the man is wearing a white jacket
a person wearing headphones on a red table

photos by Aidan Wilhite

If you like dance music and live in New York, then you’ll love Swami Sound. Marcus Harley, better known by his stage name Swami Sound, has been making waves in the dance music scene for years. Named “the father of NYC Garage” by SoundCloud, the Bronx-born and New York-based DJ, producer and musical artist has captivated partygoers with his unique take on Garage music.

“Gifted,” a project by photographer Aidan Wilhite featuring artists, their talents and the gifts they’ve made, serves as a platform for discovering new artists and encouraging gift-making.

Who better to feature than Swami Sound? In this Q&A, Wilhite interviewed Swami Sound about gifting, music and more.

by Aidan Wilhite

Could you tell me a little bit about the vinyl you’re presenting as your gift?

Yeah, one of the tracks that's on there is a Kelela bootleg of “Waiting” and that takes me back to a different time in life when I was making a bunch of different remixes as sentiments towards a specific person. For a while, I was always making tracks as gifts. I think a lot of people who have received those songs that I made either by myself or with friends see it as something really important to them. I think there's a level of importance behind the music that I make, and I can only say that now because of how people have received it, how they’ve responded to it. They’ve reached out and explained their attachment to these sounds that I'm making, so It's kind of a retroactive classification of what I've made, something I definitely see as like a gift. My gift that I give back.

Would you consider yourself a prolific gifter?

That depends, like for Christmas I got my nephews and niece gifts. It’s very circumstantial. Now that I have more resources, I like gifting. I think gifting is very pro-social and it gives back, literally giving somebody something gives you something. Big spirituality, like hearing a “thanks” from someone is important.

One key philosophy to Gifted is that sometimes the solution to your problem isn't located within the problem itself. To fix your creative block, you have to turn your attention towards something else to receive the clarity you're looking for. Is there something alternative to music you pivot to?

I would go to the gym except I'm injured right now, but [usually] I'll climb. The best thing about music is that other people make it well. All you gotta do is listen to something that inspires you a lot and just kind of do something while you listen.

Do you have any music that only exists for you in a physical version? Where if you lost it it would be gone forever?

There was this one track called “Mars carter” by BLH III, and before my roommate and I found a digital file of the track, the only way we could listen to it [was] through [vinyl] and it's one of the best house songs I've ever heard in my life. Then for Christmas my roommate, when I came back from traveling, left a USB on my desk of a proper flack file of the song.

Would you say that's the best gift you've ever received?

The best thing I've ever received was probably from a friend who had given me an EVISU CD case. It’s so beautiful, and I carry all my CDs in it. Most everything I have on the desk was a gifted thing. Things either people gave me or like there's a happy sentiment, ya know?

Could you say a little bit about what’s on the desk?

In the top left corner was a birthday gift from my friend Arielle, HARD-SHELL by Joshua Matthews. It's a really cool representation of my attachment to Outwear. The headphones right on top of it were a gift from Sam Valenti at Ghostly. Those are some special edition Phonon headphones. We've got the EVISU CD case, and right underneath, you know everything on this desk is basically like a gift or like a good representation of my interests, and that includes the AESOP deodorant which was a gift. The pocket operator was a Christmas gift from my sister, and the USM incense holder was a gift from Bernard James.

You have an eye for design and composition. Throughout the shoot you were making good adjustments, and it made me wonder if you ever satisfy your artistic needs through other mediums?

Now that music is the job, it really is complicated when it comes to my needs artistically. I think for the most part I've been obsessed with music as a survival thing because of just how life and capitalism work. I don't necessarily have any other mediums, which is funny cause I grew up drawing and sketching, and I was really good at it. Then I became a Lego builder and after that I started skateboarding. I started playing a lot of video games. But then music sort of came as the last thing that was like, okay, this is the thing that I'm gonna dedicate my career to. I don't know if I could get into another hobby. I think if I tried to do anything else, I'm trying to be the best at it or I'm gonna try to figure out how to make money out of it. But I don't really think that's the point. I would love to do film or some shit, but it's expensive.

Is there a specific memory that comes to mind in regards to what creation looked like for you as a kid?

Yeah, in elementary school did they ever teach you how to decorate your notebook?

No, I don't think so. Maybe they set aside some time for crafts, but they didn’t teach us anything like that.

Word, like they provide time for you to wrap your notebook in like other paper and give it different colors?

Nah, I don't know if we did that, no

You never did that? They would give you gift wrap and then you could either wrap it or glue that shit, and then it's like your notebook so it was distinguishable?

Nah, never

Oh crazy. Wowww I mean, it's just like that's a core memory of mine. I remember one of those books that I made, I would go home and do it myself on my own time. I would draw shit, you know, like I had a piece where I drew all the 151 Pokémon that I knew as a group. Damn, I was maybe 9 or 10. I was young.

Why do you think you enjoyed making the notebook so much?

Dude it was just sick. I would be able to show it, you know, I'd be like, “hey, look at this cool thing I’ve got, this is mine and look at all these cool drawings.”

It’s like, “look what exists inside my mind!” Yeah?

Right, it would just be Pokémon.

Even as kids, the ways in which we create are similar to how we create as adults, but you didn’t show any interest in music as a kid?

So with music no, I was in the handbell choir and I hated it. It was sick, but I didn't like it and I didn't like music class either. “I was like what the hell is this?” They would only give us recorders right, and my brother played the trombone, so my only impression of music as a learning experience was really lame and the teacher was so mean. I didn't have any interest in music, but I did like listening to it as I got a little older through my brother and my cousin. As far as creating it though, no, it never crossed my mind until I was a teenager and I started experimenting and listening to Animal Collective. I was like “yo, what are these guys doing and how are they doing this? This is gas.” I was like, I want to do this, so I started fantasizing about performing when I was like a teenager.

Like that's what you were thinking about in class?

Yeah, I adored listening to that music, I would watch the live videos of them at Pitchfork or Lollapalooza. Geologist would be on a modular synthesizer, I know this now but [wouldn’t have

known it then], and Panda Bear would also be doing something, he would be drumming and then Avey Tare would be singing and playing guitar, and Deakin would be playing guitar. So I didn't know what I was looking at but I knew it had something to do with producing music.

It seems like something just came up for you? What was it?

I’m... just...thinking about why I'm in art or why I've always wanted to make it because I never really realized how to communicate why other than [doing] the creative thing. I wasn't in many spaces that encouraged creativity either, I didn't even have art class in middle school, and in high school too, we didn’t have that. We didn't have a music class or anything, so I kind of just was vibing and waiting for something to sort of pull me there. Once I started college I was able to sort of give myself the time and resources, like, I used my scholarship money to buy music equipment, and I hadn’t made a lick of music at all. I was like, “let me just do this.”

To you, is making music more a cooperative or individual effort?

Honestly, I don't really see the experience of music creation as initially communal. For me it starts in an introspective space, it’s a little selfish, but it’s really up to you and what you dedicate [the art] to.

Yeah, I think we lack a word to communicate selfishness without the negative connotations. Because you know, a lot of time, with art, ultimately you're doing this for yourself. It's not a selfless act, you're not just doing it for the sake of your message. You're doing it because you really need to make something and you need to feel good about yourself. I think that's completely reasonable and pretty common.

Yeah, it's like how else are we supposed to connect?

Space is so important to creativity, and during our shoot, we were talking about how difficult it can be to work in a bedroom. Can you tell me what your ideal space would look like?

My ideal space would be four times the current size of my room. So I'm not as close to my bed. The ceiling would have to be slightly higher than my current room as well. It has to have some nice ass windows and a wooden floor.

So you wouldn't mind working in your bedroom then? It would just need to be bigger?

That's it.

Something so you can’t just roll from your chair to your bed.

Type shit. Somewhere I could sort of have a ritual and sit still and just like, not be so close to the comfiest shit that I've ever laid in. You know what I’m saying? It’s like right there, I could just lay it in all day. Oh MAN I’m thinking about it now.

In this imaginary world where anything is possible are you putting a slide in there, any arcade games, or when you picture it, is it pretty simple, just your bed and music?

No, what I would do is figure out how to use that space to amalgamate every interest I had cause I remember what I liked to do. And I'll never forget that, so if I had the space to do all of those [things], I would be the most criminal mastermind.

Homie playing handbells at 8 a.m. Bootlegging at 10.

Swimming in a lego pool. Maybe have a sketch studio.

Thinking about locations, do you feel committed to New York? Could you make it anywhere or does it need to be here?

I think I'm lucky, I feel like I've kind of...I’d hate to come off as pretentious, but I think I’ve made it in New York in a way. Because after moving out from the home that you grew up in New York as an underprivileged person, you've quite literally made it. The next thing to do after having roommates is buying a house, or just moving in by yourself, but then you're just still paying rent, so you might as well just live with people you like or live with family. There's really only like two things to do, and I'm not buying a house here. So yeah, it's like I think the next step for me would just be literally finding some real estate to invest in or just like getting a condo or studio somewhere. Anyway, you know, I also like, drive, you know. I feel like I've bested New York as a New Yorker.

Is it important to you that you continue this journey here in New York?

It's not, it’s not. I don't see myself here very long actually. I think that just might be because There's so much more out there. There are some nicer cities than this one. This is the BEST city to do anything but you know for someone who's sort of seen it all for their whole life, I kinda want to...chill.

Any thoughts on SoundCloud proclaiming you the “Father of NYC garage”?

The funniest thing about that is, if you don't know me, you don't know how funny it is [to me]. I can imagine that a lot of people were really upset about that whole thing, but the thing is that I have the humor of a New York n*gga. People just forget that I'm from New York or rather they don't know too much about New Yorkers...There was a level of confidence that I went about that with, but like in a funny way. I was just like, “n*ggas saying anything? I’m this then.” But it stuck ironically.

Yeah, it’s funny thinking about going to Starbucks or something and they’re like, “what's your name?” And you're like, “I'm the father of the New York garage.”

I'm saying, like, imagine going up to a random person and I stand on that. That’s crazy.

a man in a white coat holding a piece of paper
a man in a white coat standing in a room

What's appealing to you about that type of music?

Back then there was a large flexibility between the different genres that came about because of the sound, so I was very interested in putting those genres together and giving it a flavor that was just like okay, like you hear this, and I hear this now. A big production element of mine is to mix genres and kind of show and demonstrate different exhibitions of genre and one song especially. That's my favorite thing to do.

How much do you experiment during a live session?

I experiment a fair amount, just as much as I don’t. When I find myself not experimenting I find myself pretty bored. If I'm playing like a sequence of songs that I've done before, many times I'll be like, “damn this isn't really, like, hitting,” so I experiment and I find something new, it's very mood dependent as well. “Am I in the mood to experiment? Am I in the mood to just sort of fuck around and find out?” Really depends on the show and how I feel, but for the most part I try to just find that flow state.

When does the flow state arrive for you?

I get in a flow state every time. Whenever I'm performing it just happens. Okay, so when I was rehearsing for my Apple Show, and that was like probably the most technologically intricate thing that I had performed, I literally cultivated the whole live set within three days of that show and every time I was practicing and like performing it in my room I was so nervous, but then when I was actually doing it at Apple I was in it, I knew everything, I knew exactly what to do and like there was a point in time where if I'd messed one thing up, I would’ve messed up the whole entire set. I've been thinking about this a lot, for like the past few days, is that moment that I realized that, “yo, if I don't get this right then it's over.” And in a fraction of a second I saved my entire set. I would not have been able to do that if I wasn't in that flow state. It reminds me of handbell choirs, like if you miss this, you're fucked, right?

Can you say more about making mistakes early on in a set and how you recover from them?

Making mistakes, that’s what practice is for. You practice so you find those mistakes and then you sort of ameliorate that and figure out how you ended up there. I love making mistakes. I love learning. Also, it's important to realize that a lot of people aren't checking for your mistakes. Like especially now, you're not being tested. No one's ever really being tested unless like, you know, you're at a talent show or something. You make those mistakes so you don't put so much pressure on yourself when you make them [later].

You wear Gore-Tex, collect Gore-Tex tags and you wish for recycled Gore-Tex socks, what's the interest?

What’s the interest? I'm trying to keep my feet dry. From the outside, but you know that would actually produce some sweaty ass feet, so I realized that as I was drawing [that] I was like damn, if I get Gore-Tex socks, my feet would get pretty sweaty because Gore-Tex doesn't breathe. But I still want them.

Besides wanting socks, what about Gore-Tex is appealing to you?

it’s a new interest, it’s a hobby, just sort of looking at jackets and having cool clothes. That's my hobby right now, having cool looking clothes in my opinion. I'm not hating on anybody else's style, but I kind of like this style a lot and It may be trendy I don't know, I just like it. I feel cool. You look good, you feel good

You just got a new car, let’s say there’s a CD jammed in there and it only plays one track, what track would you want it to be?

Yo the car is so new, they don't even play CDs. It sucks.

Well okay, there's somebody in the passenger seat, they've got a JBL on their lap, and they’re only gonna play one song. What song are you hoping for?

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve. Yeah that song is so good.

When looking at the future, what are your commitments and priorities?

Sleep and...sleep and health.

Anything you want to plug?

Elsewhere March 30th, Back In The Day Deluxe on the way.

four pictures of a man playing drums