Heems, Queens, and Turkey Sandwiches
HEEMS IN HICKSVILLE, NEW YORK, MARCH 2015. PORTRAITS BY JASON RODGERS. STYLING BY JESSI JACQ.
Departing from the jocular tone that characterized previous albums with Das Racist, Heems (given name Himanshu Kumar Suri) will release his first official solo album, Eat, Pray, Thug, tomorrow, March 10. Rather than imparting tounge-in-cheek jokes, Heems’s rumored-to-be final album, which was largely conceived during a self-imposed, five-month exile to India, presents a stripped-down exploration of what the 29-year-old musician is really about.
In 2012, before moving to Mumbai and after Das Racist broke up, Heems released two solo mixtapes with guest appearances by the likes of Childish Gambino, Danny Brown, and Le1f. He reintroduced himself earlier this year with Eat, Pray, Thug‘s first single, “Sometimes,” including honest lyrics such as, “Man, there be too much vanity / How to live life when all my life all dualities … Always confused, I could use more clarity.” Throughout the album the rapper exposes his true self, addressing the events and struggles that matter to him most: the effect of 9/11 on immigrant communities, his Asian-American identity, and the generation gap he feels between himself and his parents. Featuring collaborations with other musicians such as Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and Gordon Voidwell, Eat, Pray, Thug‘s backing tracks stand up to its powerful subject matter.
Recently, Heems connected with fellow-rapper and longtime friend Despot (née Alec Reinstien), who was also featured on Heems’s first mixtape. Ever since meeting at a bar in Brooklyn, Despot has watched Heems evolve from a jokester to a vulnerable artist with a story to tell. There’s a lot of good stuff here, including a deep look into the rivalry between two Queens, New York natives.
HIMANSHU SURI: I told them I would do this interview with Despot or Vijay Iyer, so this is Vijay Iyer I’m talking to, right?
ALEC REINSTEIN: Yeah, what’s up man?
REINSTEIN: All right, first of all, would you say that now, as an adult, making people say Himanshu is a point of pride? Whereas it was an embarrassing thing when you were a little kid?
SURI: You made up the name Herman, right?
SURI: When was that, like four years ago?
REINSTEIN: Yeah, maybe more.
SURI: And why did you make up that name? Because you didn’t like pronouncing Himanshu?
REINSTEIN: I might have been drunk and I thought it would be funny if your name was Herman, and I think to some degree I was thinking about the television show Herman’s Head while I was looking at you.
SURI: That sounds right. I’ve been Himanshu since the jump and I would get pissed off when teachers would be like, “Hey, do you have a nickname?” And I’d be like, “Nope!” It became a point of pride, especially when people didn’t want to say it. I would get a kick out of being adamant about the fact that I didn’t have a nickname or a shorter version. And you know, you heard the album, Alec, there’s that song where I talk about how growing up, basically all the time, they would immediately follow up, like “What is your name?” It became this thing I constantly heard, so on “Flag Shopping,” I’m exclusively talking about that experience.
REINSTEIN: I know exactly how that feels because my name is Alec, and people would always be like, “Alex?” and I’d be like, “No!” It was fucked up. It must be because I’m a Polish-American.
SURI: I don’t know if that’s quite the same.
REINSTEIN: [laughs] So you’re from Queens, you talk about being from Queens a lot. I’m from Queens too. How do you think Queens has shaped the way that you rap? I would argue that I’m more from Queens than you. I’m going to say that I know the correct answers to all these questions, so if you answer them wrong, I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong and I’ll tell you what the right answer is.
SURI: You grew up in Forest Hills and I grew up in Eastern Queens. I think part of what makes Queens so ill is that there are neighborhoods like Eastern Queens. The neighborhood is something like 60 to 70 percent South Asian now, so it was kind of like a suburban part of Queens, but I wouldn’t say it was any less Queens. Where else in the world would you find a neighborhood that is 70 percent Indian and Pakistani, and 30 percent percent Italian and Jewish? Even where you grew up in Forest Hills, it’s not your typical urban New York; it has wider streets and a greener feel to it.
REINSTEIN: When you say Forest Hills, people think of the rich Forest Hills, which is like Forest [Hill] Gardens. There are mansions there. That’s a piece of Forest Hills that is for rich dudes.
SURI: Forest Hills has that reputation, but it’s still Queens. I wouldn’t say it’s any less Queens than other parts.
REINSTEIN: I wouldn’t either, but I like to say that anyways. You know, I call Bayside fake Queens, I call Fresh Meadows fake Queens…all those neighborhoods that I feel like might as well not be there.
SURI: That’s inner Queens elitism. When Manhattan is calling us bridge-and-tunnel, you internalize that and you further that elitism by talking about “fake Queens.” But that’s not a real thing, because the whole beauty of Queens is that it is so different. It’s literally the most diverse place in the world. Being from Queens, you end up listening more to rappers from Queens, just on some local tips, so that definitely influences how you rap. Wouldn’t you say being from Queens definitely impacted how you are?
REINSTEIN: Absolutely. I mean, I spent the first four or five years of rapping trying to rap exactly like Prodigy from Mobb Deep—his voice and saying all the words that white people aren’t allowed to say, because I wanted to sound exactly like him. Queens makes you rap a certain way. But this interview is not about me.
SURI: When you look through the history of dudes from Queens—Prodigy, Nas, Royal Flush, anyone from that golden era—they’re not typical. They weren’t these flashy dudes; they were thinkers, in a certain way. I think being from Queens gives you that, because you’re so close to the city but you’re not really there. I think that adds to the identity. Being Indian and being American already gives you layers, and then to be in Queens, on a local level, gives you another set of layers.
REINSTEIN: You have a compounded feeling of being an outsider. You’re not completely American, so you’re not allowed to feel completely American, but you’re also not allowed to feel like you’re from New York City, because you’re from Queens and that’s an outer burrow and people act like it doesn’t count. So you have exclusion on multiple levels.
SURI: Right. And Queens is this place that has so many immigrants. It’s definitely not just me; it’s a bunch of people like that. I think one of the reasons I like rapping is to give a voice to the Asians that are an important part of Queens. If you’re from Queens, chances are you grew up with a Chinese or Indian kid. That’s just what it is. You hear about those other stories in rap but you don’t really hear about the stories of the immigrant, Asian, outsider experience in Queens. If I had to think about why the hell I rap, I guess that would be the answer.
There are a lot of immigrants who are working double time, trucking or driving cabs. The whole thing that I wanted to be able to talk about is, the more Indian people become pharmacists and doctors and engineers, the more they brush the working class Indians under the rug. I think the stories that are important are the ones of the guys working in gas stations and the Dunkin’ Donuts.
REINSTEIN: I agree with that, but most of the Indian kids I knew, their parents were very focused and motivated by money. You know, they built those big crazy houses that were mad weird. They build these mutant houses and put these crazy ornate gates up and these columns…
SURI: I literally live in one of those houses right now.
REINSTEIN: Like a McMansion.
SURI: From India there’s this habit of getting a plot of land and making your own house. It’s actually pretty dope that they incorporate elements of Indian architecture into Western space and put it wherever they are without even giving a crap about the rest of the neighborhood.
REINSTEIN: It’s mad cool, and it makes the block that my mom and dad still live on look fucking insane, because there’s those, and then the Bukharian Russians are doing the same thing. The styles are a little different so it looks really…
SURI: What’s ill is in the local newspapers in Queens or online, you’ll find people being like, “These damn Indians move into town and they build their Taj Mahals!” If you’re into reading racist rants on Craigslist at 3:00 in the morning like I am, there’s a lot of that out there, which is ill man.
REINSTEIN: That sounds good. So what I was saying, I think it’s cool that you’re being the working class Indian dude. You have the line about your dad driving the cab…
SURI: “My dad drove a cab home / Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home.”
REINSTEIN: Right. It’s like aspiration, or whatever. It’s just like, “I did my thing.”
SURI: But it also speaks to the generation gap, too. It speaks to aspiration, but it also speaks to guilt in a certain way. It’s like, I’m out here stuntin’, I’m out here being crazy and wild, paying money for cabs. Meanwhile, my dad was a cabdriver who would have been like, “Those things are mad expensive!” Spending money on a cab is like a crazy ballin’ expensive thing, so in a certain way it speaks to aspiration but also this guilt.
REINSTEIN: My parents did the same thing. I grew up thinking $60 for a pair of shoes is fucking crazy. It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I was like, “Wait, $60 is not a lot of money. I could get $60.” You know, my dad was a public school teacher, we had no fucking money, but I look back on it, and I’m kind of like…
SURI: Both of our dads worked for the city, right?
SURI: I remember the only sandwich meat I knew of was bologna, and then when I got older I found out about turkey and I was like, “Oh shit!” It was one of those experiences, another maybe immigrant thing. We used to eat mostly Indian food, and pizza, and Chinese food—New York staples, right? But then my dad would come home with a hero sandwich from the deli—which is like nothing, literally $3 from the spot back in the day—but we’d be dumb exited like, “Oh shit, we got sandwiches!” That’s kind of what interests me in art, community stories and those secrets.
As an immigrant, you’re constantly thinking about how you’re perceived on a community level, and a lot of times it’s just on a community level. My parents don’t care what Americans think of us; we just care what the other Indian people in our community think of us. I mean, I engage with New York and America but my parents pretty much hang out in this radius of Long Island where their friends are and where their work is. That’s why you have people who have lived in New York for like 20, 30 years who don’t speak English. They just live in a Chinese community or an Indian community. More than anywhere you’ll find that in Queens.
Outside of Queens, people don’t know about those Indian kids who might be good at basketball, who aren’t your typical [basketball player]. Those are the stories I constantly think of as an artist. As a rapper, what are the stories you want to tell? They can’t all be, “I’m ill, I’m fresh, look at me, I have money.” At some point, when you have an audience for it, there are stories that need to be told. Once Indians become more visible in pop culture and thus more humanized, then it actually chips away at discrimination. Especially after 9/11, it became important for those stories and that human element, for the Muslim, the Hindu, the Sheikh communities to be heard. That’s what I hope I get at with the music.
REINSTEIN: Yeah, that’s what I get from it. You’re appealing to the world as the Indian kid that you could be friends with. You might actually be changing on a global scale, at least in America, the perception of that Indian kid. I was that dude—walking on the way home, I might smack some nerdy Indian kid in the head and be like, “Give me five dollars.” Everybody did that shit. I also did it to white kids and black kids and Russian kids.
SURI: One of the things that I think about, is that in Queens, it wasn’t like we grew up worshiping the ground that other minorities walked on, it was just like, “Fuck you” to everybody. The Indian kids were fighting with other Indian kids while fighting with the Latino kids, who were fighting with the black kids, who were fighting with the Korean kids, that were fighting with the Indian kids. In a way, that’s the awesome thing about Queens, right?
REINSTEIN: Yeah, and then the white kids could just sneak in and beat everybody up.
SURI: Did that really happen though?
SURI: But were you even really hanging out with a lot of white kids?
REINSTEIN: No, I was talking about that with my friends who I grew up with the other day. I was the only white kid.
REINSTEIN: Every crew had a white kid; every crew had a Korean kid; every crew had a black kid or two. That’s what a crew looked like in Queens. Let’s go to something else though, we can’t just only talk about Queens. I guess we can… What’s the best restaurant in Queens? [laughs]
REINSTEIN: I was on Twitter and a friend of mine was talking about how it’s crazy that all the most celebrated chefs in the world are men because our moms make the best food ever. I would say the best food in Queens is just at the crib. We don’t really be goin’ out and eatin’. We all live in a joint Indian big family house with my sister, my brother-in-law, my nieces, my parents.
You know, Alec, I haven’t been kickin’ it in Brooklyn or Manhattan as much. I’ve been hanging out in my old neighborhood in Queens a lot. I went to my Hindu temple yesterday on Kissena Boulevard, and a block down, they have one of the best dumpling spots ever. It was literally like, I had the illest vegetarian meal at the temple, then, I probably shouldn’t have eaten pork right after that, but I had the soup dumplings next door and I was like, “Man, I think we kind of grew up spoiled with food in Queens.”
REINSTEIN: It has the best food in New York by far. Let’s talk about…Das Racist definitely started as some funny rappers. My impression of you was that you’re a couple of dorks who rap.
SURI: You hated us from the jump. You were like, “Forget these guys.”
REINSTEIN: Yeah, but I think that that’s how I meet people anyways, you know? I don’t ever like anybody when I first meet them.
SURI: Yeah I don’t like anybody. I barely like you, bro!
REINSTEIN: That’s how it should be. I feel like when I listen to your shit now, you’ve become a more serious rapper, a guy who is a rapper, and not so much a guy who is pokin’ fun. I never thought you were pokin’ fun at rappin’, but pokin’ fun at everything. It was just absurdist shit, like, “It’s funny that I’m an Indian kid whose rapping, it’s funny that anyone is rapping in the first place.” You had a real sense of humor about the whole thing. I feel like rapping is fucking corny.
SURI: Right, like, “Why would I listen to this guy talk about whatever he wants for an hour? How ill can this dude be, where I would want to sit through an hour of him talking about himself?”
REINSTEIN: At the core of rap, that’s all it fuckin’ is—a dude for a whole fuckin’ hour trying to convince you that he is so ill, he is iller than you. Not only is he iller than you, he’s iller than everybody, and everything he says is right. He has more money and more bitches than everybody. It’s the corniest shit ever. If it’s not about that, it’s about how your opinions are better than everyone else’s.
SURI: Which is why I was saying, why do you do this? The reason I rap is because someone’s gotta tell those stories.
REINSTEIN: I straight up rap because my friends told me to. That’s why I do it.
SURI: [laughs] I personally appreciate the question because I want to talk about it. Basically on this album, I’m not doing as much joking. You know me, I have become a more serious dude and I have grown up in a lot of ways. Part of me going to India, part of me moving back in [with] my family, has been about reacquainting myself with who I am. When you’re in the media and when you put yourself out there, people are almost able to hijack your identity. You start reading about yourself and it’s easy to forget who you actually are. This record is the first time I’m not hiding behind humor, and I’m not hiding behind, “I’m an Indian dude, look at these samples, they’re Indian samples.” Being in India, to write this thing and record this thing, to a certain extent freed me from like, “I’m not the Indian guy in the room.” Everyone in India is Indian and everyone I was kickin’ it with was an artist and a writer. So it was like, “This is me.” The whole hang-up I have about identity went out the door. I worry—will fans be like, “Oh, he’s not funny anymore”? This is a record where I’m putting myself out there so much. But as an artist, I’ve done five records now. It can’t all be jokes.
REINSTEIN: You have a relationship with these fans that you’ve built over the years. It must be fuckin’ nerve-wracking ’cause you’re basically introducing yourself to all these people who thought they knew you already. You finally decided, “I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this person you’ve been listening to.”
SURI: I think that’s what this album is about for me. By putting it out there, I am exploring myself, and I am exploring it as a human, not just an artist. I’m getting it off my chest and putting it out. It’s hard for me to move on from certain things until I’ve put it out there. It’s no secret—I’m thinking about this being my last album. Part of that is because, how much can I say? I’m putting myself out there; I’m telling the story of a community on this album; I’m telling my story about mental health and anxiety; I’m telling a story about 9/11 and how it’s impacted me and the community. Now that I’ve explored the medium for a while I’m ready to sit back.
REINSTEIN: Sick. Should I keep going, or are we done?
SURI: We’re done.
REINSTEIN: I did a good job.
SURI: You did a great job, man.