In Conversation: From New York to Nairobi Swami Sound is a Sonic Collaborator

Marcus ‘Swami Sound’ Harley does not just work well with others, he thrives off collaboration. It is his focal point, his guiding mantra. “It’s super important when I make that stuff I involve people as much as possible to make it as dope as it can be, but also to express itself in ways that I don’t see,” he says to me over FaceTime while taking a walk around Co-Op City in the Bronx. Swami is preparing his now released third EP It Is What It Is and is in good spirits. Titled in homage to a viral video circulating around Kenyan Twitter, the EP is a short, but heavily collaborative body of work inspired by Swami’s recent spur of the moment trip to Nairobi to perform with frequent collaborator and best friend mau. 

A life-long music lover, the NYU graduate began making music once he started college. Around 2016 he linked with famed Bronx collective Hydr0Punk and started DJing his own beats at their DIY shows. While Swami Sound began as a solo project, Marcus has always been fond of making beats for others and mixing other’s recordings. “I got really into recording people, like instruments, so by the time I finished school I was coming out officially as a producer and trying to get into producing for people getting credits. The goals in mind vary from producing for people and mixing,” he says with a contagious smile. 

It Is What It Is (featuring Mau) – Swami Sound

Despite the COVID-19 epidemic (this interview took place before the protests against racial injustice and police brutality), Marcus is taking things in stride day by day. He admits, “I’m just in the crib, bored in the house. Also, just like not creating at a forced pace.” This relaxed attitude in the streaming age, where artists are constantly dropping records to stay relevant, fits Marcus’ personality. His interest in music is more than a means to self-express, but also to invest in others. Without the usual easy access to friends and peers, he’s giving himself room to breath and reflect on the world around him. Using his platform to empower those around him, Swami used a portion of the sales for his EP to donate over $700 to Fashion With Friday Academy, a black owned business geared in providing fashion and entrepreneurship programs for creative scholars.

It Is What It Is continues Marcus’ exploration of pop music through genre-mixing. Here highlights include tracks inspired by UK Garage, Hypnagogic pop, and Afrobeats. The project has a strong start with title track “It Is What It Is” which is built around a capitvating whistle and punctuated by one of the catchiest choruses of the year, performed by Mau. “Mad Ting” features the sound of nature as birds chirp along with a euphoric trance-like lyrical repetition and a layer of vocals from the sounding cast. As Marcus asks, “where did you leave your heart today?” repeatedly, the track grooves along ready for a dance floor that we sadly cannot access during the COVID-19 crisis. “Lower Kabete” displays Marcus singing in a tone eerily similar to Kid Cudi over a subdued Afro-Pop influenced sound. It’s laid back and pretty, pulsating with electronic rhythms. His voice is nostalgic, longing for something that can’t quite be placed. It doesn’t matter as the idea is universal. The song is as he lyrically self-describes a “cozy feel though”.

Front and back cover by Nairobi based digital artist Akiba Haiozi with photography by Saskia de Borchgrave.

The project is short, begging to be left on repeat. I was lucky enough to chat with the man himself about how Marcus’s creation of Swami Sound, how It Is What It Is came together, and his musical influences. 

GSC: First of all, who are you? And where are you from? Tell us your background story that makes you you.  

Swami: I grew up in the Bronx by the Allerton area listening to a whole bunch of music, mostly alternative rock. I guess a lot of people born in ‘97, you know alternative niggas, just watching a whole bunch of anime was pretty much what I was on growing up. I had a cousin who taught me bass. Those are like my foundations of music. Listening to a whole bunch of alternative music and learning bass at the same time. 

That’s pretty much what gives me energy to do this. Also, where I’m from I grew up around a whole bunch of artists who have that intrinsic goal to be a musician or express themselves in any musicality. I’m pretty much just one of those niggas. 

GSC: What does Swami Sound mean to you as a name?

Swami: Swami is like a Hindu word for master or religious teacher, but it was actually given to me by a name generator when I started out.

GSC: On some Gambino shit! 

Swami: On some shit like that. When I started out I was actually Master Swami, but then a year in I changed into Swami Sound. It just came out of the mouth better and there was a whole rebrand like switching Instagram to Swami Sound. I had the username and it just stuck with people and it stuck with me. Compared to Master Swami, those who know they know and they’ll call me that. I remember when I put out the first project Walk Forward, for me Swami Sounds was a collective thing. Whatever I make it involves other people and that is pretty much what my music does. It involves a bunch of people, but as one thing in unity. 

GSC: I know the project was recorded spontaneously on a trip to Nairobi. Walk me through the trip. Why did you go to Nairobi and did you have any plans to record music there?

Swami: The trip to Nairobi actually came up last October. I work closely with Mau and were shooting a video for him and he was like, “Yo! I just got hit up to do a show in Nairobi” cause he’s from there and there’s a whole music community there very attached to him and they follow him. How me and Kamau work is I DJ for him and also back him up vocally on stage and shit like that so it was pretty much like, “Yo, pull up to Nairobi. Do this show”. So I’m like holy fuck, I don’t got the bread for that, bro, but I just thought about it like how many chances do you get to go across the world to do a show. I came to my senses and got that ticket and pulled up there.

I knew that going there I’m going to meet people. I didn’t expect to come out of Nairobi with a whole project intending to come out at some point, but I did go there with equipment. It was like I knew some shit was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. The whole process, they all came from like cook ups pretty much, all the songs. It just happened. I did meet those people. I met Chevy, Mr. Lu, and a whole bunch of people that run a music platform out of Nairobi. 

GSC: This album has a lot of collaborations. The first three songs have five different artist features without ever feeling cramped or forced. How did these collaborations come about and what were the studio sessions like? Was it based out of jams or original concepts you came up with and presented to the others? 

Swami: The project actually started out with the third song “Mad Ting” and that came about from a cookout at Kamau’s house in Nairobi and Mr. LU produces with Abelton. He’s an Abelton aficionado. He holds a whole bunch of Ableton meetups in Nairobi. I told him you can work on my computer. I have plugs in and plug outs on my computer. The whole set up in Kamau’s living room. I’m like, “You can go fuck with my shit if you want. I’ma be out here, I’ma be like cooking and shit, but like if you want to go cook up on the computer I’d love you to.” I go visit him like 20 minutes later and he ends up going through all my samples and ends up sampling some shit that I made earlier that year. I was like, “Yo this is crazy”. It’s like one thing to hear somebody sampling your shit. You have this idea so we came together and it turned into that beat eventually. 

The following day or a couple days later, probably the day I had to leave Nairobi, we made the early versions of “Feel It” and that came about because I had a whole Channel Tres on the thing like in my mind so when I told Chevy, “you don’t have to worry about lyrics or anything like that. Just speak like a DJ or some shit at a club or like an MC, just talk.” He vibed with it and did that whole thing. It was not even lyrically inclined and Kamau does his whole thing. He does it so well. He just comes up with fast pace prime bars. It just really worked well in that mix towards the end. 

As far as the sessions go I made them all on the fly, but then when I came back to New York I was having studio sessions at this studio called Thump in Greenpoint where I was kind of doing extra stuff like fine tuning how I wanted them to sound. That’s where you get the later versions that showed up on the EP. All the mixing and the mastering I’ve done in the studio. Then the finetune, the grooves. Specifically “Mad Tings”. If I played the early version for you it would be very bare. It was very understated, but then when I brought it to New York I had two friends with me in the studio helping me achieve those drums. There’s like a UK jungle feel that I was trying to get. Like that Jorja Smith song, “I finally found”. It had that UK drum thing. I want this song to sound this way and they were helping me do that. It took even more collaboration to get the project where it ended up beyond just those early studio sessions with the collaborators that appear on the project. 

GSC: Your voice isn’t at the forefront of this project. Was that intentional? Do you see yourself more of a producer and composer than leading artist? 

Swami: The reason why I don’t really show up on the forefront vocally is cause I’m learning to apply myself to my own music and I’m in the middle of a transition expressing myself as an artist. I think right now what I do best is sort of accompany other people on my stuff because I feed off that kind of energy. Which is why I sort of leave “Lower Kabete” at the end of the project cause it’s sort of the preview of something I’m working on for myself. How I’m applying myself to my own music and making it entirely Swami Sound. That’s why “Lower Kabete” has no credit. I wrote the whole thing and it just came out independently. It offers a different energy than the other songs, but it sort of coincides with the other songs that precede it. 

Taken by Hannah Woldetsadik

GSC: Mau vocals are featured prominently on the project. Can you speak about how you established a working relationship with Mau and how you guys linked up?

Swami: In college we performed at Trans-Pecos in October of 2017. That was his first show and that was one of my first shows. That same year he asked me, “Yo can you DJ for me?” in the summer and then we did this one show in like Bushwick. People were just fucking with it so we kept doing shows together. Ended up doing a whole bunch of shows as we went through college. I ended up mixing for him and becoming his official engineer. At the same time we became best friends, our connection was music. It was together and that developed an organic relationship between him and I. 

GSC: Your first project Walk Forward EP from 2017 had no features. How have you grown musically in the last few years? Where do you see your sound and style developing in the years to come?

Swami: I think coming from Walk Forward and going into this project, even between In the Morning and this one is I see myself going into a pop more direction. While that is fun I do see myself doing more acoustic stuff down the line. Doing more band shit, disco. Like mixing it up. I don’t want to just keep making electronic music, but I see with every project I sort of switch it up in a sense. I don’t want all my shit to sound like the last thing and that’s something that automatically happens whenever I do it which is the best part about it. I’m always consciously thinking of how to make it different, but not trying to force it per se. 

GSC: On the last solo song “Lower Kabete” you ask, “You know how I love the bees?” Tell me more about that line. What do you love about bees?

Swami: I guess growing up a lot of people are scared of bees. I just know that bees aren’t trying to harm anybody, but people have this notion that they’re just out here trying to sting. Like no. If you sit still a bee will either piss off or float around you and be chill. When I wrote that song there was a bee in Kamau’s pool that was finna drown so I saved it. Had him dry up real quick. So it’s not too mindless, but it is a song literally about a bee that I saved from Kamau’s pool. It came out in a way that came out way more in-depth. I just really like bees. I love the nature of bees and they’re involved in the environment super important as well. 

GSC: What have you been listening to recently? Did any other artists inspire the creation of this project? 

Swami: Channel Tres. “Lower Kabate” was inspired by the song “Chamakay” by Blood Orange. I got mixing ideas from that. There is that Jorja Smith song “On My Mind”. “Feel It” was very inspired by French pop and early 2000s kinda vibe. The super racey but also makes you feel like you’re on E[cstasy]. That first song is hard to describe. “It Is What It Is” came around with me and Kamau fucking aroud, but I’m also very much inspired by the people I work with closely or people I go to school. Literally last Friday people I know are putting out good music like Ntu, Rodney Chrome. So yeah, fucking with my contempoaries right now is what keeps me going. Inspires me to make shit like that.  

GSC: This is the third EP you are releasing. Are there any plans for a full-length coming? Have you been recording and saving songs for that project?

Swami: I been working on a full-length project this entire time in between In the Morning and It Is What It Is. It Is What It Is kinda came about on the fly. 

GSC: This pandemic has been emotionally devastating, particularly for artists who use performance as a sort of therapeutic release. How have you been taking care of your mental health as we cope with this new lifestyle?

Swami: I’ve been getting into more yoga actually.

GSC: Same.

Swami: A lot of people can be pressured by each other based on what they see on social media. Everybody is getting into virtual shows and things like that. That’s like fucking with me cause I’m not doing anything virtual or something like that. I’m not making a whole bunch of content pre the quarantine and that’s alright. Trying not to compare myself now more than ever. Just going at my own pace at the same time. I probably wrote like 3 songs all of quarantine. That’s completely fine. I’ll devote my energy to playing video games or like yoga or mixing. Making sure this release is as best as it could be at a time like this. Stay in my own lane and do what I like. What I could do at my utmost best

GSC: Last question, any movie/tv or book recommendations for the readers? 

Swami: “Code Geass”. They just put that on Netflix and it is so fire. One of those Adult Swim anime. Unequivocally one of the best ones out there. 

From one alternative nigga to the next, I don’t know much about that anime, but it could be worth a spin. In the meantime give It Is What It Is a spin on SoundCloud, Spotify, Bandcamp, or Apple

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