Soso Tharpa: Upcycled Sonics
Soso Tharpa’s ingenuity spills out of his tracks – they bristle with energy and land with such a punch you imagine banks of sought-after synthesizers and premium signal chains, meters tickling the reds but smoothed out by a high-end console. But the Washington DC-based producer doesn’t believe that more tools bring about better music. Since he began his music production journey almost by accident after purchasing a MIDI keyboard and discovering the bundled copy of Live, he’s focused on pursuing sound through the immediate means at his disposal and avoided the creative cul-de-sac of over-abundance.
“I didn't have the hardest of upbringings but I had to do with what I had many times in my life,” explains Tharpa, real name Michael Aniekwe, as we chat on a video call, “and I feel like you hear that with my music. I'll use the same sample in three different tracks, but people will never know just because of the way I processed it.”
Aniekwe could be considered early in his career due to his concise discography, but behind the veil of publicly available music are many years spent developing his sound. Since arriving at a point where he was ready to release something out into the world, he’s chosen to keep focused on why he wanted to make music and not subscribe to the demands of the modern age, where productivity and visibility are supposed to equal success. His music has reached respected labels and DJs without the industry-approved pathways of PR and networking, serving as a heartening reminder that genuine talent shines through no matter what.
Aniekwe’s first appearance on the radar was through his debut 12” release Decode / Sea Mojo on Future Times, the Washington D.C. label run by Max D. Aniekwe embodies the curious, unique vibe which hovers around electronic music from the US capital, also found on his Evolution EP for another respected, non-conformist local label, 1432 R. It’s worth mentioning Max D’s influence on the city’s music scene, as it says a lot about the creative climate Aniekwe is coming from.
“Max D really helped build a diverse space for artists to flourish,” Aniekwe points out. "When you talked to Max D and visited the [now closed] Future Times shop, everybody in the scene would congregate there, no matter if you were into techno, if you listened to hip-hop, if you listened to bass music, and I think shit like that impacted a lot of us and made it so lines started to get blurred – things got more diverse.”
On ‘Decode’ and ‘Sea Mojo’ Aniekwe showed he had the instinct to make inventive updates on classically-informed techno and electro that sounded like the real deal. Authenticity in dance music is a hard idea to pin down – given the established formulae of these genres, it’s the subtle qualities which separate forgettable copycat producers from those who can make a 4/4 club track truly sing. The individual elements of ‘Decode’ are familiar - boxy drum machine hits, square wave bass, chopped up vocals, a splash of filtered acid - but Aniekwe made them jump with vitality.
“I used some saturation and Glue compression on ‘Decode’ for sure,” Aniekwe recalls, thinking back to how he achieved his standout results in the well-mined field of 90s-styled US techno. “I remember listening to a track called ‘Chic’ – I forgot who made it – and they had this really quirky hat pattern, but what I noticed was that the high frequencies on the hats weren't very pronounced. On certain songs with the same style as ‘Decode’, the hats and the claps are all popping in your ear. I wanted that to be subdued a little bit and let all the other synths and atmospheric elements do the talking.”
“The bass is very special,” he adds. “I wanted to do something really simple, since the synth and the drum patterns were hitting, I just got that square wave synth and laid down a simple pattern, which helped carry the momentum of the track.”
If there is a classic, US feel to ‘Decode’ and ‘Sea Mojo’, other inputs from further afield started to have an impact on the sounds Aniekwe was reaching towards in his music. At school he was already a curious listener from hip-hop to grunge and punk, seeking out anything sincere and different from the Top 40 mainstream. Time spent in the Future Times orbit deepened his sense of open-mindedness, but he’s quick to credit the L.E.N.G. parties and D.C. DJs such as Djoser for helping deepen his knowledge of dubstep and post-dubstep sounds coming from the UK. These broadening horizons fed into the music Aniekwe was making, which can be tangibly heard on the Evolution EP.
“I look up to people like Objekt or Batu because I always wondered, ‘how did they make this weird synth go on for six minutes and I’m not tired of it?’” he explains. “Something I really take pride in is my arrangement. I'm not going to talk down on other producers, but I feel like arrangement is getting lost, like there's this push to make really simple tracks. It really is a test of will to make a track and have each section be different.”
Even the more linear layout of ‘Evolution’ and ‘Ruminating on Blue’ demonstrated Aniekwe’s growing confidence with arrangement, moving through progressive salvos of vibrant synth hooks or chipping away at vivid soundscapes writhing around insistent chords, but it was ‘Action’ and ‘Haji’ which signalled a move into more experimental, dramatic territory. Moments of suspended animation, false drops and unexpected dovetails all fed into the brilliantly original, ear-catching B-side of the EP. ‘Hajj’ in particular signalled a shift in sound palette as he explored percussion and rhythms from the Middle East.
“I was listening to a lot of Arabic music at the time I made ‘Hajj’ and I liked the meaning of the name, going on a journey to Mecca,” Aniekwe explains. “The drums are definitely inspired by Arabic music, and I spent months piecing that track together. I was happy with what I did with the sample of the guy yelling. There are some samples you get, and the sample itself is good, but when you try to add it with a track you're working on it just dominates the entire mix. I was thinking, ‘how can I get this guy yelling within all this chaos?’ So I put it inside of a sampler and just tapped the guy in – just kept it really simple, man. Then I built some stuff around it like the flute part, so it didn't feel like that guy was in a vacuum. It's like a puzzle, that one.”
“In Nigeria they have this music called Ogene and it's really tribal,” Aniekwe adds. “These guys make really complex rhythms with literally a stick and a piece of metal. I think there's an MIT lecture showing how the beating they were doing had complex mathematical characteristics to it. I think that part of my culture definitely also influenced ‘Hajj’, where you may not have much to work with, but you can make something really complex and rhythmic at the same time. That's what I really admire about artists on the Timedance label or on Hessle Audio, where they have these things that sound complex, but it's rhythmic at the same time. That's the balance I'm trying to strike right now.”
As well as the sequencing and arranging, Aniekwe also strives for deeper complexity from his modest sample library through repeated re-sampling. When we first connected to discuss the processes which lead to his distinctive sound, he likened his view of audio to that of scrap metal – parts which might be useless in their current state, but with enough work can become vital components in something new. He laughs when I ask about any preferred signal chains he sets up when experimenting with sound design.
“In order to achieve a sound, I'll put 10 different effects on the same channel,” he says. “I know that's not the most CPU efficient thing to do, but, dammit, I'm gonna get that sound. Recently I’ve been using the amazing presets in Multiband Dynamics a lot. I'll take any sample, grab the Speech Enhancer and throw it on there, get another device set to Vocal Control, throw it on there, and I'll mess with the lows, the mids, the highs, sample it down, and then just keep changing it. The same thing with the Vocoder. I know whenever I sit down and start going crazy on sound design, I get into a flow state. It's almost meditative.”
This process of fervent experimentation has manifested even more obviously on Aniekwe’s most recent release, the Into The Flood EP. Breaking away from the exposure afforded by Future Times and 1432R, he decided to release the four tracks himself. Rather than waiting for the slow mechanics involved in pressing and distributing a record, he wanted to get the music out quickly, and on his own terms. Without any official PR campaign, the Bandcamp-only release has caught a lot of support and attention even as Aniekwe pushed back against the pressure to be productive and visible within the scene.
“I had kind of lost sight of why I was making music,” he says about the period before making Into The Flood. “I wasn't really having as much fun, which led to me getting frustrated and asking, ‘why isn't this track sounding the way I want it to sound?' I had to take a step back and revisit other aspects of my life I enjoy, and come back to music in a healthy way. Giving that space to myself, in spite of all the acceleration of music other people are releasing, helped me get those four tracks together.”
As well as featuring some of the most complex rhythms and detailed production in the Soso Tharpa catalog to date, the four tracks on Into The Flood also create an impression thanks to the quality of the sound. It’s taken as a given that most music released these days has gone through some kind of mastering process, but given he self-released his most recent EP, where did Aniekwe go to get his tracks polished up for public consumption?
“I think I lied in the description,” he laughs. “I wrote something like, ‘Mixed and mastered by Soso Tharpa’, but I didn't master it, man. You can actually get really far without mastering, just mixing using compression effectively. That is something that I figured out recently, and I feel like Hercules right now. I finally decoded compression. I read one thing online where this guy explained it like he was talking to a five year old.”
At a point where labels are reaching out for his tracks and he’s getting co-signed by high-profile DJs across different sub genres of techno and bass music, Aniekwe is comfortably self-reliant and content to operate at his own pace, seeing where he wants to take his music for all the right reasons. In that sense he’s carrying on a tradition of proudly original music from D.C. which traces back to one of the city’s most unique exports, go-go.
“TOB, TCB, Backyard Band, all these go-go bands started from people who grew up in the hood and didn't really have equipment to buy drums, so they started beating on trash cans,” Aniekwe explains. “When it comes to the musical identity of this place, we're more inclined to just be ourselves.”
Follow Soso Tharpa on Bandcamp and Instagram
Text and interview: Oli Warwick
Photos: Madeleine Sargent