Cartel Madras wants to introduce you to Calgary's new hip-hop scene
CBC Music’s Beyond the 6 series takes a closer look at burgeoning hip-hop scenes across Canada
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada. Toronto is widely known as the country's hip-hop capital (and a central spot for music in general), but many cities and communities east to west, north to south, have long had highly successful underground hip-hop scenes or are now developing their own.
This month, we talk to Cartel Madras, a Calgary duo that's pushing its own brand of music called goonda rap.
Allow Cartel Madras to introduce themselves: "Bitch, I'm bad, I'm brown, I'm gold."
The Calgary duo, made up of sisters Contra and Eboshi, repeat that mantra on their 2019 track "Goonda Gold" (off their Age of the Goonda EP) with the vigor of a knockout punch. That's the mode they almost always operate on: relentless spitfire raps atop trap beats that demand your immediate attention. Their sound is unapologetically a reflection of their identities as "a queer, female, Desi act igniting a revolution because they're 'sick of this bullshit,'" as their biography states. They've even branded their sound as goonda rap, goonda being a Hindi word for thug or troublemaker.
Just three years into their run as Cartel Madras — Contra and Eboshi previously made music separately — the sisters have quickly become one of Canada's most exciting hip-hop exports. They were featured on Snotty Nose Rez Kids' Polaris Music Prize shortlisted album Trapline, k.d. lang and Vivek Shraya both appeared in their music video for "Eric Andre (Slick Rick James)" and last year they signed to Royal Mountain Records in Canada and indie giant Sub Pop in the U.S.
But given their Calgary upbringing, a burgeoning career in hip hop was never a guarantee for Cartel Madras, who admittedly took some time to come into the confident vision we see today.
Born in Chennai, India, Contra and Eboshi moved to Canada at a young age and took in an eclectic range of musical influences, from Sufjan Stevens to MF Doom to animé soundtracks. Like many immigrant kids growing up, cultural assimilation was key to adapting to a new environment, as Eboshi remembers: "For a good chunk of time growing up in Calgary, I was like, how do I get rid of the brown in me?"
This briefly led to a foray into writing "indie ballads" but Contra and Eboshi soon discovered that rapping was a more authentic way to express themselves. "We found that every time we started to rap and write hip hop, it was always a more unfiltered, clear-cut version of our lives," Eboshi explains. "Singing can be really vague." But, Contra notes that in rap, "you have to tell the story, get people to connect with what you're saying and be clear about who you are, and I think that's the best vehicle for us to tell our story."
A big part of that straightforward style of storytelling involves a true embrace of their heritage, "building off of those narratives that nobody out here has heard before, that's really where you find a voice for yourself and can be emboldened as an artist to want to tell those stories and not worry about authenticity or being a token," Eboshi says now.
'M.I.A. ran so we can run faster later'
British–Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. broke barriers in the early 2000s as a radical voice that challenged people's world views and politics. But just as important as it was to see M.I.A.'s meteoric rise, Contra and Eboshi also remember the significance of not seeing more Indian musicians come up in subsequent years.
"What we deeply remember growing up is really not seeing versions of our future selves that we liked or we thought made sense for us," Eboshi recalls, citing books, movies and politics as alternative spaces where they were able to find some examples. "People like M.I.A. and Heems of Das Racist were amazing, but there was never a saturation of that where we were like, this is a viable career path."
We need people to know that we're South Indian.- Contra
Nonetheless, M.I.A.'s cultural dominance, which Eboshi described as "cutting into the industry almost by force of will," left enough of an impression that sparked a drive within the two sisters. And in addition to M.I.A.'s entry into the rap scene, it was equally important for Contra and Eboshi to see a Tamil woman on such a big platform.
"I don't think you see South Indians anywhere but South India or where the diaspora is, like Sri Lanka," Contra adds, pointing out that most North American depictions of Indians often stem from North Indian regions. "I think people who are not Indian don't realize the importance of that."
In fact, that's why their group is named Cartel Madras: Madras being the former name of their birthplace, Chennai. "We were like, we need people to know that we're South Indian. M.I.A. ran so we can run faster later. If she didn't exist, I don't know if we would."
'We're always going to represent Calgary'
For Cartel Madras, success for themselves is obviously a top priority, but building and promoting a community is also a vital part of their mission statement. Contra and Eboshi spearhead a label/collective hybrid called Thot Police that has helped develop Calgary's own unique hip-hop sound and culture, including members Yung Kamaji and Jae Sterling.
When asked about the evolution of Calgary's hip-hop sound, Eboshi admits it's "growing and changing shape." What started off as "very boom bap-oriented" and strictly adherent to an old-school approach has slowly shifted to a more underground trap scene, led by Cartel Madras and their friends, that fosters a modern party vibe, which suits their group's high-energy performances.
Contra says she and her sister will never leave Calgary, but they say this now as relatively new residents to Toronto. That statement might read as a contradiction then, but in fact, still rings true as a travelling ethos that they carry wherever they go.
With each venue and festival Cartel Madras got to check off their list in Calgary, they soon realized they were hitting the "glass ceiling of Calgary."
"Labels aren't running to Calgary to be like, what's new?" Eboshi admits. Canada, in fact, has only started heating up as a hip-hop capital in the past decade thanks to the rise of a Toronto-centric roster of stars like Drake, Tory Lanez, Sean Leon and Haviah Mighty. It was a long, hard battle to get eyes on just one city north of the border, but hip-hop scenes have been emerging all across the country and developing their own signature sounds.
For the most part, Calgary's musical history has been represented through guitar-driven acts: Jann Arden, Feist, Tegan and Sara, Chad VanGaalen, and Lindsay Ell. Not to mention an incredible run of punk bands in the '90s and early 2000s led by Chixdiggit and Knucklehead.
"Calgary's great if you're in indie rock or punk or country," Contra notes, punctuating her statement with a laugh as she enthusiastically adds: "You're going to jet to the top!" But, much like Canadians who have argued success and recognition at home can only be achieved by moving to another country first, Contra asserts that "you kind of have to leave and come back."
"We're always going to represent Calgary and talk about Calgary," she continues, "because we wouldn't be here without the people who supported and recognized us first."
Toronto is more like a pit stop, they say; part of a larger itinerary that will eventually bring them back to Alberta equipped with more resources and knowledge on how to form a stronger infrastructure to boost hip hop in Calgary. For Contra and Eboshi, waiting for taste-makers to find Calgary is a long gamble that will render them powerless in the meantime. So, why not take their music straight to the source?
"I think we exist in an interesting position where maybe we can do it," Contra says. "Go to Toronto, go to L.A., go to Atlanta — go to these places where hip hop and underground music from artists and artists of colour are thriving and then come back and be like, how can we build that?"