It’s rare that you’ll catch Swami Sound without a Kangol bucket hat. In addition to being a statement piece in his wardrobe, the accessory serves as an emblem for who Marcus Harley is as an artist. Like Swami Sound, Kangol is a Bronx staple. And like his music, the headwear brand has roots in the UK.
One time, Swami’s friend stole his hat to teach him a lesson. “I’m more than just the hat,” he learned. “I was trying to find a negotiation of identity between Marcus and Swami Sound. They’re two different entities.” Touching the black Kangol he was currently wearing, he light-heartedly continues: “Then I bought another one. So I have a red one now, too.”
At 24-years-old, nobody is expected to know exactly who they are yet. But it’s no doubt more difficult when your artist project becomes the posterchild of a subgenre. On March 26 this year, SoundCloud tweeted: “Say hello to the father of NYC garage.” Adding that the Bronx-bred but now Brooklyn-based producer is “pioneering a brand new movement for dance music at large.”
The development of garage music has always been fuelled by a symbiotic relationship between the US and UK. With Larry Levan and Tony Humphries pioneering garage house and Armand Van Helden and Todd Edwards upping the pace stateside, to the sound evolving across the Atlantic with 2-step rhythms, the introduction of MCs, and incorporation of both greezy elements from jungle and poppier sounds from R&B.
Swami’s sound, that he’s coined as “NYC garage”, builds on UK-style 2-step and roots it in New York City with fresh rhythmic emphasises and influence from Brooklyn and Bronx drill. “It’s not a novel thing because garage house that started in Paradise Garage and Club Zanzibar definitely has a place. It exists already. But we are distinguishing that from NYC garage,” he explains. “NYC garage is a flavor of 2-step local to New York City. As far as rhythmic patterns go, the accents are very different from UKG. If you listen to my Kelala remix or my Frank Ocean remix, the hi-hats are easier to follow and have a different personality than the hats from UKG. The swings accent in different places to have a more tropical feel, which is inspired by Bronx and Brooklyn Drill. 'Hope It Stays' is a good example because I really try to bring drill into the production.”
His rebuttal to those who challenge the use of the label is two simple facts: “I’m making garage and I’m in New York City.” His sound is velvety and contemplative, using the fluttering percussion as a backdrop for the vocals that ground listeners into introspection.
And the music has been quick to resonates with listeners, including a recent clip of Swami Sound posing in front of a literal garage to introduce himself and his recent single ‘Back In The Day’ capturing an audience on TikTok with its scattered drums and angelic vocals.
Now, Swami Sound hosts a live event and mix series called Two Step Verification (an homage to both his sound and his gratitude towards the internet), is touring internationally to export the NYC garage sound abroad, and is co-signed by the newest wave of influential UKG producers. Check out his Impact mix and interview.
What's your earliest childhood memory of music?
I was in a handbell choir in third grade.
Handball? Like you played handball and then would sing after?
No, handbell. I played in Christmas choirs and stuff. I was E flat and I played with 30 other people. I was a specific note in a choir and I would have cues and it was really cool. I would be taken out of class to have school orchestras. And I would just… ding my dong, you know?
Even though you’re the face of this NYC garage movement, do you still feel like that? Like you’re still one note and you still take your cues.
Kind of, yeah. That’s actually a really good inference. I'm kind of over the whole imposter syndrome phase in my life. But at this point, where I should be standing on everything that I do, moving forward, and being a pioneer, I can't do that shit alone. What's the point? There is no point in doing anything by yourself, because then it's just self service [and it’s about the crowd too.]
I'm not spinning garage at random clubs and bars in the city because I want to play garage—but yeah, I do want to play garage—I just also want to make people think of their club experience more holistically than just getting drunk and being stupid. Maybe enjoy this pretty in-depth sound and broaden your horizon of house music. I guess that's a very pretentious thing for me to say, but I want people to enjoy either the complexities or the simplicities of the music that I play, in a way that makes them have a good time. Learn to dance to breakbeat maybe.
What came first, you dancing to 2-step, or producing it or spinning it?
Producing and and dancing to it. The first garage song I ever made was ‘Mad Ting’ for my ‘It Is What It Is’ EP. It was inspired by the only UKG song I knew: Jorja Smith and Preditah’s ‘On My Mind’. And no one was telling me “this is garage,” I just thought it was really cool.
That’s so funny because ‘On My Mind’ has been on my top listened to songs every year on Spotify wrap since it came out. For the longest time, I didn’t know what genre it was either. Once I learned about UKG, I connected the dots and started digging up articles about it.
That’s the thing about the internet. There’s always a tunnel to dig through. There's so much that doesn't exist in this internet space. So what Dirty Bird and I are trying to do is develop a readily available archive of what we're doing right now with NYC garage. So that in 20-40 years, we are part of that archive on the internet, as an internet musician. We are trying hard to dig deep, but also be a part of that tunnel.
I guess that’s where music journalists can help, which is also the reason we met. Actually, my first question that I wrote for this interview was “Do you believe in fate?”
Yes. I believe in everything happening for a reason. Like the show Lost. “Everything happens for a reason” - John Locke.
I don’t think that show invented that saying.
[Laughs] No, it didn’t. But that’s what he would always say.
Well, I’m asking because the first time we met in person, I saw you tweet that you were having a tough time because of cuts at work. I told you I’d pull up to buy you some drinks. It’s been only a few weeks and your career popped off so quickly since then.
Yeah… Jesus. Yo, technically speaking, they weren’t making cuts. I just didn't want to go back to work. I was working in live music, but I wasn't a part of the musical experience. Just checking artists’ vaccines. I remember I met Thundercat at my absolute lowest, checking his vaccine card. That was the lamest thing I could have been doing for myself. But I had to make money, you know? Inherently speaking, minimum wages are really, really fucked up. It makes me sad. Because I also have a degree.
What’s your degree in?
I have a degree in social work.
That’s interesting, actually. Because I noticed your music is kind of melancholic. Pretty introspective. Different than a lot of the most popular NUKG out right now. Is that a reflection of your mental state because of the pandemic or have you always been intrinsically drawn more towards the interpersonal aspects of life?
Well, I mean, as someone who studied social work, I can’t pretend and just make happy shit, as if I’m the happiest individual. When I’m writing songs, I’m placating how I feel through my music. In a way, I’m not always necessarily making music for it to be danced to. That’s why I DJ.
I guess it is melancholic. But not in a way that you should be sad forever. Moreso in a way that I’m learning about why my memories are important to me, explaining how I’ve been feeling about certain aspects of my life, and reflecting on interpersonal relationships. It all teaches me why growth is important.
If you don’t make music to dance to, would you consider yourself a dance music artist?
Yeah, because I'm more than just the music that I produce. There’s music that I help produce. There’s music I have a say in. There’s music I'm DJing. It’s all holistic.
On social media, I’ve seen naysayers give you heat for using the term “NYC garage” because New York garage house already exists. Do you feel like any of that criticism is valid?
No, actually. Because none of that has ever stopped me from continuing. I get furious because I'm the only one that gets flak for it. But then also, why are they saying that when all garage producers support me on it?
I just don’t understand how people are going to naysay me. I’m not gatekeeping or saying nobody’s invited. Anyone can be a part of this movement too. I think sometimes people just look for shit to say. But the naysaying is definitely outweighed by the people that say, “this is cool.”
Fair. What's more important in music: conservation or innovation?
Not exclusive to garage, but in regards to music in general, when do you think appropriation comes into play?
When you don't know what you're talking about. When does appropriation come into play? When you're not appreciating it. And that’s the contrast: appropriation and appreciation. That’s the big idea behind what I’m doing. I’m not appropriating garage music. I couldn’t. It’s Black music. It also really also comes down to identity. My identity fits into it as a Black guy that loves music. And that usually means I'm heavily implied to either be a hip hop producer or a nerd. But I decided to make dance music.
Appropriation is when you just come into it not asking any questions. For me, I'm literally asking anybody. Whoever questions me about like this whole thing. I'm asking them back, “Yo, what can you tell me about it?” It's about being willing to learn.
All of that is very true. Identity, appreciation, and willingness to learn are super important. But that’s also why I find it weird when people come at you so hard for using the name “NYC Garage,” because you’re pretty vocal about all of that.
And I’m not alleging white UKG producers are appropriating either. Because they probably know more than I fucking do! So being open is the biggest distinguishing factor between appreciation and appropriation.
Exactly. How did it feel when SoundCloud called you the father of NYC Garage?
That was insane. That will be my pinned tweet for the rest of the time I’m doing this. I was just like “Wait. No way.” I didn't even ask for them to say that. It was crazy! But I also don’t like the whole paternalization of things.
Would you rather be called the head?
I guess father works. I have daddy issues, so I think that’s why I have a problem with it. [Laughs] Maybe they should have called me the face. The face would have been a lot more money. Like the “father” is very stacked. What am I, son-ing everybody?
That’s the most New York shit I’ve ever heard you say.
I don’t want to son people.
I mean I’ve only been really doing this for three months. That’s such a short amount of time. At first I was like, it’s too early. Now, It’s like, you know what? I am. At least it’s a Black guy.
Music is a very every-man-for-himself industry, but your friendship with Dirty Bird and Dazegxd is pretty wholesome and heart-warming. How did you three start collaborating?
Dirty Bird and I went to school together, but we met on the last day of college. So I was just connecting with him when he starting his music career in general. Then he started fucking with Dazegxd. And then Daze and I connected. Actually out first meetup was here.
In Pirate Studio?
I think in this exact studio.
Back to our conversation about fate.
Yeah. Like, all three of us are incredibly talented Black men making music. No contest. We are New York City Garage. And they help me feel not alone. That’s the most important thing to me. And they love it as much as I do.
Read this next: 14 of the best UK garage mixes ever
As a producer who has the luxury of playing as many live gigs as you do, does a crowd reaction influence the way you produce at all?
Yeah. But to me, right now, I feel like I just have an internet audience. I haven’t necessarily collected all my live experience yet. It’s all happening so fast and that’s just going to take time. I’m working on an album right now, so I don’t feel like I’m the complete package yet, but I’m getting there. I’m still growing as an artist, which is why everything feels so special right now.
You grew up watching anime and it’s had a huge influence on your sound. Last year, FlyLo co-created and scored Yasuke. If you could create your own anime, what would it be called and what’s the vibe?
it would probably be a strategy-based animation. And I would title it The Core of Our Strategy. And the vibe would be very pensive. Almost like Code Geass or Prince of Tennis. Or it will probably be a little drama about chess.
Okay, King’s Gambit.
Yeah, it would be a chess anime. That’s actually a fire idea.
Who’s making an impact on music right now?
Dirty Bird and Logic1000.
What can we expect from this guest mix?
Swami Sound’s debut single, ‘Refuse,’ from his forthcoming album is out now. Get it here
Arielle Lana LeJarde is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter
CFCF - After The After
CFCF - Sunrise
Moses Boyd & Joe Armon -Jones - 2 Far Gone
Azaelia Banks - Desperado
MJ Cole - Serotonin
Blakk Habit - Sleep Talker (Soulecta Remix)
Soulecta & Bitr8 - On My Knees
Swami Sound - Back In The Day (Soulecta Dub) [Unreleased Demo]
Soulecta - At Night (Dub)
DJ Q - I Can’t Stay
salute - ID
CFCF - Self Service 1999
CFCF - Codependence (Swami Sound Remix) [Unreleased]
Tama Gucci - Sweater (Swami & Age True Love Remix) [Unreleased]
Chase T. & Swami Sound - I See It (Swami’s Dub) [Unreleased]
Chase T. - I Never Knew (Ephraim Lewis)
Dirty Bird - The Question
Dirty Bird - I Like It
Dirty Bird, Dazegxd, & Leon English - Wet
Dazegxd - I want U [2 Stay] (Swami’s Mix)
Akari - Key
Dazegxd, Dirty Bird - DoThat2!
Age & Orchid - Wait For Me
Age - Only You
Soul Divine - Secret Love (Shane D Remix)
Björk - Violently Happy (Masters At Work Dub)
Frankie Knuckles & Director’s Cut - I’ll Take You There (feat. Jamie Principle) Deep88 - Intoxication Of The Power