Tunde Olaniran: Theatrics with a Groove

Music Features Tunde Olaniran
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Hometown: Flint, Mich.
Current Release: Transgressor
For Fans Of: Aaliyah, Shabazz Palaces, Janelle Monae

Blogs seem tacitly trying to outdo each other with elaborate word-soups for summing up Detroit-area genre chameleon Tunde Olaniran, reaching at R&B, hip-hop, rap and soul, even something like dystopic gospel, neo-trap or post-techno. Really, it’s just flat out dazzling dance-pop and sometimes it’s all of these elements at once, but never predominantly one over another.

I ask Tunde where this confidence comes from, this adventurousness and ability to trust himself when following all of these stylistic directions: “I don’t have any training, musically, so I don’t approach music in a traditional way, at all,” says Olaniran, who sang in choirs after his family moved from Europe to Flint, Mich. “That’s limiting because I don’t know certain chords and it can be hard to have a common language, but people like Jon [Zott] are very patient with me.”

We’re sitting in the home studio of the aforementioned producer and ambient musician Zott, who lives just a mile north of Detroit. The two of them are working out mixes for Olaniran’s forthcoming full-length album Transgressor.

“So it was that, just, not having that traditional background and then being easily bored with myself, musically,” Olaniran explains. “I don’t want to make a song that’s going to bore me or that I’m not going to want to perform live. And, then, I don’t want to be a waste of time or make something that just anyone can make.”

A singer, songwriter, choreographer and designer, Olaniran has aspired for a live show that transcends any and all typical expectations, like some intergalactic ballet of shredded up synths, booming beats and a silky croon. He designs his own costumes, providing striking, aesthetically linked ensembles for his back-up dancers. He choreographs a constant range of rhythmic motion matched to the music.

These songs—as he envisions, writes and records them—have to lead to something that will assuredly flourish on a stage and enliven a crowd. “They have to,” reiterates Olaniran, “I cannot make it if I cannot picture myself performing it. I think about consistency; when I’m performing, it’s like: ‘Curtains’ up! You are watching a show, right now!’”

“But, I also really get into how punk music is performed and just punk culture, how it’s a really aggressive connection to your audience. Seeing that interaction has affected how I handle the physicality. I want to somehow give that energy to the audience… Whereas they’re obviously not moshing, but the people can’t help but dance, and we want that. I don’t know how we’re achieving it, but that’s what I want to achieve.”

The one constant amid the Tunde kaleidoscope is the groove; the elaborate arrangement of beats cast the dance-spell from the get go. It’s the singer’s experimental proclivities for expanding his voice and the instrumental palette of each song, that lead to beguiling the blogosphere. You’ll find wicked voice modulation, samples of mouth harps, castanets and ambient noise decorated throughout. The beats are a blend of jittery, fuzzed-up shuffles and abrasive ratatat fills; subwoofer blasting bass samples and sound effects strike some uncanny dance alchemy apt for the club, the car stereo or some afterhours factory freak out.

The voice is beautiful, but it can bite, too. At one verse he’s fragile and later fierce; or cool croon and then crunk rap. In a word: versatile.

The lyrics span everything from big bank corruption, neighborhood gentrification, fracking wells and witches in Williamsburg with boleros and blazers. Yes. But blazing through all of this is a chest-thumping, head-smacking substance. The social activist in him comes through on the page, palpably trying to communicate some heavy subject matter to you, earnest, brave and provocative, yes, but also insightful. Like the comic books and dystopian sci-fi novels that inspired him in his teenage years, he’s affected a musical world that only seems surreal at first, like a new, weird terrain bustling with stupendous life and bursting with strange alien sounds—but the longer you dance, the more familiar it sounds. And then you start to listening closer to the words…

Olaniran was raised by a Nigerian father and American mother, spending his adolescence in Germany before settling in Michigan. His first break was collaborating with Berlin-based producer Phon.o (in 2008), eventually touring Europe. Over the last three years, along with fronting an electro-rock group (Taste This!), he’s been exclusively developing his solo career from his home in Flint, a city known exclusively (and unfairly) for its industrial degradation.

Surrounded by such circumstances as well as inspired by his mother, an activist in her own right, Olaniran has evolved into a conscientious artist. “I want to have some political element to the music, to be more examining. The lyrics are somewhat vague, given, I still want there to be questioning in them. I’m not intentionally writing an overt political song, but I don’t want to write songs that have no real point of view.”

Having soaked up a cassette of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection while living in Germany near his father’s army bass, Olaniran was, after moving back to the States, inspired by more rock-styled outfits like The Runaways and Kate Bush. (But, he admits, he could never quell that need for a killer synth).

“Maybe it’s to my detriment, but I don’t set out to make a certain genre,” said Olaniran. “It all usually flows back to the same well. But I think punk, metal and rock have a bigger influence than people might realize. But it would be in phrasing or intonation, just the character that certain voices and accents have on a track.”

Olaniran, currently signed to Michigan-based Quite Scientific Records, hopes to finish Transgressor by the end of the summer. Mixing, which takes place here in Zott’s metro Detroit studio, should be done by the time of this issue. Transgressor will be a full-length album, following a trio of well-received EP’s released over the last three years. The video for “Critical” (featured on this year’s Yung Archetype EP) dropped in June, further kindling the fire of online interest with blog’s ears bending his way.

“I’m excited about these songs,” said Olaniran. “I feel they continue to build the narratives from songs like ‘Brown Boy’ and ‘The Highway.’ I prefer singing, but I also feel like rapping works really well and gets something across in ways you can’t when singing. So, I’m just trying to balance that.”

Balance. That’s a delicate thing—crucial for a choreographed dance as much as it’s integral for translating a tumble of different genres and contemplative lyrical commentary into a cohesive, four-minute dance-pop track from another dimension.