On the surface, Cartel Madras is a hip-hop duo featuring 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 music today. But once you start digging into their material, you’ll find that there is much more to these trailblazing sisters.
Identity means a lot to the two Indian womxn, as does embracing their heritage, specifically their Tamilian 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 early beginnings, they were able to garner interest in cities like Toronto and Montreal, and even as far as India.
It’s no secret that Cartel Madras spitfire and flow with purpose. Their decision to be inflammatory is not to be shocking, but rather to comment and critique their expected roles in the world. We sat down with the duo to find out what they’ve been up to.
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 who 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.'”
The sound Cartel Madras has cultivated is both soothing and aggressive at the same time. Where do you get most of your inspiration from for your music?
We work with producers, beatmakers, and DJs from all over. 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 of all those influences.
From your appearance in shows and on social media, you’re both clearly connected to your culture as Indian womxn. 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 womxn, reaching the LGBTQ+ community, and the POC 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 womxn can flip the script on sexual swagger, that womxn can write hot bars and hooks, queer stories can be rapped, and that ethnic kids don’t need to be apologetic.
Where would you like to take Cartel Madras?
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.
This interview originally appeared in the May 2018 print edition of BeatRoute Magazine.