Main and front page images: Michaela Neuman
It’s a fool’s errand trying to relay a snapshot of Cartel Madras. Attempting to contextualise the artistry and young career of the Canada-based artistes (between Calgary and Toronto) within the sphere of peers and legacy players who surround them doesn’t do the duo justice. They’re on their own path.
For a start, their sound takes the open-mindedness of the hip-hop genre and fires it in directions fuelled by a lifetime of broad tastes and hunger for new music and progression, a desire to stand apart and a thirst for collaboration which isn’t tempered with a fear of diluting their identity.
The fact they’re sisters gives the couple a unique creative partnership and synergy which presents a united front both in terms of intertwined personalities and musicianship – the music they create could only be made by them in tandem.
It’s best, perhaps, just to hit play on the third and final part of their Project Goonda trilogy to get under their skin. This extended player (the debut album is yet to come but is on the horizon, the duo determined to take their time with its formation) shows off their broadest range yet.
Coming in at ten tracks it’s their longest offering too, and for any other act may have formed an album itself – this, however, is the necessary conclusion of their debut journey.
TECHNICALLY A SPORT
The Serpent & The Tiger is the culmination of years of hard work for Eboshi and Contra – an ending rather than a beginning.
Having established an introduction to how nice they were with Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan (independently released) and Age Of The Goonda (on Sub Pop Records, the result of Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler inviting them to join the label’s roster – “A good friend. In some ways like… our music dad,” says Contra), it continues to challenge assumptions as to how they should sound.
“What was interesting for us is the expectation that we continuously reduce our sound exploration ’til we hit the thing that the people like the most. And that’s not what we’ve been doing,” explains Eboshi.
The video for 2019’s Goonda Gold was a lot of people’s first look at Cartel Madras, and for most provided a shorthand for what they could expect from the duo. As Eboshi says, Cartel weren’t content to play to expectations.
“I could really feel that the most when we put out Working in the summer of 2020. It was one of our favourite songs that we’ve ever made. It’s really different from what we had put out before then, but it’s really true to what we love. Like, we love house music. And we love this type of rapping over it. And this, this makes sense for us to make.
“But a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, that’s a huge departure’. Guys, we have 15 minutes of music out – nothing is a departure from shit.”
The Serpent & The Tiger, at ten tracks their longest work to date, afforded the sisters more room to explore the concept and landscape of what Cartel could be.
“With this project, it felt like we could really indulge ourselves in making the sounds and the music that we wanted to make,” continues Eboshi. “For us, the second half of the project where things calm down felt really good for us – because we were so used to being tough and sounding angry and that’s great, but it’s also like yeah, we do smooth hip house. We do smooth vaporwave beats, we like chill sounding RnB mixed with future funk, those are all things that we’d like to do.”
Their earlier output had been fiercer owing to the pair writing and recording with live performances in mind. The pandemic slanted perspectives and ended up looping things back full circle. “Our live sets are super high intensity, a lot of jumping around and a lot of insane, riotous energy and that’s why we had the two (previous) projects be that way. And with this one, because we’ve spent a year and a half not performing and not doing the thing that really informs the majority of our music making, we got to just go back into some of the ways that we made music before Cartel Madras – having a hook that involves a bit of singing, going into a smoother rap.
“For us it harkens back to a time when we were doing SoundCloud demos in our bedrooms and playing with sound in a way that was, you know, a little softer, a little bit more like, traditionally girly in some ways.”
Always feel like I’m running out of
It’s been interesting watching the global media try and capture the concept of Cartel Madras to the masses in their own way. Music in 2021 saw genres ever evolving and colliding (despite your Spotify end of year lists telling you otherwise), something which comes naturally to Eboshi and Contra owing to their open-minded tastes and thirst for new underground talent.
First and foremost, Cartel are fans. The day we speak, they’ve just hosted a show on London’s Reprezent Radio playing the likes of Mancunian underground producer glue 70 alongisde Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. They’re buzzing off it.
“It was awesome,” emotes Eboshi. “We were really excited to get that opportunity because a lot of the music that we listened to is from UK based artists, (there’s) a really great scene there for both hip hop and just experimental music generally. We didn’t really exclusively focus on UK music, we did a good mix of the stuff we just put out, work by some of our collaborators. A lot of international stuff as well. We had a great time setting that up.”
“I think Freddie Gibbs is definitely one of our big influences,” Contra expands. “The way he’s able to ride a beat is just miles ahead… he’s a top five rapper for us, always has been.”
“Right,” agrees her sister. “We discovered Freddie Gibbs around the Piñata era, and it’s pretty wild to see now where he’s at – and I think it’s very deserved, right? I think he’s been kind of hustling in the underground for so long, kind of been fucked over by a lot of different entities as well. Which is unfortunate, because he’s such a prolific rapper, like he can rap circles around almost anyone. Rappers are terrified to be on songs with him. And I think just in terms of pure technicality and skill, being able to convey so much on any type of beat is, I think, something we try to do in our music where it’s like, it’s not like, one song, one story. It’s like, so many emotions, told in a way of writing over a certain beat that’s very infectious. That is what Freddie Gibbs does best.”
“We’ve seen him live, and it had a very profound impact on us,” says Contra.
People do seem to have a fairly religious experience if they’re lucky enough to have caught him on stage. “That’s exactly how it is, right?” replies Eboshi. “Like, he’s just standing in the middle of a crowd, the beat is going, he’s sweating, because he’s rapping so fast. And he is just rapping, like, at the speed of light. And as rappers ourselves, I think we’re like, we want to be able to perform in in that way. When you’re watching us, you’re only watching us, there’s no gimmicks, there’s no 15 people behind us, there’s no band, it’s us rapping to you. And you have to be able to feel what we’re saying. It has to be passionate, and it has to be skillful. It’s technically a sport, right? And he treats it like he’s an athlete.”
A CHAPTER CLOSING
Around the time of the release of The Serpent & The Tiger, the pair shared the news on social media that their maternal grandmother, Santha, had passed away. Raising the sisters while their parents worked, and continuing to be a part of their lives after this, she was ‘the oldest living matriarch of a very complicated and intense family from Kerala’.
“Our grandma was a very important figure in our house, in allowing us to keep a connection back home,” says Eboshi. “Having her be around all the time when we were growing up was, in retrospect, such a presence of home, like back home, here in Canada. We are very much anomalies in our family. But our grandmother was always the type of person to not really care if we did anything whack TBH, which I think is not the case for probably most Indian grandmothers. I think she was just deep down happy to see her two granddaughters living their life.
“Even the way she kind of spoke to us about it, which was, you know, sometimes jokey, sometimes curious, she liked that we had that agency that I don’t think a lot of a lot of women were afforded in our history and our family. So it is very strange, it is really an end of an era. And I think, I don’t know, somewhere in there, I kind of had this weird feeling that she would pass before this project came out. And it’s kind of like a chapter closing.
“It definitely has influenced the way we’re always kind of tethered to our culture back home. Even when we tried to get away from it… we were always tethered to it in a way because our grandma was always at home.”
Contra considers the pair’s storytelling a direct manifestation of Santha’s influence. “I think our grandmother was a very powerful storyteller. So there’s so much family history, knowledge, stories, anecdotes, characters that were passed down through her to us. Her painting a picture of back home and of her childhood, her aunts, of the other rebellious radical figures in our family. She was kind of the messenger to get all those stories to us, which sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously, finds its way into what we rap about.
“Sometimes, the characters embodying the story that we tell… we’re being journalists to our own family in a way, right? To our own history. And our grandmother has played a pretty significant part in that – most of the time with her not having any idea. That’s very much digested into us, into how we write and what we think about, or even the way we’re obsessed with telling stories.”
Pseudonyms, characters, rebirth and mythology – does the influence of Indian religious beliefs play a part in Cartel’s identity? “I would say that the more Indian side of it is the fact we’ve spent so much of our lives using fake names or using pseudonyms,” says Eboshi. “I’ve gone through so many different pronunciations of my own real name that finally with ‘Eboshi’ it feels the most like myself. It feels a lot more honest than the variations of my name that I use when I’m meeting people.”
“Yeah, I think being able to rechristen myself as ‘Contra’ has been very freeing in a way where it’s like, sometimes you have to kind of reimagine yourself in order to do all the things you need to do,” agrees Contra..
“I think your identity has to be fluid, and you have to be given the space to evolve and change,” considers Eboshi. “Because no one is a monolith, especially if you’re an artist. Three years ago, we were playing small shitty gigs in a brewery and then you fast forward two years, and you’re playing (New York’s) The Bowery Ballroom.
Fluid identity is a huge attribute for many. “Let’s even look at like, OG artistry, right? Let’s look at the greats. Let’s look at Prince, and David Bowie and the great artists that really set the tone for modern pop culture. And you think about the breadth of their career, and all the experiences that went into their body of work. And if you were to (ask them) three things they would tell you about who they are, they would absolutely not be what you think they’re going to be.”
Contra: “We reduce those big artists to like, a couple of things we associate with them like a colour theme, a font, three biggest hits – when someone like Prince has one of the most wide ranging careers, and has gone through so many ideological and personality shifts over time.
“I find people are so chill when men are like, ‘I’m going to call myself this insane name that has nothing to do with my name’, and people are like, ‘Yeah, of course. That makes sense. We’ll call you Lil Uzi Vert, no questions asked’. But when we’re Eboshi and Contra, people are like, ‘Why? Can you please tell us your real Indian name?’”
“We don’t have too many gripes with the press or anything. But like, boy, oh boy, do they love to government name us in anything they’ve ever written,” laments Eboshi.
“We’re like, we don’t go by those names,” adds Contra. “Like, how are you guys okay calling Jay-Z, Jay-Z? It’s like, what the fuck guys, y’all have been doing this forever – Prince was called Prince!”
Cartel wasn’t born into a local scene ready to receive them; having cultivated their own audience via their live shows, they strongly believe in paying it forward to the next generation.
“When we were starting out in Calgary, it wasn’t really a… ‘ripe’ scene for us to be put into and be involved in the way we are now,” Eboshi lays out. “Because now it feels like, especially in Calgary, we’re doing a lot within the community and for the music community. We’re constantly trying to centre new musicians in a conversation. We’re trying to create things for new artists that are up and coming in the scene. We’re trying to equip a new round of artists with the tools and the visual assets and the experience they need to have an easier go at this. And to have a more fruitful go, where they feel less disempowered and disenchanted with the whole mechanism of making music in Canada.
“When we were coming up, there were aspects of the community that we could see that we definitely didn’t feel like we were a part of, or feel invited to be a part of. And also because we were just trying to do something very different to what Calgary was offering.
“It felt like at the beginning, people weren’t really sure where to put us or what to do with us. And they wanted to book us for shows, but it was always just kind of a mishmash of either the venue didn’t seem like a good fit, or the lineup didn’t seem like a good fit. And you know, you kind of have to pay your dues that way as an up and coming artist in any city where you just kind of do shows that you’re not thrilled about ‘til you get to a point where you can call more of the shots.
“Initially, the hip-hop scene in Calgary was very old head, very conservative, didn’t really have too much intermingling with the queer scene in Calgary or the punk scene, those were all kind of separate families. And for us, it wasn’t even an agenda in so much as that’s just what we were doing once we got to a point where we had more consistent audiences. People who were coming to see us, the audience would be like a mishmash of those three families where you could be someone who has a completely different set of experiences and tastes than another person in our audience, because that’s the music that we’re trying to make. And that’s sort of the community, ultimately, that we’re trying to foster.
“Because the music that we’re making, and the community that we’re hoping to involve in that music making, is an extremely varied range of people with eclectic interests, and completely different backgrounds. We do not want a monolithic audience of one background, like we don’t want like just brown people, we don’t want just gay people, we don’t want like just women – we’re definitely not trying to have an audience of one community in an isolated sense. We want our music community and our and our artistic community to be as varied-ranging and as multitudinous as the music that we listen to, and the music that we’re trying to make.
Contra explains that they don’t make music for the reasons people often assume based on their heritage. “I think people think if you are a person of colour, or you are, you know, a woman, or if you are queer, your music is a reaction to the things that you are not… you know what I mean? It’s like, you get boxed into, ‘these women are making music to claim space against white men’, right? That’s a very flattening way to look at our music, because we’re not making music as a reaction to your music or anyone’s presence.”
“And the point of it is not at all to be like, ‘no dudes allowed’ or ‘no white dudes allowed’, that seems so reductive and so pointless, because our project, and music, has nothing to do with gatekeeping,” says Eboshi.
“Exactly. Ultimately, the only form of gatekeeping I want to do with my music is, ‘Oh, are you like, all the people who aren’t shitty?’ concludes Contra.
“Please. But, that’s the way I think we’ve been talked about in the media,” Eboshi considers. “And sometimes, obviously, in an environment like Canada, I totally understand when we leaned into it ourselves, right? You have to know when to play the game, so you can move forward.
“No one’s new to that, but that’s also the problem with these things. You’re asked to tokenize yourself, so you get hurt. Sometimes, you have to be ‘brown girls who rap’ so that you get a spot on the bill. ‘Cos everyone’s just kind of trying to move that forward or fill some sort of whack agenda of their own. So it’s this delicate balance of knowing when to play into these things, and then kind of also drawing some boundaries.
“Someone recently asked about (The Serpent & The Tiger), and they were like, is this album for the diaspora kids?” screwfaces Contra.
“No, it’s not! Nothing could be further from that. It’s like, our experience is like, nothing like immigrant kids, you know.” Eboshi knows this needs clarifying for people. “It’s so funny too, because like, right now there’s, there’s this big moment in music that artists that are from the diaspora are making, like, ‘this is for the immigrants, this is for the diaspora,’ and that’s great. That’s totally fine.
“Please don’t lump us with what they’re doing. I know, for the life of me, the lists that I see that we’re on, where it’s like ‘Five Diaspora Artists You Need To Listen To’ or ‘Five Female Rappers That Are Changing The Game’…
“You know, it’s very specific,” Contra reflects.”And it’s like, we don’t even we don’t sound like any of these people. And they don’t sound anything like us. Why are we lumped together with them? Just because we’re from the country with 1 billion people. It’s crazy. We’re definitely not always on the playlist with the people that we actually sound like and make music to sound like.”
Cartel Madras will continue to evolve and will always come up against presumptions and mis-labelling, but for now they celebrate the completion of the first phase of their career, with the help of an extended family of musical collaborators and fans. Their multitudinous community will continue to expand and music fans everywhere, including Eboshi and Contra, are in for a treat when the LP drops.
The Serpent And The Tiger is out now – stream and buy this and the Cartel Madras back catalogue over on Bandcamp.