By: D. Momanaee
Photo: Trevor Hacker
Kehinde and Taiwo Hassan—known together as the production duo Christian Rich—crossed my radar when they appeared in the Audi #paidmydues campaign in 2014, which drew a parallel between a multitude of creative luminaries who commanded respect after “paying their dues” in their industry and the emergent, all-new 2015 A3 Sedan. They have been paying their dues behind the scenes since 2003, but in 2014, they collaborated with Audi and were compensated for making music with the brand and acting as brand ambassadors. Over the years, they assembled an incredible catalog of progressive recorded music that—while almost always being placed in the hip-hop category—doesn’t fit the mold of regular rap music. But then again, these are not regular rap producers. Well-received by critics and fans alike, their debut solo album, “FW14,” which features an Audi R8 on the cover, creates a lush sonic environment full of brilliant guest appearances and properly introduces music fans to the game-changing collaborators behind some of their favorite music. On tour in 2016 and putting the finishing touches on their new LP “Taiwo & Kehinde,” which comes out late this fall, we were lucky enough to sit down and talk with them in Santa Monica.
At first meeting, Taiwo and Kehinde seem impossibly cool—connoisseurs of everything that they’re passionate about and wearing this enthusiasm in everything from their clothes to their demeanor, even in the sunglasses they designed. While working with big-name talent since day one, their love of music—not just making hits or tailoring tracks for sale to hot artists—has built their brand into one of the most uniquely nuanced and in demand in the music business. Now 13 years into their music careers, Christian Rich have made their name by working together to follow their own frequency.
Their story began long before their first hit. Born in Chicago in 1982, the Hassan brothers made their first memories in Nigeria. As young American kids living in West Africa, they felt an affinity for music, listening to the limited amount they could get their hands on—mostly Yoruba music that influenced their taste measurably and set them on their artistic path. When they returned to Chicago in 1990, they began listening to jazz on the radio, staying up for hours to tape and listen to their favorite tunes. Through years of intense listening and hitting Record thousands of times, the two developed an immense mental library to quote from—and two young sampling virtuosos were born. It was at this time that they developed a deep love for the language of jazz music: the discord of major 7ths, unique chord changes and the untethered freedom of the creative act.
As young musicians, Taiwo and Kehinde first found their expression through drums and piano, respectively, in church. But their greatest proficiency has always been in drum programming and sequencing: selecting and arranging prerecorded sounds—a task the layman might call “making beats.” By the time they got to college, the Hassan brothers realized they were music producers, and they used Kehinde’s first (and only) check from making macaroni and cheese at a certain famously bald Chicago basketball icon’s steakhouse to buy a $300 keyboard. They made their first hits on that keyboard, and with each subsequent success, they continued to invest in themselves and their studio.
They’ve come a long way from making macaroni, and they’ve always stayed true to themselves. According to Kehinde, having your brother as your partner “means a lot, because no matter what, we’re family… it means more than just working.” With two young boys of his own, Kehinde sees the family business he has built with Taiwo as a legacy that his children have the option of taking up when they get older. Taiwo, always there to fill in the blanks, adds that working with his brother is “natural” and that they’ve been making music together since they were kids—when other kids were playing video games, they were playing music.
A lot of our conversation was like this: Kehinde taking the lead to answer questions and Taiwo listening to his brother and considering what he needed to add or amend. This dynamic apparently spills over into their work in the studio. Kehinde called himself “the kooky one” since he is so outspoken and willing to try anything, tracking lots of musical lines that his brother then culls and sculpts to find the song and “make the music make sense.” When I asked if Taiwo agrees with this characterization, he simply said “yes”—but he had a lot to say when I brought up their influence over artists in the studio environment. In addition to composing, performing, tracking and mixing their own music, Taiwo said they help influence lyrical content in a subtle way. For example, the artists they work with will usually end up using the working title of the original Christian Rich instrumental track as the title of their final work, using the duo’s original mood or idea as a focus to write their lyrics around. Like expert film directors, they know how to coax the performances they need from their players. They truly believe in the abilities of the artists they work with and, according to Taiwo, they’re so laid-back that other people in the studio “wouldn’t even know we were the producers.”
It’s here that their true mastery lies—in subtle ephemeral influence of others, in the trust in their process and what Kehinde called the “godlike” ability to “tap into their own frequency, find their own rhythm, find their own purpose and their own definitions of things,” as opposed to only seeking to be what they call a “scholar.” For the Hassan brothers, life is too short to be just a scholar, and despite their deep and intuitive knowledge of music theory, drum programming and recorded music, they do not even try to relearn the entire canon of thousands of years of musical thought in their lifetimes. Maybe that’s why they gave away their entire vinyl collection of thousands of records a few years ago, and maybe that’s why they are, in my opinion, easily the most progressive producers in the game today. Like the jazz musicians they learned to love as kids, they embrace the moment and try not to get caught up in “the theories of the world,” preferring to try ideas that resonate with them during the act of creation. Listening to their debut album “FW14” you can hear this—from unique tonal choices to discordant notes outside of the diatonic scale to the mixing of disparate music samples from all genres that have lived in their heads for years, only to emerge triumphantly and singularly as the music of Christian Rich.
These are men steeped in the creation—true artists who let their well-honed tastes drive their work. Throughout our conversation, we talked about their influences, because as producers, DJs and beat makers, influence is the art itself. Kehinde shared his love of a certain Japanese architect, himself another famous twin, known for his emphasis on empty space to juxtapose the complexities of his design. Taiwo spoke of traveling and meeting new people in new places, gaining inspiration from late-night conversations and working next to his girlfriend, who is a fashion designer. So it’s no wonder that, after having to drive their friend’s Audi S5 home after an especially ripping late-night conversation (for their friend at least), Audi became their transport of choice. No wonder they partnered with Audi to put an R8 on the cover of their debut album, and no wonder Audi licenses music made by Christian Rich. To the Hassan brothers, “It’s more than just driving a car—it’s just part of what we do. Like Audi, our music is full of luxury and great engineering and surprises. If you really know quality and consistency, you get an Audi.” And if you know quality and consistency, you get what the Hassan brothers are doing as well. After all, real recognizes real.
According to Kehinde and Taiwo, this song by Childish Gambino—who was thoughtful enough to give them a feature credit on his album “Kauai”—is their favorite among all the tracks they’ve made together.
Sounds like…the perfect R&B track to drive down twisty Sunset Boulevard toward home on a warm night in 1996.
“Sparks Will Fly”
The final track from the deluxe edition of J. Cole’s platinum-selling 2013 album “Born Sinner” shows the duo’s restraint and versatility, featuring splashy, tennis-ball-sounding drums supporting classic 1980s guitar tone and lush synth sounds.
Sounds like…when it’s sprinkling just enough that you need your windshield wipers, but you have to turn them off every few seconds; listening to jazz with the bass turned up when your yacht rock ringtone goes off.
This bass-driven futuristic track features beautiful strings and the baby-bird vocals of JMSN, stacking harmonies with natural voice leading and counterpoint that would get an A from any Midwestern music school, even though they claim to eschew theory. Then the Yoruba drums come in at 2:49 over soaring strings to give you a taste of their nostalgia for Nigeria.
Sounds like…the opening title sequence of a classic spy thriller and the ensuing scene that takes place at a café in Lagos in vibrant 1962 technicolor.
Something about David Axelrod samples and the essential krautrock in this Earl Sweatshirt spaced-out banger lets you know just how late they must’ve stayed up and how encyclopedic and varied their musical knowledge truly is. Featuring lyrics that are at once honest, self-doubting and in-your-face, this track is not recommended for the faint of heart.
Sounds like…a 1970s soundtrack to a bewildering, foreign horror-thriller movie that features a diamondback slithering its way through a desert, the snare drums drier and more ominous than a snake rattle.