Heems' New Album ‘LAFANDAR’ Is Alt Hip-Hop Caviar With A South Asian Twist

LAFANDAR
LAFANDARHeems

For hip-hop aficionados in India and across the world, Heems aka Himanshu Suri is an artist that needs no introduction. As one of the pioneers of alternative hip-hop with groups like Das Racist and the Swet Shop Boys, his music has blazed a trail that's been marked by an audacious, signature flow, impactful lyricism, and a reverence for the hybridity of cultures and traditions that have shaped his own identity.  

Spanning over two decades, Heems' creative efforts have always pushed the boundaries of what’s possible for South Asians in an industry where they haven’t always been embraced wholeheartedly. There’s an unapologetic intentionality in the way that he uses his roots and his heritage to speak to wider themes of race, identity and politics in America and beyond. What’s more striking, is the fact that he does so in a manner that’s both buttery smooth and yet still provocative and edgy enough to get people out of their seats. There’s always been a self-referential element to his music and he’s never shied away from parodying some of the stereotypes that have come to be associated with his heritage in order to drive home his message. 

‘LAFANDAR’, which dropped February 16, is his first album in almost a decade and in many ways picks up where he left off on his 2015 album, ‘Eat Pray Thug’. On LAFANDAR, a collaboration between him and Indian-American producer Gaurav Nagpal aka Lapgan, Heems showcases a sublime deftness and a sonic incisiveness that allows him to fully realize the potential he’s broached with previous releases. It’s difficult to pinpoint what allows LAFANDAR to stand out - whether it's the layered, atmospheric production that’s chock-full of a myriad of Indian and South Asian influences or even the poignant lyrical acrobatics that are laced with equal measures of experimentation, poignancy, satire, and socio-cultural commentary. The reality is that the album is the sum of all its parts. It's a culmination of Heems' lived and collective experience, musical intuition, razor-sharp wordplay and calls upon the talents of a whole host of collaborators who represent the diversity of artistry across the landscape of American hip-hop.

Alongside his musical endeavours, Heems has been hard at work expanding his lifestyle and magazine project ‘Veena Industries’, which he describes as his way of introducing people to his diasporic identity and the various cross-cultural influences that are a part of his world.

We sat down with the man himself for a brief, yet eye-opening chat, where he opened up about what influenced his new album, the importance of taking some time off, his ambitions for Veena, and much more! 

Could you go a little bit into your artistic origin story? What first inspired you to jump into the world of hip-hop? Was it always something you wanted to do or was it just a matter of the opportunity presenting itself as you got older? 

I never thought I would make music for a living. I used to rap with my friends, as one would in New York City. I made some songs for my friends and they sent it to their friends, and so on.

How has your cultural background and your heritage influenced your artistry? What are some of the challenges you had to overcome as a South Asian diasporic artist in a hip-hop landscape that quite possibly didn’t know how to place you at the time? What were some things that kept you going and how did you break through the glass ceiling and establish yourself?

Of course! A lot of label execs and fans of rap scratched their heads at me. Even this day I’ll pull up somewhere and they think I’m the manager or producer. I kind of like it. I like to use Indian samples because I grew up with Indian music. Sometimes I reference Indian things because that’s what I know. I also got validation from a lot of people who I respected so I’d focus on that and keep being good at rap by being me. 

It’s been a bit of a gap between albums for you both in terms of collaborative efforts as well as solo. Was there a specific reason for the hiatus or was it just a matter of wanting to pause, reflect, and work through other creative outlets? Do you ever feel the pressure to create for the sake of creating or for your fans, or is it more about being authentic and following your vision? 

I was a bit exhausted by being an artist. I also had the opportunity to work on strategy for the launch of Spotify India and give a platform for other aspiring artists to live that life. I created again because I felt better - mentally, physically, and spiritually - and had the time between jobs.

Could you talk a little about your creative vision for this album? What are some things that have inspired it compositionally as well as lyrically? Is this going to be something that flips the script and experiments with the sound people have come to expect from you or is it more of you doubling down on what you know and do best? 

I didn’t really have a creative vision. In many ways, we thought of this as a follow-up to my album Nehru Jackets. I got good beats, I picked what I liked, and I sent back songs in less than thirty minutes from a garage in Hicksville where my boy Karan Dhillon would record them.

You’ve been a part of two incredibly high-profile South Asian origin groups in Das Racist & the Swet Shop Boys. What are some of the most important lessons that you take away from creating in environments where there’s such a diversity of backgrounds, influences and styles? Do you feel it's easier to create when you’re able to bounce ideas off of people within a collective or do you prefer the freedom of going at things on your own? 

Making music with your friends is great. Both of these projects, ‘LAFANDAR’ and 'Veena', which comes out in May, are more like collaborations with producers than a solo album. LAFANDAR’s with Lapgan and Veena's with Sid Vashi.

If you could talk to the Heems from 20 years ago, what would you tell him? Is there anything you’d want to do differently as an artist or personally if you could go back? What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to young MCs and creatives who are trying to make their mark on the world? 

I’d tell him to work on your yoga practice now. I’d also tell those young MCs and creatives to work on their yoga practice now.

Veena is a brand that clearly has an immense amount of personal significance for you, your family, and your loved ones and there’s a unique intersection of stories and personal narratives with products that come straight from the Indian heartland. Could you speak to this a little more and tell us what we can expect from Veena going into this year?

Veena for me was about making a world that an album lives in rather than just an album. I’m like a little kid in the candy store of culture and want to do everything. With Veena I got to bring all my passions together - design, commerce, fashion, writing, music, health, ayurveda, and cooking. Every drop is a magazine issue with more music, more fashion, and more natural products from India.

LAFANDAR is out now. You can stream it here

You can follow Heems here.

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