Attempting to recap on the final big releases of last year, I traipsed through Spotify to see what the end of 2016 had to offer as we move into a new musical year. Amongst the pop titans ZAYN, Taylor Swift, Coldplay, and a headline stealing release from hip-hop’s favourite tag team Run The Jewels on Christmas Day, something surprising nestles. Judging a book by its cover on this occasion was a fruitful exercise, as something about SOMA’s ‘T.O.T.K.O’ EP album art caught my attention.
Its stripped back, black and white photonegative cover of an African tribesman doesn’t impose itself, and little can be gathered from the artist or album name. But its inconspicuous nature is what drew me in, and once I had listened through twice, I was intrigued to find out more about SOMA.
This release from Plus TRBE Recordings on December 6th 2016 is the work of London based producer Ollie Roberts and artist Shumba Maasai. The two came together for this four track EP entitled with the acronym ‘T.O.T.K.O’, or ‘Takes One To Know One’; a conceptual piece that creates a soundscape of London and the UK when the year ends in a wintry shrouding of its city streets in prompt darkness, distorting fog, and biting cold.
The album, to me, is best described as a grime record, though one that in my opinion offers a more sonically interesting and experimental scope. Shumba Maasai delivers a rap style that is at times typical of a grime artist in its bold, knockabout content filled with typically British humour and slang, and at others, able to elevate itself above convention and into the realm of spirituality and conscience.
Similarly, Producer Ollie Roberts supplies a variety of moods that stem from the bitter and spacious environment that the EP supplies as its muse. Instrumentals like those on ‘Deepa’ and ‘Zoning’, in which percussion is sent crawling and knocking amongst airy pads and low brooding bass build a more ambient, reflective atmosphere than that of ‘Tingz’ and ‘Hold Dat’. The latter pairing of which is where more hard hitting, grittier sounds are explored through ominous yet direct beats that build a dark, club night backdrop for Maasai’s braggadocios bars. The production shares a common conceptual thread however in its industrial, highly percussive and sporadic presentation that works to maintain the EP’s mysterious, eerie mood.
At a period in which black culture and heritage is being explored at an increasing rate across the pond in mainstream hip hop records such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and more recently Childish Gambino’s ‘Awaken, My Love!’, it is interesting to see a darker variation on the theme within the UK’s underground scene, and one that does so with cloak and dagger subtlety and nuance.
‘T.O.T.K.O’ concerns itself with the roots of its inspiration on both fundamental, ancestral levels as the cover suggests, and more tangibly and locally with regards to a western upbringing in the UK. The voice of the EP shuttles between the two, as Maasai’s poetic display alternates between African and English intonations that draw a parallel between the two converging consciousness’s of the rapper and his subject matter.
This record was a rare find amongst the Spotify ‘New Releases’ section, and one that I’m glad came to my attention. Its sonic mixed dealings in chill step, dub and electro, alongside use of found sound and sampling, creates a thoroughly original conceptual soundscape that breathes experimental life and depth into a grime scene that I have often found lacking in these areas.
The EP is available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play and Apple Music.