Published Dec 04, 2019Age of the Goonda, the latest EP from Calgary duo Cartel Madras, starts with a cacophony of screams, swearing and menacing bass. Before the rapping even begins, the pair command attention.
"Age of the Goonda makes the case for a certain type of Indian woman that we really don't get to see," says Contra, one half of the sibling duo. "A South Indian woman who is radical, who is very sexually in touch with herself, is somewhat aggressive and takes up a lot of fucking space — I think that was the type of the woman we wanted to make an album about and for."
Representation is at the core of everything Contra and her sister Eboshi, who both identify as queer women of colour, do as Cartel Madras. During their call with Exclaim!, the pair talk about being longtime fans of hip-hop, but never quite seeing themselves in the culture's existing narratives. Their signature subgenre of "goonda rap" allows the siblings to embrace all facets of their identities — diaspora artists, immigrants, people of colour, women, queer — in ways they never got to witness while growing up.
"Goonda rap lets us carve a new path in hip-hop. It pays our tribute to those that have come before us, and also recognizes that those are not parts of the world that we're coming from. Our stories differ from those parts of the world," says Eboshi.
But don't write the duo off as, in Contra's words, "a representation project that has shitty rhymes." Age of the Goonda's main focus is making good music with universal appeal. Citing rappers like M.I.A., Scarface and Freddie Gibbs as influences, Contra and Eboshi trade breakneck rhymes on their EP, serving their bars over rousing beats by hidden gems like Vancouver-based producer Skinny Local and Calgary beatmaker Nevik. At its core, Age of the Goonda is trap music: it's brash, it's rowdy and it's fun. But laced throughout are nods to South Asian culture, Hinduism, race and queer identity that speak specifically to people who see themselves in one or more of those spaces.
Born in Chennai, India, the sisters are formally trained in piano, took vocal lessons and grew up on a mixed diet of Tamil cinema, Indian literature, jazz and indie rock before finding their footing in hip-hop. They recorded their first project, Trapistan, in their basement in 2018. Releasing the mixtape independently set a precedent for Cartel Madras: as labels began to court them, Contra and Eboshi were adamant about retaining creative control over their image and sound. They joined Seattle-based Sub Pop Records in 2019, and credit the label's liberal attitude toward Cartel Madras as one of factors that drove them to sign their deal.
"Working with Sub Pop has really been an artist's dream in a lot of ways," says Eboshi. "We have a really good relationship with Sub Pop, which is a really artist-centric label. There's no aspect of the music we're creating, the look we have and our personalities that's being run or controlled by them. They really are just like: do your thing, do it well, do it loud. Go wild."
They certainly take the adage to heart. Each song on Age of the Goonda is loud, frank and bursting with personality. If you're unclear on who Cartel Madras are, this EP leaves no room for doubt.
"We should be able to be entirely and authentically ourselves and show that you can be an immigrant, you can be a POC woman, you can be queer and fuck shit up," says Contra. "We [want to] live just as loudly in the forefront of pop culture as anyone else here."
Age of the Goonda is out now on Sub Pop and Royal Mountain.