Hanni El Khatib is a budding artist and avid skateboarder from the San Francisco area whose debut album, Will the Guns Come Out, comes out this month. If El Khatib's name sounds familiar, it's probably because his song "I Got a Thing" is being used in one of Nike's global ad campaigns as kind of a modern surf, skate and all-around shredding anthem.
Though El Khatib writes his own songs, "I Got a Thing" is a re-imagining of an old Funkadelic tune. Will The Guns Come Out features a handful of covers, including "You Rascal You," a song most famously performed by Louis Armstrong. El Khatib tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he wanted to be cautious in interpreting old classics.
"Some songs seem kind of untouchable in a weird way," El Khatib says. "And so my approach was, 'Why don't I just take the lyrics and kind stay in the family of the same key, and then just turn it into a new song completely?' "
A recent review in the Los Angeles Times described El Khatib's sound as "the sort of music you'd expect to have soundtracked West Side Story, had the songs been written by the Sharks and the Jets instead of Sondheim and Bernstein." A first-generation American of Palestinian and Filipino descent, El Khatib was raised in San Francisco during the emergence of skateboard culture. Despite his international background, he says he grew up listening to classic Americana music, '60s soul, surf, doo-wop and British Invasion rock.
"My mom actually was a huge fan of The Beatles and The Zombies, and that's kind of what was playing in the house. And my dad is kind of one of those people where, if it sounds good, he likes it," El Khatib says. "I grew up with this weird culture-clash kind of thing: My mother speaks Tagalog, my father speaks Arabic, but to speak together they have to speak English. So I grew up speaking English, basically being raised as an American, in order to assimilate to the surroundings. And I think that kind of stuck with me."
GUY RAZ, Host:
Time now for our regular music feature. And today, a musician who actually cut his teeth in San Francisco's skateboard scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "I GOT A THING")
RAZ: His name is Hanni El Khatib. This track is called "I Got a Thing." And if you recognize the song, it's probably because it's being used in one of Nike's global ad campaigns as kind of a modern surf, skate, and all around shredding anthem. It's actually a remake of an old Funkadelic track stripped down, sped up and fuzzed out.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "I GOT A THING")
HANNI EL KHATIB: (Singing) I've got a thing. You've got a thing. Everybody's got a thing.
RAZ: Okay. Here's how a recent review in the L.A. Times described Hanni El Khatib's sound. It said: The sort of music you'd expect to have soundtracked West Side Story had the songs have been written by The Sharks and The Jets instead of Sondheim and Berstein. Hanni El Khatib joins me from our New York bureau. Hanni, welcome.
EL KHATIB: Thanks for having me.
RAZ: So that track that we just heard, which, by the way, everybody listening should go online and type in, Nike Ad: "I Got A Thing," because that ad is amazing with that, like, the surfing and the snowboarding and all that stuff and the biking and the skateboarding. But you actually - it's actually a cover of a Funkadelic song, and I just want to hear that original for a moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A THING")
FUNKADELIC: (Singing) I got a thing. You've got a thing.
RAZ: OK. Very different takes on the song. How did you come across the song and then how did you figure out to do with it what you did?
EL KHATIB: You know, it's one of those things - every time I kind of approach a cover that maybe feels a bit of like a classic or something, I always have this fear that I'm going to, like, ruin the song somehow. Some songs seem kind of like untouchable in a weird way. And, you know, that's one of those memorable songs for people and, you know, I didn't want to like go and do a straight cover of it.
And so, kind of my approach was like, you know, I'll just - why don't I just take the lyrics and kind of stay sort of in the family of the same key or something and just turn it into a new song completely.
RAZ: I read that you grew up on a diet of classic Americana sounds, '60s soul and rock and even surf doo-wop.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EL KHATIB: (Singing) Honey, don't be afraid of me, even though it's just the two of us on the street. You know a man like me means you no harm.
RAZ: This song - I've read this song compared to something like Dion and the Belmonts would've produced in the '60s. You have a pretty interesting background. Your folks are both immigrants, right?
EL KHATIB: Yeah.
RAZ: One parent is Palestinian and another parent is Filipino. Did they ever play, you know, Palestinian music or Filipino music, or was the house kind of filled with '60s soul and rock?
EL KHATIB: Yeah. You know, my - I was never really exposed to any, you know, Palestinian music. My mom, actually, was a huge fan of, like, you know, The Beatles or The Zombies or something like that. And that's kind of what was playing in the house. And my dad is kind of one of those people where, hey, if it sounds good, he likes it. I kind of grew up just listening to British Invasion kind of stuff. That was just what we listened to.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EL KHATIB: (Singing) I know that sound (unintelligible) so long as (unintelligible). I ain't asking to be saved. I'm just saying tough life is (unintelligible).
RAZ: Hanni, I wonder if because of your background, it's almost a triple identity: American, Palestinian, Filipino, does that come out in your music?
EL KHATIB: Yeah. I mean, definitely. I grew up kind of with this weird mix culture clash kind of thing. My mother speaks Tagalog, my father speaks Arabic. But in order to talk to each other, they have to speak in English.
EL KHATIB: So I actually never...
RAZ: Probably heavily accented English.
EL KHATIB: Yeah.
EL KHATIB: I mean, actually, they pretty much lost it now, but they're practicing the language, too, you know? And I grew up basically kind of speaking English and being raised kind of as an American as they could raise me, you know, in order to just sort of assimilate to the surroundings.
And I think that kind of stuck with me. And it's sort of my - you know, I have this kind of approach to everything that I do where it's really taking every single thing that you're inspired with or influenced by and rolling it into this one massive ideas and trying to spit it out in something that seems, you know, digestible.
RAZ: I'm speaking with musician Hanni El Khatib. His debut album is called "Will the Guns Come Out." There's a moment on this record, I think it's the fifth track on the record called "Come Alive," where I put it on and I thought, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "COME ALIVE")
EL KHATIB: (Singing) I don't wanna talk about it (unintelligible) no love like a love like this 'cause a love don't exist when a boy wanna play, whoa-whoa-whoa, whoa-whoa-whoa, whoa-whoa-whoa, whoa-whoa-whoa, whoa-whoa...
RAZ: That is a great tune, kicking tune, man.
EL KHATIB: Thank you.
RAZ: I'm telling you, when I heard that - and I love The White Stripes. I'm a huge fan of Jack White. This is an homage, to me, to what they do. It's a great tune. Does that comparison make sense to you or does it annoy you or...
EL KHATIB: Yeah. No. I mean, I can see it. You know, The White Stripes kind of paved the way for a lot of people to take, you know, classic forms of music say, like, blues in their hit. And to kind of update it and make it more modern and sound like aggressive rock music - and that's what they do very well. And to have that kind of comparison is cool by me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "COME ALIVE")
EL KHATIB: I don't wanna talk about it (unintelligible) just be about it 'cause there's no love like a love like this 'cause a love don't exist when a boy wanna play so.
RAZ: You do a really old song in this record called "You Rascal You" which was most famously performed by Louis Armstrong. All sorts of singers have done this song, especially during the swing era, and then you do it and you make it - really make it your own. Let's hear a bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "YOU RASCAL YOU)
EL KHATIB: (Singing) Yeah. I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you. I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you. When you're dead and in your grave no more women will you crave. I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you.
RAZ: OK. The song speaks for itself. Not as gentle a version as Louis Armstrong's, a bit more menacing the way you do it. Were you trying to bring out that edge in the song?
EL KHATIB: Well, it's funny because, like, you know, I was listening to - I think it was the Cab Calloway version - and it's real upbeat and swinging. It's the big band era, you know.
RAZ: Right. Yeah.
EL KHATIB: And I'm like - I was listening to the lyrics, I was like, "Wait. Wait. Did he just say he wants to kill that guy?" And then I kind of kept listening to the lyrics, and it started getting darker and darker and darker. And I was like, "Wow. This is - that's like a rough topic.
EL KHATIB: And, you know, I kind of searched around to see if, you know, anyone did a blues version of it or if there was an old delta blues song. Like, I didn't know. And that's when I was like, you know what? I can only find, you know, this jazz version of it, you know? So I went ahead and tried to make the music match the mood of the lyrics, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "YOU RASCAL YOU")
EL KHATIB: (Singing) You asked my wife to wash your clothes and something else, I suppose. I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you.
RAZ: Have your folks been attending your shows?
EL KHATIB: Yeah, yeah. My mom and dad have been to a few of my shows. They're always stoked about it. They have a good time. You know, my mom, you know has a couple too many glasses of wine or something like that, but it's always fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EL KHATIB: (Singing) Okay, mama. Please don't cry.
RAZ: That's Hanni El Khatib. His new record is called "Will The Guns Come Out." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Hanni, thank you.
EL KHATIB: Thank you very much.
RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Jimmy Carter, President Carter will be our guest. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.