Hak on Art, Life after Ratking, and making positive music in turbulent times
Pulling from a long legacy of New York artists, the Harlem-local strives to push forward, through the city's cluttered art scene.
Written by Luna Olavarría Gallegos and Edenized Perez
When hip-hop first began to evolve in Uptown, New York in the ‘70s, listeners expected their icons to build their legacy by speaking on those struggles they shared, while challenging the system through the culture. Historically hip-hop has embraced the importance of lyrics, rhythms, sampling, movement and visuals while liberating the public through awareness. When building owners fled the Bronx, leaving many locals without homes, Grandmaster Flash lyrically expressed his anger regarding poverty, drug abuse and violence while Kool Herc brought together the youth for frequent parties at 1520 Sedgwick Ave, creating an escape and sense of artistic getaway. Through image, Joe Conzo captured the beginnings of hip-hop and established a visual history during the culture’s rise while Fab Five Freddy highlighted multi-disciplinary forms of expression by working alongside Charlie Ahearn in “Wild Style (1983),” the first film touching on the hip-hop culture.
These pioneers, along with other hip-hop innovators, took the intense sociopolitical battles and art they were exposed to in New York City and showcased it in a space where the music meshed with the visual. Today, Harlem-raised multidisciplinary artist, Hak, follows this lineage. Through his music with past group, Ratking, and now working as a solo artist, he creates music that soaks up the potent city to craft records that position himself as a poetic force in the heart of where it all started.
Citing Uptown painter, Jacob Lawrence, as one of his main inspirations, the connection between the visual and sonic comes together here in this audiovisual studio / bedroom in Harlem, where Hak continues the legacy and creates art that pulls from his idols and pushes forward through the cluttered art scene with a young, yet wise perspective. Here in the studio, he showed us some of his upcoming visual work, a series of Black figures inspired by a cornucopia of styles and icons, and talked more about the inspirations for his 2016 debut album June, as well as future endeavours.
Hak - Do you mind if I play some music?
GRAPE - Not at all. What have you been listening to?
I’ve been listening to this one band Small Black. I really like them they’re from Brooklyn. It’s like indie shit. I’m trying to make something like this.
June starts with the lyrics, “All the songs of summer...” What’s the importance of having a summer song for you and why did you release it when you did?
I think a lot of people are outside for the summer, and I curated my whole album with the location and season in mind.
Outside in New York?
Outside anywhere. And I felt like I had to put it out in June because I just needed to.
Why’d you choose that location for your "Aura" video?
I was out on tour in LA and I heard of Joshua Tree, looked it up on Google and just was like, it looked really tight. It’s definitely spiritual and magical in it’s own sense. It definitely has an aura.
It reminded me of New Mexico. I feel like so many videos are shot in the city and people don’t really appreciate desert beauty.
As an urban dweller it was nice to say I shot something different than New York that’s kind of foreign and exotic.
What draws you to the city right now?
What draws me is probably the cuisine, the gastronomy, how you can just kind of take in all of these different cultures through food, and kind of recreate them. Or try to, if you’re interested in cooking. I cook a lot, I’m like a chef for sure, I cook kale and tomato and ginger. Light stuff. Especially in the summer.
How has your transition been working solo since you’ve left Ratking?
It’s been interesting for sure. I've had to re-map all the way I do things. I just see it as a stepping stone really. I still try to draw inspiration from those being my days and drawing from that because at one point those dudes were my day, that’s all I saw. I don’t try to deny it or look back at them in spite.
What has your process for producing been?
Well it’s cool, having produced 90% of this album, I just want to make something new. I have this house tape I was working on, probably going to go back to the 4:4 heartbeat, and like rhythm, percussive, and like just make something else, you know? For this album I played a lot, and I would bring people in, and we recorded most of it in here. I was also working in Long Island City some nights to kind of mix it and sequence it and add vocals. Collaborations make good songs—there are no self-made songs.
If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
I feel like if I shout it out, it won’t come true. I want to work with a lot of people. I want to work with so many producers—Arca. Arca’s tight. There’s so many people but I feel like before looking so far out, we need to look local. There are so many gems within your radius already. Everyone’s trying to move to the next city and the next neighborhood. As much as I want to work with blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, I have to work with people here, undiscovered.
Who are some of your artist inspirations?
I like Jacob Lawrence, he’s a painter from uptown. He did a series called “The Migration of the Negro,” it showed at MoMA. He did it with his wife and they did 60 panels, and every color, let’s say they did a light blue, they’d have it mapped out to know where every blue was on every panel, and they would do it color by color, so it was all aligned in the same tonal value. I also like Matisse and Ralph Steadman a lot.
You’ve painted portraits of James Van Der Zee and Jacob Lawrence, why did you choose those subjects?
Those portraits are for my series of Black figures. They were just really suave, just really tight. I also did Marcus Garvey, and I want to do Joe Louis, the boxer, and Dapper Dan, the designer from Harlem.
Do you feel like there’s any crossover between your music and your painting?
Well I do it all out of one space. I used to work out of a couple studios but I’m working out of here right now so it’s kind of intertwined seamlessly. It’s very fluid—you’re right here sitting at the studio, and then you swivel to paint.
Do you ever paint and sing at the same time?
Yeah, I do that all the time.
Your album was pretty light-hearted. Can you tell me about making positive music in the midst of so much terrible stuff that’s happening in this world?
You have to. I always felt like a happy person, and I feel like you have to project that frequency and match that frequency if you want to make it a reality for yourself. My frequency is just positive music in a way. I need to make some other—higher BPM shit. I’m drawn to that. A couple songs, “432 Hz” and “Order and Nature,” are on a scientific level, their frequency is 432 Hz which is the frequency of nature rather than radio music. 432 Hz has healing powers.