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Rocker El Khatib frees style and explores identity

17 February 2017   |   4:37 am
"Savage Times" heads in more adventurous musical directions, with El Khatib mostly staying true to his bluesy guitar rock but also dabbling in electronic effects, pop and, yes, hip-hop.

(FILES) This file photo taken on July 20, 2013 shows<br />singer Hanni El Khatib performing at the Vieilles Charrues Festival in Carhaix-Plouguer, western France. Craving a new creative outlet, rocker Hanni El Khatib is taking a cue from the rap world by releasing a mixtape — on which he explores new styles and speaks out for the first time on his identity as a first-generation American.<br />Fred TANNEAU / AFP

Craving a new outlet despite his growing success, the indie rocker Hanni El Khatib took his cues from a perhaps unexpected source — the rap world.

The garage rocker, who has worked with hip-hop stars including Freddie Gibbs, became transfixed by the phenomenon of mix tapes — song collections which some rappers release at a dizzying pace but don’t consider albums.

“Rappers do it every day, so why can’t I do it? Why do rock bands have to be confined to this whole album and touring thing?” El Khatib asked.

The result is the 19-track “Savage Times.”

In commercial terms, it may mean little that El Khatib thinks of it as a mix tape, or that he has taken to calling it his fourth album.

“Savage Times” heads in more adventurous musical directions, with El Khatib mostly staying true to his bluesy guitar rock but also dabbling in electronic effects, pop and, yes, hip-hop.

“Savage Times” also brings out the most upfront statements on personal identity by El Khatib, a first-generation American born to a Palestinian father and Filipina mother.

“This project was the most liberating thing musically I’ve ever made because I removed the album stigma,” El Khatib told AFP at a beerhouse in Los Angeles.

“Usually when I’m making a record, I’ll think that there has to be a blend of songs and that they have to be cohesive sonically, or otherwise people won’t think it’s an album,” he said.

“That wasn’t the point. The point was to make it an exercise in production — what can I do as a producer and as a musician?” he said.

“Savage Times” comes out Friday around the world except in France, where El Khatib has enjoyed a particularly strong fan base and it will be released March 3.

– ‘I was born brown’ –
El Khatib’s career has rarely touched on his ethnicity. He entered music from the fashion world, where he remains a designer at skateboarder label HUF in his native San Francisco.

That changes on “Savage Times.” The track “Born Brown” builds off psychedelic loops as El Khatib shouts with punk ferocity about his immigrant heritage, ending with the lines, “I was born brown — born brown!”

On “Mangoes and Rice,” with an indie swagger reminiscent of Sonic Youth or the Pixies, El Khatib affectionately remembers food his mother made for him.

El Khatib, who at an album release party in Los Angeles dedicated a song to immigrants, did not dispute that President Donald Trump’s election may have awoken his consciousness.

With an identifiably Arab name, he said he often encounters misperceptions with uninitiated listeners categorizing him as world music or thinking Hanni El Khatib is an invented band name.

But El Khatib insisted he was not pushing a political agenda.

“By all means, I’m not trying to be an outspoken political artist, mostly because I don’t feel that it’s my place to do that,” he said.

“I can only speak from my experience — what I’ve been through and how I feel and how I get treated just because of my name,” he said.

El Khatib doubted that many people were looking to him for political cues but said, “I do have a platform over the guy working at the coffee shop.”

“And that guy at the coffee shop isn’t going to be asked six months later by a journalist about his Twitter.”

– Freedom with own label –
El Khatib toured almost all of 2015 to promote his last album, “Moonlight,” but his shows came to an abrupt end when the Bataclan attack forced a cancellation in Paris.

He said he had already felt that his touring was getting stale and wanted to head back into the studio.

Before compiling “Savage Times,” El Khatib started putting out the songs for free — an approach that he said initially unnerved his associates.

But El Khatib co-owns his own label, Innovative Leisure, handling detail down to designing art for album covers.

“The beauty of the modern landscape of the music industry is that it is in a kind of disarray. People are playing by their own rules,” he said.

“I thought, I’m cutting out the middlemen anyway. So who do I have to answer to?”