Who’s that? Brooown! Heems on Rap, Writing a Novel and his India Sojourn

I first heard Das Racist back in 2011, when I was an obsessive seventeen year old Pitchfork reader. Getting down with their discography was a pretty easy task, it being limited to a couple of mixtapes and only one commercial album. Despite that, their universe of hyper dense, hyper literate references, coupled with an ability to balance that with the most OTT front of all time (like their Nardwuar interview, which is almost performance art) made them one of the most elusive and intriguing groups of our decade. I recently got a chance to sit down with the now defunct group’s co-founder Himanshu Suri aka Heems and talk about life after Das Racist, his recent creative endeavours and life in India.

But first, some context. Hailing from Queens, the rap trio – Heems, Kool A.D. and DAP, ie Ashok Kondabolu – shared the same dorm at Wesleyan. In between attending house parties and getting high, they managed to hash out the single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, and became instantly buzzworthy. The song’s constant refrain of “I’m at the Pizza Hut/I’m at the Taco Bell/I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” had folks wondering whether it was a nonsense ditty about stoners looking for each other at a food hoint, or whether it delved into a more intricate commentary on the sociocultural climate of capitalism. Others weren’t sure it actually warranted analysis at all. HERE is a sociological analysis if their effect on race relations in the United States.

DR continued their shtick of balancing their sincere commentary with a highly ironic and outrageous sense of humour. They do it best on “Hahaha jk?” from the mixtape Sit Down Man, which starts with “we’re not joking/just joking/we’re joking/just joking/we’re not joking”. They were constantly screwing with their listeners’ heads and this attitude also percolated into real life, most notoriously with their interview with MTV – The Check in where they refused to acknowledge the interviewers at all.

This ability to both be “hip hop for folks who don’t listen to hip hop” and incredibly well versed with matters on race, made them a wet dream for all pop culture enthusiasts everywhere.

This continued with the one and only LP Relax but a certain disparity between Heems and KOOL AD, was more manifest here – Heems wanting to include more prog rock and Indian influences, while KOOL AD wanted to keep it more straight up hip hop. This, coupled with a certain dissatisfaction and boredom that manifested in the work, led to Das Racist imploding on 2012, when Heems announced the end post a gig in Munich.

Post the death of DR, Heems has been continued performing and recording as a solo artist, while expanding into other creative fields. He’s got a book in the works (“Writing a novel aint no easy task.”) along with a musical collaboration with London based actor/rapper Riz MC (“My being a New Yorker of Indian descent and his being a Londoner of Pakistani descent kind of just connects the dots in a certain way.”) A symbolic link, considering India and Pakistan’s legendary rivalry. On their one and only EP Swet Shop – released via the now defunct Greedhead label – standout tracks include singles Benny Lava (Ryan Hemsworth produced, sampling the viral hit Kalluri Vaanil); and Batalvi, based on Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s iconic interview. The sample of Batalvi saying “life is a slow suicide” serves as a constant reminder to Heems and Riz as they spit verses about their shared brotherhood over a booming beat.

There are also talks between him and Fox over buying the rights to his story, with actor Utkarsh Ambudkar playing the role of Himanhsu (“I think he’s a smart young dude doing cool stuff”). Being on television is not a new thing for Heems though, he was also in the Amrit Singh directed Dosa Hunt, where a bunch of South Asian artists (Heems, Anand Wilder, Vijay Iyer, Hari Kondabolu) and their non-white friends (Rostam Batmanglij, Alan Palomo) went on “the greatest hunt for South Indian food in NYC”.

Coming back to the homeland hasn’t been that good for him either, with him saying that “rap music just doesn’t translate in India”. Heems ended up recording his last solo full length Eat Pray Thug in Mumbai’s iconic Mehboob studios, and skipped all over Bombay, Goa, Jaipur, Nepal and Delhi during his stay here. Between all this, he also managed to squeeze in time to be a panellist/post session performer at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival for the fourth year running now, performed with the legendary Charanjit Singh, attended marriages, and swatted away mosquitoes in Goa . He managed to scour out the Indian scene as well, favourites including “Ranjit and the Ambassadors, Sandunes (whom I booked in New York twice), Reggae Rajahs, Randolph Correa, the Burning Deck, Joe and Anina in Goa and a bunch of other people I’ve had the honor of kicking it with.”

Heems has consistently been poltically active as well – supporting Reshma Saujani (in 2013) and Ali Najmi for a seat in the Queens neighbourhood, even going as far as going to voters’ homes with Najmi.

Mental health has always been a signifying factor in all of his work. Starting right back from Das Racist (“this is panic attack rap/eating four flapjacks”), to him talking about his paranoia post the 9/11 attacks on Eat Pray Thug, Heems is one of the few folks in our times who are consistently open about their issues. Given South Asians’ unwillingness to talk about their mental health issues, Heems’ advocacy and personal testimony make him one of the most important South Asian artists in global popular music.

 

 

Written by Saaniya Ambreen