Heems, Back from Exile, Talks Label Strife and Pre-9/11 Nostalgia

Heems
The rapper Heems, pictured in the "Damn, Girl" video. Heems/YouTube

In the few months since his debut album, Eat Pray Thug, appeared in March, the rapper Heems (Himanshu Suri) has:

  • Toured the northeast;
  • Danced around an art gallery for a music video;
  • Begun work on a novel he describes as "if Taxi Driver was made after 9/11";
  • Shopped around literary agencies for said novel;
  • Attended the South by Southwest premiere of his film debut Creative Control;
  • Declared that he won't make another album after Eat Pray Thug;
  • Declared that he will make another album, but not on his current label;
  • Spent a month living in London;
  • And recorded two EPs, one solo and one with his duo Sweatshop Boys.

The former Das Racist member returned to Brooklyn this month for a set at the Northside Festival, which took over Williamsburg for a weekend in June. Then he returned to Long Island, where he lives with his parents and extended family. Heems opened up about his post-9/11 novel-in-progress, record label woes and the past and present of his unusual music career. 

You came back to Williamsburg to do a show at Northside Festival, but you’ve moved out of Brooklyn. Do you miss it?

Yeah, I don’t live there anymore. I still have friends who live there, so I’m definitely there a lot. At the time I was living there it was kind of a bubble. We had a scene and the bands that all of our friends were in. This was around 2005–2010. Around that time it was definitely fun living there. But the neighborhood has definitely changed.

On your album, you say you “had to leave Williamsburg because of all the white drama.” That’s what you’re referring to?

I guess it’s referring to gentrification. But also, living in that bubble. It was more about coming back to what I know to be real, which is the Indian community, be it in Queens or be it in Long Island or Brooklyn. It was more about returning to the New York that I knew growing up versus the New York that I knew after college. And, in some ways as an adult, having this nostalgic sense of looking back to how I knew New York growing up, before gentrification or even before 9/11. Trying to get back to that kind of childlike happiness.

Your album obviously goes back to your roots and talks about 9/11 and your high school years. 

I think it was a conscious effort. I wanted to return to family, explore who I was as a way to explore who I am—and explore who I was and who I am as a means to explore how I should move forward. It was definitely a therapy process for me, to go from making songs about the state of politics and capitalism to how those things affect me on a personal level. To go from commentary on racism as a whole to how racism has played out in my personal life. To take it from these big talking points and then boil it down to personal experience and then still have it be very much about me and not just one thing. Not just an album about 9/11, not just an album about a breakup. I wanted to squeeze in as much as I could—of genres, of stories, of myself and different parts of me.

Have you been happy with how the album has been received?

The last month I’ve been in London. I lost track a little bit. We live in an age where things are consumed so quickly. Just the fact that I get to still talk about it two months later is impressive to me. I just hope I can continue to make work and be paid for it.

You’ve had some drama with your record label. Has that been resolved?

I’m now free to sign where I want.

You’re no longer signed to Megaforce?

No.

Is that a recent development?

I probably have to have my lawyer look at it. It was a mutual option or something. We both had to agree, and I definitely don’t agree. So unless they want to offer me a deal that makes sense this time around, I probably would just use my tour money to make another album.

Were they unhappy with the album?

Nah. They just didn’t want to spend any money on it. They didn’t want to pay any of the producers who worked with me, any of the artists who worked with me. They just wanted to get everything done for free. I basically A&R’d my own record, got my own beats, and then when they wouldn’t pay the first producer, I found a friend that would do it for free. I’ve constantly burned these bridges with my own friends to put out this album on their label.

You’ve hinted that they wanted you to take off some of the more political songs.

There was definitely a conversation about how some of these songs were too dark or not necessarily politically relevant anymore. They still are trying to market the album as if it’s not a rap album. As if it’s, like, an indie-rock album. I’ve tried to explain to them that we should do a video for “Flag Shopping” or one of the more rappy songs that’s not cartoon-y. I tried to work with them by putting out “Sometimes” first, which had a playful feel and a Das Racist kind of aesthetic to it, and putting Hannibal [Buress] and Eric [Andre] in the video. Even getting “Damn, Girl” approved was a lot of work. I wanted to make “Damn, Girl”—I wanted to sing, I wanted to show that I could dance. And getting approval to just dance was difficult. They were like, “Well, it sounds a little silly, just you dancing around for a song.” I was like, “Nah, it’s me dancing around the art I made in the space I made in the clothes I made.” It’s about who gets to decide what is art, and Internet art-versus-galleries. I tried to explain to them how things work with the Internet and rap and music and art, and they just were not really getting it. You know? Which has been kind of the theme.

Your album stretches more into singing territory. One of the tracks is literally titled "Pop Song." Is that something you want to do more of?

Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if I put out an EP of just bad singing songs. But they might be good, too, you know? When I was in London I made two EPs. I made one with Sweatshop Boys, and I made one solo. I’m going to drop a single that I made with the Last Skeptik, who’s this producer from London. The single’s called "Coconut Oil" and I’m gonna put it out for free in the next week or two. 

You’ve also said that this will be your last album.

I don’t know. I have a Sweatshop Boys EP coming out. The second one. It’s a side project I have. That’s with Riz Ahmed, who’s a rapper and actor out of London, who was in Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal. Riz is working on his parts now while shooting films.

So I have a project coming out in the next few months already. Even if I don’t want to make music, I keep on ending up making it, so it doesn’t even matter. 

But you’re not sure about doing another solo album?

I’m not out there pursuing a label deal right now. I’m focusing more on writing. I’m sure if I feel like I have something to say, I can get the pieces together to put out an album or mixtape pretty easily. I’m just going to focus on this tour I have coming up ahead of me. Focus on getting to Europe in the autumn, getting to Asia in the winter. Next year I can resettle and see what kind of avenue things take me to.

I’m also going to be heavily involved in fundraising and marketing for Ali Najmi's run for city council in Queens. Ali and I worked on the redistricting campaign in 2012... He's now running for city council in the neighborhood we grew up in.

[Heems momentarily pauses the interview to chat with his parents and give them money for the store. Later he tweets about the moment.]

What's your favorite part of living with your parents?

Probably cooking with them. I think learning how to cook is probably the best part.

It’s not just my parents. It’s my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law and my nieces. But it’s cool to have this as a grounding kind of thing. When I’m off in London or Bombay or playing these festivals, it’s easy to forget who you are and stuff. It’s a pretty big house. It just made sense instead of paying a mortgage in Long Island and also paying rent in Brooklyn—and wanting to get out of the city. Wanting to get away from the hustle.

Have your parents listened to your album?

Mm hmm. They like it. They have it in their car. CD #6. When it comes on, my niece can always tell it’s my album before my vocals even come on.

She's a fan as well?

Yeah. I have a lot of two-and-a-half-year-old fans. Between my cousin’s kid in New Delhi and my friend's daughter in Bombay and my own niece. And a lot of fans tell me they play it for their kids.

You've been doing some Das Racist songs in concert. Is there any interest in a reunion?

I don’t think so. The last time I checked, there wasn’t.

You asked Victor [Vazquez]?

We played a show in Texas where we were on the same bill. That’s all.

Any other music you're excited about lately?

All I listen to is Young Thug and Popcaan, the Jamaican dancehall artist. To me, Young Thug is kind of a Sufi mystic.

Are you still trying to write a novel?

Yeah. I wrote a lot of it while I was in London.

What's it about?

In some ways it’s autobiographical. It’s definitely fiction. But it’s about recovery and taxi cab driving in Manhattan. It’s kind of like if Taxi Driver was made after 9/11 and it was an Indian dude instead of an Italian dude. And I’m writing it. So there’s no Scorsese. Just me, pretending I’m Scorsese and writing about an Indian guy.

Anything else you're working on?

I acted in that film Creative Control that premiered at South by Southwest this year. Creative Control is starring Reggie Watts and directed by Ben Dickinson.

And yeah, I had a good time at Northside Festival. What was funny was my boy Nigel was just walking down the block without knowing that there was a festival going on. All of a sudden he heard Donell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be,” which is this R&B song I sing at the end of my set. He was like, “Yo, that voice sounds mad familiar!” He was like, “I was just walking and I heard you singing Donell Jones and I didn’t know if it was really happening or not!” So I’m glad I got to create that surreal moment.