Published Mar 04, 2015Heems was a member of Brooklyn alternative hip-hop group Das Racist, started his own New York-based label Greedhead and had an accomplished solo career, but when it came time to put out his debut solo album, Himanshu Suri didn't have the easiest time.
"Basically what it comes down to is the transition from mixtapes to albums is a very intensive process, it involves a lot of lawyers and lot of contracts. [Megaforce, a division of Sony] were doing it all themselves and working from templates, instead of getting a lawyer and paying the five percent like everybody else," the rapper tells Exclaim! "I want to be clear, it's not all the label's fault — it was frustrating, but also a learning experience."
Eat, Pray, Thug, which comes out March 10 Greedhead/Megaforce, is Suri's most personal and political work to date as Heems. Recorded largely in India in December 2013, it sees the rapper addressing the working class struggles of Indian-Americans in New York, police and systemic violence in the U.S., and the guilt he grappled with travelling away from his family.
"When you're constantly reading things about yourself that other people are writing, your identity becomes hijacked," Suri says, adding that he's recently asked that media conduct interviews in Long Island, where he lives with his parents.
"My parents are very simple people — I'm not saying that in a negative way — [and] it's super hard to explain to them how press works, how the industry works. You can say 40 things in an interview, but the interviewer might take out the two things that are controversial and put those in the piece."
Eat, Pray, Thug builds on his two well-received mixtapes Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom, as well as last year's Swetshop Boys (his duo with British/Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed), reclaiming his identity from any preconceived notions the public had of him from his Das Racist days.
Lead Eat, Pray, Thug single "Sometimes" is the perfect example of the dualities of Suri's life: a son of immigrants who attended a prestigious Connecticut liberal arts college; a rapper who runs his own label while working a day job as an advertising technology analyst. Songs like "Flag Shopping" and "Patriot Act" address racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in North America and worldwide — topics that Suri feels are as relevant today, following events including the Charlie Hebdo shooting, as the post-9/11 paranoia he encountered.
Meanwhile, "Home," one of two songs on the album written before Heems travelled to India, tackles a difficult breakup and features a hook from fellow New Yorker Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange).
"He came into the studio and had this Bollywood riff in mind," says Suri, who first met the singer-songwriter/producer through MySpace in 2010. "He laid it down and I was like, 'That's gorgeous and definitely sounds Indian.'"
Not content to merely put out music, Suri worked with San Francisco-based artist Chiraag Bhakta to create multimedia collages out of scanned materials from his travels, and curated an upcoming gallery show in Brooklyn featuring Indian and South Asian diaspora artists. Admitting the album might be his last for a while, Suri also recently wrapped shooting a music video for "Sometimes" with comedian Hannibal Buress and Adult Swim talk show host/comic Eric André, which he describes as a "late night infomercial in which I play a guru advertising a skin lightening product."
As for his fans north of the border, we can expect to see Heems live this summer at Toronto's NXNE, and Suri plans to shoot a video while he's in Toronto and travel to Brampton, referencing both cities' strong Indian-Canadian communities. As he puts it, "We're going to shut down the street."