Q&A: Das Racist's Heems on His 'Wild Water Kingdom' Mixtape, Identity Politics

New Das Racist LP 'should be done by the end of the year'

das racist heems
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Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems, of Das Racist
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It's been an industrious year for Das Racist's Heems, a.k.a. Himanshu Suri. In January he released his solo debut, the rugged Nehru Jackets, on his own Greedhead label, and he'll soon drop his second mixtape of the year, Wild Water Kingdom. While Nehru Jackets was a direct partnership with producer and Stuyvesant High School friend Mike Finito, Wild Water Kingdom has Heems teaming with a swarm of producers, including Harry Fraud, Keyboard Kid, Crookers and Beautiful Lou.

With Das Racist taking it easy after touring behind last September’s Relax, Heems has grown Greedhead behind a string of releases by artists like New York bruiser Mayhem Lauren, sexually subversive rapper Le1f and Queens-by-way-of-Bangladesh emcee/producer Big Baby Gandhi. In a recent chat with Rolling Stone, Heems peeled back the layers of his sardonic wit, reflecting on the new mixtape's aquatic inspiration, the expansion of Greedhead, a possible Das Racist TV show, the group's next album and his identity as an Indian-American.

What's going on with the title?
I've become in touch with my astrological signs. I'm a Cancer, and I'm a Pisces Rising for my moon [sign], so I'm pretty fucking watery. I like water a lot and this past summer, I tried to be out by the beach as much as I could. I was out on the Hamptons, I was out on Martha's Vineyard, I was out in Goa last year. I like going to Hawaii a lot. So I've found that water is my friend. Water is also, on a larger level, everywhere – I'm water, you are water, we are water. Finally, it's a water park my family and I used to go to, like five or six cars filled with Indian people all from New York to Pennsylvania. We never went to Dorney Park, so we always went to Wildwater Kingdom. It's just some wavy shit, but also, I like to operate on multiple levels, you know?

On this mixtape, you worked with a lot of different producers, but on Nehru Jackets, it was just you and Mike Finito. What was it like taking a more active role curating beats, and how did it change the sound?
This is a way easier affair than the last mixtape. [That] was a lot more aggro, and it's a little more paranoid, and that's Mike's stuff. [Here], there's more about who I am outside of the context of Das Racist or inside the context of New York. It's still like a very Heems type of thing, still a lot of Indian samples. But last time the beats were aggressive and the bars were laid back. This time, the beats are a little laid back and the bars are aggressive.

Last time with Mike, I just kind of let him do his thing. I told him I wanted Indian stuff, and he cooked it up. Mike just gave me, like, 40 beats and I fucked with whatever I liked. With these guys, I'm sending them samples – I'm just a little more active in the process of beat selection. It's much more active on the A&R, executive producer stuff. It's more curatorial in that sense.

I grew up listening to underground rap, and in a way, Nehru Jackets was more of my attempt at those types of records that I listened to – straightforwardly political, kind of aggravated, kind of depressed. Wild Water Kingdom is more [like] the music I listened to after independent rap, [in] 2001, when, like, The Blueprint dropped and I started appreciating mainstream rap again, and Dipset after. I fuck with shit like Meek Mill and French Montana, and this is more in the vein of what I listen to now. I hope this doesn't alienate people that might want more raps about money being bad instead of me being like, "Damn, I really need some money."

You mentioned taking that more active curatorial role, like in A&R, and that's been pretty big for you in the last year as Greedhead has grown. How have you adjusted becoming more active on those different fronts?
One of the fun things about rapping is how collaborative it is. When you got friends in bands, they might jam together, but no one will ever hear it. You’re not gonna see, like, MGMT, Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer on the same joint. But you can rap and you get to build with people, and that's what a lot of Das Racist was – it was just me reaching out to people, bringing in beats and different people, and me and Vic [Victor Vazquez, a.k.a. Kool A.D.] would rap on it and see which ones were the best. But in the sense of curating on a CD, it's not different than what I did with Shut Up, Dude, Sit Down, Man, or Relax. But in terms of the label, it’s working out better now, because there’s been more time for me this year without touring to focus on these projects: put out Mayhem Lauren, put out Le1f, put out Big Baby Gandhi, and now people are coming around to it and also are bigger believers, thankfully, of what I'm trying to do. Artists that you may not necessarily have heard, you might look at them and be like, "Oh, it's rap music," and you listen to it and it's good rap music. 

I don't want to inflate my role in the process. My role is more marketing, talking to lots of people, getting them used to some of the weird things about putting out something you might make for yourself, then having a bunch of the world listen to it. I try to develop them in that way, but these are all just full-on complete artists in their own right, and I just get to work with them.

You said that this mixtape is to help define who you are outside Das Racist. How has this solo stuff and creative time away from Kool A.D. and Dapwell helped you grow?
Being in a group, there's a lot of where you're trying to please everybody and come out with a project that everyone can put their stamp on. A lot of it was worked out of the similarities amongst us. Being around people who fuck with rap and are often around white people, it was a project where I came out of this super white college [Wesleyan University] and was just thinking about race [differently]. I think about my identity, I think about me being Indian, I think about the Indian diaspora and I think about violence and discrimination against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, but it's more close to me and who I am as a person and what motivates me. What I'm passionate about is the Indian diaspora – not how I feel around white people or how I feel around this race or that race, but how I feel as a brown person, maybe not in the context of American racial discourse, but just in the context of the Indian diaspora.

I remember reading something where you said you basically only hung out with Indian kids until high school, and then you went to Wesleyan. As a multiracial kid, growing up I didn't really know my racial identity. For you, how has that changed?
People might listen to my music or listen to the way that I speak or listen to the things I talk about and be like, "He's white," and it's like, "Who are you to take away what I've gone through or who I am or my parents or my ancestry, because you might think that I'm not whatever your idea of 'hood' is?" or whatever. I don't purport to be hood or black or white. I just am Indian. I pretty much only hung out with Indian people until I was 15, and then started kicking it with white and Korean people. And even white people in New York is a different animal than southern New England and West Coast white people. Then [in college], I came in contact with boarding schools and legacy admissions and old-money people, and in a way that I didn't even [come across] when I was working on Wall Street. Even then, I was working in a firm owned by Indian people, and there's a shit ton of Indian people on Wall Street and it was still, to me, more diverse than that place – and that place was diverse too, it's still a third students of color. But it was like a third students of color trying to navigate and figure out their place in this extremely old, white, institutional environment.

Not to impose my culture on yours, but as a Korean-American, I understand some of the pressures that Asian families can put on their children. When Forbes called you an "indie rap mogul" earlier this year, was that perhaps a point of validation?
Yeah, in a way. My parents, when I was younger, wanted me to be a doctor, and I studied economics, I worked on Wall Street. But it wasn't challenging to me or interesting, and at the end of the day, I think my parents identified early on I'm an advanced human being, and [they] just let me do my thing. It's not like I have parents who are Americanized or middle-class. Like, my parents speak Hindi at home, only spoke to Indian people, are very much in that world and don't really fuck with Manhattan or anything unless they have to to put food on the table, but they still were supportive and trusting of what I was doing. When I started getting press from GQ India or The Caravan in India, or like when I was in India Abroad, that was really when my parents started being like, "Oh, shit!"

[Forbes knows] I'm not lazy about what I do, I'm not half-assed in what I do. I care [about] young Indian kids who are confused about their life and struggling between whether they want to do art or music or write versus being engineers, doctors or pharmacists. It's something I figured out, but I remember when I was 18 and I had no idea, and I would look at other people like [jazz pianist and composer] Vijay Iyer and be like, "That's so cool." But at the end of the day, yeah, it was validating to me, because in a way, I like the business, I like the hustle more than the attention or any idea [like] fame or women or stardom, or whatever people might think you made music for. A lot of people that make music, it's kind of this narcissistic thing – like you think what you have to say is so important that 10,000 people should listen to it, that 500 people should gather in a venue. Like, "Who the fuck are you?" In a way, that's how I feel about my shit. I'm constantly like, "Why do people care about this?" Any artist thrives on validation, and I'm no different.

I heard some things about a Das Racist TV show.
The thing is, this is something that we've been working on and developing, but it's like you don't want to jinx yourself. You don't want to get ahead of yourself. Dap and Sacha [Jenkins] from Ego Trip and I have been developing something, and right now we're writing a pilot to shoot in the next couple months.

How's the next Das Racist album coming?
We've done like four or five joints, one with A Tribe Called Red. I'm not sure at this point, but we're going to work on some new stuff and [put] some of our stronger solo material on there too, since we've done a lot of that in the last year. And then maybe include some of the more popular older songs like "Hugo Chavez" or "Berzerker," which no one has really heard. We're in the lab on-and-off, just mixing things together and seeing what comes out. It's a much more natural process, kind of the way that the mixtapes were, where we didn't necessarily care or think about the fact that people were listening. On Relax, I was conscious to the fact that this was a commercial album, and I wanted to hit these points and these markets. I thought about it not just as an artist trying to make a weird Indian-psychedelic-pop-rap-prog-rock-reggae album. Now I'm just a little less heady about it, and we're just putting it together in a real natural way like we did before. It should be done by the end of the year.