Before I meet Ila Zair at his home in Lahore, he emails me a track made specially for Mosiki (which I thought was the coolest thing) to give a taste for his music and how it’s made. I play it on the way. It begins with a stand-up comedy sample, before drifting into a laid back groove, with an ethereal female vocal sample floating above lazy horns and a chunky but comfortable beat. It’s a vibe.
Ila Zair is the alias of Ali Riaz Baqar (it’s Ali Riaz spelt backwards). He is a musician who is also part of the Pakistani band Jaubi, a Indian classical/jazz music ensemble who have already released an EP and have a new single scheduled to be released this summer. He’s addicted to jazz, but his real passion, he tells me, is making hip hop beats.
His latest beat tape, ‘Zairisms Vol.1’ is, like the name, a series of musical phrases, a sequence of aphorisms turned into beats, ideas evolved into a couple minutes of sound before moving on to the next thought. His samples are eclectic ranging from Quranic recitations to soulful jazz. This is perhaps a reflection of his musical influences for the guitar which has exposed him to a universe of different sounds. He is an unofficial disciple of the the Shahjahanpur Gharana via the late sarod maestro Pandit Buddadev Dasgupta, he analyses the music of J.S. Bach every Sunday and unashamedly has an incurable harmony crush on Bill Evans (who incidentally features heavily on Zairisms Vol 1).
But one of the most interesting aspects of beat-tape is the process itself. “I do something called micro-chopping, which is sort of like plastic surgery for beats”, says Baqar. He begins with the beat, the drum loops, before layering other instrumentation and samples on top. But the samples that he chooses are only seconds from other songs – a guitar lick here, or a phrase from the horns from there, or just 2 seconds of piano that he loops again and again to create something entirely different.
I do something called micro-chopping, which is sort of like plastic surgery for beats
He plays me one of his tracks from Zairisms on the speakers. It’s the opening track ‘Ear Flavour’. It’s an interesting opener, with that East Coast hip-hop influence bleeding through. “Let me show you the sample”: he presses play on a John Coltrane track from which he sampled the horns. “Did you hear that?”, asks Baqar. Hear what? “Those keys”, he says. He plays it back again. “That right there”. There’s a couple seconds, maybe even less: a brass phrase that Baqar chops out and filters and uses for his own track. He’s right, it’s like plastic surgery. I’m not a musician myself and so this seems like black magic of some kind.
“People give hip hop a bad name”, says Baqar. “They say you don’t have to be talented to make beats. But I think it’s really hard to sample a beat and to re-interpret it in a totally different way. It’s really a work of art – it’s not easy.”
Baqar moves all of these samples, these micro-chops, into Apple’s simple GarageBand software, and lines everything up into a single loop. His recording process is what interested me the most. I know enough from viewing audio engineers tinkering endlessly with Ableton and Pro Tools at a distance to know that Baqar’s process was different to say the least.
After having collated the samples into a single loop that he’s happy with, he then opens up Quicktime and executes the ‘Live Audio Recording’ option. When the recording begins, he moves back to GarageBand and begins introducing the samples and loops live. Usually the drums are first. He’s nodding, counting time, before unmuting the piano, and then the vocals and so on. It’s all recorded ‘live’, with Baqar deciding based on feeling when he wants to introduce the next sample or instrumentation. “When it comes to hip-hop stuff, that’s all by ear and by intuition. I have no idea what key it’s in”, he says.
It seems to me a bizarre way to work, but actually makes sense given his background. “A lot of people think that Indian classical music and jazz are very similar. I disagree with that. Maybe the one common thing is improvisation…but in jazz, you can literally play whatever you want , there are no real rules. But Indian classical music is freedom within discipline. It all comes back to feeling. That’s why I think hip-hop is, in my opinion and many will disagree with this, closer to Indian Classical music. Because you take one groove and one loop and improvise on it and reinterpret it.”
A lot of people think that Indian classical music and jazz are very similar. I disagree with that.
Baqar slowly starts stripping back the track, taking out instrumentation until there’s a skeletal beat left and allows it to run for a while. After the loop is complete, he mutes everything and shuts off the Quicktime recorder. That’s the track done. If Baqar isn’t happy with it, he discards it and records another. So the improvisation is built into the process – no two recordings will ever be the same. And while Baqar tinkers with the main loop like a perfectionist, the structure and feeling of the final bounced track is unknowable until it’s done.
“That’s why i think Indian classical music is supreme”, he says. “Because it’s so technical, but it also has a lot of feeling”. One can say the same about Ila Zair’s music – exacting but full of emotion.