“This is fucking amazing out here!” Anik Khan yells, slamming his hands down on his teak lawn chair. The sun is streaming down on a picturesque New Jersey backyard in June of 2016. Birds are calling, wind chimes are ringing in the distance, and the grass is swaying and humming.
The rapper and his sound team recline on the porch, smoking as they hunch over their noon-time chais and coffees. The other guys have just woken up, but Khan has been awake for hours, and he's ready to work.
The group has gathered in suburban Jersey to record Khan’s full-length debut album, Kites, in the basement of sound engineer Raj Makhija’s family home. Their neighbors are the 100,000 citizens of the township of Edison, one-quarter of whom are of Indian descent — the single highest concentration of Indians in the U.S., by some estimates. Lush greenery frames the town on all sides, and old Indian women walk the sidewalks in sneakers and salwar kameez. Edison’s main drag, Oak Tree Road, is lined with miles of sari shops and South Asian restaurants. A resident once boasted to me that women from all around the country come to Edison specifically to do their wedding shopping, bypassing the Motherland entirely.
As you walk down the staircase to Makhija’s studio, which Khan has come to refer to as the Curry Compound, Hindu bhajans — musical prayers — float down from the floors above. It's a solemn workspace: The walls are painted deep red, and a two-foot-tall copper statue of Lord Ganesh sits against the wall.
At the time of my visit, Khan is near the end of Kites' more than yearlong recording process. A rapper of the YouTube generation, he has released most of his music online as free Soundcloud EPs. The new project has been so long time in the works because, as Khan sees it, he only has a small window in which to get it right.
“I’m about to be 28,” he says, “and that’s too old to be chasing Soundcloud plays.”
Last year, Khan’s single “Too Late Now” made it to No. 4 on Spotify’s Top Viral Tracks. Since then he’s been featured on the BBC’s Asian Network and interviewed more than once by Ebro Darden on Beats 1 Radio. His window is definitely now.
When his team finally makes it down to the studio — hurried along by Khan, who says more than once that they won’t break until the newest track is done — they seem to move into formation. Each takes a seat at their designated station and pulls their tools close. In addition to Makhija, Australian producer aywy and sound tech Brian Nicholls begin going over loops.
“This is the boring part,” Khan says. “This is the part where we listen to one song over and over until you don’t want to fucking hear it anymore.”
Despite what he says, Khan seems excited. He flits between Makhija and aywy, asking them to play parts again, requesting additions or subtractions. He is thoroughly invested in each layer of production for his songs. It's a time-consuming process.
Writing a song is the easy part, whether he's jotting down lyrics as the feeling comes or rapping freestyle over tracks and then writing it all down later. “Too Late Now” only took a day to write. “My writing can happen while I’m driving down the FDR at 3 in the morning from Harlem or it can happen while I’m eating samosas,” he says. “It’s random. The production is a purposeful editing.”
As he plays a few more nearly mastered tracks, bobbing his head and grinning wildly, it's clear that Khan loves his music. Aywy snorts at his excitement, while Makhija leans back, looking content. The studio feels warm and full.
As the song “Mango Nectar” comes on, Khan is bubbling over.
“You know it’s Bengali ’cuz of the fucking flutes,” he laughs.
Khan likes to say he’s a son of Queens, “the most diverse place on Earth.” His family moved from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to Astoria when he was 4 years old; once there, his father, who fought in Bangladesh's Liberation War, began a new life as a cab driver, and raised Anik on a steady diet of all the music New York had to offer.
Today, Khan is known for his multicultural mashups. On “Cleopatra,” a single from the new album, he combines a sample of the iconic hook from “Jiya Jale,” from the 1998 Bollywood movie Dil Se, with vaguely Caribbean dancehall riddims and a steady bass track.
“I wanted to use this sample and I wanted to use it in a unique way,” he says. “I didn’t want to just ‘hip-hop’ it. This music sounds like it wants to cross a lot of different borders and reign.”
The territory that “Cleopatra” covers is massive — it intros with Bollywood, and its chorus begins in Egypt and ends at the Taj Mahal. It’s an empire in one song. “The thing is, I didn't go out of my way to make sure I was blending in different genres,” Khan says. “I guess I naturally made what a kid from Queens would make. We're different; we'll have Nas and Zion y Lennox on the same playlist, and party to riddims and hip-hop all night. I'm a product of New York City, the greatest city in the world.”
When Donald Trump took office in January, Khan saw his music take on a different light, becoming a collective exercise in processing and expression. At every live set, Khan talks between songs about being the proud son of immigrants. Another single from Kites, “Columbus,” is a searing, thumping, hand-over-heart protest against Trump’s Muslim ban.
“There's blood on the leaves and blood on your hands … America was made from black backs and brown shoulders,” he raps. “Yellow and beige arms, we brought culture / We brought order, we brought fortune, we crossed oceans and taught for ya.”
After the song was released in February 2017 — following Trump's first executive order on immigration — Khan says he was flooded with messages from other immigrants asking for advice and telling him what his music meant to them.
“I've dealt with being a person of color all my life,” he tells me. “It's crazy to see people reach out to me with passionate messages about how I'm helping them get through something — it brings everything full circle and reminds me that what I'm doing is important. It's my story, but it's also the story for so many others. It gives me the courage to continue being a proud immigrant who grew up in lower-income housing.”
The May release of Kites was met with hundreds of thousands of streamed plays and a new level of visibility for Khan in the rap scene. Shortly after, Spotify picked him to put together a playlist for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The weekend of Governors Ball, he performed songs from the album at a Zane Lowe–curated after-party along with YG and Charli XCX.
More than any of this, Khan tells me, he wants "to make people dance, but also be hip to what’s going on. To put on for my city and my culture, but also introduce people to other parts of the world along with it. In an era of calculated single releases, marketing, and branding, I chose to not give a fuck and create thoughtful, honest art. That's all I ever want to do. I'll let the universe figure out the rest."