PC: Sierra Stone
Here at Scrunchie, we continue working through some of our old content that was never made available to read online. This interview with Contra and Eboshi, the duo that make up hip-hop outfit Cartel Madras, was originally recorded in early 2021 to air on Cedar Rapids, Iowa college radio.
Bhagya “Eboshi” Ramesh and Priya “Contra” Ramesh are sisters based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to their close familial relationship and shared birthplace of Chennai, India, the sisters also identify as queer and share many musical influences such as MF Doom and Cupcakke that influences the “Goonda Rap” music they strive to create. Contra and Eboshi have been recording music together since 2018, when they put out their first mixtape, “Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan.” They signed to Royal Mountain Records/Subpop in 2019 to release their EP, “Age of the Goonda.”
In this interview, Scrunchie hosts Sarah and Weronika explore a variety of topics with the sisters, such as their journey into music, how their identity as sisters influences their creative relationship, and their non-musical influences. Additionally, we touch on some lighthearted topics such as go-to gas station order, “neckbeard” influences, and Eric Andre’s OnlyFans page.
We also explore the inspiration behind the video for their banger “DRIFT,” which serves as a playful anthem about hanging out and smoking weed with your friends. However, the song is also deliberately purposeful, as it serves to demonstrate South Asian and BIPOC women having fun with marijuana, which is not normally a role they are shown occupying in mainstream media due to racial stereotypes. Finally, the music video for “DRIFT” serves the third purpose of showcasing many other artists in the Toronto music scene, such as Dom Dias, a producer and DJ who features on the song.
Finally, we wrap up our interview with some “girl talk,” such as a discussion about Contra and Eboshi’s favorite accessories, and advice they would give their younger selves. Currently, in present-day 2022, the duo released their album “The Serpent and the Tiger” in 2021, and Cartel Madras just wrapped up a few tour dates across the pond in Glasglow and London.
WHAT IS YOUR GO-TO GAS STATION ORDER?
Eboshi: Pepperoni stick.
Contra: You know how when you go to the gas station they have those Lunchables packs with the shitty cheese and the mini crackers? That’s what I get, and I always regret it. I always have, like, diarrhea right after.
Eboshi: We always decide to fuck up our stomach on tour, whether it be, like, the sheer amount of booze we have the night before, or the amount of coffee we’re crunching every day, so that when we’re in transit, we’re just suffering.
Contra: Only way to do it. We were actually in Chicago–that was like one of our last stops (of our tour).
Weronika: Where were you guys playing?
Eboshi: We played Sleeping Village.
Contra: Sleeping Village, yeah. It was amazing. I really fucking liked our Chicago show. We were with Sudan Archives–we were opening for her, so that was a really wild tour. Very, very “NPR” crowd, but it was cool.
HOW HAS YOUR MUSIC BEEN SHAPED BY YOUR RELATIONSHIP AS SISTERS? DO YOU FEEL THAT IT AFFECTS YOUR SONGWRITING PROCESS?
Contra: It does. It absolutely does affect the way we write songs because it keeps us from writing garbage. You know what I mean? Cause, you know, you’re sisters, so I can’t write something absolutely dumb. [Eboshi] would be like “This is whack, what are you saying?”
Eboshi: It keeps us really honest, which I think is… you know, people tend to be really nice with people all the time, and that’s a really great way to operate, but between the two of us, we can be complete assholes with each other and not have to worry. If I write something that’s horrible and corny, [Contra] will be like “Bro, what is this?” And I’ll be like “…Yeah what is this?” But if it was someone else, or even a collaborator, we kind of have to walk on eggshells. I’d say between the two of us, we can cut the BS a lot quicker. I think that saves a lot of time.
It keeps us kind of on top of our writing game because we just get to what we are trying to say with a lot more clarity. I think if you’re just songwriting on your own, it’s great, you’ll do a good job, which is what we do–we write our own verses on our own, and then we come together to write a hook and edit each other’s stuff. It works out for us really well because we have very different ways of formulating our verses, so we wouldn’t be able to write for each other or do anyone else’s stuff. Being able to edit each other’s lyrics is a great way for us to sharpen up our skills and make sure everything is looking correct.
Weronika: It sounds like you guys are able to be really honest, and, like you said, take no bullshit from each other, you’re just kind of in sync like that. Is anyone else in your family musically inclined, or were you kind of the “music spawns” of the family?
Contra: Our dad really likes music, but it doesn’t mean he did anything with music. The way our mom has affected our music is that she, at some point in her life, she was a performer. She’s very “on the stage” all the time. So I think that’s definitely rubbed off on us. Does that mean she’s good at making music and singing? No, she has a terrible voice. It’s really bad actually.
Eboshi: She thinks she can sing though.
Contra: Shockingly bad for an Indian woman. But, on my father’s side, his mother was super musically inclined. She was an instrumentalist and had a chance to be a professional singer, but they, like, axed that because she was a woman in the early 1900s. So I would say we’re kind of the first in our family to foray into this world.
WHAT ARE YOUR NON-MUSICAL INFLUENCES?
Eboshi: Yeah, we’re like huge nerds. All we do in our spare time is read books, watch a lot of movies, and then talk about it. We’re never not talking about the art we consume. It’s in [regards to] everything, we read a lot of fiction, non-fiction. We have our personal neckbeard favorites that we keep coming back to on a yearly basis. You know, every artist says they have eclectic taste, and they do. Artists tend to pull from a wide variety of influences from around the world. I’d say we’re much like that. One of our favorite musicians is Ryuichi Sakomoto–[who is] Japanese; one of our favorite directors is Mani Ratnam from India. We have wide reaching influences from everywhere that really trickle down into our art.
Contra: I would say our music is as equally informed by film, literature, and pop culture as it is by other music.
Sarah: What are some of your “neckbeard” favorites, or just some of your other favorites?
Contra: I think we’re both obsessed with Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is our favorite anime.
Eboshi: Another big neckbeard fave of ours is Camus, we like him a lot, I used to have kind of a crush on him, super lame. I would say in terms of literature, we tend to go through phases of… When you read (Haruki) Murakami, you read it and you finish it, and you go through all of it, and then you come back to it in two years, and then you find different things in it. We read Marisha Pessl, finish all of her stuff in one go, and then the next year we’ll read it again, and we’re like “Whoo… still just as good as last year.” I’d say, in terms of how “neckbeard-y” we can get, it knows no bounds, we really ham it up at home.
YOU LAUNCHED A PLAYLIST CALLED “FOREIGNERZ” FULL OF ARTISTS MAKING MOVES ALL OVER THE WORLD. HOW DO YOU USUALLY DISCOVER NEW ARTISTS TO GET INTO?
Contra: The fun thing about us as a group and kind of where we’re from is that we really do have friends all over the world who are artists. Even if you look at where we’re from in India–we’re half Tamilian, half Malayali–so that opens up a whole bunch of branches of musicians and artists moving in the underground back home.
On top of that, there are diasporic artists here making music kind of like us. There’s people from the trap scene in Canada, people from the trap scene in the U.S, people in the experimental rap scene. We tap into so many different music ecosystems, it’s really awesome because it makes our music way better because we get to hear what everyone is doing in the underground. We’re always kind of engaging and talking to people all over the world and looking into their ecosystem and how they’re making music, and how it’s operating there. I think it’s also super important for people to hear music from everywhere else.
Eboshi: I think so too. I think a big part of what we’re trying to do with that playlist, and what we’ve been ding always, it’s just now we kind of have a platform where we can recommend our friends and the people that we’re fans of to the people that listen to us and be like “Oh, if you really like Cartel Madras, we have a whole list of people you might fuck with.”
I’d say getting the average North American listener to listen to rap in a completely different language is sometimes a big ask, and I don’t think we often recognize that–at least between my sister and I, because we grew up listening to music from around the world, watching movies with subtitles, watching anime, watching everything in their original language and consuming that art in that original language. If it’s music and we don’t know the language, that’s fine. If we like the song, we like the song. I think there’s a huge bridge to cross for a lot of consumers in North America, which is the language bridge. I definitely grew up and became an artist taking for granted that a lot of people don’t listen to music they don’t understand, and I think more people should, because that’s how you find lit music, that’s how you find dope artists, that’s how you find people who are coming up around the world.
I think it’s definitely a lot more common [now]; everyone’s listening to k-pop, everyone’s listening to stuff they don’t understand. Maybe they’ll find the translation and they’ll sing along and do their thing to it, but I think even if you can’t translate it, even if you can never fully understand what they’re saying, you should still listen to it if you like it. Our playlist is very international and has a bunch of different languages in there. We have Japanese music in there, Ukrainian, French… you know, the music we listen to. We’re trying to be like “Y’all can listen to this too.”
Contra: I feel like the world is there [right now], I mean “Parasite” just won [best picture at the Oscars] last year.
Eboshi: Exactly. Even Bong Joon Ho said that during his speech, like “I strongly recommend all of you read subtitles.” Like, the controversy surrounding “Parasite” winning was such a weird thing because people were like “Why would I watch a movie in another language?” And I was just like, “Oh, this is a problem.” I didn’t realize this is something people don’t do because, as international people, essentially, we’re always either switching gears to speak with people from different parts of the world, watching movies from different parts of the world. But also, we live between two worlds, quite literally, and we’re constantly code switching as young diasporic kids, and I didn’t understand it was such a big deal.
Contra: I guess it was super normalized when we were kids. We’re from Calgary, and we went to a school with a lot of different people. We were a minority, but so was everyone.
Weronika: Yeah, in Chicago, there are a lot of different cultures, a lot of different neighborhoods, but it’s still one of the most segregated cities in the whole country. Obviously the suburbs in general are a very white, affluent population. Also, gentrification is a huge issue. But, a lot of that culture is still there and evident in a lot of these neighborhoods, and it is really important to uplift those neighborhoods and give back those resources and uplift black and brown communities that are struggling in comparison to neighboring communities that are getting more funding. We can get into a whole issue-based conversation there.
I’m hoping people are more open to international, not just music, but movies and all sorts of media and content.
It seems like we’re making moves towards being like “Yes, international stuff is good”, but then, when it comes to accepting immigrant content within your own country, it’s just like… we’re gonna exoticize that and continue to other that, which I think is counterproductive.
Eboshi: Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting state of art where you truly have so many immigrants and children of immigrant making art in these global north countries, and a lot of them, I think, start off by making art that it typical of the sound of the people and the places they assimilate to. I think they come of age in a world where they’ve been othered for quite some time and they make music to try and fit in a little bit better, at least they start off doing so. And then they get to a part in their career where they’re seeing all of these younger diasporic kids making really culturally-leaning type music and aesthetics. They see that and they’re like “Yo, this was not cool when I was growing up, nor was this really allowed, and I wouldn’t have a career if I was doing what you are doing right now if I was doing that at the start of my career.”
I think there’s a bit of cultural whiplash for immigrant artists and diasporic artists where they feel like they either have to really work against their ethic background in the music they’re making, or they really have to run into it, almost to the point of which it’s a crutch. I think there’s a state of disarray of diasporic arts in terms of how authentic it is and the stuff people are trying to say through their cultural heritage. I think there’s a lot of learning from the mistakes that people have made and a lot of watching in shock and awe at some of the successes that we’ve seen in artists.
But, I think there’s a box that definitely critics and consumers do put diasporic art into, which is like “Oh, cool, you’re gonna wear a bindi, and you’re gonna wear these Indian earrings, and you’re gonna do this whole thing, and it’s gonna be really cute and exotic.” A lot of artists end up totally leaning into that. They’re like “Yeah, I guess there’s money here and I guess you want to see me do this whole Indian-Bollywood song and dance.” It’s kind of tragic because Bollywood and that type of Indian identity is such a small fraction of what India is altogether. We’re from South India, so we truly have nothing to do with that. Certainly, we grew up watching a lot of that stuff, but it’s very different than the South Indian identity and the Tamilian identity in particular. Even within the Tamil diaspora, we see a lot of artists being forced into these spaces where they’re just like, “All I do now is act like an ambassador for the Tamil identity,” and it is definitely limiting.
YOUR RELEASE, “DRIFT” WAS ACCOMPANIED BY A VIDEO YOU MADE IN COLLABORATION WITH SEVERAL OTHER TORONTO CREATIVES. CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE PROCESS AND MAKING THE SONG AND THE VIDEO?
Contra: We moved to Toronto in 2019 to kind of use it as a base to tour out of. Obviously Toronto, in Canada, is kind of where everything is going on in terms of music and the arts, so in our time there, we had met a lot of really incredible people, a lot of really dope photographers, musicians, creatives, just multidisciplinary artists. The way it works when you’re in this digital space, you’re kind of tapped into the other people who are moving and shaking like you. We’re always trying to put people on that we really fuck with. The best way for us to do it when it comes to other visual artists is to put them in our music video, to kind of think of a narrative in which they can exist in the Cartel Madras universe.
We kind of ideated on the video for “DRIFT” where we actually haven’t seen a lot of marijuana-centric videos that feature South Asian women to begin with, that’s not really a thing you see a lot of. In fact, I think BIPOC women tend to not be the face of marijuana and marijuana business, so we were like, “Okay, we can ideate this video around the concept,” because our hook is kind of about playing around and smoking weed. It’s playful and also intentional, because we wanted to include a lot of these really dope artists we’re surrounded by in Toronto and want to work with.
Eboshi: We wanted to create this sort of cute, striking visual where we have all of these very dope, badass women in a grow op and running their own grow op. It’s obviously difficult to generate any ad money off of that, because god knows weed is still such a problem for platforms. We weren’t even able to run ads for quite some time because [YouTube] was like “Woah…marijuana?”
Contra: Whenever we post [ourselves] actually smoking weed, Instagram takes it down, we keep getting our posts taken down. There’s someone reporting this.
Eboshi: Yeah, there’s people always reporting, like, you can calm down guys. It’s interesting, because alongside the release of “DRIFT”, we’re working with a local nonprofit to help push this petition regarding cannabis legislation in Canada. It’s just really important that we bring up–in this sort of very “cannabis-forward” video–that we’re all about like, “We’re smoking weed, having a good time,” [but] we also want to make sure that we don’t forget that there’s a legacy of horrible cannabis legislation and mistreatment of indigenous and black communities in Canada, and the over-criminalization of these communities as well. Now, we have so much tax money being siphoned into the RCMP and the government based off of cannabis being legalized now. That’s a problem because we still have people in jail just suffering, because we used to have this bias against these communities and we used to have this criminal bias against this substance, which we’re now just partying with, and it’s totally chill in Canada. It’s like, yeah, we want it to be totally chill, but we also want to talk about the cost and the history behind how we got here, and the people that still have to face the consequences of our government being not as progressive as it is now.
YOU GUYS HAVE A SONG CALLED “ERIC ANDRE”. DID YOU SEE THAT HE LAUNCHED AN ONLYFANS YESTERDAY? WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Eboshi: I support him in everything.
Sarah: Are you paying for his OnlyFans? *laughs*
Contra: I was the first person to subscribe! *laughs* I saw that his [post] got taken down from Instagram too.
Sarah: What’s a favorite bit you remember from one of his shows?
Eboshi: I personally love “Hannibal’s Hands”. I truly understand the setup, and the general premise of The Eric Andre Show makes complete sense to me, and I really buy into it. The character of Hannibal is so close to my heart, because he reminds me of my best friend. My friend was tripping one time while camping, and she called me and she was like “Yo, I’m having like a ‘Hannibal’s Hands’ moment.” And I knew exactly what she was talking about, I was like “I’m glad, I’m really glad for you”.
Contra: It’s so hard for me… I mean I do love “Ranch It Up”, it is really great. It’s so funny, when I think of specific moments in The Eric Andre Show, I can’t even think of it as a bit, I just remember the expression on his face.
Sarah: It’s just a feeling.
Eboshi: Right into the vibe.
Contra: It’s just a vibe. I do like it whenever he has rappers on and he pushes them into such…
Eboshi: “Rapper Warrior Ninja.”
Contra: Yeah, it’s so good.
Eboshi: It was really funny, it was really funny when he had Killer Mike and Action Bronson running on a treadmill and trying to freestyle at the same time *laughs*.
Weronika: Y’all should collab with Eric Andre, Eric Andre where are you? Get on this.
Contra: It’d be a dream to be on that show. It would be traumatizing as well.
Weronika: It’s worth it.
ALBERTA MUSIC STATES THAT “SEXUALITY, IDENTITY, FREEDOM, RACE, COLOR, AND GENDER ARE THE MOST PROMINENT THEMES [YOU] EXPLORE IN [YOUR] MUSIC.” IS IT EVER DIFFICULT TO ENSURE YOUR MESSAGE IS HEARD? HOW DO YOU OVERCOME THAT?
Eboshi: Where does it say this? It’s not wrong, it’s just a very…clinical breakdown…
Contra: It sounds like someone who saw us apply to get grant funding.
Eboshi: It sounds like a grant application. *laughs*
Contra: How do we overcome it? Simply by achieving Nirvana. *laughs* It’s like, okay, I think some of our stuff can be seen as, like, “radical”, even though it’s not, it’s really fucking normal shit. But obviously, there’s like a “normcore, normie narrative” that is the mass narrative. Similarly, there’s [also] a “normcore, normie narrative” to our South Asian fanbase. So, we’re always kind of “ninja-ing” different people in our DMs who are reporting us, who are emailing us, about the things we say. At his point it’s so… you almost, like, disassociate at one point.
Eboshi: Yeah, I’d say there’s two very distinct types of right-wing conservatism that we’re constantly combating. One is the North American–the classic type– that we’re all aware of. Then there’s the Indian type, and the Indian type is so insidious because these people really do think they’re doing the right thing, and it’s like “Okay, sick, you’re a fascist…but go off.” It’s really interesting because that’s where a lot of the violence in our DMs comes from, I would say–a lot of the threats, a lot of the harassment. With the harassment, you just gotta keep it moving, you really can’t be looking at it and being like, “Woah, I’m getting harassed like this, how is this person going to find where I live?”
The most you can do is prevent yourself from getting doxxed, and keep it moving. At this point, we have spent so much time on the internet, like pre-Cartel Madras, just being “internet people”, and seeing trolls, and interacting with “bad faith” actors on a general basis–like an anonymous user on Reddit, and 4chan, and YouTube–just being on the internet seeing fucked up shit, replying to stuff, getting into heated internet debates, the usual.
But now, when we’re sort of public-facing artists who have a platform on Instagram and a reputation that we take with us wherever we go, it is like a sort of assessment in the level of risk in the level of what we’re supposed to say. Usually, we’re like “Fuck it, let’s just post it anyways.” I think if you truly take issue with something that we’re saying, you just don’t believe in what we’re saying at all, which is fine, because you weren’t going to listen to our music anyways. It’s like there’s no love lost there because it’s, like, you don’t even fuck with this shit anyways, dude. You don’t want to see this.
But when it’s people in the scene or in the industry looking for things here and there, there’s a huge difference between someone giving a commentary or critique on something, versus someone who is legitimately just coming at you in bad faith, which we’ve seen as well. I think that’s a valuable thing for other artists to understand, because sometimes artists see negative comments, and they’re like, “This is so sad,” and it’s horrible, it’s like, why would you take time out of your day to make my day worse? But, knowing when someone is saying something where it’s like “I usually like their music, but this song wasn’t for me” is totally different than someone being like “Wow, these fugly girls on camera, I don’t wanna see it.” It’s like, okay dude, sick lie I guess, but whatever floats your boat! *laughs*
JUDGING FROM YOUR INSTAGRAM AND MUSIC VIDEOS, YOU BOTH HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF STYLE. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE ACCESSORY AND WHY?
Contra: My favorite accessories are my rings. Usually I do like having my rings on all the time, I don’t leave my house without them. They got different animals on them, they’re really fun… You know what, when I described it that way it sounds really lame. But they’re cool, they’re silver rings.
Eboshi: Jewelry is fun… I lose all of my jewelry though. I have two rings that are always on. I lose every single piece of jewelry I ever truly loved. I used to have this sick skull ring, which sounds very Ed Hardy, but I promise it wasn’t. Favorite accessory though… that’s tough… because I lost all of my favorite accessories. They’re all gone. I also lose them on tour.
A LOT OF YOUR MUSIC SOUNDS VERY CONFIDENT AND POWERFUL. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE “POWER BALLADS”?
Contra: You know, OG deep cut, “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.
Eboshi: Good song.
Contra: Just iconic. Most of M.I.A.’s old shit is amazing, it does put me in the right headspace.
Eboshi: Cakes da Killa. Great to hype to.
Contra: JPEGMAFIA. Freddie Gibbs. That’s really the power ballad of our life.
WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
Contra: Don’t be dumb. [I would probably say] to give less of a shit about certain things. I think there’s a lot of things as we are kind of coming up and we have a lot of agency as artists right now, which is a unique place to be. Not only can we make music, but we can make music videos, we can start shows and productions and work with a bunch of other artists–we have a lot of agency in this space. I think when you’re young, you feel like you don’t, and you’re waiting a really long time for someone to give you a hand. I think my advice to my younger self would be to move like you have that agency already because that’s what we had to do for Cartel Madras to exist.
Eboshi: Absolutely. My advice to my younger self would be: don’t lose your retainer. And keep doing what you’re doing, because younger me was on one, and that’s probably good in the long run.
Contra: I love younger me.
Eboshi: I fuck with her. She was weird as hell.