“Rap Is Identity Music”: An Interview With Heems

Pranav Trewn speaks to the former Das Racist rapper about his new album LAFANDAR with producer Lapgan, the development of his brand and label Veena, his dreams of being a teacher coming to life at...
By    February 14, 2024

Image via Atif Ateeq

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

Over the last couple years, Gaurav Nagpal has emerged as the most inventive producer of the South Asian diaspora. Under the moniker Lapgan, he approaches hip-hop beats as a canvas for historical revisionist fiction – spinning slappers out of samples from India’s earliest sonic epochs, through the country’s empires, colonization, and partition, to its modern imprint on global media. His second-generation perspective – apparent in his equal love for the likes of Madlib and Mirza Ghalib – was so fully-developed upon arrival, that it served as a signal flare, calling in particular to a kindred spirit and his forefather of cross-pollinated contemporary hip-hop.

Himanshu Suri – aka “Heemy Heemy, Queens born and bred…family from Pakistan, I’m Hindu-Punjabi,” aka “It’s Herman, I’m swerving, the nervous MC…The worst rapper on this track, third coolest,” aka “Back street stroller, hash-tree roller/ Chole bhatura eater, heater holder” – introduces himself better than any journalist could. Heems earned the status of a preeminent satirist for the blog era, furnishing collegiate references in flippant flows that belied the earnest and studied respect he has for rap culture. Alongside Kool A.D. and hypeman Dapwell, he held a brief but outsized influence on the laptop-rap set. After the trio disbanded, Heems embarked on a solo career, collaborating with other young critical darlings of the day like Dev Hynes, Danny Brown, and Action Bronson. His most recent arc was an inspired pairing with actor-MC Rizwan Ahmed and producer Redinho to push post-colonial bars over pre-colonial beats as the Swet Shop Boys.

Heems has since kept a low profile, working behind the curtain these last several years in the curation side of the industry. He was already readying a comeback record for later this Spring – named in conjunction with the hybrid enterprise Veena, a combination label, lifestyle brand, and digital magazine – when he stumbled upon Lapgan, whose mixtape-as-thesis History he quickly signed to be the brand’s inaugural release. Their partnership turned into a friendship that naturally produced a steady stream of new music, eventually yielding a full-length collaboration between the two.

The resulting record, out this Friday in partnership with Mass Appeal India, proved so fruitful – reawakening Heems’ dormant instinct for introspective but irreverent quotables – that he scheduled it ahead of Veena. That solo LP is still on deck for later in 2024, but for now Lapgan and Heems are focusing on the release this Friday of their joint-statement LAFANDAR. The album is 12 track unapologetic rundown through the streets of Jackson Heights all the way to Delhi’s Hauz Khas, making dozens of stops along a IYKYK heritage trail for the heads. Calling in favors from across his vast network of underground contemporaries, Heems pulled together an ensemble cast including the likes of Kool Keith, Quelle Chris, Open Mike Eagle, Blu, Fatboi Shariff, and Your Old Droog, among others, all of whom discovered creative pockets in the novel timbres and rhythms of Lapgan’s raw materials.

But no one sounds more invigorated than Heems, who fires off several of his best performances to date, from the rumbling, Das-Racist-like ramble of “I’m Pretty Cool” to the anthemic commandments of “Kala Tika” to the long-beloved studio-recreation of the affecting “T5” coda he performed on Colbert. Heems’ renewed songwriting spirit, Lapgan’s savant-level source material splicing, and the pair’s intuitive interplay results in the most unabashed and affirming South Asian scripture since Heems’ own Cashmere nearly eight years ago.

I spoke with Heems over Zoom last week about his origin story, his return to the mic with LAFANDAR, and all that took place in between. He brought to our conversation an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of South Asian contemporary music, tracing the arc of representation in his chosen genre and reflecting on his place within that development.

It’s been seven years since your last project, the Swet Shop Boys’ Sufi La EP. What have you been up to in that time? What have you been prioritizing?

Heems: At the top of 2018 I took a break from Swet Shop Boys, because we were all busy and I got this job at Spotify to make playlists and work on my go-to-market strategy for Spotify India. The focus of the group was to bring music from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia to Western markets, both the diaspora and global audiences. Then I did something similar at Audiomack. Now this semester at NYU Clive Davis, I’m teaching a course on DSPs and emerging markets. Overall I took some time to be on the other end of the business, and help other people have a platform rather than myself. I took some time, as Marshawn Lynch would say, to work on my mentals, because touring and press and social media can be a lot.

Reentering the industry as an artist, how do you see the culture having changed since the last time you released new music?

Heems: You could break it down into three worlds. When I first started, blogs were the way to break through. Then with Swet Shop Boys, we were more in the playlist era. Now I think we’re in the world of short form and TikTok.

Has that changed how you approach your recording or release strategies?

Heems: It doesn’t change anything. I have the same process I’ve had since the beginning. I go in, write quickly, and look at what I’ve made afterwards. Like an abstract expressionism.

That captures really beautifully what I believe initially drew people to your style.

Heems: It’s a lot about tapping into your subconscious, right? If you write really quickly and then you let the audience break it down, they live with the art and you just move on.

As a journalist, I’ve spoken with several artists – especially those of South Asian descent – who have cited you as a major influence. I think that is because you proudly incorporated your identity into contemporary popular sounds, at a time where that wasn’t as common as it is now. How do you feel about the progress that has been made, and your hand in influencing that shift?

Heems: I think there are three parts to my career. When I started with Das Racist, there were very few South Asian people at the shows, but it was more important for them to see somebody doing something alternative in public spaces. Then when I was solo around 2015, I would start to see more South Asians at the show. By the time I was in Swet Shop Boys, the audience was pretty much all South Asian. I think the younger generation of South Asian listeners is more in tune with pop culture or art or have interests that when I was growing up in the 90s weren’t that common. If you met a South Asian person that was into art or comedy or literature, it was rare. When me and Dap met we were like, “You know, there’s not a lot of people like us.” And then it grew into Das Racist.

Rap is identity music. It’s like folk music – you’re talking about yourself, what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with. You explore identity through the subconscious, at least if you’re not sitting there and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. And rap is reference based. So if I want to throw in an Indian actor like Amrish Puri into a bar, I can do that. But I think what’s interesting is that there is a world that existed with these samples before Gaurav and I did LAFANDAR.

I think about it with, again, a set of three albums: Madlib’s Beat Konducta, Dan the Automator’s Bombay the Hard Way, and Nehru Jackets. I know that I influenced Gaurav, so to me this album feels like a sequel to Nehru Jackets, but through the lens of Gaurav.

It’s the cyclical beauty of influence. You influence Gaurav, who then defines his sound based on what he heard, and now he’s bringing sounds to you, and that’s inspiring your next chapter. That’s something that appeals to folks like me who grew up listening to hip hop and are now starting to see more and more elements of ourselves in popular culture. That blending is something I think you started doing in many ways, and now more people are approaching it the same way.

Heems: I think there was this two way street of sampling Indian stuff, that made you feel like you were a part of hip hop if you were otherwise made to be an outsider. You’d be like, this Erick Sermon song has an Indian sample, or that one by Truth Hurts.

Those Madlib or Timbaland beats that drew from Indian music were validating when I was younger.

Heems: You know, I made a playlist when I worked at Spotify called “Sample Sale.” It was basically all samples used in hip hop from South Asia. And I worked on a project this year that’s not out yet, that’s kind of like the history of Desi hip hop.

The moments that I think were really interesting in that history were like Charanjit Singh getting this electronic equipment, the 808, and being one of the first people to have this instrument in India. And you know I toured with Charanjit Singh. We played Europe together. I think that when you’re talking about the history of different genres of music, access is important right? So for this guy that was doing Bollywood soundtracks to then go and make Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat – that’s an important moment.

Then you start seeing this interchange of samples. There was Baba Sehgal in Bollywood. Probably the first Bollywood rapper. And A. R. Rahman then begins to incorporate it into his world. Then Truth Hurts and Erick Sermon are really moments in 2002 that were important. And then Bappi Lahiri won a court injunction to stop the sale of one of his songs sampled by Dr. Dre. Then Panjabi MC, that’s a pivotal moment. Even to this day, Dev Patel is making that movie Monkey Man and you still hear Punjabi MC.

That song gets thrown on every time I go to a more mainstream bar in Chicago.

Heems: The DJ sees the Indian kids and he’s like, “Let’s do this for them.”

And then everyone starts looking at you, like “Oh shit, are you going to dance for us?”

Heems: And then you’re like, all this for me? [Laughs]

So then the way that I frame it is the diaspora, right? You look at the Southhall riots in the UK, and around that time South Asian musicians, like Asian Dub Foundation and punk bands. Bohemia claims to have came up with Desi hip hop. And then Yo Yo Honey Singh. And then the reactionary, anti mainstream stuff. Then streaming, and rap becomes even more popular. Then you have Gully Boy, this representation of rap in mainstream Indian media. Those are the ways that I think of it, as this interchange between India and the diaspora, the UK and US, and then it comes back home to India.

I appreciate you running through big pivotal moments with a much longer lens than folks typically hold.

Heems: My boy Chee Malabar was rapping a long time before Das Racist. There were people doing stuff before us. But you know, I didn’t come out the gate as a South Asian rapper. What Victor and I were doing was more looking at a pan brown space. Like a wider space. And then I don’t know when the word “brown” became more solely a Desi thing, but when we used it in Das Racist we were thinking of a space between white and black where everyone is welcome.

Let’s fast forward now to today. Give me the origin story of how you first linked up with Lapgan, and where the idea for this album took place?

Heems: Before my friend Sean was Gaurav’s manager, he reached out to me about an app that he was working on. He showed me Gaurav’s stuff while we were chatting, and I noticed that Gaurav had recently ordered a Das Racist shirt and I thought, oh shit, let me get on the phone and see how I can help this person. It wasn’t immediately, I have a label and I’ll sign you, but I think there was overlap between what Gaurav is doing and what I’ve done. If there’s an audience for Gaurav, it probably is somewhere in mine as well. So how do I take my platform and give it to him?

When did that conversation translate into the idea of working together on a full length?

Heems: I asked Gaurav for a beat, I liked what he was doing. I thought I was going to have like 10 rappers on this beat, right? Like Open Mike Eagle got on it, Mikey Rocks got on it, and a bunch of other rappers got on it. And then I started splitting it up and being like, let’s break this down into three people on a track. Two of those tracks were going to be on my solo album Veena, and then those two turned into four and then turned into five. It was just pretty natural that it happened that way.

I mean, I was interested in collaboration and just like reaching out to people. One of the reasons I stopped rapping almost was getting sick of the “Yo you want to rap together? You got a beat for me?” You got to be asking for shit, and I didn’t like asking for shit. And then I think after not being in music for so long, I was fine with hitting people up. Like I never met Mikey Rocks, but Cool Kids probably opened the doors for Das Racist to come out. Cool Calm Pete being on there – I mean I listened to him in high school and that’s my dude now. He’s on both albums, and he drew the shirts that are on the Veena brand.

It’s definitely the most features I’ve seen on a project of yours. What opened the door for so many people to be a part of this album?

Heems: I think there’s a part of it that was made to feel like an outsider in hip hop – like I’m too Indian or I’m a hipster or I’m joke rap – and with this thing, it was just about community. Connection and community has become really important to me as I’ve grown older, so it was like, “Let’s hang out?” And people were willing to. Like Sid Sriram had to move shit around to get on a track, but he was happy to. Sonny Jim and Abi, I met through the little community of South Asian rappers, and I think they’re both amazing. Quelle Chris, that’s the homie. Open Mike Eagle, I did a comedy thing with him once. Not all of them are people I speak with regularly, but they were all willing to come through and rap with me because we all saw each other from different parts of rap. So I think that validation from your peers, especially framed as a South Asian person…that validation from hip hop, it’s about time. I’ve been doing this for like 15 years!

“Accent” is the song that announced the project, and you released it the same day you launched Veena the brand. Tell me about why you chose it as the lead single, and the history around rerecording this verse that you first performed on Colbert back in 2017.

Heems: Unfortunately it’s kind of evergreen to have this political bent to your immigrant experience. I empathize with my parents; there are these moments where you’re a child and your parents speak English but the guy in the shop talks to you because you don’t have an accent. You begin to think through linguistics and how that relates to the immigrant experience. And you know, I just thought it was a good verse. I didn’t want it to go to waste. And I liked the drums Gaurav got on there a lot. I hit up Saul Williams – I looked up to that guy since high school – and he was like, This is what I got, take it or leave it. And I was like, I’ll take it!

Lapgan’s last record History was released on Veena, but it’s more than a label and you just announced the Das Racist rereleases and the shop and the magazine. Tell me about your vision for the brand.

Heems: I think it’s part of what you were saying about the people that came after me. I came to 2023 and was like, oh shit, those South Asians weren’t there when I started. Kids are calling me OG, and “You’re GOATed”. So I saw that I was in a position to inform or inspire. And I myself had grown older, and healed – I’d gotten into health, I started doing yoga, working out a lot – and I wanted to think about how I would leave my mark outside of rap. I’ve always been into business, and I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I know a lot of people, but probably only had one shot, right? I don’t want to ask for favors over and over again.

I was looking at things like ashwagandha and turmeric, and was like “Oh damn, white people are making mad money off this.” So then I was like, how do I get in on it? And with the coconut oil, that’s such a personal thing. It’s really this family thing – like childhood and nostalgia. There’s a lot of emotions associated with it that I wanted to share. But also if these things are being sold here, how do I become a part of that and make sure that what I’m bringing here is ethically sourced and good, clean, and pure? My whole life has been about “there” and “here”, “here” and “there”, but I wanted to build something bigger than just the language. I guess it’s a little silly to think that rapping wasn’t enough or like my music wasn’t enough, but I wanted to share the experiences and healing of being there and bring that here.

You’re starting up as an NYU professor. How’d that opportunity come about and what are you hoping to convey with your course?

Heems: I’ve always wanted to teach. In those years that I was at Spotify and Audiomack, I was learning strategically how to enter markets. How do you do that, as a Western country go into Eastern markets? And how is that not like colonialism? So part of what I want to do is ask the question: Can you decolonize music? Is this cultural colonialism? That’s where I’m interested to see what the students will say. And I don’t have an answer to that question of how you decolonize music. I think that’s where we’ll go in and we’ll build it.

When did you first start rapping, and at what point did you decide to start releasing music and approaching rap “professionally”?

Heems: You know what’s crazy? Being signed to Nas’s label now when the first memory I have of hip hop is the It Was Written street team putting stickers out in the park. My sister listened to pop, my dad listened to like, Kishore Kumar and Muhammad Rafi, but I think growing up like us in the Nineties and in Queens…it’s like Biggie said, either you got to jump shot or you rap. And basketball and rap were always around us.

I didn’t like playing video games, so my boys would all be playing FIFA or Madden and I would be in a different part of the apartment with the other people who didn’t want to play, hanging with them and rapping. Dap was one of those people. And then going around New York, you have these high school parties where you rent a space and somebody’s trying to get a DJ. You know, you do wild shit as a high school student in New York. And I remember specifically rapping at one of those and like it being a competition, and then winning it and being like oh shit. Even to this day, the question is like, “Oh shit, I’m good at rap?” I still just make it, and then am like, oh shit! Even making this album now, I was asking myself if this was like riding a bike – can I still do it?

Was there a moment where it started to take over as more of a concrete plan? Was there ever another path you were working on at the same time that got put to the sideline?

Heems: I would say this path chose me. Being South Asian, you’re always thinking of your path. And your parents are talking to you about your path. The question for me was like, “Do I want to tour around the world and make music, or do I want to work for an investment bank with bankers and traders?” I was going to this job in a suit every day, and then at night I was going to punk rock shows and shit. And I was like, I like this more than that.

But I would say I naturally became somebody who thought about marketing and business. Even as I wrote the verses, the parts that I love the most are still before the album comes out when you share the music with your friends, and then when you release it how it becomes this thing that’s not yours anymore. Those moments where you’re texting your friends, like, Check this out. What do you think? Whether 15 years ago or now, that’s still the fun shit.

There’s something beautiful about watching something develop and grow, and then the moment you finally get to be like, “This is for everyone.”

Heems: Yeah, it could be anticlimactic or it could be good, but you don’t really control what happens with it. And it’s like one of those Buddhist things that you make and then blow away. It’s not yours anymore, and that could be good – that doesn’t have to be bad.

We’ll see where the music goes. I’ve done all this shit before. I don’t know if I want to do it again. So I’ll just put it out there and see what happens.

Approaching this industry from a much further point in your career, do you feel like your goals for music have changed?

Heems: I know you can’t have expectations, you know? Like I said, I don’t have any plans for this. I don’t particularly want to tour a lot. I definitely want to focus on Veena. The most exciting part for me is the editorial, getting my favorite writers to write about something on a theme that I choose. And then with the commerce side of it, like what do we do four months from now? On the music side of it, what do we put to vinyl? Will we reissue something from India? You know, I’m going to run out of my own music. And then with clothing, how do you move beyond t-shirts? Like anybody can do t-shirts. I’m a big fan of scarves and shawls. Then do we go to menswear in like two years? Do we go into food?

At the end of the day, it’s like what brings me joy? I like getting fresh – I got my Issey Miyake on – I like listening to music, not your own music, and I like taking care of myself and prioritizing myself. Those are three things that bring me joy. Those are three things I want to share with people.

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