What’s Behind the Masks?

What’s Behind the Masks?

In real-life, Contra and Eboshi, the two sisters who formed the hip-hop group Cartel Madras, worked with an NGO in rural Tamil Nadu, India, to help women with gender development, sustainability, and political agency. On record, they take no shit, to put it mildly: they tote guns and fire them, leave mirrors with lines of cocaine lying around, and casually objectify both men and women. To quote “Goonda Gold,” “Bitch, I got nothing to lose… More sex/ I want drug money/ Onto the next bad honey.”

This persona is familiar: Tony Montana via Rick Ross and Pusha T. But Cartel Madras attack it from a very specific perspective: as queer Indian-Canadian women Priya “Contra” and Bhagya “Eboshi” Ramesh. While the gangsta rap elements of their debut ep “Age of the Goonda” are a bit tired, the incorporation of Indian pop culture references (both in their lyrics and music) offers something fresh.

“Age of the Goonda” is hip-hop for the mosh pit. Cartel Madras draw on trap and SoundCloud rap (the first single from the ep is “Lil Pump Type Beat”), but their music has the raucous energy of hardcore punk. It aims to create a greater sense of danger while empowering women. Their version of liberation dodges politeness and respectability. The video for “Goonda Gold” shows them as criminals packing guns, and the only people shown are female and South Asian.

In Sub Pop’s press release for “Age of Goonda,” Eboshi says, “There’s a certain thing that hip hop does, that gangster rap does: a narrative of being larger than life, kind of violent but in power… We are paying tribute to that, but also focusing that on women who are queer and brown, telling stories that haven’t been told.”

“Age of the Goonda” sounds like the beginnings of that story.

From the very beginning, “Age of the Goonda” aims for the throat. The opener “Jumpscare” and “Lil Pump Type Beat” draw on SoundCloud rap, with a raucous energy. The ep alternates between bangers and slower, more sinister beats. Even when they rely on more downtempo, trap-inspired sound, like “Dawood Ibrahim (woof woof),” the group shows off a rapid-fire flow demonstrating their technical ability.

Hip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the US, and it’s become an international lingua franca. Inevitably, it would be performed by people at a distance from its African-American origins. Cartel Madras find something empowering about claiming to be gangsters — and though I don’t know much about their private lives, Contra and Eboshi have obviously created characters to express a liberating bravado and swagger. It works up to a point — the line “the only white in this house is my blow” flips drug dealing references into something anti-racist — but there’s a tone deaf quality to the loving close-ups of women putting bullets into a revolver in their “Goonda Gold” video and the repeated samples of gunfire on this ep. Still, they’re not doing anything hundreds of straight male rappers with no intention other than fame and clout have done.

Cartel Madras’ expression of their South Asian influences are more interesting. Within India itself, hip-hop has grown so popular that Nas’ Mass Appeal Records label recently launched a division to release music from the country. M.I.A. and the Swet Shop Boys (Indian-American rapper Heems and Pakistani-British rapper Riz MC, aka actor Riz Ahmed) have made compelling music about living in the diaspora. “Goonda” is Indian slang roughly equivalent to “thug.” “Jumpscare” refers to the Naxalites, India’s ‘70s Maoist rebels. “Dawood Ibrahim (woof woof)” takes its title from a real Indian gangster. Their lyrics throw in references to dosa and lassi amidst the shout-outs to cocaine and guns. The production samples Indian pop. “Glossy Outro” is based around a sitar. On the other hand, “The Legend of Jalapeño Boiz” runs down a list of American pop culture references: Ferris Bueller, “Frost/ Nixon,” “Breaking Bad,” Reddit, Kate Spade, and Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.”

Rappers, especially if they’re African-American, have an expectation of authenticity and autobiography placed on them. Hip-hop lyrics have frequently been used against black men in court, as if writing about violence is proof that one committed it. But there’s a troubling voyeurism to the audience for hip-hop and its appetite for real-life criminality: Tay-K’s “The Race” and YNW Melly’s “Murder on My Mind” became major hits based on their connections to the artists’ alleged crimes.

Cartel Madras use naïve ideas about authenticity like rolling paper, throwing them away for their pleasure. The group’s best music is exciting, but they’re trying too hard to be hard, using the role of a gangster like a Halloween costume. As much as Cartel Madras uses hip-hop tropes to expand on the roles women of South Asian descent are allowed in North America, one winds up wondering about the real lives behind the goondas.

CARTEL MADRAS | “Age of the Goonda” | Sub Pop | Drops Nov. 1 | subpop.com