THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM— a conversation with Hassan Khan

The Keys to the Kingdom is a conversation with Hassan Khan conducted by Rami Abadir. First published in Arabic in Ma3azef Music Magazine on December 23rd, 2020. Translated into English by and edited by Hassan Khan.

This conversation is edited from a longer one published in Mada Magazine on March 27th, 2021

Rami Abadir (RA): You’ve recently finished a large-scale project titled The Infinite Hip-Hop Song. Before speaking about this in detail, can you give us a basic idea of what that piece was?

Hassan Khan (HK): I had the basic concept for a very long time: a fantasy of a song that keeps going and never ends. The proper context for its production arose when I was preparing for my exhibition The Keys to the Kingdom at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. The show revolved around the current populist moment and how symbols and forms were able to coalesce power and transform it into meanings and emotions that resonated with the wider public. While working on the show and as different works were developing, I felt the need for a work that was connected to a collective voice, a work that spoke a slightly different language than the other works in the show. At that moment, several threads intertwined: hip-hop and the image or the sense of a constantly transforming non-looping endlessness, an unstoppable never-ending stream coming forth, popular forms in opposition to populist forms. What was new for me was using hip-hop as a medium, though the idea of an endless non-looping song was an old obsession of mine.

RA: You became interested in hip-hop the past few years. What attracted your attention to the form? And what was your relationship to it before?

HK: I wasn’t a hip-hop fan in the 1990s when a lot of my friends were; they listened to 2Pac, Biggie and Snoop Dogg. Yes sure, I am all for Fuck Tha Police and all of that, but I just wasn’t that into the scene. Of course, some stuff resonated, but I wasn’t hanging out listening to hip-hop. However, specifically around 2016–2017, I saw one of Abyusif’s videos that really caught my attention. Though I had heard Abyusif before I hadn’t been very impressed. Generally speaking, the Egyptian rap that I had heard much earlier was super basic and soapy — it was like another form of early 2000s Arab pop. I started listening to Abyusif and something sparked, something had changed and been fixed — so I opened the lens a bit wider and started listening to Dama, who later on became Marwan Pablo, Microscope, Dinho, Karika, Marwan Moussa, Molotof, Shahyn, etc. I suddenly had a hunger for rap, especially Egyptian rap. There are two main reasons for this: first the content was in my mother tongue, Egyptian Arabic, but actually when I think about it’s not just that (English is almost a mother tongue for me) — it was also the context of the city I live in: the language of daily life surrounding me. Secondly, Egyptian rap had really evolved from the days of Omy Mesafra, massive changes had taken place. The music and the attitude had become more sophisticated and with these developments the form also started to lay down roots and became part of the local popular culture. All of that was very attractive to me. Hip-hop itself as a genre sort of makes sense to me now because it mixes many things that surround us and that have impact, power and influence into a potent concise form. For example, Trump’s populist touch is not far from the aesthetics of hip-hop. There is savagery and indulgence in pleasures and vulgarity. There is something that connects these modes together. It is no coincidence that these kinds of emotions and desires are so widespread now; this in itself is significant and has a meaning. I also do not just reject certain aesthetics and claim because it is vulgar therefore it’s bad. Actually, it might hold a lot of meaning and be very significant; the question is more how we deal with it. Despite (or maybe because) of the machismo and vulgarity of some hip-hop, it possesses a certain energy that is congruent to the world we live in. That is part of what attracted me in the first place. I now wanted to work on this without reproducing the same dominant generic aesthetics of hip-hop. The issue is not just cerebral, it’s also emotional. I have a strong response to the form and its connection to the world.

RA: How did you work with the rappers? How do you generally work with musicians?

HK: A lot of the time I work with session musicians the way a director works with actors. In a sense, I don’t deal with a musician as someone coming to play some notes, or you know “do this or that” or “give me a bit more feeling”, but rather as a person who has their own complex fears and desires and I indirectly call on this complete image of the musician to become part of the musical performance. For example, in the recording sessions for The Big One, there is a Nabatshi at the beginning of the first track who was shouting out a stream of incomprehensible words. In order to produce this performance, I had told him to imagine that the music was aimed at a deaf and mute audience. He was supposed to watch me while I enact movements (stabbing myself, collapsing on the floor, etc.) that he then transforms into vocalization. With the rappers it was a little different; I introduced them to the project and the lyrics, we read them together and I answered any questions they had. Then we began rehearsing using the guide beats that were explicitly made for the studio sessions. When a flow had developed and they felt ready, we began recording. I gave them notes after each take; we’d listen together, discuss and then do more takes. I also let them do some free improvs, as well as completely restricted composed sections. Basically, it’s all based on the individual, their abilities and what I feel is possible with them. Some were very limited in their scope and it was better then to focus on their strengths and to bring those out. With Haddie, we just worked on a steady monotonous almost sleepy voice which was the best we could do with her for the project. Infinite Livez, on the other hand, is very agile and flexible with his voice, so I gave him the space and freedom to try many different things out. All the rappers were at first a bit confused by the project because it’s not really standard, but to be honest, they were quite open minded and willing to try a lot of things out.

RA: You are interested in writing and have published many texts and books. To what extent did this help you write the lyrics? What are the topics or themes? And how are they different from the usual hip-hop topics, such as ego, patriarchal discourse, the romanticized dream of revolution, disses and other such speech?

HK: Writing has been a major part of what I do since the 1990s, so yes sure it has an effect, but I think what actually had a bigger effect was listening to a lot of hip-hop. I started listening to lots of Egyptian hip-hop a few years ago, and then I slowly shifted to Western hip-hop, mostly Anglo-American. Pusha T, for example, brags all day long “I’m the biggest drug dealer in the world” but there is still a certain lyricism and formal efficacy, even if the content is mostly disses and boasts and the subject ultimately remains the superior male self. There is still a formal power to the use of words and how the bars are put together. This is inspiring; I am not interested in trying to imitate it, but rather to actually utilize it. In my lyrics, I wanted to speak from the position of the voice of a collective self, a voice that is multiple in its gender and class, not merely for the sake of diversity, but rather because we live under common conditions and I am interested in a voice emerging from this common shared condition and reflecting that commonality. This is a condition based on exploitation, the classification of human beings, massive desires, emotional, physical, mental and spiritual desires, great phobias, fear of the future, failure and collapse. It is also based on something that is fluid. I believe that the truth and reality itself are fluid; this is now present in a much more mainstream generalized fashion. All of this together is part of the logic of the lyrics. So, I wanted the subjects’ voice to speak from this perspective, not in a theoretical or abstract way. Words can help express the strong emotions that are part of a life lived under these shared common conditions. I was also attracted to hip-hop because I could see that it is an important medium in the present time; it is a really emotional medium in which very strong emotions are invested even if it that is as basic as shouting out “I am the best in the world.” The emotions and drives that underlie and shape the form are real and are part of the structure that we all live in, part of the political and economic systems that we are all part of. They are real and important drives, they are our landscape, and we should not ignore them and act as if they do not exist, on the contrary, if there is something that I find exciting about art it is exactly this: to deal with existing drives. The words I wrote want to deal with these drives and to take them seriously. They want to take selfishness, lust, love, fear and hatred seriously, but to treat them as drives not products. There is, at least for me, a huge difference between a drive that becomes a form of energy or comes out of an interior obsession and a motivating drive that is sublimated into a commodity. For example, Trump used these drives to produce a commodity, in this case hatred and racism, and all the emotions that Trump trades in all the time, like the myth that the white man is in a state of historical injustice and that he must avenge his honor. But in order to do this, he uses basic and real existing drives, and he has the ability and an understanding of the media’s semiotics to exploit this and transform these drives into products. This is one of the foundations of Trump’s populism. I am deeply interested in working on the same set of existing drives, but not as products. In hip-hop, however, drives are also transformed into products. For example, reaching the top and becoming Jay-Z, even in conscious hip-hop a certain product still remains. Kendrick Lamar is interested in a specific product and image, for example in a positive idea of community. That’s what he does. I am interested in something else; to let the words create something, but that this thing remains suspended between heaven and earth, a thing that cannot be resolved.

RA: Can you give examples?

HK: Take the ending of the first song for example:

Get ready cause we’re on the prowl
Tiger growl let the kids on the corner howl
Piss in the pit if you and them and them will take a hit
They used to speak the truth out
She let the crows out
He spat these words out
They grew horns and burned the house down

Ok so: “They grew horns and burned the house down”

But there is no sense in what comes before that this is their aim or goal, this is just what happened. It is not what they want to achieve. Another probably more significant thing in achieving this state of suspension is the way the lyrics were written so that you can take any line from any song and place it before or after any other line from any other song and they will still make sense. That is very important, the constant reassembly of the material creates a meta-poem that is constantly morphing and changing. Every part of it is like a window through which you can glimpse a specific, important and basic thing. Therefore, because of this state of fluidity, it is very difficult to have a sense of resolution. We are constantly in a suspended state.

As for the meaning, it is also in a state of fluidity, but a precise non-ambiguous one. The lyrics convey specific meanings and emotions even as they are constantly being recontextualized. You can feel tangible, sensed things that are not just abstract. The images are “real,” but you cannot connect them to any one fixed thing.

RA: How did you produce the beats? How many beats are there? And what is your inspiration for them?

HK: I worked on Ableton and just very intuitively and smoothly programmed the beats using MIDI, which is different to how I generally do things. The beats are divided into two groups, primary beats and accompanying beats or accessories. The primary beats can cover a segment of the cycle on their own. However accompanying beats function more like ambience, the interaction between the primary and the accompanying beats creates a certain complexity. The kind of beats that usually attract me in hip-hop are edgy like Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator or Shabazz Palaces. I made over 200 and something beats- a lot! You end up sitting like a machine spewing them out. In my first conversations with Olivier Pasquet, we discussed the idea of putting certain filters using probabilities on the beats but to achieve that you need immense processing power, so we dropped it. What I insisted on though is that there must be ways to mute and unmute the different elements of one beat — like the snare, the cymbals, the hi-hats, etc. That was super important as it gives the rhythm a certain variation that is engaging to the ear. If the beats are poor and lack this variation, especially since they run for hours, then after a while, it will be too grating and difficult for the listener. I was trying to not copy any specific style as well as I could. And by the way, I also think that Kanye is a very good producer (laughs).

RA: How many lines of lyrics?

HK: 351 lines.

RA: What is the probability of any segment being repeated exactly? And how long would it take before this happens?

HK: It is a very very low probability. One in 20 duodecillion, that is 20 followed by 40 zeroes.

RA: Where has the piece been shown so far?

HK: First in Madrid, in a solo exhibition called The Keys to the Kingdom at the Reina Sofía Museum. Then it opened a week later in a group exhibition called Soft Power at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It showed end of 2020 in Taipei as part of Liquid Love and is scheduled next year to be installed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of my solo survey exhibition titled Automatic Is the Voice that Speaks. I am also working on a performable live version and have already begun discussing with Olivier developing a system so that I can perform it live as a concert.

RA: A lot of artists and musicians now turn to algorithmic and self-generated music; each has their own style. Possibly the Algorave project is one of the more vivid examples of this approach. What is your relationship to generative art and what are your previous experiences in this?

HK: There is no one definite thing that will resolve everything. It is all in the end a series of propositions and attempts, which is something I think is very good. We need more people sitting around and trying things out without claiming that any one thing is the solution to everything. In terms of my own personal relationship to the algorithmic, this is my first usage of algorithmic technology but there are many works that I have produced in the past that use a related logic, such as in Taraban, and even in tabla dubb. Let’s take Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak (2005) which is not an algorithmic work but is also not a linear piece. The piece is basically a long rectangular white room with lighting from above. In this room you can listen to six tracks of music played on two sub-woofers, four mid-high speakers, and four tweeters. The work was produced in 2005; I took six commercially distributed tracks of popular shaabi music in various styles at the time including a Mawwal by Ahmed Addawwiya, the song If you play me I play you by Ali Salheen, a song by Araby al-Soghayer, and of course Abdel Baset Hammouda; basically all the major stars of classic shaabi. I chose six tracks that I personally loved, that were different to each other and that represented different trends in shaabi music at the time and used them as a starting point. Next, I sat with a shaabi kawala player who helped analyze the songs for me, identifying which Maqams and rhythms were being used, till I sort of had a blueprint for these six songs. I then took this equation and worked with it in the studio sessions with shaabi session musicians. I used the blueprint to give them instruction as to what each of them should do; for example, you play a Karatch rhythm, and now you play such and such rhythm. We first recorded the rhythm section: dohola, tabla, finger cymbals and a riqq. Then we recorded the rest of the instruments; a trumpet, two keyboards, the kawala, accordion, violin and an electric bass; basically, the standard setup of older style shaabi. I recorded each musician on their own without listening to any other musician, and without knowing the original song the blueprint was based on. They only worked with that blueprint I gave them, and the pre-recorded rhythm section. Afterwards I mixed and mastered the six tracks and finally they were broadcast in the room I described earlier. For each song, there was a different light set-up. For example, the Mawwal begins, and the lighting immediately moves to 20 percent, the song ends and the lighting moves to 100 percent for 30 seconds and then another song begins and the lighting changes again and so forth. Each song is followed by a 30 second break at 100 percent before another song begins with another light set up. A vinyl text was attached to the wall describing the different steps of the project. I find the logic of Dom Tak to be algorithmic but as applied to human beings. My interest is not technology for the sake of technology. I worked on Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak because I was interested in breaking down a collective cultural product and analyzing it back to its constitutive elements; in this case shaabi music is the collective cultural product being engaged with. At the same time, this produces something new and different from the generic form, but it still, I would argue, contains the obsessions and emotions that exist in this cultural form though it is not ruled by the specific rules of that form. In a sense, I am trying to abstract the cultural form itself, not to reach any kind of essence, but rather to touch the cold structure underlying the piece. In order to come to proximity to a moment that I find of great significance for aesthetics in general, this is the coldest of places and yet, at the same time the most passionate and full of emotionality. In this case the mediated experience is cold because the room is automated, and the music is made in a semi-artificial proscribed fashion. The musicians do not listen to each other, and everyone plays alone and so on. But also because of the interference of the author, the insistence (through mixing) to produce an aesthetic and emotional experience. This is the strange thing about this project; it has a very intimate side, but at the same time it is a very cold thing.

RA: The past few years controversy has arisen over the relationship of technology to the arts and music in particular, as well as the role of artists and their possible marginalization through the massive increase in the power of programming and artificial intelligence. Do you have any concerns about that on the music scene in our region and abroad? What are the possibilities offered by technologically advanced projects?

HK: Well — honestly, I do not think of technology in those terms. Technology is a tool that offers possibilities; we can use them in both successful and unsuccessful ways. The marginalization of musicians is more of a political issue than a technological one. In Egypt, many musicians are marginalized because the scene is not healthy and is not able to give musicians a suitable sustainable life, nor to have the opportunity to build a deep and productive relationship with the public. They don’t have the chance to perform in a place on a regular basis, so people can listen and critically respond. This, in my opinion, is something that marginalizes musicians more than technology. This is political of course, not that it is necessarily a political decision taken by a specific governing body, but rather political in the sense that it is connected to how the public order is organized, how the market operates, how the socio-economic sphere is built, what kind of margin of freedom is allowed in a society. These are the things that marginalize musicians. I know that some things have declined because of technology, for example the “clap.” When I was doing the recording sessions for Live Ammunition I searched for clappers and discovered that they had disappeared because the clap is now part of any keyboard or sample library. So yes, technology eliminates some things but at the same time it produces new things.

「無窮盡的嘻哈曲」於Ableton Live裡的session介面螢幕擷圖(圖片提供:Hassan Khan)