Heems on Recording in India, Not Loving 2Pac and Moving Beyond Das Racist
The Queens rapper reluctantly discusses the politics and soul-searching behind his new ‘Eat Pray Thug’
Eat Pray Thug, Himanshu Suri’s first major release since his satirical art-rap trio Das Racist disbanded in 2012, is travelogue, break-up diary and political rant. He unspools a catalog of neuroses and braggadocio on “Sometimes” (“Sometimes I got game, sometimes I’m mad shy”), harmonizes about lost sweaters on “Home” and ends the record, which he recorded in India, with a devastating account of the War on Terror. “Product of partition/dripped in Prada for the stitching/proud of superstitions,” he says in a verse that’s both analytical and autobiographical. “We rushed to buy flags for our doors, bright American flags that read I am not Osama.”
Released on Tuesday via Megaforce Records and his own Greedhead Music, Eat Pray Thug adds an exclamation point to the New York native’s recent creative endeavors, which include everything from a group exhibition for Indian and Pakistani visual artists to an appearance in Benjamin Dickinson’s forthcoming indie comedy Creative Control. During our interview, Heems seems more eager to talk about those projects than Eat Pray Thug’s hot-button raps. “I think my thoughts, experiences and what moved me to speak on all of these things are pretty clearly stated in my music,” he says. “Check it out.”
Where did you work in India?
There was this studio in Bandra, Mumbai, called Purple Haze Studios. Most of the music industry in India is Bollywood. So there’s this team of three musicians – a lyricist, a singer and a musician-composer – called Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. They’re one of the three biggest Bollywood houses there is. I worked out of a room in that studio. In one room, I was working on my rap, and in the larger room they had major actors, directors and musicians coming by. It was a cool environment to work in. A lot of times, artists will take label money and go somewhere else to record, whether it’s a house in upstate New York, in London like Mary J. Blige, or Kanye recording all over the world. I felt like it would be cool to record an album in India. Since I had a budget from the label, I was able to do that.
The tone of Eat Pray Thug is very serious. You’ve done political tracks in the past, like “NYC Cops” from Nehru Jackets, but there wasn’t as much satire this time around.
I guess I’m getting older. As an artist you develop, and as a human being you develop. It’d be more problematic if I were almost 30 and making the same music that I was making when I was 22 or 23. I feel like I’ve done that already, so why would I keep on doing that? It doesn’t make any sense. I thought it was about time that I be more honest and not use humor as a defense mechanism and not hide behind it.
It wasn’t a conscious effort, but it was a reflection of where I was. [When I started Das Racist] I was coming out of college, I was younger and I was in my early twenties, living in Brooklyn and hanging out with a lot of people in bands and making music as part of this creative community. Now, I’m making music alone, and I’m older. I’ve had more time to reflect on myself after the band had broken up. I’ve had more time to sit down and think, because I wasn’t always traveling and performing. So I think it’s just a natural progression. I think it’s pretty normal.
There’s a line on “So NY” from Eat Pray Thug where you say, “I’m so N.Y. I don’t listen to 2Pac.”
I feel like I might have bought 2Pac’s Greatest Hits when I was younger, but I never got into him or was too crazy about his music. I couldn’t identify with it that much. There were songs of his that I thought were dope, but as a New Yorker, when he came at Mobb Deep and Biggie, those were two of my favorite acts ever. I couldn’t really get over that.
It was a good battle. It was a good beef. There were good records coming out on both sides. But yeah, I think people were pissed off. And then the music video [for “New York New York”] where [Tha Dogg Pound] is knocking down the buildings – it was comedic, but that beef was very real. Obviously I love the West Coast and I love a lot of Bay Area rap, but I guess I was never able to get over that. It’s not a big deal; I don’t have anything against 2Pac. I don’t think it’s really worth talking about.
You dropped two mixtapes in 2012, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom, and then it seems you’ve been silent until now.
I performed with a twenty-member jazz orchestra and Vijay Iyer. I did Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show in Punjab, and I composed a song and rapped on it (“Tony in Punjab”). I did a remix to Vampire Weekend’s song, “Step (Wintertime Remix)” with Despot and Danny Brown. I lectured at Princeton, Stanford, Reed and Williams colleges. I toured a little bit with this 73-year-old composer, Charanjit Singh, who basically invented acid house music. I did a solo tour where I rapped in Nepal, the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangkok, Thailand, Japan, China, Hong Kong and India. I worked on this album and dealt with getting it cleared, you know, doing all the producer contracts. Even though I was an artist signed to Megaforce, I did all the A&R work, ’cause they don’t really have a rap person there. So I was doing all the label work as well as being the artist who made the album. I’ve just been working on getting this record out. I also did Swet Shop Boys (with Riz MC), which is a side project I did last year. And I took a year to decompress after Das Racist broke up. I think I owed myself that much.
Do you still talk to Kool A.D. and Dapwell? Are there plans to reunite Das Racist someday?
That’s not a plan. But we still talk. I talked to Dap last week, and I talked to Victor [A.D.] two weeks ago. I think he and I both wanted to do different things, and we’re both in better places now, making the kind of music we want to make.
It’s been over 10 years since 9/11, but you talk about the event and its aftereffects vividly on “Patriot Act.” What inspired you to talk about 9/11 now?
No one asks the makers of American Sniper that same question. It was 10 years ago, but we live in a world affected by it every day.