To describe Heems’ debut solo album as “anticipated” is insufficient. This is the man who turned rap on its head as a founding member of Das Racist, only to disband once the band’s notoriety started to balloon. Heems was never here for sponsorships or a festival’s big font. He is here to investigate his existence and the world around him. That is, in part, what led the Queens-born Himanshu halfway around the globe to return—ancestrally speaking—home to India.
Once there he recorded Eat. Pray. Thug., out March 10. It’s his first studio release—there were a couple mixtapes after Das Racist split, and a fantastic Swet Shop Boyz EP Heems made last year with Riz MC.
This music, however, is to be a departure from those projects. Eat. Pray. Thug. belongs to Himanshu alone, the only listed feature coming from Dev Hynes. Another of the names he answers to is Deepak Choppa, an play on/homage to the Indian-American scientist/mystic Deepak Chopra. The two have a few similarities—classical training, cult followings, fervent beliefs—but these days, Heems has one notable advantage over the real-life Chopra: he’s just getting started.
How long has it been since you came back from India?
I recorded the album at the end of 2013, and since then I’ve been spending a lot of time with friends and family. I’ve gotten to be around to help raise my sister’s kids. They’re two years and two months old, it’s great to be around to see them grow up.
And they factor into more than one of the songs. You’ve always drawn on your personal life for musical inspiration, but it’s been a while. How are you adjusting to being back in the current of the industry? Is there still excitement, or are you apprehensive about diving back in?
I’m totally happy and excited about it. Very excited about the music itself, and I’m looking forward to representing myself and my people through the music again, partly by continuing to be an activist for the Indian and South Asian communities in New York.
Right now we’re really trying to get taxicab stand in front of the Punjabi Deli on the Lower East Side, which is a huge landmark for South Asian cab drivers. Since construction started picking up in that area, the cabbies can’t stop to have some food or some chai without getting a ticket. It’s been a landmark for years and years, and construction is putting it out of business.
You also worked with a group of “straight/queer, Hindu/Muslim, male/female, established/newcomer, Asia/Diaspora” artists at Aicon Gallery this month. Tell us about the Eat. Pray. Thug. gallery show.
I’ve done what I wanted to do in terms of representing myself and my culture with this album. One of the ways I’m doing that is by curating a show at Aicon gallery in Manhattan from February 7 to March 10. It’s a show done with ten other artists, including myself. All ten are of Indian or South Asian descent, but that’s not the point of the show—not all the work has to do with our heritage. It’s a pretty diverse crew that came together, and Eat. Pray, Thug, is one of the pieces being presented.
I’ve done what I wanted to do in terms of representing myself and my culture with this album.
Are there any parallels between Eat. Pray. Thug. and the Swet Shop Boys EP you put out with Riz MC?
Eat. Pray. Thug. doesn’t have as much to do directly with Indian culture in terms of sounds or samples. Also, we didn’t have to clear any samples with Swet Shop Boys. It was a free mixtape, so we could just put it out there.
Being in India when I recorded Eat. Pray. Thug. obviously had an impact, but the sounds and songs are mine in a different way than anything I’ve done in the past. Before, I felt as though I was hiding behind my humor, putting on a mask through these dual identities I had. Choosing between being a New Yorker and an Indian-American. With this album I was in a different place—Das Racist had broken up, a relationship had just ended. That’s where I was as an artist, that’s where the songs came from.
Are there any moments that stand out from that recording process?
The studio where we recorded was in the same place as a lot of these big movie studios, all these mega-producer Bollywood teams. I was just this no-name renting a studio for a week, I’d walk down the hall and pass Shah Rukh Khan.
He’s probably reached demi-god status by now, no? Were your relatives and friends freaking out about you seeing Shah Rukh Khan?
Not as much as you’d think. I spent time hanging out with artists and poets, mostly highly educated people. The upper class in India doesn’t watch Bollywood as much. They were all educated in NY and London, and just as highly-educated upper-class Americans look down on Hollywood blockbusters, the upper class in India sometimes looks down on Bollywood.
The title of the album speaks to that. It’s not just a play on Eat Pray Love, it’s not just about white people coming to India as tourists to find spiritual enlightenment. Sure, India is kinda hippy-dippy, but that’s not all there is to see.
That confusion of diasporic identity is central to the album. The exotification of India that we see so much in popular culture—I was guilty of it too, and it wasn’t until I had a chance to hang out with friends and family that I could step outside of that.
That confusion of diasporic identity is central to the album. The exotification of India that we see so much in popular culture—I was guilty of it too, and it wasn’t until I had a chance to hang out with friends and family that I could step outside of that. A “thug” in India doesn’t have the exact same meaning as it does in America.
Any other singles or material coming before the album drops March 10?
Right now we’re wrapping up the video for “Sometimes,” it’s going to be a collaboration with Adult Swim.
Amazing. There was a pic of you recently on Instagram with Eric Andre and Hannibal Burress, is it with them?
I can’t say, sorry.
Ok. Don’t answer if it’s Eric Andre.