According to his Twitter, rapper Heems hasn’t done an interview in “about a year.” He breaks the silence to talk to ACCLAIM about his impending third solo release (Diplo, HudMo, A-Trak and Dev Hynes are all on board), his love of Jai Paul, making raps over his mum’s indian cooking, the difficulty of finding creative role models and rapping on the side of the road with 80-year-old indian acid house gurus.
By his own confession, it’s been “a pretty rough year” for Himanshu Suri (Heems), a Queens, NYC native of Punjabi-Indian descent, for whom admissions such as these – of anxiety, struggle and sadness – are ready revelations on his social media, where he comes across as one of the world’s more sincere and relatable rappers.
“I didn’t really make any new music, or tour, this year,” says a defeated Heems. Indeed, a year of absence is notable in light of the manic pace Heems’ life has assumed thus far. Recently, there’s been two much-loved and respected solo Heems mixtapes’ worth of wavy, soft-spoken, Indian-music sampling, bubbling raps (Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom).
Prior to that, Heems achieved major internet buzz and notoriety as part of weird art rap trio Das Racist alongside Victor Vazquez (Kool AD) and Dapwell. Das Racist’s 2008 hit Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and subsequent output, saw this trio of “socially awkward brown dudes” explore race theory and consumerism through comedic, conscious rap, using every opportunity to shake literary and esoteric pop culture reference salt throughout their fries. Das Racist’s work not only entertained, but spoke to identity politics, and incongruous Western perceptions of South Asians in American media and music.
And, before that, even, Economics-grad Heems was a suit on Wall Street: perhaps not as wolfish as Jordan Belfort, but definitely with the business acumen to run the successful label he founded, Greedhead Records, once his time on the high street came to an end.
Heems’ Year of Living Peacefully ends now: with an album featuring Diplo, HudMo, A-Trak and Dev Hynes about to drop on Heems’ own Greedhead label, plus a new project with MC Riz Ahmed (feat. a Ryan Hemsworth beat), soundtracks to US cooking shows, and plenty of Greedhead releases lined up.
The new album is touted on his Twitter as a “very honest, very Heemy life-narrative-manifesto”, a series of “thug love drug songs” that Heems told us may be “his most bravest, most personal work yet”. It’s the first album where, by his own admission, Heems is not hiding behind Das Racist’s “punk fucked up funny shit”, or his own “Indian dude racial shit”.
Internet-happy Heems is Tumblin’ out into the real world, too: right now he’s in Asia for a minute, rapping, eating and exploring his way through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Japan, with a quick detour to play on a rooftop in Perth. We caught him mid-Asian odyssey in his Bangkok hotel room, where he opened up and laid it all out for ACCLAIM (then took to his Twitter to say doing an interview “felt weird”).
You’re touring around India and China at the moment – you were in Nepal yesterday, yeah? How was your experience of Nepal?
Nepal was really cool, I did a lot in three days – really packed it in, met some awesome people. Yesterday I got to visit this temple in Kathmandu that I’ve been wanting to go to for ages, so that was great. I don’t get the opportunity to speak Hindi much in the States – only when I’m in my parents’ home and in cabs – so Nepal was cool because I got to speak Hindi. And when I started speaking Hindi, the Nepali people were like “Oh, are you Nepali?” and I was like “No, but that’s awesome you think I am!” Also, Nepali people are insanely good looking… gorgeous, all of them!
I saw that you’ve been hanging out with British rapper and actor Riz MC recently. Are you guys are working on something together?
Yeah, Riz and I have rapping together as The Swet Shop Boys. We have a track and a video, ‘Benny Lava’, coming out in about a week. Riz and I got into the studio and just got along like a house on fire. The project is based on him being a Pakistani in London and me being an Indian in New York. We’re sampling a lot of Indian music, and the work’s influenced by Hindi poetry.
The original ‘Benny Lava’ track is pretty famous for that 2008 mondegreen translation that got something like 10 million YouTube views. ‘Mondegreens’ being takes on songs that don’t attempt to preserve the original meaning of the language but instead wilfully misinterpret the words as homophony (exactly how they sound), to produce an unintended meaning. Will Swet Shop Boys’ video for ‘Benny Lava’ also be a modern mondegreen?
Nah, but it will be funny! Riz and I shot a video for it in a pretty heavily Indian neighbourhood in Queens and a heavy Pakistani neighbourhood in Brooklyn. We used the version of Benny Lava that Ryan Hemsworth did a couple of years back. Ryan sent the beat to a friend, and I heard it and was like “This is really funny,” and then yeah Riz and I rapped over it.
In terms of Ryan Hemsworth sampling Benny Lava, what do you think of the infiltration of Indian music into Western contemporary music? Guys like Gold Panda – who uses sitars, tablas, etcetera in his tunes – and Jai Paul. Do you think Indian music could be popular and a possible foundation for Western artists in the future? Take soul, funk and jazz music, which were originally sampled by a lot of hip hop artists. Now it’s a massive influence over a number of genres. Do you ever foresee Indian music as having that kind of effect? Or will it remain somewhat of a niche?
I mean, it’s definitely infiltrated successfully to a certain point. There was this song ‘The Truth Hurts’, that Dr. Dre made. That Erick Sermon and Just Blaze ‘Reakt’ track. Company Flow’s ‘The Fire in Which You Burn’, that’s an Indian sample. There have been a lot of these instances. You know, sometimes Dap [Dapwell, of Das Racist] would get people say to him “What do you know about rap? You’re just an Indian kid,” then a rap song would come out two weeks later with some massive Indian sample, and Dap would be like “What the hell?” I think two of the best albums to come out last year were Jai Paul and M.I.A. That Jai Paul record is the greatest thing. I really like – not just Indian sampling – but like, what Anand from Yeasayer does, with his Indian jazz guitar stuff.
[N.B.: Check out Anand and Heems together in the ‘Dosa Hunt’ trailer.]
You toured Wild Water Kingdom to India, and you spend a good part of each year living in India. Do you find Indian kids are pretty clued in, in terms of rap music?
A lot of the Indian kids I meet – not everyone – are more interested in what’s going on in the West. The fact that I’m making Eastern-influenced music is not that interesting to Indian kids. Those songs and film soundtracks that I sample, mean so much more to, like, Indian kids living in America, because, for us, those movies were like the only way we kept in touch and knew what was going on in India. But if you’re living in India, you probably don’t watch those movies. You probably hate that music. Me rapping about Indian stuff is probably not that interesting to them!
There seems to be a lot of pressure from Indian parents for their children to be really successful, to go down an established path. I was talking to my friend last night – he’s Indian and he’s a fan of yours. We were talking about you and he was like, “Man, if I told my dad I wanted to be a rapper, he’d lose his shit.” Are your parents similar in that attitude, or have they embraced your chosen career path?
I’ve made a decent amount of money rapping. My parents are fine – they’re supportive. But the past year, I didn’t really make any new music or tour, so I think now they’re like a little iffy, like “We don’t know if this is the right lifestyle for you.” But mostly they’re pretty understanding. You know, during this rough year I’ve had, it constantly came up, on my Tumblr, these Indian kids from college saying “hey man I wanna do X, or Y, just like you’re doing, but my parents want to be to a pharmacist,” and I’m like “Yeah man, I’ve been there, and I don’t even know what to say.” Part of why I like doing what I do is because I do what I want, and I’m an Indian dude. When I grew up, there wasn’t Indian people doing what I’m doing. We had like, Tony from No Doubt. Kim Thayil from Soundgarden… and that’s it ”
So there was a lack of Indian creative role models?
Yeah. I mean, we had Sanjay Gupta [famous Indian neurosurgeon]! Fuck. There was this newspaper Indian people in America get, and there’ll be this article on the cover, some 15 year old kid doctor in India, and every Indian parent gets that and waves it in front of you and is like “You see this? This is what you should look up to!”. But, like, I grew up looking up to punks. Musicians, poets, artists.
You said to Forbes that you value your time spent studying economics and working on Wall Street, because it gave you a “business brain” and made you want to “chase deals” when it came to your label, Greedhead. Do you still want “a bank to brag about” like you rapped in ‘Relax’ that time? Or is that not so much of a priority for you now?
God, yeah, I still want it. On the one hand, I get that money is the root of all evil and stuff. But my parents didn’t leave India for me to be broke, for me to not work as hard as I could. In the community I came from in India, I got like, sixteen cousins, and they’re all pharmacists, engineers or doctors. I’m the only kid doing some shit like this, so I need to do every aspect of it. I can be creative in business – people are. I went to a school that was super liberal, and my friends were like “You’re going to go work on Wall Street?”, and I was like “Yeah man, I gotta pay off my college loans!”. I didn’t think that was something my friends really understood, because their parents paid for them the whole way. So I mean, I know a large part of my audience – it’s a weird thing – they probably can’t relate, and they want more liberal, progressive talk about money. But that’s not how I was raised. So, yeah, I want a bank to brag about. Also, I spend money like an idiot!
Ha, I did not expect that of you.
It’s true, I have no self-control in my life – it’s really bad. I think, like, the first two years working on Wall Street, I acquired a liking for a certain kind of lifestyle. I think part of me would get off on the fact that “Hey, I’m only 22 years old, and I’m making money, trading, hiring 15-year-old white dudes from Harvard Business School, and I’m walking into these restaurants where everyone is like some 40-year-old dude who’s a parent of some kid I went to college with. It’s a weird class thing. It’s like when you walk into Louis Vuitton and they look at you and assume, ‘Oh that young Indian kid is not going to buy anything.’ And you’re like, you know what, fuck you, I am going to buy this. And then you’re like, ‘Hang on. No. That’s not how this should work… now I’m just some idiot who’s spent $5,000 on some fucking bag!’
You’ve lived and performed in India, and worked with Indian musicians. You played some shows in Goa on tour not too long ago with Charanjit Singh, who was a session musician in a bunch of Bollywood soundtrack orchestras back in the ‘60s and ‘70s—
Yup, he worked on Bollywood films, but, you know what – he also made the first ever acid house album.In Bombay, before acid house even happened in Detroit and Chicago! Like, in the early ‘80s. I performed with him in Copenhagen, Antwerp, Sweden and Amsterdam. His sound guy plays the instruments, and is the only person who has these historic machines that were used in like, ’82. When I was there, we played a bunch of small shows for our friends, like 10–15 friends of ours sitting on the side of the road while we played. It was really awesome.
How did those shows with Singh come about?
My friend Rana Ghose went and found Singh in Bombay, and was like “Hey Charanjit, did you know you made the first ever acid house record?” and Charanjit had no idea, then the relationship progressed from there. Now Rana’s making a doco about him, and managing him, so Singh’s playing more shows. There were plans to have me and Das Racist out there, and I was like “hey I don’t think it’s feasible moneywise for Das Racist to come out there, but I would love to come out and open for this guy?” And so it happened. He’s like 82 years old and he plays for like, an hour. It’s crazy!
There’s a project premiering in West Australia at the Perth Festival soon, called Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea, which is a project led by Tod Machover, an Australian experimental composer. He’s heading up this project, about the quintessential noises that link Perth people to our city. Is it kids running through sprinklers, ocean waves crashing? Thap type of thing. He’s crafting a tailor-made symphony based on sounds submitted by Perth people, and the WA symphony orchestra is going to play it live. You did something like that with your Nehru Jackets mixtape right? A ‘sounds of the city’ type thing, in Queens? You similarly made some field recordings last time you were in Bombay – of cars and birds and shouting and stuff. Will those be incorporated into the next album?
Yeah I wanted to do what I did what I did with the city of Queens on Nehru Jackets on this album with India. When I go to India, I’m insanely inspired. I’m not anxious, I’m not depressed. I have so many ideas. But when I did it I was so out of my mind. I took the field recordings then I made five songs and I came home and was like “This is all shit. I hate it.” I was really thinking a lot in those terms though. One thing I did do recently though, along those lines, was I scored an episode of this TV show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. It’s a travel and cooking show, and there’s an episode when Bourdain’s in Punjab and I made original music for that whole episode. My friend Hot Sugar is constantly sampling sounds from Indian streets – Hot Sugar made the beat I’m rapping on for the Punjab episode out of the sounds of my mum cooking at home.
Are you still working with some Indian producers on your upcoming album? Who else is going to feature? I recall you mentioning something to Rolling Stone India about, a while ago, doing an interpretation of Alvin Lucier’s experimental piece from the ‘60s, I am sitting in a room?
I was supposed to work with an Indian producer on the upcoming album but his schedule didn’t allow it unfortunately. Alvin Lucier was my professor from college actually. I’ve been waiting for him to send me the file of that experimental piece so I can work on it, but he hasn’t yet! I probably will do it at some point and put it out, but separate from this album. The album’s made in one specific time period – I made eleven songs in three days – so I kind of want to leave that as is. So far, the upcoming album features two tracks with Diplo, a track with Harry Fraud, one track with A-Trak and Hudson Mohawk, one track with Dev Hynes, one track with Rostam from Vampire Weekend and Miho Hatori from Cibo Mato. Booty B also has two tracks on it, that are two of my faves from the album.
How is your label Greedhead going? What’s coming up?
I have Lakutis’ Three Sea Shells coming up at the end of this month. And a guy called Issue, who’s a young kid, who’s E-40’s youngest son. Ive got a release called Blue Prada coming out by a kid named Prada Mane, whose been doing some work with Sweden’s Yung Lean and Yung Sherman. He’s cool, he’s a young kid. Then I have Joe Mande who is a stand-up comic, and a writer on Parks and Rec, and I have his mixtape coming out in March. The Swet Shop Boys thing is on Greedhead, and so is my solo album. I do a lot, but I really don’t do that much!
Mishka helped put out Das Racist’s first mixtape after you contacted them. You’ve said before that you think rap and streetwear go “hand in hand.” Certainly, Mishka aren’t alone in co-signing releases – doing similar things are 10 Deep, Karmaloop. There’s also that adidas Originals and Yours Truly Songs From Scratch thing, like what Jeremih and Shlohmo did. However, do you think if a lot of artists start doing this, it will detract from their music itself and people will be drawn to music because of brand names?
Even when I think of the name Greedhead, I think about how people are greedy for all forms of culture – the best bands, art, fashion and this and that. Fashion brands are selling a lifestyle, so it makes sense. The reason I was one of the earliest people to do that was because, when I partnered with Mishka for Shut Up, Dude, back then you had to pay a DJ like 10,000 dollars for him to co-sign your record. So you’d have to pay, like, Green Lantern 10 grand for him to be like “DJ Green Lantern presents Das Racist”, or “DJ Drama presents.” And I was like “Hell no, I’m not going to do that.” I like Mishka – I know their buyers listen to rap, and I know if they put a CD in every bag it’s going to kids that might actually be into it. Since then I haven’t worked with any brands. I prefer to just work with my PR team and do it myself, but back then it was a pretty awesome thing to do. Mishka’s devotion to culture is pretty cool too.
You’ve said, of Greedhead, that you’d prefer to work alongside the artists you sign in their development, aiding them in finding fanbases via the Internet and helping them make inroads towards larger deals – an approach which wasn’t the norm when you started the label. Do you feel that there’s an increase in labels at present taking that same approach as you did, signing emerging art rap weirdos and going along for the ride with them?
I think labels have done both, historically: built artists, or then just been the highest bidder on the next big thing. I think because the artists on my label have always been my friends, I’m there for them anyway. I’m really bad at logistics – I don’t manage Lakutis anymore. But, I’m better at development – at having an ear for things, at having faith, at being a good judge of character and believing in my friends and putting them out there. A lot of it stems from my own insecurities – me being like “I don’t deserve this attention. But hey, my friends are pretty cool – look at them!” And now I’m in this place where I realise that I need to focus more on myself and my art, and that’s a great feeling.
In an old Das Racist song, ‘Puerto Rican Cousins’, you rap “Yes I got dumb rhymes.” Your rhymes have never been dumb in any literal sense, but, in a sense a lot of the Das Racist stuff was you guys trying to amuse each other. A lot of Das Racist’s listeners kind of had a one-dimensional approach to Das Racist, like that you guys were a novelty. And that’s cool – many people rejoiced in that. However, do you feel like since you’ve begun working as a solo artist, your rhymes are more deep, and more about yourself? You’ve said your upcoming album is going to be a “Very honest, very Heemy life narrative manifesto…”
I think I just came to a point with this last album where I finally feel I’m not hiding behind anything. I think with Das Racist, we hid behind the humour and absurdity, getting fucked up, punk shit. With with my solo stuff, it was me hiding behind “Hey look at me – I’m an Indian dude,” which isn’t that big of a fucking deal, really. So when I got to India and started making this album, I got really honest. I made songs about, like… a break-up I went through. I don’t know if the fans are going to expect shit like that, or if they’ll like it. But I got to make the music I wanted to make. I don’t want to alienate my fanbase. There’s still lots of funny stuff, and I’m definitely still talking about race, but there’s more honesty. I’m singing on a fucking house song Diplo made. I’ve always wanted to sing. I tried new things. I had to be brave. I’ve put out three things with Das Racist, two solo things. I can make music. So I went in the studio and in three days, it just poured out of me.
I can’t wait to hear it! Don’t worry, I think your fans will really embrace that honesty – your fans all seem really beautiful. They always want to share things with you. How’s that guy on your Tumblr yesterday with the lost cat that vibes on Wild Water Kingdom? That was cute. I was reading some of the conversations you had on reddit around the time Wild Water Kingdom came out actually, and there was this one from a kid who was in the same grade four class as you and he was totally stoked that you were mentioning the school plays and local grocery stores from back then, in your raps. Do you get lots of people reaching out like that? Do you have any really memorable scenario you can recall, a time that your ‘notoriety’, I guess, allowed you to connect with someone that otherwise you never would have?
I think like, I’m one of those artists that puts all of myself out there, in a very clear way. I’m not like, “Oh what will people think?” Literally everything that comes to my mind, I will tweet without a second thought. I opened the doors of my home with my Instagram, where I’m just constantly hanging out at home with my family. Musicians are so used to putting up a wall – separating their personal life from their artist life, but when you’re a rapper, you’re rapping about yourself so much – you are your art. A friend of mine was like “You kinda put yourself through shit. You treat yourself terribly. You’re not a happy person. But in the process of doing that, you make art that makes other people happy.” So that makes me happy – putting myself out there and seeing what comes back. That’s what performing is, that’s what creating is, that’s what energy is. I’m into it.
Heems on tour
Friday January 31, Dave’s Cans on the MYRE Rooftop, Fremantle, WA, on sale now via Ticketbooth.
East coast dates later in 2014.