Q&A: Heems On His Self-Imposed Exile In India, Greedhead’s Comedy Aspirations, And His Upcoming Solo Album
The music world hasn’t heard much from Himanshu Suri since late 2012, when the release of Wild Water Kingdom, his second solo mixtape of the year, was followed quickly by the announcement that his pioneering rap group Das Racist had broken up. Suri is about to break that silence. In recent months, the man best known as Heems departed his native New York to bounce around Asia — playing shows, making an album, discovering emerging music communities, visiting relatives, and plotting a number of new ventures that seem likely to return him to the center of musical conversation this year.
Foremost among Suri’s many 2014 projects are a pair of firsts. He plans to release his first official solo album, tentatively titled Eat Pray Thug, this summer; he calls it the most personal work he’s ever recorded. And this week Suri’s record label, Greedhead Music, will release comedian Joe Mande’s mixtape Bitchface. It’s the label’s first explicitly comedic release, although given Das Racist’s long history of using humor as a vehicle for social commentary, it’s hardly the first Greedhead release that will make you laugh out loud. Rather, by importing Mande’s standup into hip-hop’s favored format, Bitchface cements Greedhead’s position at music and comedy’s fertile intersection.
Suri Skyped from New Delhi last week to discuss his many musical ventures, his excitement about Greedhead’s foray into comedy, his experience in Asia, and the depression and anxiety that followed him from his hometown to his homeland.
STEREOGUM: What’s going on?
HEEMS: Just been visiting family and stuff in New Delhi.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been in India for how long now?
HEEMS: I was in India in December, in Goa and Bombay. Then I went home for a while, and then I had a tour where I went from Shanghai to Manilla to Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur to Katmandu to Hanoi to Bangkok to Perth, Australia to Tokyo and Osaka — and then I got to India about a week and a half ago or so.
STEREOGUM: Wow, I didn’t realize you’d been to all those other places first.
HEEMS: Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed touring Asia and seeing how the scene is developing out here. It’s been interesting, I’ve enjoyed meeting the people that are involved in putting on events, promoters and stuff who are trying to develop some interesting culture in these areas. Obviously they’re emerging economies — but culturally, I think, they’re also emerging in a way. It’s been fun to meet people like that, who are interested in putting on events. It’s not really about money, but at the same time it’s about culture, and that’s really the intersection of business and art and promotion. Marketing is one of my interests — I’ve been thinking about helping set up an agency so other bands can tour Asia more. I kinda get bored with the same American/European cities after a while.
STEREOGUM: Are you thinking of taking anything the other way? Maybe helping anyone you’ve met over there to tour Europe and America?
HEEMS: I haven’t really thought much about that, actually. I’ve definitely been meeting DJs and musicians — but I feel like a lot of what they do is to look at the West to get inspiration. So I don’t know if it would really have a place culturally in the States as much. But if I meet or encounter anyone like that I definitely would be interested in helping them get some traction out in the States.
STEREOGUM: You’re releasing Joe Mande’s comedy mixtape on Greedhead. How did he first come to your attention?
HEEMS: I guess through Dap’s [Dapwell] brother Hari Kondabolu, and just kind of UCB and New York. I think the intersection of comedy and music has existed for a while. You go to these festivals and there’s comedians and they have a stage and a lot of comics. So it’s been something that’s going on for a while now — even look at you guys and Videogum, which was a great place for comics. [Mande was a Videogum columnist and occasional guest blogger. -Ed] Das Racist being a more humorous kind of band, you know, that intersection of comedy and music has always been something that I’m interested in. I think maybe less towards the end of Das Racist. When it got kind of labelled as joke rap, I think there was a tendency to maybe move away from comedy. But yeah, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, obviously. So I figured Greedhead would be a good place for Joe’s mixtape. The fact that it’s a mixtape and not an album fits in with what I do in releasing free music — and not making money.
STEREOGUM: When’s the tape coming out?
HEEMS: March 7th. Then he’s got a tour planned for the end of March. He’ll be opening some dates after that for Aziz Ansari, who he’s toured with previously.
STEREOGUM: What appeals to you about Joe’s comedy?
HEEMS: First off, he’s kind of got his finger on the pulse when we speak of pop culture, and he’s got good music taste — he’s into rap music. I’ve always enjoyed his Twitter. I just kind of — I get along with him, and that’s been kind of my method of choosing the people I work with on Greedhead. It’s just mine and the people I respect, first and foremost, and then people who do interesting things. When we premiered “Michael Jackson,” the video, we did it at his event in New York. Him and his friend had a comedy show at UCB, and that was the first time we heard the video, so we kind of go back. His tape is also just really funny. His standup has been really funny to me always. He has some really great people dropping in and doing drops. I think it’s a fun play on the mixtape idea. Like I said, that place with humor and rap interested me, and I felt like Greedhead would be a good place for him.
STEREOGUM: Is a comedy mixtape kind of a new idea?
HEEMS: This is pretty much the first, as far as I know. Comics often do put out their stand-up as albums, but I think this is a pretty original way to do it, and a way that’s pretty culturally relevant as more and more people listen to rap and mixtapes. Hopefully things move in that direction musically and culturally. Even Dap’s brother Hari has an album coming out on Kill Rock Stars — I think it’s on Kill Rock Stars, I don’t know. It’s not the first time a music label has picked up a comic, I guess maybe it’s something that’s happening more. But it’s definitely the first comedy mixtape, and that’s not something lost on Joe as you listen to it.
STEREOGUM: Why do you say that? Are there certain things about the way it’s structured that differentiate it from an album? Music-wise, at this point, it’s hard to tell the difference between a mixtape and an album.
HEEMS: Yeah, I mean it’s just a lot of people doing drops and stuff like that. A lot of big names from film and sports and from music just kind of dropping in and doing little mixtape drops. It’s been constructed — I think it might have been broken up into tracks — but the way it’s constructed is almost like a DJ mix, but of comedy and drops and sound effects and stuff like that. I’m always thinking of how to do more innovative things with Greedhead, and this is our first foray into comedy. Hopefully it won’t be our last. But I think the format that he’s done it in really fits with what I’m trying to do. I’m pretty excited about this release. We just put out Issue and Lakutis, so this will be the next release. I’ve also got two other releases planned. First one is Prada Mane, he’s a young kid out of RISD who does some work with Pain Da Thug and Yung Lean. The other is Sweatshop Boys, which is a small EP that I made with my friend Riz Ahmed who is an actor and a rapper from London of Pakistani descent.
STEREOGUM: Is the Sweatshop Boys project a one-off, or do you think that you’ll keep working with Riz?
HEEMS: I think we’re gonna put it out and see what kind of response we get, but I think we’re both into the idea of doing some more work when our schedules permit. He’s pretty busy with acting, and I’m pretty busy with my self-imposed exile. Hopefully it’ll work out. 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. Historically this is two countries and two groups of people who have never gotten along. It was just a cool idea for us to come together. My being Punjabi, my parents and my family were products of partition. Our grandparents had to leave Pakistan, leave everything behind and move to India when we gained independence in 1947. I’ve always had a place for Pakistan in my heart, so it’s cool to work with someone like him that’s extremely intelligent and motivated by some of same interests and inspired by some of the same things — like Koli, Urdu and Hindi language, Sufi poetry and stuff like that, and rap.
STEREOGUM: So all those elements are on the project?
HEEMS: As much as we could fit. Right now it’s three songs — we made five, but we had some issues with the producer so we brought it down to three. The first single is called “Benny Lava.” It’s produced by Ryan Hemsworth, and I have a video that’ll be dropping in about a week or so.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned your self-imposed exile. Obviously you’ve been all over the place lately. Did you feel the need to get away from New York for a while, or just the West in general?
HEEMS: I made my album in December in Bombay. It’s about 11 songs. I’m going through producer contracts and trying to clear each track with the producers in regard to royalties and publishing. I just kind of have time between now and when the album drops. When it drops I hope to come back to the States and do a proper tour and some press and stuff. But yeah, I kinda just got burned-out on New York. I’ve lived there my whole life. I’m born and raised there. It’s a pretty depressing idea to me that I’ve gotten sick of a place that I’ve been so proud of being from. But I’ll always end up back in New York. That’s where my family is that’s where my sister and my niece and my mom are. It’ll always be home — it’s just that right now it hasn’t been working for me. I was going through a lot of issues with depression and anxiety, so I needed to get away. But it’s something that I’ll have to work on here or there either way. I’m not really running away. I realize that no matter where I go I’ll still be with myself. But it’s been nice to come out here and speak my native tongue and just like be in a place where I’m much less anxious, and where I don’t really have to battle with depression every day.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re saying that stuff hasn’t been nagging or haunting you as much in India, but do you feel like depression and anxiety factored into the record you made?
HEEMS: Yeah, definitely. It’s probably the most honest work I’ve ever made. I feel like maybe with Das Racist I kind of hid behind humor. My solo mixtapes, I kind of hid behind my Indian identity and my New York identity. With this project, there’s some humor there and definitely racial commentary, but also break-up songs and songs about some of the things that I’ve struggled with, life, anxiety, and depression, and other things.
STEREOGUM: Does that project have a name?
HEEMS: I think the working title’s been Eat Pray Thug.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a loose time frame for when you want it to come out?
HEEMS: I’m hoping we can wrap up these contracts in the next month and by about mid-July or by June it’ll be out.
STEREOGUM: Is that pretty exhaustive as far as what you’re up to?
HEEMS: No, I’m working on some other things. I’ll be writing about my travels, and I’m actually trying to track down an Indian rapper to write a piece about him for a publication here. On a daily basis I’m pretty inspired here because I’m away from a lot of distractions and vices that I have in New York. I’ll probably begin working on a novel while I’m out here. I think I’ll be doing more in the arenas of visual art and writing until my record comes out and I tour for that.
STEREOGUM: So working across a lot of different mediums.
HEEMS: Yeah, but I’m probably more excited about my album than I have been about any other project. After the band broke up and after taking off kind of a year from really creating, I just had this surge of inspiration and creativity while in Bombay working on this record. So I’m pretty excited. I’ve been playing a lot of the songs while on the road in Asia, just kind of feeling them out before I bring them back to the States and Europe. So I’m definitely pretty psyched on music, I’m pretty psyched on the label, and I’m also pretty excited about writing and venturing into other media.
STEREOGUM: So it seems fair to say that we’re going to be hearing a lot about you in the next year.
HEEMS: Yeah, I don’t know man. Shit, I just hope it’s good stuff you hear — but I don’t know if people still give a shit about me or anything I do. I feel like there’s probably about ten people on twitter who care, so that’s been nice.
STEREOGUM: I think people will be pretty excited to hear this album.
HEEMS: Yeah, I just want to get it out already. Just playing this waiting game is a little frustrating but it’s part of putting out a proper album instead of a mixtape, so I’ve got to deal with it.
STEREOGUM: Fair enough.
HEEMS: I wanted also to say: white people, you don’t gotta dress terribly when you come to India, wearing yoga pants with ohms on ‘em just because you’re in India. And also I’m most excited about my “white people in India” tumblr I’m gonna start tomorrow.
STEREOGUM: I’ll be sure to look out for that.
HEEMS: I don’t know, I actually don’t have really a phone or a computer. I bought a tablet a week ago so that’s been nice, but I went through a weird breakdown and decided to get rid of my phone and my money and my credit cards and my computer and stuff. Maybe I’ll get a camera or something and start that blog.
STEREOGUM: Did that come from a feeling of being too connected to technology?
HEEMS: It was kind of like a shedding of material possessions for a rebirth type of a thing.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like it worked?
HEEMS: Yeah, for like two weeks. Then I just got sad again. Besides that, I’ve just been growing my beard out in India.
STEREOGUM: Cool man, well I like the beard. I think the beard is working for you.
HEEMS: Yeah, I’m excited to continue in this process. It’s a lot of work, but I just thank God. I gotta give it my 110%, I got a great coach — when I go out there I give it all I’ve got on that basketball court.