Hanni El Khatib Sheds His Rock ’n’ Roll Persona for “FLIGHT”
The songwriter discusses swapping his blues guitar for experimental beats on his fourth LP.
After a decade of touring and dropping records at a frantic pace—eventually bordering on Groundhog Day–like repetition—the Palestinian-Filipino rocker Hanni El Khatib began to suffer from burnout. Following the release of his compilation album Savage Times, which compiled the five EPs he released in 2016, he took a step back in 2017 to mentally reboot and rediscover his love for music, which began to feel like a job devoid of joy. Three years and a life-changing car accident later, El Khatib managed to recapture his passion for music and life.
For FLIGHT, Khatib threw away rock ’n’ roll licks for 808 beats, synths, and experimental dings. Although the new album may sound like a new version of Khatib, it’s a return to his origins. As a younger artist, he would experiment with beats and electronic equipment—eventually he picked up an electric guitar, the instrument which gave him a career in music. “I had done this, like, twelve years ago when I started making my first record,” says El Khatib. “Rock ’n’ roll was just an answer to doing beats. I was bored of making the same thing, I guess, so I just wanted to do the opposite. And then flash forward to today and I’m doing it again on this album.”
Throughout his career, beat-based music hasn’t been an alien life form to him. His creative collaborations with GZA, Freddie Gibbs, and Aesop Rock show that computer-based music is something he’s always been comfortable with, even if not for his own solo work. Even so, restricting himself creatively has bothered him for some time. On Savage Times, you can sense him breaking out of the mold he created for himself—and on FLIGHT, he threw away the frame completely and shaped a new elastic one. “The ‘rock ’n’ roll’ genre tag always bugged me because I listen to all types of music. I produce other people’s records—it’s not necessarily always rock. Like, this past summer I put out two songs with some rappers from Chicago.”
The rappers he’s referring to are Frank Leone and Monster Mike. El Khatib collaborated with them on the two-track EP Flu Dogs, released by his label Innovative Leisure. The synth-tinged “Crown” and bass-heavy “Solid Gold” are as far as you can get from rock ’n’ roll. However, he didn’t consider using an instrument besides his guitar until he started collaborating with Leon Michels, a producer and multi-instrumentalist known for his work with El Michels Affair, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and Big Crown Records, which he co-founded (additionally, he’s worked with Action Bronson, Lana Del Rey, The Black Keys, Travis Scott, and A$AP Rocky). El Khatib befriended Michels several years ago—naturally, they began to jam together and create samples for other producers to use. During one of these jams, Michels came to Khabib with a proposition.
“Six months into working on that, we started talking,” says Khatib. “Why don’t we make a record together? Like, why don’t I just produce a record for you?” They had no release date, no label expectations, and no pressure on them to create. It was all about making music—which is how Khatib wanted to do it. These sessions slowly began to develop into FLIGHT. Yet the album didn’t quite click into place until after a fateful car accident. He had to pass over this threshold to find his way back into a creative groove.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a car accident—like a severe one—but it really does slow time… It’s a crazy thing to be upside down in a car and then climb out of it.”
“I got rear-ended,” he explains. “You know, it was gnarly and weird because, like, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a car accident—like a severe one—but it really does slow time. Like when it happens, it feels like you could have a full conversation as you’re spinning around. We did a flip and ended up upside down. It’s a crazy thing to be upside down in a car and then climb out of it.”
The accident gave Khatib a push to finally wrap up recording and release the album. He asked himself what the point of all this was, and, of course, the point of making music is sharing it with people and hoping they connect to it. Three years deep in a rut, he had more than enough material to complete a new album. The accident even inspired the album’s single “ALIVE,” which is about being grateful for coming out of this brutal accident unscathed.
After three years of rest—not to mention a government-mandated quarantine—El Khatib is anxious to get back out there to perform. In the end, he’s back where he started—albeit a changed man. “Being cooped up inside is opening me up,” says Khatib. “Since you’re at home, you feel like you’re just by yourself, you know, so it makes you more comfortable to put yourself out there.” FL