Ichikara Valdez wants to push musical boundaries in Houston. He believes his band Hasaan Olu is already doing that sonically and he’s hoping its approach to live shows will be a model for other genre-defying acts.
Known simply as “I.V.” to family, friends and fans, Valdez is perhaps best known as a hip hop producer and DJ who’s traveled the globe to make audiences move. Through that work, he’s built a solid foundation of music knowledge. He draws from a deep pool of sounds across genres to create Hasaan Olu’s hard-to-define identity. It’s not hip hop or R&B. It’s not dream pop or noise music. It’s isn’t jazz or electronic music. It’s an avant-garde blend of sounds he’s crafted from years of hearing music as a producer and a founder of Killem Collective, the progressive Houston-based media collective.
For Valdez, whose band will next share a bill with Astro Inn on January 26 at Mala Market, Hasaan Olu was the logical next step in his long musical career. He’d been mostly a hip hop producer for a decade, building sample-based beats for artists he worked with up to 2018, when he began to feel the urge to move onto something different.
“For Hasaan Olu, it really started with my disillusionment with where hip hop was going,” Valdez said. “We had a studio in the east end when we started Killem Collective in 2014 and that’s where I really got introduced to being in a studio for hours and hours on end.
“I started in 2018 to experiment with this new sound, new to me because it was a lot more open, there was a lot more space,” he continued. “I started shopping this new music I was working on and nobody was really catching it, or they weren’t hearing what I was hearing in it. It was wide open space. For me it was like, shit, it’s limitless, you have all these directions you can go melodically, rhythmically and everything. But I feel like unfortunately for a lot of hip hop artists, unless they have some kind of a rhythm that ties them down rhythmically to the track, it’s very hard for them to get on in an abstract way.
“I hit a wall with all of them. I got frustrated. I didn’t want to just keep making these sample-based beats. I wanted to stretch out musically, and nobody wanted to go with me,” he recalled. “So, I was like, fuck it, I’m just going to start recording these little demos on my own and test my own voice out.”
Ichikara "I.V." Valdez fronts the band at Wonky Power
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Valdez had some background as a vocalist, singing in gospel choirs and as part of a high school trio, but admitted he didn’t have a broad background in music theory. He relied on his years as a DJ and producer to come up with Hasaan Olu’s complex sound.
“I realized it wasn’t for anybody else but me. Nobody was actually seeing the vision at that point.”
Before long, he teamed with keyboardist Brandon “The Biggest Brandon” Willis and Amaru the Musical Nomad of the group The Everlasting Vibez. They saw Valdez’s vision and the trio began working on music together during the pandemic lockdown and became the core of Hasaan Olu.
“It’s like music school for me. I’m sitting next to amazing musicians - Brandon is a keyboardist, Amaru is a multi-instrumentalist - and we’re just crafting this amazing shit,” Valdez said. Before long, they were booking shows including a milestone performance at MATCH Theater in December of 2022.
“That was crazy because I could have never imagined, damn, we’re moving this quick, going this direction, and in my mind I’m like, fuck, I’m having imposter syndrome the whole time,” he laughed. “I chalk it up to the universe but also the intentionality of what I was making. I feel like spirit precedes talent a lot of times when you’re coming together and collaborating. Having a similar energy that ties it all together really kind of sets that glue in motion.”
As they began to bond, Valdez felt the need to add to the band last summer, a move designed “to get a particular sound I was looking for. Everybody is very steeped in jazz but Hasaan Olu’s sound is an amalgamation of avant-garde and genre-bending shit. We’re playing with ideas that are in jazz and ideas that are in industrial music and electronic music. Playing and tinkering with hip hop ideas. But it’s all coming together to create this texture, if you would, for the sound bed.”
The trio added Johnathan Hulett on keys and synths and Z’maji Glamouratti, background vocalist for The Suffers, came on as well.
“I revere these cats. It was hard for me to ask some of them, hey, you know, I’ve got this thing going on, I’d love you to be a part of the band. Again, like-minded people and I feel like spiritual energy just goes so much further than anything else. Everybody was like, ‘Naw, I fuck with what you’re doing, I got you.’
“And then I’m starting to realize, man, we don’t have a genre,” he said. “We wouldn’t know where to fit ourselves. We can’t go with the R&B guys because we don’t sing (R&B). It’s not R&B even though I’m singing. We can’t technically go with just the noise community and the experimental community, because we’re writing songs. We’re like damn, where the fuck do we fit?”
The answer, Valdez thinks, is in non-traditional show venues, not just at home but also abroad, spaces attuned to more abstract art.
“I always wanted us performing in museums and galleries just because I’m also a fan of some aesthetics in art and fashion and things of that nature, and I needed a place for all of those things to come together in a cohesive performance. That’s where I felt we’d be most able to pull that off, in galleries and museums.”
He hopes to take Hasaan Olu to those spaces in international markets, places with wide-ranging arts scenes. And, he wants to bring along some Houston friends also doing innovative work. He said bands in the city’s alternative and punk rock communities have been especially supportive of Hasaan Olu.
Hasaan Olu plans to play museums and art galleries as well as traditional venues wherever they perform.
Photo by Joel Martinez, courtesy of Hasaan Olu
“All these guys are my friends, we’ve been friends for a minute,” he said, singling out bands like Jumprope and Astro Inn, groups with Houston music veterans that – like Hasaan Olu - have evolved into acts that will define this era of music from Houston.
“We’ve been watching each other for so long. And I’ve always been like, alright, yo, if we’re going to move in any direction I need to go where the eclectic folk are. I need to go where people are pushing envelopes, doing something different. There’s a bit of nostalgia to it but also at the end of the day they’re really pressing to fucking push this vision forward musically that they have. If we’re going to be performing in Houston, it’ll probably be in that community.
“I feel like we almost made a spiritual agreement this year to support each other for this next movement. We’re the alternative cats,” he added. “I feel like this is the scene that was allowed to burgeon in New York. It was allowed to burgeon in Los Angeles. It was allowed to burgeon in places like Chicago. In the south we’re always so hard-pressed because we’re known for very distinct musical genres. When you start bending and blending those genres, people are like, ‘Oh no. You’re not quite this, you’re not quite that – how do we support?’ It’s just fucking music.”
That’s the bottom line to Hasaan Olu, as far as Valdez is concerned. Whether it’s not what listeners expect from a longtime hip hop producer, whether it’s not staged in a traditional concert hall, in the end, there’s a simple measure of whether Valdez’s vision is a success.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole what we’re making down to a specific genre because I feel like it would take away from the inclusiveness of so many different cultural influences that we’re pulling from and paying homage to by creating this entirely new, almost different form,” he said. “I don’t give a fuck what y’all think it reminds you of - yo, do you like the shit? Does it fucking jam? Okay, cool. That’s all that matters.”
Hasaan Olu opens Astro Inn's single release show Friday, January 26 at Mala Market, 1302 W. Gray. Sold out.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.