Q&A: Heems Talks About His Label Split and Three — Yes, Three — Upcoming Albums
The Queens rapper is also developing a TV show with 'Fresh Off the Boat' writer Sanjay Shah
Himanshu Suri, better known to the rap world as Heems, finally put out his official solo debut, Eat Pray Thug, this past March after a pair of wonderful mixtapes in 2012 — the slightly psychedelic Wild Water Kingdom and the densely funny Nehru Jackets. In his viciously funny ex-group, Das Racist, he was mostly known for clever, half-straight-faced, half-satirical rhymes that name-checked Dwight Schrute and Mark Ruffalo, but Thug is one of 2015’s most sobering meditations on race in America this side of To Pimp a Butterfly, which was released to deafening acclaim around the same time. Alongside his usual hyper-referential hilarity on tracks like “Sometimes” (“Made enough friends like I play in the Wrens”), autobiographical horrors like “Flag Shopping” and “Patriot Act” detail the harrowing, post-9/11 Indian-American experience in every cruel detail. (Following the tragic events of this past weekend, he’s written an op-ed for VICE on why he wouldn’t cancel last night’s show in Paris.)
Eat Pray Thug was heard by far fewer people than it should have been though, and curiously never surfaced on streaming services like Spotify, much to the 30-year-old rapper’s chagrin. Heems extensively blasted his (now-former) label Megaforce for bungling the promotion of a career highlight that should’ve gotten more attention. But he got on the phone with SPIN to talk about moving forward — not just with three (!) new albums in the works, but also with a TV show.
You recently unloaded on Twitter about how Megaforce failed to promote Eat Pray Thug. What happened there?
I think I’ve already pretty much explained a lot of what the situation is. Our previous relationship was one of a distributor and a label, where I was a label [his DIY Greedhead imprint] and they were a distributor. And Das Racist wanted more support, so we had signed with them, then Victor [Vasquez a.k.a. Das Racist’s Kool A.D.] had quit and he still had a contract with them. I signed up for a solo contract, and essentially they’re recouping all of Victor’s money from me alone. It’s not worth enough to take them to court. And I’m sure if they told you from their angle, they would say they’re in their legal right to do everything. At the core of it is an unclearly worded email from, like, a year and a half ago, but essentially they’re taking publishing from me on top of royalties and the way they did it wasn’t really cool at all.
Now I have a different relationship with the publisher where we worked things out on our own and I’m not dealing or talking to Megaforce. I have no interest in promoting Eat Pray Thug anymore; right now I literally have a studio set up in my room, and the plan is to make three albums in the next month, one of those being Nehru Jackets 2 with [original Jackets producer] Mike Finito.
What are the differences between the three albums you’re working on?
Well, the producers are distinct. The Last Skeptik is from the U.K., and he’s got a much more British sound. Finito’s got that future New York boom-bap with Indian sounds. Megaforce essentially took off all the Indian samples from Eat Pray Thug ‘cause they didn’t want to go about clearing anything. So the album was essentially stripped of the main component of my music. And then I’m working with this guy Don Miguel from Long Island, and I’m giving him Indian samples. He’s kind of rooted less in boom-bap underground but still a New York kind of sound. It’s maybe a little bit more commercial. So an underground rap album, a mainstream album, and a U.K.-trying-to-move-s**t-forward-creatively album.
Was it a surprise when Victor tweeted at you himself to leave him out of the label situation?
No, that’s not a surprise. That’s how he is and I’m how I am. I don’t know how to explain it any other way.
You’ve publicly asked Megaforce to put Eat Pray Thug on Spotify. What were they thinking?
[Megaforce] was like, “Well, we don’t want people to listen to it for free, we want them to pay for it. So if it’s not on Spotify they’ll go to iTunes and buy it.” And I’m like, “Do you guys buy music in 2015? Do you know how people find the music they’re listening to?”
Basically they told me, “You’re not a rapper. You’re not a person of color. Your audience is white. Your audience is Pitchfork, and that’s how we’ll market you,” and then proceeded to not even market me. I literally A&R’d the record myself, wrote and directed the videos myself. I was the one sending the producer agreements out. They turned down a Diplo beat because they didn’t want to spend three grand on it.
What song was that for?
It was for “Pop Song (Games).”
That’s terrible timing because Diplo had sort of a banner year.
Yeah, and then they asked me to have him remix the track that they had him taken off of. [Laughs.]
I also had videos written for “Home,” and one for “Flag Shopping,” about brutality against African Americans at home and about brutality against brown people abroad. I wanted to put out the video for “Flag Shopping” on the Fourth of July.
Just from a listener’s perspective, it seemed like, for once, bigger labels were releasing rap albums that seemed to let the artist do whatever they wanted to.
Well, Earl [Sweatshirt] was talking about how Columbia messed up his rollout with it going up in iTunes, and you know, even TDE to some extent had something happen with Kendrick. Ultimately as long as it’s like eight 50-year-old white men on one side of the table and a 22-year-old kid excited about making music on the other, it’s not exactly a fair situation, you know? But that’s the way it’s always been.
You’ve also talked about creating TV show based on your life with Fresh Off the Boat’s Sanjay Shah. What makes you trust a TV station more than a label?
I wouldn’t say I fully trust a TV station, but I know that everyone I’ve spoken to [about the show], I’ve been excited about speaking to. It’s a bit of a gamble, and that’s how it’s gonna be.
Who approached who with the show idea?
Sanjay approached me upon listening to Eat Pray Thug with his child, and was thinking about this concept of how it’s strange to a lot of Americans the idea that you would live with your parents. I was always raised with the idea that, like, Americans put old people in homes, but Indian people put them in our homes. To me, none of this is weird, because I come from a small pocket of Queens that’s like 80 percent Indian. So as long as I get to keep these [realistic character] names that look weird to y’all in blogs and on TV, then I’m content.
The idea of a sitcom about a rapper that lives at home sounds amazing.
You know what, though? At the same time, I think of The Fresh Prince when I think of that.
Sure, but he didn’t play an actual rapper.
Right, no. This show would be about literally being a rapper and it plays on what your interpretations of what you think a rapper is supposed to be like. A constant in my career is playing with people’s perceptions of who rappers should and should not be, whether that’s a gay rapper, or a white one, or an Indian, or a Bangladeshi one. I’m motivated in getting one of these funny names across your eyes.