really wanted to make a bedroom studio that felt like my bedroom in high school basically,” he says. “This record is the thing that brought me closest to that first feeling that I had.” El Khatib recently dug up his trusty MPC and the tapes he cut in high school, comparing the material with his new recordings. “The stuff I’m hearing from 20 years ago, the stuff that I was making and sampling back then, sounds very similar to what this new record sounds like.”
FLIGHT is both El Khatib’s most simple and most richly detailed record yet. He worked with producer and collaborator Leon Michels at Michels’ home studio in New York. (At the top of “COLORS,” Michels’ three-year old son can be heard bellowing. El Khatib explained that he got him “riled up” during a car ride and recorded the results.) “One of our early thoughts on this record was to be intentionally minimal, and figure out how to be engaging musically while being super stripped back,” says El Khatib. He and Michels played most of the instruments heard on the record, with help from a cast of trusted co-conspirators as needed. Then, they sliced up the tracks and stitched them into a collection of deeply-pleasing analog hip-hop, funk, soul, and — in the loosest sense of the word — rock. “I wanted my album to kind of feel like a collage,” says El Khatib, citing Dilla and Madlib as aesthetic touchstones for the record.
Despite being a musical homecoming, the record was triggered by the tailend of a bleak burnout. After touring behind his 2017 release Savage Times, El Khatib says he was ready to quit. “Two years ago I had this meltdown, and I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to do this again,’” he says. “Music was just the byproduct of the job. You start creating based on what you think will keep you afloat doing this thing. It alters your output.” FLIGHT is a literal designation: in the survival-strategy fight-or-flight dichotomy, El Khatib opted for flight.
He decided to stop playing shows and put his music career on hold. It had an effect like puncturing an infected boil: the pressure drained and the wounds began to heal. “I think I had an adverse reaction to my freakout, and I started making a lot of music,” he says. “It freed up the space that I needed to make an album. The pressure of making an album was off because I told everybody I was gonna quit making music, then quietly on my own I started recording at home. I just ran back to being creative.”
Lead single “STRESSY” is a peek into this trajectory. It’s a snarling, slow-burn drums and bass steam-engine, with El Khatib relaying an anxious torrent of stream-of-consciousness prose. “Stuck in a hole / No chance of getting out I know,” he strains on the chorus. The record alternates speeds between breakneck turntable romps like “STRESSY” and opener “CARRY” to zen Tame Impala-flavored jams like the woodwind-led post-car wreck rumination “ALIVE” and the good-spirited stomp of “COLORS.”
The relatively structureless “LEADER” the production for which El Khatib says was angling for early 2000s Timbaland, bisects the record with throbbing bass, pounding percussion and El Khatib howling over and over again, “I’m looking for a leader!” “I was trying to make a beat that I could hear Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes on,” says El Khatib. “I wanted it to feel like this assault of words and this assault of rhythm.” Then there are the more serene moments, like “Harlow,” a slow-dance romance over quiet guitars and a chorus of lithe backing vocals, or the instrumental throb of “Detroit.”
If Hanni El Khatib has made one thing abundantly clear on FLIGHT, it’s that he’s not finished at all. It’s clear El Khatib is truly enjoying himself — a sure sign of an artist functioning at full capacity. Artistic and personal health don’t always go hand-in-hand, but witnessing them sync up on FLIGHT is a pleasure.
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.