Ben Khan is the 22-year-old Londoner who has been providing sexed-up, synth-laced, souled-out funky goodness since, well, the drop of his self-released 1992 EP in March, 2014. The debut four-tracker soon made its way through the doors of BBC Radio 1, with Huw Stephens the first to co-sign via on-air spins and praise. Before all of that, though, Khan’s SoundCloud plays were steadily totting up six figures, with the 'net claiming him to be the next big thing in a run of one-to-watch features.
From listening to 1992, it’s clear that Khan—a self-taught multi-instrumentalist—took his time with its whole creative process, seamlessly crafting songs that evoked pure sex appeal, non-formulaic structures (even down to the visuals), a stream of consciousness, and space-like sonics. Alongside elusive artists like Jungle and Jai Paul, Ben Khan isn’t playing by any rules whatsoever—in fact, for this J Dilla appreciator, it’s just as much about keeping himself interested as it is for the listener.
The mysterious singer/producer has purposely held back from doing a string of interviews and exposing everything about his life, which is kind of refreshing in this Instagram-mad era—but, that just makes us want to know more. A Spotify playlist concocted earlier in the year by Khan melded the likes of Ryan Hemsworth, Madlib and The Black Keys, with Curtis Mayfield, Little Dragon and Jimi Hendrix—which gave fans a hint into his tastes. But, of course, that wasn’t enough.
After a few months of "he's not ready yet" emails, it’s on a sunny day in a quaint west London bookshop café that Complex UK's Nardene Scott attempts to dig into the musical memory of this future star.
Interview by Nardene Scott (@NardeneScott)
What was the first album you ever bought, and what did it mean to you at the time?
It was Nirvana’s Nevermind. I wouldn’t say it appealed to me because of my age, it was just the rawness of Nirvana—like, you can really tell that the emotions are all there. And when you’re going through puberty and you’re angry and pissed off for no reason—this speaks to you. So, yeah, that was probably the first one I bought but I had a lot of musical experiences before that, just with my parents.
It’s only when you’re grown that you fully appreciate what your parents played in the house, right? When it comes to their musical tastes, which artists/albums have stayed with you?
Yeah, I thought they were losers, but there’s only two I can remember because I’ve got such a bad memory. Michael Jackson’s Bad, I vividly remember putting that CD on for the first time and just going nuts like, "What is this?" I remember thinking, "Is this a dude or a lady?" Even looking at the album cover when I was young, I hadn’t seen a guy dress like that before—but it was amazing to see. Then, there’s Fleetwood Mac. We always used to listen to their music in the car and I kinda thought it was lame, at first, but then I remember hearing one of the songs with this one badass solo and thought: "Wow! Old people can rock out, too."
With that said, what kind of music would you pass on to your kids?
Just stuff they’re gonna miss out on: the really unobvious things, the rarities. Basically, just anything from before the ‘80s which they’re probably not going to hear, like a lot of the funk stuff. I’ve got so much learning to do myself, but I hope to build enough of a vinyl collection that I can give to them. I’ve stopped collecting recently though, just because it takes so much time to go out there to vinyl shops and spend all your money and find all the nice little gems. The internet does help, for sure, but if you’re gonna pass something down, you’re not gonna pass down an MP3—you’ve got to have something physical.
On a nostalgic tip, is there a particular track that makes you instantly happy when you hear it?
Pharrell’s "Happy", obviously. [Laughs] Nope! I feel like I’m at a children’s party when that comes on, but he’s definitely doing his thing… Mostly old soul music, nice disco funk tracks, and anything that’s close to raw disco from the '80s always gets me in a really good mood. A recent one that I just heard the other day was Finis Henderson’s "Skip To My Lou", which is a badass funk track; I just wiggle my legs and almost look like a little jelly man looking like some retarded Elvis! That’s how I dance to it [laughs].
What is the one song you wished you had written, or at least featured on?
This isn’t my kind of style, at all, but I’m going to have to say Kanye West’s "Family Business". I wish I was at least there or somewhere near there, because it really is a great track. It’s the music, it’s what it meant at the time to me, because family is important to me just like it is to most people, and that track particularly spoke to me when I was younger.
Is there one song that drives you absolutely crazy?
I don’t like throwing shade on other people’s work, because everyone does their thing. But, like, we had 'Miley Cyrus year' last year. She was everywhere, and it was hard to get away from. I don’t like stuff being shoved down my throat. That’s what drives me crazy over anything else.
If you had the opportunity to score any film, past or present, which one would you choose?
I don’t know if I’m up to it or if anyone thinks I’ve got the chops for it. Blade Runner would be amazing but I wouldn’t want to go near that; it’s one of those holy grail things you can’t touch. It’s like remixing J Dilla, or something—you just can’t do it. It’s just disrespectful [laughs].
What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure track?
It would have to be Carly Simon's"Coming Around Again". It's just full-on cheese, '80s hairspray—boom!
This is a bit morbid, but have you ever thought about the song you’d want played at your funeral?
I’ve thought about it a few times, actually. I quite like "Wolf Like Me" by TV On The Radio. I remember hearing that and being like, "Yep! This would be nice for a funeral."
That ultimately just makes people even more sad.
[Laughs] That’s not my aim. I mean, I want some people crying and weeping that they’ve lost me but, at the same time, it should hopefully just be a good day.