Photography throughout by Christopher Robinson
Marcus ‘Swami Sound” Harley is an innovator. Whether he’s designing rugs inspired by childhood video games, DJing your local interactive comedy show, or re-inventing genres, the Bronx born New York based artist continues to find new ways to introduce his energetic sound and style to a wide ranging audience.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have been eased, Swami Sound has been hard at work reworking his artistic persona. As a mainstay on the NYC nightlife scene, Swami is not only setting the tone in clubs across the city. Readying his new projects, the musician is also laying the foundation for a new genre to take over the dance scene.
A student of the game, Swami coined the term NYC Garage (pronounced gar-ridge) for his new sweeping, hyperactive, and sonic production. His new single “Back In The Day” with Brooklyn based vocalist CVMILLE (pronounced kuh-meel) invites listeners to take a euphoric soul tinged trip accompanied by Spanish lyrics, lush melodies, and a swirl of synths that make a relaxing backdrop to any hip shaking and feet thumping your body may be inclined to.
Building off the eclectic influences of his last EP It Is What It Is, Swami continues to explore atmospheric moods and hazy melodies that can soundtrack a walk, drive, hook up, and anything else that demands a relaxing vibe.
The good vibes match the man’s mindset. Swami is in a good place mentally. Telling his friends that he loves them, connecting with more peers online, and building confidence to respectfully make his claim to be a forefather to a new sound in NYC nightlife.
Check out Swami’s conversation with GSC on foreign influences, DJing, NYC garage, and social media.
GSC: Your last EP It Is What It Is was inspired by your time in Nairobi. This new track “Back in the Day” has Spanish lyrics. Are you an international man of mystery? What excites you about these foreign styles?
Swami Sound: Am I an international man of secrets, secrecy and or mystery? No. “Back In The Day” as a single, it being bilingual is really really just about getting in touch with my cultural roots growing up in the Bronx listening to bachata and being around Nueyorican and Dominican culture, just acknowledging that and engaging with it just felt very right to do. But also it was more than just my call with the song. When producing it, more ideas came to light, and it took on new shapes. It just sounded like that’s what it needed.
GSC: You’ve been killing the DJ game in NYC ever since COVID has lightened up. What do you like most about DJing live? How do you prepare for your gigs?
Swami Sound: I think the thing I like the most about DJing live is the free drinks. You can get me to do anything if you can get me drunk. But other than that, there’s just a lot to hate, especially in New York. You get the requesters, you get the people who want ABBA all night, the manager who’s a low key racist because he doesn’t want you to play Hip-Hop, which happened. And you got payment, you gotta chase people down to get paid and stuff like that. But the best thing about it is that I can just go in and start spinning and just be me. And you know whoever’s fucking with it, they’ll come up and make themselves known. It was a really good way to sort of become myself as a producer in nightlife.
GSC: How do you prepare?
Swami Sound: Yo, I just do it in my room, I’d have a controller, the same controller that I use when I go out to spin is the one that I use at home. It’s a standalone turntable called a Denon DJ Prime Go. I just spin on that. I practice here and there. I practice very intensely a couple days before so I can get my mind right, get familiar with the equipment and stuff. And otherwise, I listen to a lot of mixes by my contemporaries to hear what they’re spinning. But otherwise I just think about songs that I would want to hear while also pushing my own ethos. And like, that’s how we’re getting into the music that I’m making now. DJing helped me realize what it was that I wanted out of my own production. So I could have things that were danceable, but like easy listening experiences in the same package.
GSC: How has playing shows live influenced this new sound?
Swami Sound: The whole thing is pretty much inspired by the resurgence of nightlife post-quarantine; but not really supposed to be like post-quarantine anthems or anything like that. It’s more so “this is how I feel about myself as SWAMI SOUND” in the most explicit way. This is the new quintessential SWAMI SOUND. This is the change. This is how I’ve come this far given this year. And just how I want to be seen moving forward.
GSC: When did you discover Garage music? How long have you been sitting on these NYC Garage idea? Who are the influences?
Swami Sound: My first memory of a UK Garage song that I heard was “In My Mind” by Jorja Smith and the first song inspired by it was “Mad Ting ” on It Is What It Is. But it didn’t necessarily get to do what I was looking to do with it because I wasn’t super familiar with the genre, the history, and a lot of different things about house music. But DJing in New York helped me engage with house music in a way that was interactive, physical, and visceral. Also, being surrounded by like minded electronic musicians helped me watch and learn what I’m engaging with and how to acknowledge the history around it.
GSC: What separates NYC Garage from UK Garage?
Swami Sound: Alright, so the whole thing about NYC Garage is that it’s not really a thing yet and I’m trying to pioneer it myself. I think it’s a heavy task for sure but if there’s anybody that’s gonna do it, it’d fucking be me. The difference between NYC garage and UK garage is sonic. You’re not going to hear the same kinds of production styles, hi hats and snares, all of that kind of stuff that you normally hear in UK garage. NYC garage is like that of Brooklyn Drill to London Grime. That’s exactly the matter of appreciation that I’m trying to assume here; a methodical way of channeling what inspires me without erasing the history behind it: an acknowledgement of the legacy that precedes me while making a distinct sound of my local environment.
And I can’t really distinguish myself as a UKG Producer, either. Not specifically because I haven’t been to the UK, but I gotta rep where I’m from. This is something I plan to focus on for the foreseeable future in this style because it feels really good to me and amongst the general crowd. As long as people are receiving it well that’s all there is to it. NYC garage is supposed to be New York City based music that feels good. At some point people are gonna know that this is contrary to what NYC is recognized for through Drill music. Not saying that I hate it, though, in fact I love it and I’m trying to draw some intersections there.
GSC: Do you have any plans to go to the UK anytime soon?
Swami Sound: Absolutely. This summer? Absolutely. I was trying to go last winter, but then some financial things happened. I was gonna do another credit card stick to Europe, but I couldn’t make that happen. But I think I might actually pull that off this year by starting to take some risks. And I’m slowly but surely developing a lot more connections to the UK than I had originally. And that just comes with time like hardware, and engaging with my music and also a general audience. Just trying to have some solid footing before I get there. And I think right now I’m at a good spot. I know exactly where I’d stay. I got a couple of friends that I can hit up. And a couple of music people that could help me get around as far as shows go, meeting artists, and things like that. So I’m trying to have a really nice set up before I get there. And by the time I’m there it’s gonna be lit. I really need that to happen.
GSC: You’ve been blowing up on social media. How does the internet influence your artistry?
Swami Sound: Yo, so the whole social media situation. Twitter just helped me find the community first and foremost. And not gatekeeping myself. All in all, social media has helped me not gatekeeping myself because I can’t do that. And the whole thing with Tik Tok was a week and a half ago. My two friends we’re just like, “Yo, Marcus, you gotta stop gatekeeping yourself and you got to make better Tik Tok videos.” And I was like, “fuck that. I don’t care. Fuck Tik Tok. I don’t need social media to do this shit or just to be known.” But then I realized like yo, that’s in a way gatekeeping myself by not trying to really apply myself to it. So the inception of everything going up with Tik Tok was just out of the sheer effort behind wanting this shit.
The whole spiel behind me saying that I am NYC Garage is really about me. I gotta sell myself. These niggas got to know when they see this shit, when they hear this shit, and they see the face behind, the man behind the music, they’re gonna know they’re sold on it. So the whole thing blowing up, I can’t really explain what happened. But people are just resonating with it. Just a lot of people were just winging it like, “oh shit, this is what it is.” A lot of niggas like, “garage is back now” like it ever left or “this is what the city needs.” “We don’t want drill music anymore…I love this.” A lot of people hit me up like, “Yo. I love the fact that somebody from my city is doing something like this.” And a lot of other New York City musicians, big or small just hitting me up just saying like, “Yo, I fuck with this found you here. Keep going. You’re gonna do this.” And then also having people from the UK hit me up saying, “Yo, we didn’t know that there were Americans making garage music.” Not that there aren’t, but there’s an audience for it. And I think that’s just what happened. I’ve been here this entire time. But this is the first day that you’ve seen me. And here I am. And this is what you’re going to get. I’m here to stay and it’s time to work.
GSC: You famously made that fire Pokemon rug. What’s your favorite Pokemon game? What’s your favorite Pokemon?
Swami Sound: My favorite Pokemon game is Pokémon Trozei!, the puzzle game that they put on the DS and had the most fire theme song. My favorite Pokemon is Kyogre. My first game was Pokemon Sapphire. My older brother got married two days ago. He was the one that gave me Pokemon Sapphire. And I was playing his save. His Kyogre was named KYO and I was really devastated when the battery of that cartridge died. So it was always ingrained in my memory.
GSC: Are you a good dancer? Do you know any formal dances or do you just groove in your own style?
Swami Sound: I think I’m a phenomenal dancer. I just two step everywhere I go whether you’re playing Jersey club or whatever. I was at a rave a couple of days ago. And my friend Lola explained to me that they think I’m a Steezy dancer and I keep to myself. I don’t really like to lash out, but just do my own thing. And it’s easy. And I also just like wearing what I’m wearing. I do my best to not embarrass myself while dancing. I keep it very in my own box, like a mannequin. Objectively speaking, I’m not a bad dancer. You can ask some people.
GSC: How have you been taking care of your mental health these days?
Swami Sound: I did go to therapy last year. I very much like to remind myself of the lessons that I learned before terminating therapy. And beyond that, honestly, just kind of giving myself like everything that I need. When it comes to work, just being 100% with myself has been super important in preserving my mental health. Also just reaching out to friends and listening to my friends. And when they say that they love me, I say it back. And I tell people that I do love Them. There’s nothing more comforting than ending a FaceTime call and saying, “I love you.” That helps ensure my love is distributed in the right places. I think that’s super important.
GSC: That reminds me of my favorite Uzi lines. “If I love you better say that you love me.” What can people expect ahead?
Swami Sound: They can expect more garage music, more house oriented music. But not in a way that’s just very focused on techno but something that just feels good. Like something you could hear in the car. But also the club but also while you’re in bed on Molly or whatever, wherever you want to be. That is what the music is gonna be. It’s gonna be music for wherever you are. Like elevator music and stuff that’s just instrumentally focused. When I write my own stuff , it’s therapeutic. The soundscapes that I’m choosing, all the timbres that sound good to me. That lowers my blood pressure type shit. That makes me calm, that makes me cry, and things like that. Like this is like my own therapeutic experience. And what’s special about it is that I’m letting it out. I’m marketing by saying, “hey, this is me.”