“In retaliating against the narratives expected of us, we’re saying women can flip the script on sexual swagger, that women can write spicy bars and hooks, queer stories can be rapped, and that ethnic kids don’t need to be apologetic.”
By Will Cowan
CALGARY – Calgary is one of those magical places where a diverse crowd of musicians and music fans can form and impress upon one another, fostering some of the most unique talents that can be seen on a stage. Cartel Madras is one of those unique talents.
On the surface, Cartel Madras is a hip-hop duo featuring rappers/singers/songwriters/sisters Contra and Eboshi Ramesh complete with all the style and flow that can stand toe-to-toe with some of the most seasoned rappers in the city. But once you start digging into their material, you’ll find that there is much more to chew on than catchy hooks and dance-y vibes.
Identity means a lot to the two Indian women, as does embracing their heritage, specifically their Tamalian and Keralite roots. Cartel Madras is rebellious at heart, and credits their upbringing as immigrants in Canada as an integral experience that has inspired them to push the envelope, to push boundaries.
This can be seen in their work ethic. In their inaugural year as a group, they have been able to garner interest in places like Toronto and Montreal, and even as far as India, but it can also be seen in their music and lyrics. It is no secret that Cartel Madras spit fire not only in their flow, but also with the words they choose. The decision to be inflammatory is not to be shocking, but to comment and critique their expected roles in the world.
Let’s start off with a little bit of history of you both. When was there a decision to create Cartel Madras and why did you feel that this was something you wanted to do?
We’ve always been looking for ourselves in the media we consume. Das Racist and M.I.A. meant a lot to us, but they’re a part of a very small group of brown cultural chameleons that were pushing the envelope in music. We felt a bit culturally deprived and wanted icons that looked and felt like us in the media we were surrounded by. Cartel Madras is the choice we’ve made to be the people we were looking for.
We’ve always refused to stay in our lane and always felt compelled to excel in whatever space we are in. And that’s definitely a cliche. Immigrant kids feel a special pressure to succeed and be ambassadors for their community.
We’ve been questioning those pressures our whole life through music, and spent a lot of time rapping in our bedrooms, recording it in secret and passing it along to friends under different monikers. By mid 2017, we were like, “We’re good at this, people fuck with us… ‘Esskeetit’ “.
From listening to what you have in store on your Soundcloud, the sound Cartel Madras has cultivated is both soothing and aggressive at the same time, mixed with some ‘90s dance vibes (HUNNI is a pretty good example of your dancier material, while Area Code mixes that soothing/aggressive feel). Where do you get most of your inspiration from for your music? Also, do you create your own beats or do you have producers and DJs come in and help out with the production side of things?
We’ve been curating and sharing music and DJing parties since we were kids. In those playlists there’s everything from MF Doom, Miyavi, Ilayaraja, Ed Banger Records, Lil Kim and Sufjan Stevens. So our music is an erratic mix from all those influences.
We work with producers, beatmakers and DJs from all over. Contra and Eboshi do the writing and arranging of our tracks, while DJ EGGLAD (who slept through the 10:30 AM BeatRoute photoshoot and missing on the May cover), handles sound engineering and production and makes sure shit slaps. What’s on our Soundcloud right now are more our ‘basement tapes’. The mixtape we’ve been working on explores house and trap while still keeping a strong lyrical core.
From your appearance in shows and on social media, you both seem to be very connected to your culture as Indian women. How important is it to you both to have that identity represented in your style and music?
We never miss an opportunity to tell people we’re from India. We grew up surrounded by other people of colour desperately trying to erase their identity to fit in. Representing the Tamilian and Keralite identity (as a part of a greater South Indian context) is so important to us. Reaching women, reaching the LGBTQ+ community, and the POC (people of colour) community through the incendiary content we create is crucial because we belong in these spaces, and people noticing us, is people noticing them.
In retaliating against the narratives expected of us, we’re saying women can flip the script on sexual swagger, that women can write spicy bars and hooks, queer stories can be rapped, and that ethnic kids don’t need to be apologetic.
This year is a very busy for Cartel Madras, from playing shows at Sled Island and East Town Get Down, to being featured on the cover of a music magazine. What do you think of the success and recognition Cartel Madras has garnered so far? Has it changed some of the original goals for you in any way?
We’re surprised and thrilled to see how much love our city has for us. At the outset of Cartel Madras it felt like we were intruding but were still confident that we were doing something vital, and the rate of our growth tells us that hip-hop is the path we should go down. We’re floored by how quickly this has all happened and excited because we’re about to live up to all the hype. Performing in festivals and shows with seasoned hip-hop acts is intimidating, but it is what we want and we’re confident that we can impress our audience. In some ways this has brought our long term goals into the short term. But what more could an artist really ask for? These are good problems and we’re glad that Cartel Madras is moving fast.
Finally, where do you want to take Cartel Madras next? Tours, features, videos? What’s on the menu for Cartel Madras in the future?
Our May and June are packed with shows that end with Sled Island. We’re looking to show the East some love this summer, too. Festivals and musicians have been reaching out to us from Toronto, Montreal, and India, which we’re especially stoked on. Our first priority is our mixtape look for that this May. We’re going to tour and build videos on that. After that we’ll be gearing up for the LP we’re releasing towards the end of 2018.
Our vision for Cartel Madras has always been to think big. We are rappers who can use our music to dabble in a trap banger on one hand and social commentary on the other. Beyond that, Cartel Madras exists in our stylistic choices, our political stance and wanting to put South India on the map. We love the way in which artists like Tyler the Creator, Gambino and RIhanna have pushed their music into fashion, television, film and activism. Cartel Madras would jump at the chance to move in those directions as well. Cartel Madras is an extension of everything that we are and want to see in the world, and we will push that as far as we can.
Cartel Madras will be performing at the East Town Get Down with Transit22 and Snotty Nose Rez Kids on May 26, and will also be performing at Sled Island in June. Cartel Madras is also planning on releasing their debut mixtape later this May.Cartel Madras, East Town Get Down, Sled Island, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Transit22