In 2018, when Hanni El Khatib was touring his fourth album Savage Times, the Los Angeles-based singer and multi-instrumentalist had what he calls a "total meltdown." Creatively depleted and physically burned out, he felt removed from music and resented his decade-long career. "I'd also realized I had a total drinking problem," he tells Apple Music. "Getting sober made me want to reconnect with reality. I wanted to take a big step back." As it happened, relieving himself of the pressure to record another album—and, yes, cutting the booze—opened up new and exciting creative pathways; he found himself experimenting outside the confines of garage and indie rock and revisiting his early days in instrumental hip-hop. "Making music just for myself felt like freedom," he says. "When no one's waiting for a record, you can do whatever you want."
El Khatib began making beats with his friend Leon Michels (El Michels Affair), forgoing any expectations or structure: "No deadlines, no rush, no constrictions," he says. Six months later, a rattling car accident drew him further out of his creative rut, and made him feel grateful for his path as an artist. As soon as he finished physical therapy, he flew to New York and completed FLIGHT in six days. Inspired by old collage-style beat tapes by Madlib and J Dilla, it’s designed to feel less like an album and more like a mixtape or playlist: "I wanted it to feel loose yet controlled, intentional but spontaneous," he says. "Because that’s where I’m at. I feel more creatively alive now than I have in years.”
CARRY "This was one of the first demos that I gave to Leon to see if it was worth pursuing. I'd been making a bunch of SoundCloud hip-hop and had enough of trap hi-hats for the moment, so I had my drummer feed me a bunch of uptempo rock and punk drums and recorded a lo-fi dirty garage track. It felt a bit like my typical formula or style, so we chopped up the back half of the song to mix it up. That’s how we wound up with this interesting two-parter—with ‘CARRY’ connecting into ‘GLASSY.’ I really wanted it to feel like a collage. Two very different songs that also work as one.”
GLASSY “This is sort of the polar opposite of ‘CARRY’ in some ways. We were heavily inspired by old hip-hop records and sample-based music, and I was trying to figure out how to tie that in. The answer turned out to be: Don't think about how it's going to tie in. It'll tie in because we're the ones doing it. I’m the one singing. One thing I realized through this process is that my voice is its own string of continuity. Maybe that sounds obvious, but I wasn’t used to thinking about it that way. Leon was like, ‘Dude, it sounds like you because it's literally you singing.’”
ALIVE “This is the song that was sparked by that car accident. It’s quite literally about that experience. I didn't want to get overly poetic or symbolic; some of my favorite songs are very literal. Sonically, ‘ALIVE’ was the biggest departure from anything else I've personally released. With FLIGHT, any opportunity I had to not play a guitar, I chose to not play a guitar. Instead, I was focused on different approaches, like combining programmed drums with live, organic vocals that almost seemed sampled but weren’t, you know? I really wanted to blur the lines and confuse the listener about where sounds came from. I wanted people to listen and go, ‘Wait, what is that?’ Some moments feel like a lo-fi bedroom record, and others feel hi-fi and elaborate.”
COLORS “Originally, we were going for a long-form Afrobeat groove and wound up with a demo that was six minutes long. Eventually, we stripped it back because it sounded too on the nose, and when Leon threw in some Cramps chord changes, it became this mash-up of different sounds. We recorded it in upstate New York and I freestyled all the lyrics in one sitting. When we listened to it later, we were like, ‘Forget this six-minute jam thing, let's just make it a minute. Because why not?’ If you listen to any Lil Uzi Vert song, it's like a minute and 28 seconds. Hip-hop is experimental like that. There aren’t all these rules. I wanted that ethos.”
STRESSY “This was my take on a pseudo Prodigy drum ’n’ bass track. I wanted it to feel as jarring as a ravey DJ set, but through my lens—with weird left turns and hi-fi beats all swirling together. I wanted it to feel like you were at a rave.”
ROOM “The subject matter for this one is a little too personal to get into, but basically, I went through a life-changing traumatic event that really opened my eyes to what's important. When I first heard Leon playing keys in the room, it triggered that memory for me. I started writing immediately. ‘ROOM’ had this loose, lurchy hip-hop feel to it, intense and unresolved, and I wanted to build on that tension—to bring it to a point where you really expected the drums to kick in, expected the song to go somewhere, but it didn’t. I wanted it to stay unresolved because that's the storytelling. That’s the discomfort I was going through.”
LEADER “I made this on my own at two or three in the morning. I was dead asleep and woke up with this idea for a Missy Elliott-Timbaland beat, and I went downstairs and set up a microphone. I wanted it to feel like a heavy assault of words, to be some sort of appeal, and ‘looking for a leader’ was what came out.”
GEM “I wanted to make a song in which the main melody was made up of my voice. So a lot of what sounds like instruments in this song is actually me singing—with my voice recorded and processed through different effects. Actually, the bulk of the track is me saying the word ‘Arab,’ because I'm Palestinian Filipino. I liked the idea that the word was disguised but clear if you knew it was there.”
HARLOW “This song is about my dog Harlow, who is on the cover of the album. It’s just a sweet little love song for my dog. When I first played the album for my girlfriend, she was listening to this track and half thinking maybe it was about her, but also getting irritated because maybe it was about someone else. When the chorus finally came in and I started singing ‘Harlow,’ she cracked up.”
DUMB “This is another example of our collage approach and that sample feeling we were going for. Halfway through this song, it pivots from minimal into this full crescendo and then dips back into minimal again. I was trying to do this psychedelic garage thing with my guitar, but then we took out the guitar and used an 808 bass instead. It had an effect of making the sound feel familiar but unfamiliar.”
HOW "This is actually a cover of the song 'How Can I,' an early 1980s song by Mark Mitchell and produced by Juan Atkins. It's like one part Blade Runner, one part Cowboy Bebop, and two parts the vibe of the space coyote in that Simpsons episode where Homer eats a psychedelic pepper. Originally I envisioned Freddie Gibbs singing the hook, but it never went down, so we went with the version we have now. It ended up being one of my favorite tracks on the album. A ballad of heartbreak and self-reflection."
DETROIT “Up until this point, Leon and I hadn't recorded anything with more than just two people playing at once. Everything was him or me or us together. And eventually, we wanted to jam. So we brought in Leon's childhood friend and collaborator Nick Movshon and jammed. It felt really indulgent to have a self-serving five-minute jam attached to the end of a song, you know? But we loved the groove so much. And even though slap bass is a total faux pas, when done right, it's totally amazing. So we told Nick to go ahead and do it, to just go full on, and we decided it was so ridiculous and cheesy that it was good. Again, no rules.”
PEACE “This was the last song that we recorded and the first time we looked at each other and went, ‘You know what this album's missing? A song. Just like a regular song.’ So we went back to our roots and wrote a classic guitar song. ‘PEACE’ is about where I'm from, who I’ve become, and what I’ve been through, and it touches on how I’ve found peace in all of that. It’s pretty emotional and open. To place it at the end of a more introspective and heady album felt like putting a light at the end of the tunnel.”