Talking to Heems about Eat Pray Thug, spiritual tourism, and skipping his SXSW panel

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After a few years of working with and talking to music writers, you get a certain idea of what it’s like to interview Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, formerly of the novelty-turned-too-real-for-their-own-good rap group Das Racist. He’s checked out, or belligerent, or both. Or maybe he just falls asleep in the middle of the interview.

Still, I genuinely wanted to talk to him, if only because I feel like my listener / observer relationship goes back with him a sneaky long way; to be honest, I've been rooting for him. I remember years ago clicking on a YouTube link sent to me by my then-boyfriend (an acquaintance of Heems’) that led to something called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” when it still had under 1,000 views, then meeting him and Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez briefly in a Bushwick studio space in 2009. These were by no means particularly memorable encounters, but a lot had changed in the last five years — Das Racist blew up and broke up, and Heems struggled not-so-privately with addiction and depression while trying to move on with his solo work. His first proper full-length, Eat Pray Thug — a thorny, frequently inspired and infuriating work that is at once a breakup record and a 9/11 concept album — seemed to be in permanent purgatory.

But now we’re here, it’s 2015, Eat Pray Thug has been out for a little over a week, and it’s a warm, balmy day in Austin. Himanshu Suri comes down to meet me in the lobby of the Omni hotel, sweaty but bright-eyed, dressed in light pink linen; his publicist hands us both mineral waters. So far, so functional.

We chat about the logistical difficulties of South By, the awkwardness of the pedicab situation (“I feel so bad. [But] imagine being in India and taking a rickshaw,”) and his role in Ben Dickinson’s Creative Control, which premiered here last week. (“Eddie Huang was supposed to play my role, but he didn't want to get up at 6 in the morning.”) Heems also appears in another SXSW premiere, Hot Sugar’s Cold World, Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary about the titular producer. Our conversation was frequently interrupted by passersby and well-wishers, each greeted with more genuine jubilance by Heems than the last. In short, Heems has been making the rounds, hitting his marks, and more importantly, appearing to enjoy himself — a far cry from the picture painted of him a year ago.

Well, almost all his marks.

Emily Yoshida: How did your panel go?

Heems: [whispers] I missed my panel.

You missed it? There were a couple, right?

No, only one panel, on Indian hip-hop. [Pauses, smiles] Not a real thing. Hip-hop is beginning to happen in India in some ways, but a lot of Indian [Americans], because of the way our immigration worked, are upper middle-class kids. So it's fine to rap, but I like to acknowledge the fact that I'm guilty of appropriating an art form that's not from my culture. And I feel bad about doing it, but if I'm going to do it, I just want to acknowledge that rap is a black art form, and I'm not black. So I have conflicted feelings about it; that's why I might change mediums soon. But at the same time, it's a working-class art form, and that's why it speaks to the types of things I want to talk about.

So you don't subscribe to this idea that hip-hop belongs to everyone now, that you can kind of bend or apply different styles onto that form, based on your culture or background?

Like I can have my angle of rap and make it not just appropriating black culture, but kind of Indian?

Yeah.

But it's still a black art form. Even if I'm sampling Indian music. What was cool to me was when a lot of rappers started sampling Indian stuff, like, Just Blaze last night played the Eric Sermon song with an Indian set, Truth Hurts, the Dr. Dre artist. It's funny, like one of my friends was talking about when we were growing up, a kid was like, "You're Indian, what do you know about rap?" And then like, two weeks later, all these rap songs with Indian samples started dropping. Or even if you look at Rakim with the Arabic shit.

There is this back and forth culturally, but I just want to be open, cognizant, and up front about the fact that most Indians are middle class. Because America only brought like PhD's and Master's here between '65 and '75, then they let [them] bring their wives and cousins and kids. I don't think enough Indian people acknowledge that we wouldn't have even been allowed in this country if it wasn't for the civil rights movement and if it wasn't for the work of black activists. So if I'm going to fucking steal the art form, I should be honest and appreciative of it.

Is that why you didn't go to the panel?

No, that wasn't why. I felt like it was partially to promote this website ... I don't want to talk about that.

Okay. So the new album is a lot less drenched in irony than some of your stuff with Das Racist. Was that refreshing to get into?

It was refreshing because it was honest. Like, I wasn't always that guy... Das Racist became this kind of zeitgeist-y Brooklyn thing around that time, when Brooklyn bands were like a buzzy thing, and so we fell into that as the token rappers. Irony wasn't always my lens. My lens was humor, and I'd use that as a coping mechanism my whole life. But not just for race — being a chubby or fat guy, you have to be funny. But yeah, it was refreshing because I got to talk about India, and I didn't want to do that too much on the other projects. By the time we got to Relax, I was using Indian samples, and I was talking about my mom working at Pathmark and my dad driving a cab and stuff. It was a collaboration, so I couldn't focus on those things, but now with this record I get to focus on it.

You mean you felt like you couldn't focus on it because you had to share time with other people, or was it just like an overall project vibe?

I mean, you're collaborating with someone; it's a push and pull. Like Victor has his own relationship with identity, and I have my own, so it's collaborative.

You mentioned earlier that you were maybe going to switch formats, switch projects?

Mediums. Yeah. I really want to write a novel soon. I've been talking to some publishing houses and lit agents and some writers. Salman Rushdie has been really helpful to me and encouraging me, I shoot him my ideas. And Teju Cole has been very helpful to me, so to have guys like that in your corner, it helps.

What will your novel be about?

I'm writing about Queens; it's hard to explain. Queens and addiction and 9/11. Almost like Taxi Driver if it was not a white guy, and it was New York after 9/11 as opposed to the '70s.

You have — and you talk about it on the album — you have a particularly harrowing memory of 9/11.

That's an interesting word choice.

Why is that an interesting word choice?

I don't want to talk about it. But yeah, I do, I've blocked a lot of it, so then when you make art you let it out again. But then you have to talk about it in interviews and that's the craziest part. It's like, "I went through this thing, it was traumatic, I rapped about it, that was freeing. Then I had to talk about it over and over again."

Are there any particular things — I guess this is a very meta question for an interview — but questions or topics you get sick of answering in interviews, especially now that you want to switch directions?

I mean, no. I try to be as open as I can. I don't like talking about the drug stuff, I don't like being some poster boy for addiction, but I think in communities of color it's important to talk about mental health and substance abuse because we tend to brush these things under the rug. If you're a white addict, you get help, but if you're a working-class or black or Latino or Indian addict then you just hide that shit or you don't talk about it. In no way do I want to be the poster boy for that shit, but I feel fortunate that I've got a platform where I could talk about it. Because a lot of Asian, a lot of Latino, a lot of black people — in our cultures, the idea is "don't talk about your uncle with depression or your aunt with alcoholism." We don't talk about that auntie, you know?

"I don't want to be the poster boy for addiction, but I feel fortunate that I've got a platform where I can talk about it."

There's this idea that you're already at a disadvantage in some ways being a minority, so you have to just maintain this aura of having it together.

Right, well, basically it is this other idea of what do you want white people to know? What can we tell them about our community, what can we share with them, how do we come off, and how much can we expose them to how we really are? And so, especially when you're making art, you're conscious of that.

I've been doing these photoshoots in my house, and I have a temple in my home where I meditate and I pray. And every white photographer's been like, "Can we shoot here?" And I'm like "No." It's enough that my life is my career, but I won't pander or feed you my culture, I'm not performing being Indian. In some ways I am, but I don't want to.

And those things that are specific to your culture, you integrate them into your life in your own way. It's not just "Oh, that's an Indian thing" or "Oh, that's an Asian thing."

I mean, yeah, I'm not just Indian. A lot of the whole idea of Eat, Pray, Thug is that I'm American, it's a hyphenated identity, right?

I'm supposed to sit down for fucking lunch with Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love.

Are you kidding me?

Yeah, I'm being set up to meet her in like a month for lunch. Now I want to record the conversation. But my whole thing with the title is that I'm poking fun at myself. I'm saying that I'm just as guilty of that type of "I'm going to go to India and clear my head [thing.]" I call it spiritual tourism, that's what it is... And I'm American, I'm very American, so I'm not just trying to put on and be only Indian. And more than America, I identify as a New Yorker.

"I'm just as guilty of that 'I'm going to go to India to clear my head' thing."

When was the first time you got to go back?

I went when I was five for my uncle's wedding. I went when I was 12 for like the first real time, and I already had this sense of nationalism and pride, but then I got there and I was like, "This is dirty!" But my family is just kind to me, and even if they can't afford something, they go out of their way to take care of you. But then when I went in 2005, I went with my sister and my cousin who was into visual art at the time — [looks at his phone, laughs] Ajay Naidu from Office Space just hit me up. There's like eight Indian people that do anything, so we all know each other.

What was the last thing we were talking about? Hyphenated identity?

Hyphenated identity, and going back to where you're from, almost as a tourist at first, and then building a relationship with it.

So then in 2005, I studied in London at a school called SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, so I was really into Indian history and religion and art history at that time. Then I went to India with my sister and my cousin, and it was the first time I went as an adult. It wasn't just family stuff, and it was post '91 when the Indian economy was liberalized and much more Western, so we went to clubs and dinners. And then I really started loving it.

So the past three years I've been there several times. And yeah, I guess partially to build an audience, but also because I just love it there. I have terrible anxiety, and when I go there for some reason ... it's still strange for me, I'm still a foreigner, people talk shit about me on the train, and I'm like, "Hey, I speak Hindi, I know what you're saying!" I have these really funny cultural moments there, but still, I've been thinking about moving there next year.

Was the time you spent in India your inspiration for the album? Or was going there just something you needed to do to complete it?

I would say, if a label gives you a budget, you should go and travel and record. It's nice to get away from where you are. Kanye goes to Hawaii or whatever, or the Beastie Boys went to LA for Paul's Boutique. And so I was talking about the idea of artists and exile, that being away from New York allows you to write about it in a very interesting way. But like I said, the biggest thing about recording in India was that I didn't need to think or talk about being Indian, so I could focus on the things that have actually affected me. Like, it wasn't about me being an Indian guy that went through a breakup. And I know the 9/11 stuff was about my [racial] identity, but I got to just write and make music about me, as a person, and that was really freeing. Because it was like the sixth album I've made, and I finally got to show people who I am.

Are you happy with the response you've gotten from it so far?

I try not to worry too much about it. The album's gotten a great response, and I'm really happy and proud of it. Yeah, that's it. Live shows are different, I have a very divisive performance style, so that's just something I'm dealing with now.

What was your last performance here?

I performed last night with Action Bronson and Curren$y. It was a very hip-hop crowd, and even though I'm a rapper, I think [there were] mixed feelings in the crowd.

Is there anything in particular about SXSW crowds that you have to be aware of or manage?

No, nothing different. A crowd is a crowd. Look, I can be booked with indie acts, I can be booked with rap acts, I can be booked with electronic acts. I'm not going to please everybody, and I'm beginning to be fine with that.

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