Most probably know Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems, from his work with the irreverent joke-rap group Das Racist. The group was known for its dizzying lyrics and snide social critiques, while rising to prominence with songs about Taco Bell. It was never clear whether they were casting playing a joke on the audience or themselves - or both.
Das Racist disbanded in 2012, and anyone who expected Heems to continue his role as madcap jokester was looking for the wrong Heems. When we called, he was deeply thoughtful and in a lazy calm. Perhaps this is because it was a warm Friday afternoon in New York City, and he was in the middle of watching Fast & Furious 6. But perhaps it's also because this is the more deftly realized version of Heems — someone who's ready to start getting serious.
Heems left for Bombay to record his debut album Eat Pray Thug, and though the album title parodies Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual self-discovery memoir Eat Pray Love, he's wise enough to not let himself off the hook. He knows that he’s also that American looking abroad for some kind of understanding. Instead, he’s smart enough to shining a light on his own contradictions. He's the class and the clown. The same and the other.
Eat Pray Thug is savagely shrewd and and proves that Heems doesn’t need jokes to hide his laser sharp commentary. He pivots between discussing discrimination against South Asians to meditating on a breakup. It’s the disorienting experience of a man in his late 20s, trying to navigate a world that’s always changing on him. Even at its heaviest, however, Heems doesn’t let you get complacent. On “Al Q8a,” he presents his rapper’s ego, then rapidly deconstructs it by pointing out the audience’s assumptions of his spirituality. He sandwiches guns from Al Qaeda amidst a pun on Kentucky hunting traps, a mispronunciation of “Osama,” and a joke about his liberal arts education, all supported by blips that sound straight out of a video game. He’s not presenting a mirror to himself or the audience. Instead, he’s holding out a prism and showing where the light splinters.
Before Heems' July 28 show at Crescent Ballroom, New Times talked to him about going solo, working day jobs, and being involved in, well, just about everything. [Note: this interview has been edited for length.]
New Times: Part of your album is about a breakup and the other is about post 9/11 America. Did you ever consider splitting it into different albums?
Heems: I mean, no. I wanted to make an album that was representative of me in the most honest way possible, after having made music that was a lot more tongue-in-cheek. That skirted around actual feeling and emotion, and instead chose to use humor in other ways to not have to face or deal with them. After the band broke up and after also I’d broken up with an ex of mine, a lot of things in my life had changed. I had a period of self-reflection, and this album kind of comes out of that... There’s not a lot of features, and it’s really personal. It’s difficult when you’re coming out of a group that was liked by a lot of people. I had pop tendencies and indie and instrumental influences in Das Racist’s music, but in my music I could take that to the next level. It could be more about me, and not just post-9/11 New York, but about the things I struggle about in life, and why some of those things may be. It was definitely a therapeutic album to make, whereas a lot of my other stuff was super playful and fun.
[Well, the album] was frustrating while making it, but now I can put it behind me. But it was really frustrating in that one year-long period where I was just waiting for it to be released. But now that I’m performing these songs on the road every night.. you know, it’s a bunch of songs from my album that I like, and I thoroughly enjoy performing them. And I also do stuff from my mixtapes and a couple Das Racist songs, and a couple from my side projects.
You mentioned that you have pop tendencies. Do you listen to a lot of pop music?
I’m a big fan of the radio because I don’t really use computers, so I don’t download music or have a Spotify. I mostly listen to music on the radio, or the same classic ten albums I’ve liked since I was like fifteen. Now I’m on the road, so I’m trying to keep up. As far as pop music goes, I like a lot of pop, like I guess the most “pop” could say is Taylor Swift. I did a Katy Perry cover as a solo artist like four years ago.
I can’t imagine you listening to Taylor Swift in your room alone.
No, I mean, I don’t go out of my way to listen to it, but when it’s on the radio, I totally enjoy it on the radio. I don’t really like Taylor Swift, I just chose her as like, the most “pop.”
Got it. Well back to the album – one of my favorite songs is "Patriot Act," where you’re talking about how minority groups, especially South Asians, have to keep their mouths shut and heads down to survive. But with this album, you’re kind of doing the exact opposite of that.
You’re from Phoenix, right? Well, yeah. Arizona was where the first Sikh was the victim of a post-9/11 hate crime. Balbir Singh Sodhi. It’s something that was extremely personal to me, but its repercussions were felt as far as even Arizona, where like immediately after 9/11 an innocent man was murdered because someone thought he was Muslim and called him Osama.
My parents didn’t want me to go out. If you read stories about me in high school, you’ll read that I wanted to go out and volunteer, but it wasn’t really a safe time. It was something that was a long time ago, and it was hard to make it an album and put it out on a record label in 2015, a record that dealt with something that happened in 2001. But it was something I was extremely passionate about, telling these stories. And there aren’t a lot of voices from my community in pop culture, and let alone ways that money would be spent to make art like that spread.
Now that you’re in a public position to be talking about race and identity, have people started expecting you to talk about it? Are you becoming a representative to talk about this stuff?
I guess I put that on myself, and I have no problem talking about it because it’s personal. When I speak about it, I speak from the heart. And a lot of what I’m talking about isn’t just about post-9/11. It’s about America as a whole, and how America treats its people of color. Whether it’s police on the ground and how they treat African Americans or Latinos, or whether it’s the American government overseas and how they bomb Arabs and Middle Easterners. The thing that most of them have in common is the same general lack of care on America’s part for bodies and people of color.
Is it frustrating to make this music and not see people’s attitudes moving? Or, I don’t want to put words in your mouth – do you even see people’s attitudes really changing?
I don’t know if people’s attitudes are changing, but I know that after the record came out, I got to speak about it on Hot 97, New York’s rap radio station, and I got to speak about it on NPR. And so even it was just two weeks in these days when everything moves so quickly on the Internet, I’m extremely fortunate that I was even able to be a person who got to have that kind of platform to tell these stories and to speak. So I’m happy that I’m able to put this record out, and to be doing a 30-date tour.
I read somewhere you’ve got a day job in advertising too. Are you still doing that?
Yeah, while the label wasn’t putting the album out, I started doing some work in that space of advertising and technology. It was more analytics and stuff. I have a curious mind and like to stay busy, and the record label I was signed to wasn’t supporting the album. Even now, I want to shoot more music videos, but I guess there’s no budget. I’m already started to focus on working on my next record.
And I’ve acted in a couple of different films, they’re all indie. Some of them have started showing at festivals, some started shot as early as last month. So I’m trying to stay active in that space too. But I think for me, I’ve told a lot of stories in rap. And I’m definitely interested in other media, but rap is what is easy to me. Even two nights ago, I was in the studio and it just comes to me. If I have a platform for it, I might as well try to put out records. It’s a tough game, because even the best guys who don’t need to drop records every week drop like, five takes a year. You’ve got to keep doing it and love it. And I do, I love making music and telling stories.
You’re doing so much stuff, how do you have time to sleep?
Nah, I’ve got time. I’ve got mad time. The things I do, some of the times it’ll be shooting a film for a week, and playing two shows, and doing a lecture. And that’s in an off-season. Right now I’m definitely busy because I’m playing... like four or Five shows a week. But I get off-time a lot too. I like staying busy. It’s the healthiest thing for me. ... I’m someone who wants to do it all.
Okay, I want to finish off with a couple of stupid questions. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I didn't eat breakfast.
What's your favorite record to play at like, 2 in the morning?
I really like playing Unknown Mortal Orchestra's new album [Multi-Love].
If you can be on any sports team, which would you be on and what position would you play?
Huh. I don't know, because if I was playing, I would be taking the spot of my favorite player. I wouldn't want to alter history by taking out my favorite player and replacing him. But... I'd want to be a fucking famous cricket player in India.
What book would you recommend to an old college roommate?
Probably The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
If you were forced to drink some kind of solid food in liquified form, like a burger that had been put in a blender or something, what would you...
I don't fully understand the question. But I think the answer is pizza.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE...
Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.