It was like any other Manchester, UK, day. The story’s a classic one. Some artists need day jobs. This little truth applies to Adnan Khan (aka “Menace”), age 22. Life as a mobile phone technician didn’t quite fulfill his creative energies — he crafted grime-influenced hip-hop production as a means of unwinding, and had worked with Young Noble, a member of Tupac’s old group the Outlawz. Crafting beats was an everyday thing, and the process was painstakingly routine.
One production in particular was the artist’s eponymous call — aptly titled “Menace.” Patience is the name of the game. So, the artist waited, and waited, and within a year, Brooklyn hip hop recording artist Desiigner, signed to Kanye West’s label G.O.O.D Music, had recorded raps over the instrumental, renamed it as “Panda” and propelled it to hit record status.
The Menace-produced track “Panda” has been nominated in the Track of the Year category for the 2016 BET Hip-Hop Awards and certified triple platinum by the RIAA, with over three million units sold and streaming numbers in the hundreds of millions. “Panda” was also lifted from the single soundscape and neatly placed on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2” in Kanye’s latest album The Life of Pablo. From there, Menace got calls, texts, e-mails, and DMs from people all over the world who wanted to re-create the same magic he supplied for Desiigner’s career. In April, he signed a publishing deal with Tim Blacksmith’s Stellar Songs.
Born and raised in in Rochdale, England, to a mother born and raised in Kashmiri Pakistan, Khan is the eldest of five children. He remains an observant Muslim, does not drink or smoke, and celebrated Ramadan this past summer. In this interview, he discusses the sudden and exponential success of “Panda,” his current and future plans, and his gripe with America’s visa system, among other topics.
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What’s your earliest memory of music? Do you have a musical family?
The first time I encountered music was with my dad. He used to play old-school 1980s music like Michael Jackson and Billy Ocean on his tape player. He introduced me to music. My dad loves listening and makes music for himself at times. He likes playing synthesizers especially the Korg M1 which has a very nostalgic background. This is one of the reasons I do music now and know how to play the piano and keyboard. Watching my father, and telling myself I want to be like him.
Who gave you the name Menace?
To be honest, it was a name from high school. I used to be a little rebel. I wasn’t one of them good kids. A lot of kids used to call me Menace.
How did you first get into music?
The transition from listening to actually making the music was a slow process but obviously it was a start. I used to have an mp3 player I used to load instrumentals on from Dr. Dre, Scott Storch, etc. I used to have a keen interest in the background music. One day I just said to myself, “How do people make these instrumentals?” That’s when I started doing my own research. I was 12 years old then. I’m 22 now.
How did you link with Young Noble, a member of Tupac’s old group the Outlawz?
That was right before Panda came out. I never met him, no, not yet. I haven’t met Desiigner yet either.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from working with Young Noble?
I learned that a lot of artists like simplified instrumentals.
How did you link with Desiigner?
To be honest, it was after he released “Panda”. I used to have a beat shop where I used to sell my music. The beat was called “Menace” first. He bought the beat, and I only found out it was him when “Panda” came out. A couple months later, someone mentioned me on Twitter like you need to check this out, this is fire.
When I first heard it, I knew it was going to be big. It was catchy. It had a lot of bounce to it. It was right for the clubs. It was hitting about 30k views the first day I saw it. The next day it was 100k. Then it just skyrocketed.
Why do you think people compare Desiigner and Future so much?
It’s just the voice. Future uses autotune. Desiigner’s just got the voice. Mainly, it had to do with the ad-libs. The ad-libs are more or less similar.
You’ve stated grime music influenced “Panda” and Desiigner. What is it about grime that works well with your style?
Grime, the genre itself, is a very high tempo type of style. It’s like a burst of energy. I used that as well as trap to infuse something. A lot of people come up to here talking about I can tell that’s grime. It just hits you in the face. That’s the influence.
Why did you sign with Tim Blacksmith’s Stellar Songs?
To be honest, I was in a big bidding war between all the record labels. Tim Blacksmith beat the competition. He was the one with the highest, proper deal, money wise. Obviously, my contract was lenient, if you know what I mean. With G.O.O.D, the contract was offering me less, and had a lot of strings attached. I did my research on Tim’s company, and he’s been associated with star producers with at least ten hits under their belt. That’s what got me interested in them.
Kanye West bought the rights to the song for $200. Do you think you should have earned more?
This is what I was saying to a lot of people. They get confused about selling versus publishing. A lot of people undercut each other. I think the price is about right. Publishing is where the real money comes, it comes from plays. That’s why the publishing deal is crucial. The beat itself is only $200, that’s it. Every producer should take note of a publishing deal.
You’re the eldest of five children in your family. Given your success, are they starting to look as music as a viable career path?
To be honest, they’ve got a keen interest in music. They don’t have the fire in them like I do. They like the music. They have a keen interest in whatever I do. Obviously, I do this because I love music. It’s not like I’m going to impress anyone, like I’m going to be the coolest dude because I love music. Music just relaxes me, it’s my therapy. When I’m stressed, this is the thing that I turn to. It calms me down. It’s like a bonus for me.
How do you remain true to your values while working in hip-hop?
To be honest, the only thing that’s different is me not working a 9 to 5 job right now.
Have you experienced backlash from communities regarding your music?
I haven’t. My craft is respected. For example, I’ll be on the street. When people approach me they say you made Pakistanis proud, you made Asians proud. It’s widely respected that I’ve done this. Culture is different from faith. Sometimes you get the religious people saying it doesn’t really help your faith, to be making the music you make. But if I’m opening the door for others to follow my path, I know it’s not bad, it’s good. To be honest, where I live, people are very open. People are happy, like I did something good for the country. Not just my community.
Have you experienced anti-blackness in South Asian communities?
In the UK black and brown people tend to get along together very well. Normally when Asian people protest black people participate also. There’s a unity with both communities so the level of interaction is very high. Most of my friends growing up were black, the culture we live in is influenced by black culture for the most part.
What’s your gripe with the the USA’s visa system?
The visa system, to be honest, is underway. But when I first started, there were a lot of hiccups. My last name is Khan. It’s the same as a lot of U.S. inmates. There are a lot of people in prison with the name Khan, as well as a lot of terrorists. They wanted to know who I am, what I do, where I’m from. But it’s going smooth now. Within the next 2 months, I should be in the U.S. in the studio working with these artists in person.
The BET Awards will be broadcast October 4. What’s your expectation?
There’s a lot of hits that came out. Obviously I wish whoever wins good luck. I give them my congratulations. You have “Controlla”, “All The Way Up”, and obviously “Panda” itself.
Yeah. Actually, myself, I’m the person who’s opened up the door for many Asians. I’ve opened the door for a lot of people to come home and potentially have the same success. The industry I’m in right now is dominated by black and white people. Nothing against black or white people, it’s just that there’s never been the case any Asian has come in. We have Arabs, with DJ Khaled, who’s made his mark. But it’s time for Asians to come in and make their mark on the scene.
What’s your favorite album right now?
Schoolboy Q’s LP that he just released. Outside of rap, hip-hop, r&b, I don’t really listen to much. In the past I was heavily involved in the Asian music scene. It didn’t last long, only a couple of months, then it was back to making more commercial type of music. Jay Sean was on my list. He was the icon of Asian artists at that time. Very big then. He’s left Cash Money now and come back. But back then he was a very big deal to many people.
What are your future plans?
I’ve got some UK artists I’m working with. When the time comes I’m going to announce it. Lot of endorsements, lot of business plans. 2017 is going to be a very good year for me. I’m looking forward to that. UK is always going to be my home. U.S. is going to be my workplace. I’ve been brought up here.
How would you describe the past year for you?
I wanted people to hear my music, and now it’s getting heard. When people praise me for this… it’s one of my biggest dreams. It’s bigger than fame, bigger than popularity — when people notice you for something no-one else has. It makes me feel proud of myself.
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Mustafa Abubaker is the author of The Surrogate. He is currently working on a new novel.