Nick Hakim Is Finding Out What Will Make Him Good

The artist talks mortality, kindness and creating his sophomore record.

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In these uncertain times, when the world seems to be at a standstill and on fire, is there anything that can still be done to save us? For Nick Hakim, the answer lies within his 12-song, 53-minute sophomore project, Will This Make Me Good. The album is a delve into the artist’s bag of tricks, pulling out all the stops: tetris-layered production, funk soul tempos and meditations from the concession stands of a neighborhood sporting event.

Hakim has already collaborated with some of the most intriguing underground acts around, including Onyx Collective, Anderson .Paak, Piink Sifu, Slauson Malone and KeiyaA. The Berklee College of Music graduate is now building true rapport in the game with two cogent EP’s under his belt, including a critically acclaimed debut album in 2017’s Green Twins, and most importantly — room to fail.

After losing all of his lyrics while out in London doing shows, Hakim sunk into a deep writer’s block for months. Then it came to him — Will This Make Me Good. Hakim described the album’s title with an anecdote explaining, “I spoke to a spiritual healer on January 3 of 2019. And she told me that I think too much with my mind and I have to think more with my heart. And when I first heard it, I was thinking to myself, ‘That’s like the corniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

“A lot of this has to do with the reflection on our mental health and over-medicating and experience with that and whether it’s prescribed pills or not, we all are creatures of habits and bad habits,” he added. “The title reflects looking at something and wondering if this is gonna help you or if it’s gonna hurt you?”

“The title reflects looking at something and wondering if this is gonna help you or if it’s gonna hurt you?”

Hakim deals in grief, self-care, emotional heft, community and abstraction. The 29-year-old Chilean and Peruvian anomaly surfs through sound and substance spectrums. On “Bouncing,” he presents a psychedelic jazz chorus that yearns for answers. He wrote the expansively melodic “All These Instruments” alongside his young brother Danny and collaborator Joel Matteo. On “Crumpy,” the alt-rock tune perfectly tinged by Mac Demarco’s guest guitar, Hakim depicts how a bike accident brought him closer than ever before to his new hometown of New York City.

“Vincent Tyler” is an ode to the traumatizing early experience of finding a victim of a senseless murder laid out in the alleyways he and his friends used to travel to get home. For Nick, mortality was an awakening to the complicated nature of our existence and it directly signified the growing pains of a rapidly changing city. It was a harsh reality Hakim would have to face.

Late last week, Hakim performed “QADIR” live on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Qadir, an old friend of Hakim’s— whose childhood portrait graces the single cover — took his own life in 2018. And on the biggest stage of his career, in the midst of a pandemic and forced isolation, Hakim set out to honor his deceased friend with somber care. But like the rest of the world, he would have to do so from home via video conference call. The song is a beautiful orchestral concoction of drums, bass, keys, and flute while simultaneously weighing itself down in contemplations of gentrification, masked behaviors and dealing with the death of a childhood friend.

His new project operates in a space that’s more tightly wound than his previous Green Twins. He acknowledges that his latest album is not an easy listen, but that’s by design. Hakim can do this because he’s a master of production, utilizing samples, instruments, synths, reactive noise patterns and distorted vocals as a barrier of entry to the substance. And he’s built a telepathic-like chemistry with his main producer, engineer and close collaborator Andrew Sarlo; they’ve worked together for 10 years now. With Will This Make Me Good, Hakim’s pillowy, mood-inflected vocal presence provides just the right amount of messy nuance, technical prowess and complexity in a cautiously optimistic hope for the future… of people and sound.

Below, Nick Hakim talks to HYPEBEAST about life in Ridgewood, Queens these days, finding the right words and the process of making his sophomore album.

HYPEBEAST: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Washington, D.C.

Nick Hakim: D.C. is a lot smaller than New York in a lot of ways but it’s an interesting city as well. It’s a very ironic city in terms of, it’s the nation’s capital but it has one of the worst public school systems and I think a lot of things reflect that. I watched the beginning of gentrification in D.C. and it’s changed so much since I was growing up there but I still have a lot of friends there. It’s fun going out when I’m there because it’s like the townies and we know everyone, not like the city, where everyone isn’t from there.

It’s funny, my boy Josh, he just called me today because he’s working for this food delivery service right now and he found out one of his co-workers actually grew up with Vincent Tyler. There’s a song on my record called “Vincent Tyler.” And he is this guy that we found in our godmother’s alley. So it’s just crazy today that that happened, because we were reminiscing about high school and I still keep in touch with my friends that I’ve known since middle school.

So that’s where the “Vincent Tyler” song comes from? 

Yeah, my friends were walking and I remember it was a pretty cold winter day and we always used to cut through these alleys and they got to the house and they were just freaking out. But they were the ones that found him [Vincent Tyler]. And then we all went and saw the body. And it was just crazy, like Vincent Tyler’s young brother actually reached out to me. And I’m not saying that there you saw dead bodies everyday or anything, but it was just an experience of a city that was changing and there was a lot of violence still.

I can imagine that had an adverse effect on you moving around a lot and seeing something like that.

There was a lot of crazy sh*t going on all the time as I’m sure anybody who grows up in a city knows, especially before it was going through that specific phase of gentrification. With moving to New York and understanding how it feels to be from somewhere that is changing in an unfair or systemically unjust to certain communities, you have a level of empathy because I was always super aware of it. I’ll go back home and just walk around the old parts that we’d be at and the house we grew up in and it’s so different here now. 

How’s living in New York for you now?

Yeah Ridgewood is quiet. It feels like a little town here or something.

Is that the place you were talking about on the album when you said, “This town has really started to grow on me, my face has become one with the concrete.”

Yeah, I meant New York in general though. I think I was living in Bed-Stuy when I wrote those lyrics. It’s more of a metaphor I use from when I got in a bike accident and I chipped my tooth. I’ve gotten into a lot of accidents though cause I just be doing dumb sh*t. I like to go really fast. 

What’ve you been doing to stay creative during quarantine?

On top of promoting this record, which has been an interesting thing to navigate and the fact that it’s happening now, I was debating waiting [to put the record out] but I was just like ya know what, let’s just do it. It’s one of those things that while getting everything prepped to the best of our ability and ready to be shared — I’ve been working on new music. I stopped to take a little break too because it’s just been a difficult time. Some days I feel positive and some days I don’t but especially when you’re locked down. 

I’ve actually been cooking a lot and the first month and a half I was hand washing clothes, like at least twice a week and I realized how much sh*t I don’t really need. That’s another thing I learned — if we just live a little simpler, more minimal, especially with the things that we own. I have, it has to be in the hundreds of T-shirts, and sh*t my friends make and shirts I’ve collected. I either need to give these away or archive them or something.

You gotta Marie Kondo your sh*t.

Yeah I really kinda do, I have storage units filled up with random sh*t.

“With moving to New York and understanding how it feels to be from somewhere that is changing in an unfair or systemically unjust to certain communities, you have a level of empathy.”

I feel like you operate in such a singular atmosphere so I’m wondering what you were listening to growing up or what were the influences? 

I feel like I’ve had a lot of influences and there’s certain parts of my life that influenced different things. I really love Stevie Wonder. Stevie has a record called A Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants. And it came out in 1979 and it’s a film score for this documentary about plants. I became obsessed for like a year. I listened to a lot of Stevie and I’ve heard a lot of his records and I’m familiar with a lot of his music but that record was a big influence— the themes, the decisions in sequencing.

Then there’s the Madlib and Freddie Gibbs album, Bandana. Pink Siifu’s Ensley, he’s a good friend of mine, he actually contributed to vocals on “QADIR” and his record Ensley, helped me start writing lyrics again. 

Curtis Mayfield’s, Sweet Exorcist, that album, Rachel Sweet has a song, “It’s So Different Here.” Then there’s ESG [South Bronx art-funk ensemble]. Slauson Malone — over the past three years we’ve started to become closer friends and he’s one of the most brilliant, young producers that I’ve worked with. We produced the track for Pink Siifu on his new record, NEGRO, the track’s called “Run Pig Run.” That’s Jasper and I just with screwdrivers and our guitars, just making noise, just us two going through the same AMP and we just went in, it was cool.

Funny you bring up Jasper because the noise placement on Will This Make Me Good sometimes reminds me of Slauson’s, A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen.

Yeah for sure. I mean a lot of the noise stuff is also just influenced by experimental shit that I like. Sonny Sharrock, he has this record called Black Woman that I really love. He also played in this band called Last Exit. So when we say influences, it just ranges from like the noise shit to like the late ’70s, ’80s, like downtown New York sh*t.

I want to take you back to Green Twins, just some of the instrumentation on there, like the song “Farmissplease” is a slower tune, what is the main difference between the space you were in with that record as opposed to now with Will This Make Me Good?

Green Twins, mainly it was just myself and co-producer Andrew Sarlo playing bass. It was just us playing everything. On this record, there’s still some moments just us two for sure, but it was more collaborative and I think it was a good thing. On Green Twins, there were definitely a couple songs that were live. The song “Cuffed,” that was a live take of me playing keys, my friend John playing Drum Kit and Andrew playing bass. And then on “Those Days” featuring Onyx Collective, that was also live at the same studio we recorded “Cuffed” at. So I think there are two songs that were recorded live all the way through and then the rest were like random, bedroom-created, working out of wherever we could for free and splurging on sessions here and there because I was making that record when I was still completely independent. 

How long was that process for when you really started locking in making Will This Make Me Good?

The last song on Will This Make Me Good was written during the same time I wrote Green Twins. I had played a couple of shows with a trio of these tracks that are on Will This Make Me Good. And that developed from just a few songs and I’m always voice memo-ing ideas and just started to really piece the music together. 

I got into this deep thing with that so I had all the music, the composition, the melody ideas that I wanted to use but it was just like, “Yo what do you want to say? Like what do you want to talk about on this record, man?” My last record was very personal, but it was more relationship stuff that people might be able to relate to. Green Twins is, I don’t want to say easy listening, but maybe a little more welcoming?

This record is a little more like, I feel f*cking crazy. I feel weird. I feel like the city is driving me f*cking crazy. I feel like I am going insane. I feel like I am sad that my friend [Qadir] passed away, and I’m sad that he took his own f*cking life because he doesn’t wanna be here anymore. I can’t imagine what that must’ve felt like. All these things. I was driving through California and I just see all these forest fires, like it looked like the end of the world.

It requires an active and patient listener?

I’m not necessarily even trying to do this intentionally, but it’s a challenge to how we consume music. People just want these short songs and long albums that are designed to get people to click more, designed to get that 19 cents per stream or whatever it is, and I just feel like this system isn’t sustainable. I’m not abiding by its rules and I just want to make what feels good and feels right. And I’m going to keep going and I’m going to keep building and I’ll keep playing this game that these mothersf*ckers are trying to play but I’m still out here.

The songs feel a bit more tense, they’re longer but ultimately it feels like the music is supposed to have this lasting effect. Was that a feeling you were trying to capture?

I mean yes and no, a lot of the music, instead of me trying to possess it or control it, it was a balance of letting it control me. I think beyond the writing process, there’s an insane amount of depth that went into the layering, the mixing and the production. I noticed I can still point out all the different little details of the record and I actually haven’t listened to it in a while now and probably won’t again for some time. For anybody that releases music, you spend all this time with the music and then it almost becomes old to you. You’ve just listened to it so much.

I saw the tweet, the note you had put out alongside releasing the album officially, you said you “couldn’t find the right words.” How much of it is actually finding the right words or is it more important to just get it out there?

I think there’s a balance. Well there’s all these different little factors of the record, the words are one part and it takes time to understand a creative thing you’re making. It’s also a gut thing — you just kinda know. Sometimes I take a really long time writing lyrics and I have to tell myself to just sit down and focus and most of the time, it just kind of develops into whatever it is. Whatever’s in your head, when you put it on paper, it becomes this real thing and that’s just another perception layer, it’s this intangible thing, it’s sound and the sound spectrum.

Like the song “Bouncing?”

Yeah exactly, we felt like it was a little rude to have the drums come in like they do but we were just like whatever. I remember the first time we edited that sh*t, those background vocals, each one is all the way through. That’s one of my favorite recordings that I’ve done. It’s very dramatic and cinematic. I’ve always wanted to play with strings and it’s a hard one. Someone did a string arrangement on “Vincent Tyler,” the version that came out in 2018 and I really wanted to use strings on this album so I got to add them on here.

“It made me really start to think about what it means to check in with people and how things could be different sometimes.”

My condolences for your loss. “QADIR” feels like a relief of sorts but also a larger commentary on top of that — it deals with a lot of emotions. I know you made the single cover in remembrance of your friend so could you speak to who he was to you?

Yeah I went to high school with him, he’s younger than me and we were close. We actually both transferred to like a bunch of different schools and ended up attending two of the same high schools together, and so we kept in touch in college. Then in 2018, I just saw the news and I knew he was struggling with some mental health issues and some things but it really broke my heart. It made me really start to think about what it means to check in with people and how things could be different sometimes.

Not that me checking in or anyone else, would have changed things, I try not to go down these hypotheticals, but it just made me wish I had been able to connect. It also made me think about the whole larger scope of how we even deal with people who are struggling, as a society. I’m gonna quote a Bilal song here, but “in a world that’s so obsessed with beauty and ugliness” and a world that’s so cold. And the mask [in the song] can reflect people who are two-faced but then also people that are just protecting themselves.

This idea of community, being cognizant of our spaces, even how we treat our neighbors, do you feel like ultimately it starts there?

Yeah, that’s a big theme on the album. Speaking about the process of being kind to myself, being kind to our space, being kind to our neighbors, that’s sort of the reminder with this project. The idea really stems from observing how I’ve treated myself and other people and then seeing how people acted, watching neighborhoods change, it’s a reflection of everything. It’s a reminder to be kind to yourself and be nice to others. It’s this simple thing we learn in preschool — treat others the way you wanna be treated — and I really try to live by that. I never underestimate anyone, I don’t care who you are. You gotta give people a chance.

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