Canadian-Indian duo Cartel Madras on new EP, Age of the Goonda: 'The beats we use aren't feminised'

Anurag Tagat

Dec 02, 2019 09:51:59 IST

Last week, Calgary-bred, Chennai-born siblings Bhagya and Priya Ramesh (it’s Eboshi and Contra respectively) performed as hip-hop duo Cartel Madras at one of their biggest shows yet – supporting rapper Fetty Wap at the Canadian Grey Cup Festival. Attached to the American football event Grey Cup, the now Toronto-based sisters liken it to a homecoming.

Bhagya said before the show, “Coming back to Calgary to do a show like that, that’s going to be one of those shows where we’ll see the reach and the audience size that we’ve been wanting to perform to.” Cartel Madras’ brand of trap and hip-hop (peppered with plenty of Indian elements) – styled as “Goonda rap” – has been only a few years old now, but their latest record Age of the Goonda was released on long-standing label Sub Pop (which championed the grunge era of rock) in November and is beginning to garner them attention. In addition to performing alongside the likes of Wu Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, Mac Demarco, Clipping and more.

 Canadian-Indian duo Cartel Madras on new EP, Age of the Goonda: The beats we use arent feminised

Canadian-Indian duo Cartel Madras.

While 2018 saw releases like Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan – a record that introduced their South Indian and Canadian identity – it’s songs like 'Goonda Gold' which have seen them become louder, bolder and possibly unhinged. Produced by Indian-origin artist SkinnyLocal, there’s a devotional chant to hype things up, followed by a volley of gunshot samples. Bhagya says, “We initially thought of it as, 'I don’t know if we want that.' But it sounded so lit. We’re not religious at all, but we grew up with religion and hearing that constantly.”

Priya mentions at this point how every Cartel Madras song could be an “identifying exercise” of their multicultural identity, but it’s not a trap they fall into. “A lot of people have these terrible ideas of what they want us to look like or what they want us to be,” she says. As much as they’ll be happy to talk about their Indian roots and India, Bhagya clarifies, “We also want you to hear our music and not just see us as two Indian women doing something that’s kind of new.”

The six-track, 12-minute Age of the Goonda is a rollercoaster trip from start to finish. 'Jumpscare' – produced by Nevik – is one of their noisiest, unexpected turns. Even for them, their experience working with Nevik on 'Jumpscare' and 'The Legend of Jalapeno Boiz' was different. “We’d been waiting for that beat. That really weird, spooky production. It sounds like a JPEGMAFIA B-side. We were waiting for that.” Turns out not many producers have worked with two female rappers, so Cartel Madras needed to get involved to arrive at a sound they liked. Bhagya says, “We don’t use beats that are traditionally associated with women rapping. The beats we use aren’t ‘feminised’ or ‘smooth’.”

Belgian trap beatsmith DJ Yung Vamp contributes to a delectable song called 'Dawood Ibrahim (Woof Woof)' which takes no prisoners. It features lines like “I f*ck with all of my Desi hunnis / Put my other goodies in my other gunny /I’m cooking up some dosa to some Motown / That’s the wave I’m on now.” The SEO-friendly song 'Lil Pump Type Beat' is not just a reference to the rapper, but to the bedroom producers who just want to try their hand at beatmaking, making it a fun party song.

In their quest for producers, they also came across Kochi producer Parimal Shais, who sculpted sitars and tabla for 'Glossy'. While it appears in a minimal version as an outro on Age of the Goonda, there’s an extended cut heard on Shais’ own impressive album Kumari Kandam Traps Vol. 1. Cartel Madras say they worked long-distance only with Shais, but were most happy with the result. “'Glossy’s' actually my favorite song,” Bhagya says.

In terms of pushing boundaries, subversion is pretty much the name of the game on Age of the Goonda. But it’s not at all for the shock value, leaning more towards an authentic expression of two brown women who want to take on the world. Bhagya says their own internal filter for writing music is that it should just sound good and be something they would listen to. Priya adds, “I think Age of the Goonda is the perfect comfort zone for us. It allows us to have a playground of sounds and beats and content. It begins a lot of stories. Are you trying to tell stories that matter to you? It’s always been like, we’re trying to tell our stories, the stories of people in our families, our communities.”

Up next, there are more shows in Canada to round off what’s been a big year. They are already working with a producer named Freeza Chin in Toronto which could see new Cartel Madras material that leans on grime and drill. “We want to see where that will take us,” Priya says.

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Updated Date: Dec 03, 2019 16:00:19 IST