Himanshu Suri, also known as Heems, kept a low profile in 2013. The former Das Racist member and current label head of Greedhead Records took off to international territory, to free his mind, to perform his music, to be with family. He was away from his borough of Queens for longer than ever before.
Prior to his travels, 2012 saw the release of two solo mixtapes from Heems: Nehru Jackets in January and Wild Water Kingdom in November. Nehru Jackets, entirely produced by high school friend Mike Finito, was a sample-filled, groundbreaking release for an ambitious artist who had only previously released music alongside Kool A.D.. Building off that release, Heems gave the world Wild Water Kingdom, an atmospheric project with production from Keyboard Kid and Harry Fraud. Shortly after the release, it was announced that Das Racist had disbanded. The final song on Wild Water Kingdom was a bonus track, a freestyle from the Combat Jack Show. Released months before the mixtape, it was apparent that Heems had a lot on his mind:
Yo, when the towers came down, put the burden on the brown,
now I’m murderin’ these clowns, eatin’ burgers in their town,
and I’m murderin’ the sounds and I’m murderin’ the wax,
’cause they murderin’ the browns and they murderin’ the blacks.
Following his two solo releases, 2013 marked a creative shift for Heema. Full of political and racial frustrations and an always visible pride for his Punjabi-Indian heritage, Himanshu began straying away from the expected path of a hip-hop artist, performing in iconic museums, before lectures and poetry readings, alongside acclaimed Bollywood artist Charanjit Singh, and even soundtracking a Punjab episode of Anthony Bourdain’s television series, Parts Unknown.
I speak to Heems after weeks of phone tag and we chat about his upcoming album as well as an EP he released earlier this past summer with Riz MC as Swet Shop Boys. When we speak, Himanshu tells me that things are going well, and that his album, working title Eat Pray Thug, is getting mastered “this week.” He plans to have it out early next year.
“This interview doesn’t even really make sense,” he says, “because the album isn’t coming out until January.”
“Is it finished?” I ask.
“It’s finished. I’m just touching up some loose ends.” He tells me that he’s working on the artwork with a friend in India. On top of the release, he has a couple of music videos planned with the album as well.
“I’m directing all of them,” he adds. “It’s not something I’ve done in the past but I have a lot of good ideas and it’s cool.”
Himanshu mentions collaborators on the project, stating that NYC producer Boody B is all over it, adding that funk/R&B artist Gordon Voidwell actually saved the project and, “was a huge asset.” He continues by telling me, “Keyboard Kid and Harry Fraud are on it. I have a song with Blood Orange. And a lot of people that I haven’t worked with in the past.” A previous interview with Acclaim Magazine stated that Hudson Mohawke, Diplo, and A-Trak might have assistance credits as well.
Despite the big names that Heems has enlisted for the album, his method by no means conventional. Last December, he left New York to go to a literature and art festival in India. He ended up recording music for his album in Bombay and followed with tour dates in East Asia and throughout India.
“I don’t know a lot of artists who play in the Philippines, Nepal, and East Asia,” he says. Himanshu played shows in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, and even stopped in Australia.
He tells me that while he was gone for quite some time, he eventually had to come back to the Western world for his friend’s wedding; he and his friends all met in Costa Rica for the bachelor party. “Me and all of my cousins,” he says, “20 people from New York in Costa Rica. We got a house and it was perfect.”
From India to Costa Rica, his travels are certainly exotic, but they are not that of a hip-hop superstar. Not lavish layers of private jets and penthouse hotels. Instead, they are family-oriented and intimate. His Twitter, for example, is a constant freeform window into his life—uncensored opinions and feelings on anything that comes to mind. Meanwhile, his Instagram contains pictures of him spending time with his family members. It’s a much more sincere relationship between audience and artist than what we are normally used to, stripped of the fashion and the high definition PR, a relationship placed directly in the hands of the artist himself. Love him or hate him, Himanshu is being truthful, free of filters and label expectations.
Heems tells me that his album isn’t as humorous as past releases. This is introspective, honest Himanshu. While Heems might be one to dismiss Das Racist as being “novelty,” it has already become apparent that he is no longer making songs about combination drive-thru creations. “If you listen to my last two albums, this new one is not too different from those.”
While the last two releases were mixtapes, his upcoming release is definitely an album. “It’s for sale, packaging up through vinyl. I’m planning a legit tour off of it as well,” he tells me.
I ask Heems about his views on the current state of hip-hop.
“I don’t have a computer. I’m not downloading mixtapes every day, so I don’t really know. I listen to Hot97.”
We begin talking about Greedhead.
“It’s cool. I started it as a means to distribute music for Das Racist. Back then, it was normal to have a label. Like French Montana with Coke Boyz. Meek Mill with Dreamchasers. It didn’t seem innovative at the time. But it’s been a great experience. We didn’t need a co-sign because of it. We partnered with Mishka early in 2010 and it’s cool that it’s continued and I’ve put out more eccentric artists (Prada Mane, Lakutis) and even comedy stand-up mixtapes (Joe Mande).”
Stand-up comics, poetry readings, it’s obvious that Heems isn’t in the same realm as most rappers, especially the ones he’s hearing on Hot97. He’s been known to recommend books like Narcopolis and Midnight’s Children. I ask if he sees himself on a different level than most rappers.
“Yes,” he responds, dryly.
While Das Racist used plenty of freeform pop culture references, they also highlighted political and cultural problems within the US. His last two solo mixtapes covered issues of race even more, and I ask if this will be an important component of his upcoming album.
“Yes,” he responds again, dryly again.
Hoping to keep the interview away from one word answers, I ask him about the Swet Shop Boys. A four song EP was released recently, featuring nothing but samples from the Eastern world. Heems begins the project by saying, “Jungle Book, it’s the brown man’s burden.”
“It’s a collaboration between myself and Riz Ahmed, a rapper from London, and it is us connecting through Pakistan (Riz) and India (Heems). London and NYC are epicenters for people from those countries in the West, and we come from both places. The music features heavy Indian samples, from Bollywood to Qawwali. We’ve both been sampling Indian music for a while so it happened really organically. He was in NYC for an acting gig with HBO and we started working. We have a show next month and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. We’re trying to delve deeper. It’s fun for me.”
As we close the phone interview, I ask him if he has any advice for struggling artists.
“Quit. Leave it alone. It’s full. We’re full. There’s enough rappers. I shouldn’t rap. Don’t watch me, watch TV.”
I ask him if he has any shout outs or final words of wisdom to share.
“Shout out all bodies of water,” he begins. “Shout out Queens. Jamaica Avenue. Elmhurst. Jackson Heights,” he continues listing off neighborhoods and streets in Queens. “Shout-out to all the temples, all the mosques. Keep your head up. You’re brown, you’re beautiful. Let your skin shine, let your skin glow. Be water.”