Heems To Release Debut Solo Album This Year
The former Das Racist rapper spends a fortnight in Mumbai to begin work on his upcoming album
Let’s start from the end. It’s Friday night and New York rapper Himanshu Suri (ex-Das Racist) aka Heems and I are in the midst of surburban Mumbai traffic, at a junction where Hill Road meets Bandstand. We have just wound up our interview at Purple Haze studio and Heems is out to get some whisky to help him through the next couple of hours of music-making. “It’s not like I always need it, just today feels like it,” he says. Heems seems at ease with Mumbai’s traffic snarls. When a revving superbike brushes past him, he says, “I wonder how long until a car hits me in Bombay. I just want to say, ‘C’mon, just kill me!’”
In the city to work on his upcoming solo album, Heems is rather taken in with the sounds of Mumbai. For his upcoming album, the rapper plans to capture ambient sounds in India. “One of the things I wanted to do in Bombay was record the sound of autos and crows, and sounds of the city that make it what it is. It’s hard to translate smell to music and I might not even have time to get to record its sounds, but I’m taking them in and they are all registering,” he says, adding, “I just like the city and the energy in the air here.” When Heems worked on his solo mixtape Nehru Jackets, he turned to his neighborhood, Queens, in downstate New York, for inspiration. “I was interested in Queens’ sound — where one car has reggae, one has bhangra, another rap— and at the red light, how these sounds clash. It was all about how cities and sounds in the cities work,” he adds.
At the Mumbai studio, Heems, who is quite reticent when it comes to talking about his new album, has been doing a nightshift, working nonstop between 11pm to 4am. “I tend to live on US time in India and Indian time in the US,” he says. The erratic schedule seems to be working well for him. In barely two days, he has managed to compose and record five songs. For his first album (In 2012, he released two solo mixtapes- Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom), Heems confesses that he wanted Mumbai to be his starting point. “Well there’s this thing (in the US), that if you’re recording, you get a house upstate. If you’re from New York, you go to California; or if you’re from California, you go to NY. You just get away and record and lock yourself. So my getaway was in India. I like it here, I have a lot of friends here, so it’s a way to visit them,” he says.
Some of these friends are likely to make it to his upcoming album. Having wrapped up day-long sessions with the city’s well-known producer, Ayan De as well as Shaa’ir and Func’s Randolph Correia, Heems hopes to take this cross-cultural album to producers in the US next. With De, Heems recorded an interpretation of Alvin Lucier’s experimental piece “I Am Sitting In A Room,” where the artist uses the spoken word to showcase the natural frequencies of a room. “It’s a song from the Sixties where a guy repeats a passage and rerecords and plays it in different parts of the room until the words disappear and all you hear are the frequencies (of sound in the room). It’s kind of like how bats sound.” For Heems’ version titled “I’m Standing In A Room,” De and the rapper speeded up the loop and later added keys and drums. Says Heems, “Then I rapped about the process of ‘I’m Standing In The Room’ in the same way that the initial person (Lucier) had spoken about ‘Sitting In The Room.’”
Tonight, he is working on a song called “Gmail Wars,” a title that was sent to him by American producers, Supreme Cuts. “Usually the writing influences the song name, but occasionally the song name will influence the writing.” He isn’t sure whether the popular email service will make it as his song’s subject, but he gladly accepts its power when he says, “I’m a vocalist and one of the instruments I use is email.”
There’s a long list of collaborators that may make it to his new album. “I don’t know at this point, but the people I’m talking to about it (the album) are A-Trak, Javelin, Keyboard Kid, Harry Fraud and Blue Sky Black Death (BSBD),” he says. This month, Heems, who is scheduled to be back in the US, will record some material with Brit actor and rapper Rizwan Ahmed aka Riz MC, most famous for his role in Four Lions and now The Reluctant Fundamentalist and California-based singer Sid Sriram. Artists such as Lakutis and Le1f (both have released music on Heems’s label, Greedhead Music) as well as Danny Brown (who guests on Nehru Jackets) are also on Heems’s wishlist of collaborators. “Basically, I came here to think about beginning the album and conceptualizing it. So my process is a long one that starts in India and then will go to NY. If I have my way, I will end up recording in Jamaica,” he says. Working in multiple studios has always been easy for Heems. “Rap is different ’cause you are working with different producers and beatmakers. For my last mixtape, I worked with 10-11 different producers. Maybe at one stage, I’ll learn how to produce my own beats. After this record, I’ll take some time off to explore other media and eventually make my own sounds and rap over them.”
Last year, even before Das Racist called it quits, Heems debut his solo act at Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune. Since then, India seems to have become a regular pit stop for the rapper (He’s performed at Delhi’s Cocaine, The Goa Literature and Arts Fest and odd shows in Mumbai last month including a short set at Smash Up and a DJ slot at the Grime Riot Disco). “I like it here a lot. If I have my way, I would just come and go as I please. I don’t really come here for gigs. I like to play at other places and take the money and bring it here,” he says.
For now, he’s recorded six tracks in Mumbai, but cannot say whether all of them will make it onto the yet-to-be-titled album. Heems has a couple of names in mind though including Airplanes, Veena (not the instrument, “It’s just my mom’s name,” he says) and Mowgli . “I’m not a fan of The Jungle Book, more the opposite. Anything a white dude writes about brown people in the jungle, gets me a little antsy,” he says.
He’s hoping to record another set of songs in the US to wrap up recording his 12-song album by this month and release it by September this year. “One of them (songs) is about rich kids on drugs, everyone here (in Mumbai) is on drugs and it’s terrifying. Some of them are about girls and one is about being a sweaty Hindu man with chest hair and gold chains in Bombay. I don’t have a gold chain on right now but the rest of it is pretty straight forward,” he adds. He continues in a self-deprecatory tone. “I just don’t know what the fuck people are doing listening to my music. Why do they like it? It’s a very specific, weird thing that is my brain. But then it’s almost like why do your friends like you? I like my friends and fans, but frankly, I don’t understand what they are doing bothering with me. I think they are better than that. They deserve better.”
This article appeared in the June 2013 edition of Rolling Stone India.