Cartel Madras Speaks on Their Origins09 March 2020 / by Demar J. Grant (author)
Cartel Madras has been on tour since inception and since the sister duo of Contra and Eboshi started performing they’ve been blazing their own trail. After being inspired by a Princess Nokia performance they’ve forged their own musical identity, ‘Goonda Rap’, an abrasive, unrelenting style of trap that peers into the future of the genre while also gripping their past.
Born in Chennai, India and raised in Calgary, their unique sound and style has caught the eyes of everyone around them and beyond. Without any music available to stream, their visceral shows propelled their popularity near singlehandedly. After the release of their debut mixtape Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan in 2018, the romp continued until 2019 where they signed to Sub Pop alongside dropping their EP Age of the Goonda. Now they’re opening for the likes of Hollerado, Fetty Wap and touring with Sudan Archives and Clipping.
In the midst of their whirlwind come up, I sat down with the duo following their show at Longboat Hall where we discuss their origins, fashion and memories.
Demar Grant: Okay, so you guys moved from India to Canada, right?
Contra: We moved here when we were like kids. I was seven.
Eboshi: I was two.
Do you have any memories from India?
Contra: Oh, I went to school there. Trash! No, I'm kidding. Yeah, I was in Chennai. It was very, very, very different from here and I constantly think of going back. We do go back quite a lot but I constantly think of moving there and just like living there. My parents are always like "why would you ever do that? We literally took everything to move you out of that world into this one." But I don't know. I really fuck with India; I really like going there. I feel quite at home.
Eboshi: India's lit. It's wild it's really wild, we've gone back several times. My first time after moving out of India going back there I was like, seven. And I just remember being like, “holy shit these animals though! Oh my god mom and dad! Why did you make me leave?”
Contra: Whenever we go there is interesting because I think like most Indian people you meet their parents are probably from the same community or the same state, same background. Our parents have like very different backgrounds, different states like different...
Eboshi: It's basically like different to different countries. Because India is a sub-continent.
So, which two different places were they from?
Contra: So, my mom is originally from Kerala. And my dad is from Tamil Nadu plus Andhra. But they met and we were born in Chennai, so in Tamil Nadu. So, quite a bit of a toss up of South Indian origin.
Eboshi: Yeah, but we grew up in Calgary, Alberta.
So what was it like when you moved?
Contra: I mean, I was a nerdy immigrant. And that's why I'm a rapper now. My revenge story! But I guess it was really wild. Like, when we moved to Calgary, I don't know why my parents picked it. And I'm still wondering because it is quite the place, quite the difference. I think the trajectory of immigrants moving out of India is like: go to the UK or you go to the States, or if you're coming to Canada usually go to Toronto. Yeah, but for some reason they picked Alberta.
Now, coming back to it with the perspective that we have, it made us who we are. I look back on Calgary fondly on the occasion, most of the time, it's confusion. It's a city that's in this weird limbo where I think it's figuring out what it's going to be because it has right over one million people now. And It really pushed us into what we're doing now. It was not because anybody in that city pushed us to do what we're doing. Nobody next to me was like, “definitely be a rapper.”
Eboshi: But it was it really encouraged us to sort of break a mold out of several molds to break. We have always been creatives, we've always been artists. The academic route is what is expected of us. The professional route is what is anticipated of us and that is just not what we want to do right now. And we want to really show up for the rest of the people in our community and be like," yo, let's fucking let's do this and fucking change this up."
When you decided to make that shift, how did your parents take that?
Eboshi: Oh, my goodness. They were really shaken to their core. Really shaken to their core because it was like telling two people that have sort of mapped out what they expect from you. And we've already deviated from that so much because for a lot of immigrant parents, it's like, you're going to be a doctor, or you're going to be a lawyer, or you're going to be an engineer. And if it's not one of those things, you don't have use. We were really on a path to being politically engaged, you know, it was really what we wanted to put all of our efforts into. And then we were like, "We wanna be rappers" Which is the same thing, but for them, it was like "we're gonna rappers…"
Contra: Yeah, it's definitely the same thing. This is the argument we give our parents, we’re technically we're doing everything you want me to do to a tee. Right? Like...
Eboshi: You trained me for this dude!
Contra: All that dance class, all that music class.
So you guys were doing music before?
Eboshi: Yeah, yeah. Our parents made sure that like we were learned in the arts. But they never expected us to take it and run.
Contra: It's a classic immigrant thing where your parents...
Eboshi: Especially if you're an Asian immigrant, your parents are like, "you need to learn piano or violin," And that's very typical in Calgary, especially for children of immigrants.
Contra: They'll put you in classes even if they have no money to afford that class.
Eboshi: And their expectation is you learn that class. Their expectation is you learn an instrument and you use it for your applications in the future. Yeah, and you do not pursue it seriously.
Contra: It's like padding for your, eventually university degree.
Eboshi: So yeah, I was playing piano since I was three years old. And not because my parents wanted me to become a pianist but because they were like, "you need to know this." And honestly, that is a huge privilege in and of itself to be trained in a musical instrument from an early age because with that comes the ability to know how to sight read, we can write music. And people can learn those things later in life but having that as a background for music from so early on when most students statistically speaking don't follow through with that in any way shape or form is great. And so being able to utilize it unexpectedly in what we do now, It's great. I think it really worked out.
Do you think it's helping you right now?
Contra: Hundred percent
What's your first hip hop memory? Where you saw something and was blown away?
Eboshi: I distinctly remember I really, really liked Timbaland growing up. His production really like changed my life. And I'm gonna say like the 2000s era in which like Timberland was working, working. Like calling all the shots, Timbaland and Missy, Timbaland and JT, Timbaland and Nelly Furtado. He really had his foot in all the doors, and you could hear his influence in music today. And the way he changed production, it's just so monumental. That was just one of those things where I was like, “all of this sounds amazing. Anything you've touched sounds incredible.” That's one of my early production memories where if I'm remembering the sounds I like to hear in music. We were always internet music kids but we also had a TV growing up, on it Much Music would play it all the time and therefore, a lot of Timbaland production was playing on that TV.
Eboshi: 21 Questions is one of the greatest songs of all time.
Contra: I literally remember being a kid watching In Da Club. And that shot where 50 Cent is doing the upside-down thing? Amazing. And it's an interesting moment where, on one hand, I'm like, "Oh, you're like a super hot dude." But then on the other hand, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I want to be you. Yeah, I think I want to be a rapper." And I remember telling my friend that and she was like "Are you fucking dumb? We're literally the losers of this school, we're at the bottom of this food chain. What the fuck are you talking about?" And then my mom's very good friend kind of knew that I was into music. He worked with my mom and he came to over to house one day with a bunch of CDs for me. And it was like, Lauryn Hill and oldies, he did a cd dump for me which was a great intro to the beginning and old-school rap.
When did you first think to yourself, "I'm going to do this rap thing for real"?
Eboshi: Okay. Um, when I realized I was going to drop everything and become a rapper was when we had our first performance as Cartel Madras in January 2018. And we had just come back from India. It was crazy. It was a festival in Calgary and we were very excited about it. Before it happened, on my end, life was very, very turbulent. And I was just like, damn, I know what I'm supposed to do and I know what I'm going to do, but I don't know what I should do. And then after that first show, January 2018. It looks like "Oh, okay." And after we, we had done our first show I was like, "this is it, this is what I'm doing."
Contra: I think about so many moments in my life where I was like, "Alright, I'm just gonna become a rapper now." I think when I was like 17 and I would send my friend some songs I wrote and I was like, "yeah, obviously, I'm just gonna go become a rapper now."
And then when 212 by Azealia Banks dropped, it was like, "Yeah, okay, now's the time, like to rise up and become a rapper." Because that song was crazy and then, that kind of kept happening again. But, we'd never make that leap to actually record the music because it's really hard to do something when you don't see yourself in the ecosystem. Because then you’re pioneering it and there's a lot of women in rap for sure but aside from M.I.A there was really no brown woman in western music. Not really. So that was always kind of like "When are we going to do this? And how are we going to do this is? Is this Even this gonna work?"
And then we saw a Princess Nokia show in 2017 in Calgary. Yeah. And then it seemed like this door is opening for sure right now, I could kind of like feel it.
But yeah, it was like this moment where we're like "oh, this is underground POC female rap, trap, and a bit experimental. There's an audience here to support this as well and they're really into it." That's when we realized, let's put our stuff online.
The outfits, never really seen outfits like these before. Are you at home thinking "this would look sick with this" or do you have somebody that comes by and hands you your wardrobe?
Eboshi: We style ourselves probably 9.5 times out of 10. The only times we get styled is for a photoshoot here and there. Occasionally in Calgary we have a really dope stylist that'll cook us up something that she's really liked for us. But she'll also pull a bunch of stuff that we choose from at the end of the day because we can't perform unless we're comfortable in what we're wearing and we're going to be comfortable in what we're wearing if it's something that we know is going to work for us.
Contra: We really like fashion, which I think is a really big part of our identity. But it's fun. And its fun being a South Asian woman who can express themselves through what they wear because I think there's this kind of idea, of 'The South Asian Girl'. I think even prior to Cartel Madras we were always trying to look different.
Cool. I also wanted to ask you about the mixtape length.
Eboshi: We keep it short. We've kept it short thus far. We only have one mixtape, one EP, and they're both real short. And our first mixtape was that short because we had originally intended for it to be closer to half an hour. And then we were like, "you know, nobody knows who we are. Why the fuck would they listen to 30 minutes of our music?" and also, we had been performing all of our songs live. So, we knew what we like to do, what the audience enjoys, what worked a crowd and what was favorites for particular types of people that like specific genres of music. We had a lot of people very close to us that were like, "Oh, I like this list of songs." And that list of songs has lived and died with those people because it's like not what we want to perform. It's not what we want to do. So, there's a lot of tracks that have never seen the light of day outside of a specific few venue in Calgary. And so, when we were making Trapistan and the songs that went into it, we really wanted it to be focused, succinct, fun, fun, keyword fun, and represent what we want to do.
Contra: I get so tired of peoples' long projects.
Eboshi: There's a huge leap of faith in putting out any music ever as an artist because hopefully, someone's gonna listen to me. And we were shocked by the reception of our mixtape because we kind of threw it out there. We didn't know what if it was gonna get properly published because we did through DistroKid and we were independent and in our basement.
Contra: We were like "I think we need music" because people kept to asking us where to find our music after our shows. And we were like "it's coming!" So, we thought we might as well just drop this mixtape so there's music out there to that people can stream. Our attention spans are also very low. So, two minutes songs, is just right. Like that, to me, is good.
Eboshi: And it's also stuff that we enjoy performing. We love performing. We love making music, we love being in the studio, but we love performing.
Would you guys ever consider doing a show in India?
Contra: Oh yeah, we're planning to go to India and we keep getting invited there because we've kind of broken into the underground there. And having the Rolling Stone pick us up in India was good too. When we go there, because there are quite a lot of people there who kind of know us in the industry as well, we don't want to just go for one show and come back. We want to go there for probably six or seven shows, we probably have to tour the south. We have to go to Tamil Nadu and we have to spend some time in Kerala.
Ideally, ideally, I want to manifest this, we go and record our debut album there, or half of it. That would be fire.
What's the next step for the Cartel Madras?
Eboshi: We're working on our next EP.
Eboshi: Yeah, it's a big tour we're going to both West Coast and East Coast. And there's going to be a lot of dates. And it's going to be pretty crazy.