Kareem Soenharjo is in a good place.
The Indonesian artist is talking to NME in circumstances similar to our interview last year: in a Jakarta cafe with cigarette in hand. But Kareem, who performs as BAP., is now doing great, 2021 having given him “another life”. “I’ve been more aware of my own feelings, just trying to be mature for myself and everyone around me,” he says.
It’s heartening to hear of Kareem’s good spirits after the 2020 album ‘Miasma Tahun Aku’, a dark, angsty detour into psychedelic rock sonics with his band BAPAK. NME is back to talk to Kareem about his new album as BAP., where he returns to the hip-hop craft with which he first made his name.
‘MOMO’S MYSTERIOUS SKIN’ is the anticipated follow-up to his debut BAP. album ‘Monkshood’. The 2018 release introduced a strain of experimental hip-hop to the Indonesian music scene that was as enigmatic as it was enchanting. Trap hi-hats, jazzy drums, and inspired sample flips were scattered across the album with an air of mischief. Lyrically, Kareem used the project as a soapbox for his fractured thoughts as a drifting, manic, and often insightful 20-something navigating life.
It’s an album that Kareem views very differently now, describing it as a “morbidly depressing time capsule” of his mental state at the time. But he reserves most of his reassessment for its technical qualities, some of which he admits were just “an itch to scratch at the time” as a budding rapper, producer and unabashed hip-hop head.
“Listening to it again, I’m like, ‘This album is so wordy, it’s so complicated. It’s like a Rubik’s cube,’” he says. “It was compelling for me, but it was too perplexing and tiring to hear.”
“As painters go down their artistic road, they tend to simplify… I feel like I don’t need to use all 50 colours in a single painting now”
He promises that ‘MOMO’S’ is an entirely different beast, which is a reflection of his personal growth. Kareem, 25, now lives on his own. In the daytime, he works as a part-time record store clerk. At night, he’s a DJ. The rest of his time in between is spent making music – either under BAP., BAPAK or his producer moniker Yosugi. He credits his partner, his immediate family and his circle of friends for keeping him “grounded” over the past year.
“Most of the time, I am prone to do outlandish stuff because I have no shame,” he laughs. “So it’s really great to have these loved ones of mine be like, ‘Yo, chill, you don’t have to do that.’”
The production of ‘MOMO’S’ is as meaty as that of ‘Monkshood’ – we’ll get to the samples later – and songs jump frantically from shuffling hip-hop beats and late-night R&B seduction to bossa nova rhythms and stoner rock guitars.
Where other rappers might lean on classic tropes of luxury, as a lyricist Kareem relishes the highbrow route. In one song, he falls head over heels for a woman who prefers “Rothkos over roses” and reads beat fiction. He evokes figures from Greek mythology to express the vulnerability he feels when in romantic pursuit, and to assert his authority by warning onlookers: “I’ve been like this since a foetus / Know that your heel is only as good as Achilles”.
Elsewhere on the record, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, anime series Fullmetal Alchemist, and fashion label Comme des Garçons serve as blunt name-drops or sly references. Kareem has even penned a collection of original poems, titled Bruxism, as a companion to the album.
Kareem isn’t just flashing his cultural credentials on ‘MOMO’S’: he’s also refining his craft as a musician. “The greatest challenge a musician has to [meet] is to strip down their songs,” he says. “It’s the wisdom or the self-control to say, ‘I don’t need this part on the song, I don’t need all these shenanigans.’”
Kareem paints in his free time, related to the art form when approaching the album. “A lot of painters, their early works are a bit more technical. It’s more [leaning] towards the old masters. But as they go down their artistic road, they tend to simplify,” he shares. Similarly, “I feel like I don’t need to use all 50 colours in a single painting now.”
“I feel grateful that I have resources to churn out these songs that sound completely different from the samples, but also pay homage to them”
If Kareem had to extract a singular truth about his new music as BAP., it’s that he attempted “a more simple, less depressing approach”. Unlike past work, he’s now making music from a healthier state of mind. “I wanna make good music that I can listen to all the fucking time,” he states, though he doesn’t rule out making an album “that’s weird as shit” in the future.
This album’s immediacy can also be attributed to its samples that draw on Kareem’s love of Indonesian music: songs by indie rock band White Shoes and the Couples Company, hard rock band The SIGIT, singer-songwriter Bin Idris and jazz-pop group Maliq & D’essentials.
Many of these artists now stand as Kareem’s fellows in Indonesia’s music scene, but they also defined many cherished youthful memories for him: listening to songs on a Nokia flip phone, blasting them in the shower, and discovering bands at music festivals as a teen.
Kareem insists that the album is rooted firmly in the present, the samples used to recontextualise his love for that music and lift those songs from his past in order to etch a newer story onto them.
“Now I can say, ‘I’m 25 and now I can sample this music’ – music from my music heroes,” he exclaims. “It’s just fucking incredible. I feel grateful that I have resources to churn out these songs that sound completely different from the samples, but also pay homage to them.”
One particular sample stands out: Shark Move. Once-forgotten but recently reappraised, this Indonesian prog rock band from 1970 put out one album before disbanding after a member died in an accident. Of the two Shark Move songs sampled on ‘MOMO’S’, it is ‘Evil War’ that has a special place in Kareem’s heart.
In 2013, ‘Evil War’ was sampled in ‘City’ by hip-hop luminary Madlib, who chopped up the fuzzy odyssey into a menacing beat to be royally decimated by his collaborator, the rapper Freddie Gibbs.
“I heard ‘City’ in an Adult Swim compilation and I saw a comment that said the sample was from an Indonesian band,” Kareem recalls. “And I started looking and I was like, ‘I remember now, it’s from Shark Move!’”
‘Evil War’ made it into the ‘MOMO’S’ track ‘PAINTING WITH SUWAGE’, Kareem declaring: “It’s too good to not be flipped.” Shark Move aside, there’s another sample on the album that he’s excited for fellow Indonesians to discover. “If you’re not native Indo, the [song’s] outro will not hit you as hard as it should,” he teases.
Kareem sees his music as an outlet to express thoughts and feelings in a way that is “more elusive, less constrained and less tedious”. He’s open to listeners interpreting those thoughts and feelings in their own ways, and developing their own opinions on his songs. “That’s what I like about music: it’s this mirror for everyone to reflect on themselves, for better or worse,” he says. “I’m happy to say it’s helped a lot of people.”
Kareem’s fans have told him they’ve “got[ten] laid to my music” or entered “long-lasting relationships because they connected with my music”. One even told Kareem his music saved them from taking their own life, which he feels “rather conflict[ed]” about.
“It’s kinda scary” and sometimes “difficult”, Kareem admits, to consider the profound impact his music can have on strangers, though he tries not to overthink it.
“I guess that’s why this album feels a little bit brighter,” he says. “I do like that my music can be a little safe room and you can just ponder and enjoy your time. I want it that way.”
BAP.’s ‘MOMO’S MYSTERIOUS SKIN’ is out November 12