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Cartel Madras are creating “Goonda Rap”, their very own rap genre

The Calgary sisters are pushing forward and innovating with what they say is "a very unique project"

Eboshi and Contra, a pair of sisters who make up Calgary rap group Cartel Madras, emigrated to Canada in 1999. 20 years later, the duo now find themselves at the forefront of a new genre they’ve coined “goonda rap”. Since their inception in 2017 they’ve opened for CupcakKE and released a new EP, ‘Age of the Goonda’. Comprised of six tracks, the EP possesses layered bass lines pumped with adrenaline, a range of Indian classical instruments weaved in and hooks that stay in your brain for days.

Eboshi and Contra, who both identify as queer, ride the torrent of beats with their complex, rapid-fire rhymes full of braggadocio and bars about Indian and Tamil culture, while making niche references to being immigrants. All the while, they affirm themselves as a force to be reckoned with due to their distinctive sound. NME caught up with the sisters shortly after the release of ‘Age of the Goonda’ earlier this month to talk about growing up in Canada, looking up to the likes of M.I.A and developing their “very unique project”.

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What was life in Calgary like growing up? Especially as it’s a place that doesn’t have a large South Asian population…

“It was conservative, cowboy, country, white. Honestly, growing up there was confusing. There was a lot of, like, identity crises, figuring out where we fit, where we belong, developing to eventually become two rappers — which is not a familiar story to Calgary, especially if you’re two Indian girls in Calgary that are queer. The South Asian population that is in Calgary is predominantly Punjabi. It was weird even within Indian circles [because] we’re South Indian.

“Even back home, in the south of India, we existed in this weird dual space, because our Mum is Keralite and our dad is Tamil. It was a mash of South Asian perspectives coming together. We’ve always kind of spoken to that and it comes through in our music.” 

How and when did you guys start making music and rapping?

“We started making music fairly early: we were dabbling in a lot of different genres because there was always the need and want in being creative in that way. Rapping came to us probably when we were both in high school. We started writing raps in high school and working on that, but very secretly. In 2017, we were showing each other our raps for the first time and being like, ‘This is something we enjoy doing’. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we became Cartel Madras. 

“We were also consuming a lot of different music, and right from the start the style of us writing raps was quite distinct. Our father’s mum professionally played the veena, which we have played terribly before. We learnt Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam growing up. Those things have all trickled down in different ways to influence our sound. Even being dancers has influenced the way we do trap and play with percussion in our music.”

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Cartel Madras
Cartel Madras (Picture: Tom McKay)

Who were your biggest influences growing up?

“Undeniably, M.I.A was an influence. It was extra wild because she was Tamil. For us growing up in terms of hip-hop music, MF Doom, Biggie, Lil Kim — all of these people we listened to and were influenced by. They were so tantamount in creating us as rappers and lyricists.

“At the same time, specific versions of what we could become in M.I.A and in Heems of Das Racist were so important. If those people didn’t exist in music, we wouldn’t exist in music.”

How does it feel so early on in your career to be compared to other Asian rappers like Riz MC, Heems and M.I.A? Do you feel in any way boxed in by diaspora rap? 

“Every artist would love to be compared to a good artist but hate to be thrown into the same box as the people who might look like you but may not represent you at all. Both have happened to us. In the same breath as someone being like ‘You’re like an M.I.A,’ there’s also ‘there’s this other brown artist who’s just brown and so are you.’

“Cartel Madras is a very unique project. The space we’re trying to occupy is very different from [what] South Asian and diaspora brown artists are doing. I think we all come at it differently and we all have different agendas. So it does feel like we get boxed in, but at the same time there’s so few of us already that it’s an interesting box. There’s so few of us in music and specifically in hip-hop. The box is truly a creation of not really listening to any of us and just looking at us. As infinitely flattering as it always is to be [included] in a sentence with M.I.A and Das Racist, there’s also the understanding that [people] not of the same background as us are probably not going to be mentioned in this conversation simply because we’re Indian.”

Which artists would you say you sound like? 

“Sonically, our music sounds a bit closer to $uicideboy$, Freddie Gibbs. We take with us everywhere that we’re influenced by Princess Nokia, CupcakKe and Cakes Da Killa. But we are musically informed by Gibbs, MF Doom, $uicideboy$. There are people we thematically align with, and there are people we’re in the same space and ecosystem of that we sound like.

“Most of the time we’re playing this game with the audience where we’re selling them a new idea and asking them to buy it. It’s great because it always lands and by the end of our shows, people are always like: ‘Whoa I’m here for this.’”

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