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A Talk with Mo Iqbal

Mo Iqbal producer photoshoot
Mo Iqbal. Credit: X/@TexasGrundy

Change is something all musicians go through at some point in their career. Even the biggest stars switch up their style to rake in more listeners, but for the independent artist, adaptation and evolution are crucial. Mo Iqbal understands that better than most.

After wiping all his old music from streaming platforms, the Worcester-based producer is ready to show off his artistic growth with Heaven on Earth, a soft reboot to his musical identity. The EP comes after four years of work in the music industry, with Iqbal ready to unveil his unique sound to the world.

Having spent the past few years exploring all avenues of music, Heaven on Earth comes after a long process of Iqbal discovering his sound, sifting through his numerous inspirations. “This was like a gift and a curse,” he said. “I had so many influences to draw from, yet so many to craft my own artistic identity out of. This EP marks the start of me fully realising what artist I want to be.”

Heaven on Earth by Mo Iqbal
Heaven on Earth EP cover. Credit: X/@TexasGrundy

That being said, Iqbal is determined not to be defined by any one style of music. “A man of my influences isn't one that wants to box himself to certain themes and sounds right from the first EP,” he said. “It was a growing process over a long time: listening and engaging with the musical and artistic world around me to understand what suits me and how to flip that into 100% Mo … My next work could be very different, so I'm wary of outright defining this as the one single thing that is Mo's sound or saying I had reinvented myself in the most literal sense.”

Heaven on Earth is a seven-track EP built on a foundation of Bollywood samples. Rather than a mere aesthetic choice, the Bollywood soundscape ties into Iqbal’s origin in the Kashmir Valley. “I thought it best for my first EP to explain where I'm from,” he said. “Often, [Kashmir is] a place referred to with the moniker ‘Heaven on Earth’, owing to its natural beauty. I ask you, the listener, in this EP, how can this place be as equally often referred to as ‘the most militarised zone on earth’?”

Working exclusively as a producer with no vocalists credited, Iqbal sought to use the music itself to convey the tension and ever-evolving conflict that have become synonymous with Kashmir. “It's just an issue that's an everlasting existence in my life, as are many good and bad topics that I will cover in the future,” Iqbal said. “It seemed that, upon making the Bollywood sample chops, my ability was worth more than this EP being a compilation of flips of this specific sound. Anyone can do that, and I don't think of myself as anyone.”

Mo Iqbal
Mo Iqbal. Credit: X/@TexasGrundy

Going deeper into his use of Bollywood music, there is greater meaning to the samples than to simply paint a picture of Kashmir. “That film industry as a whole has contributed a great deal to push a lot fascist rhetoric surrounding the occupation of the region,” he said. “Especially during my childhood. And it's painful to see things like the usage of white phosphorus on Kashmiris a day after this year’s elections be almost completely ignored.”

He went on: “Amongst that are a mountain of other things as large as the Himalayas that make up a great deal of the beauty of Kashmir. Really the more I read about the history of the region the more bullshit it gets. A lot of pain and a lot of lies, many of which I tried to incorporate into either explicit or implied sample uses.”

The purpose of covering the Kashmir conflict was twofold. On one hand, spreading awareness of the conflict was important, but Iqbal’s intentions were more personal than that. “As I had explained though the words of poet Naseem Shafaie in the title track, it was absolutely cathartic,” he said. “Of course it can't not be education in some form, but I do encourage people to read and watch as much as they can and keep their eyes as open as their ears are to the music … Many things are easily understandable as to what problems are there, but please, for the love of God, read.”

Despite his eagerness to explore the themes and ideas of Heaven on Earth, the producer was careful not to reveal too much. “I am not interested in telling the whole story of what I'm saying,” he said. “I love the listener to guess what I'm thinking.”

Mo Iqbal Heaven on Earth
Heaven on Earth EP back cover. X/@TexasGrundy

Beyond the themes and messaging of the EP, the core of Heaven on Earth remains obvious: an effort by Iqbal to define his sound and artistic vision. Part of that process involved avoiding collaborations, despite his many ties to the hip hop underground. “I knew from the go I'd no interest in rappers or singers on these beats at all,” he said. “It was going to be entirely instrumental. This allowed more freedom to mix differently and write differently. That's a big takeaway for this EP. The artist is me.”

Nevertheless, Iqbal brought in a few friends to help polish off the EP. Uggo helped out with the mixing process while the producer was on the move, and on a handful of tracks, songwriter and guitarist S-ilo makes an appearance. “[S-ilo] is someone I respect deeply for that second musical opinion,” said Iqbal. “I wanted to be absolutely certain that themes wouldn't diminish the music quality, so I had him play for a few hours with me on my Moog synth without any of the samples pertaining to the themes themselves … Much of what we recorded didn't make it in those sessions, but what did make it was arranged and put together by me, almost like sampling in a Daft Punk Random Access Memories style, where you're just sampling your own live playing.”

Through his creative process, the producer learned to block out the whims and expectations of others. Without other opinions to cloud his mind, the resulting music is Mo Iqbal in its most uncompromising form. “I used to be mad when people said, ‘Get a rapper on this,’ for something I didn't want a rapper on. Now I just don't care at all; that's just people wiring to expect something. To anyone that wonders why certain songs don't have a main vocalist now or in the future: it's because I didn't want one, stupid. Go sample me if it's such a problem!”

Mo Iqbal
Mo Iqbal. Credit: X/@TexasGrundy

For those who enjoy the sound of Heaven on Earth, there is no guarantee that Iqbal will follow it up with something similar. Through his journey to discover himself and reinvent his sound, one thing has never changed: his desire to constantly evolve.

“What I do next is for me to know and for everyone to hear when it's done. But this EP in of itself has a great deal to unpack, enjoy, and reflect on. There is great depth even in its most minimal. To all those reading and pondering what I have in store next, expect anything.”

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