By Liam Dawe, June 30 2018 —
For many years, Calgary’s hip-hop scene has remained subterranean — overlooked and disregarded. Talented acts have emerged, but the culture has lacked a bona fide catalyst. Sisters Bhagya and Priya Ramesh — stage names Eboshi and Contra, respectively — have taken a bold step as Cartel Madras. In under a year, they have emerged as the spark that Calgary’s hip-hop landscape has been starved of.
Although Cartel Madras was incubated in Southern Alberta, the duo’s origin can be traced to the Bay of Bengal, specifically the Indian megacity of Chennai — formerly known as Madras — which is the birthplace of both Ramesh sisters. Traditional Indian elements are embedded deep in the distinct sound that Eboshi, Contra and producer DJ Egglad have forged. Exposure to Indian and hip-hop cultures from a young age cultivated a broad scope of influences varying from the Tamil arts to Ryuichi Sakamoto and MF Doom. Fusing musical inspiration with their own life experiences piloted Priya and Bhagya into the self-designated sound of “Goonda Rap” — a popular Tamil phrase for ‘thugs.’
“We wanted to coin that term as a way to make a cross-section of rap very specific to us — something meaningful and context-driven,” Priya says. “It includes the portion of songwriting every rapper does, sharing life experiences and telling stories that are meaningful. Making party music, making dance music, making thoughtful music. With Goonda Rap, we’re taking it back to ideas we had growing up pertaining to our community and the people within it.”
“Between the West Coast, East Coast and cities like Chicago and Houston, gangster rap exists. It has a story and a timeline. Despite loving it and wanting to be apart of it, we don’t necessarily fit that mould. We decided on Goonda Rap because we want to produce thuggish, gangster rap, but we are also Indian and we want to incorporate those elements,” Bhagya continues. “Using a term that is unfamiliar to the average listener was another important factor for us. We are two female rappers bringing a variety experiences — including those from people of colour, queer experiences, stories of identity and fitting in versus not fitting in — to showcase our own identity.”Photo by Ralph Gonzales
Hurdling obstacles isn’t a new concept to the sisters, and penetrating Calgary’s music scene via the hip-hop underground is a challenge Cartel Madras takes in stride. Earlier in June, the trio teamed up with local collective Fireside Music for a pop-up show in Hillhurst titled Sans Fuccs. Their goal was to establish intimate yet rambunctious hip-hop shows in a domestic space, free of line-ups and inflated beer prices.
“There is always little sparks of hip-hop in this city. A couple of places are always putting on shows and supporting the culture here or there, but everything feels so…corporate, or very safe,” Priya says. “After brainstorming with Fireside, we thought, ‘What if we created a party that was a moving installation and a monthly pop up?’ It could be kind of an underground secret but was spicy enough to alter the scene in its own respective way.”
There may have been a lack of hydration and sleep that night, but at no point during Sans Fuccs was there a lack of spice. Halfway through their set the young MCs unknowingly blew out one of the speakers. Telling Contra this prompted a characteristic response.
“Seriously? Fuck yes,” she laughs.
The collaboration with Fireside netted Cartel Madras a run of shows in the following weeks, with wild performances kicking off and closing out Sled Island. June 19 saw them share the stage with Calgary’s Snotty Nose Res Kids at Commonwealth, while June 23 presented an epic conclusion to the week, serving as a primer of sorts for Shabazz Palaces at the #1 Legion.
Outside of a handful of unmastered Soundcloud tracks, the trio has yet to release an official project, though the surplus of positive response to their spring shows has garnered them serious interest. On Wednesday, they shared both a title and tentative release date via Instagram. Trapistan, their debut EP, can be expected the first week of July. The five-song project will be the first instalment in a series of summer releases, collectively titled Project Goonda.
Cartel Madras, who have yet to extend their talents outside of the province, will travel to Montreal in July to perform at the Slut Island music festival. The trio looks to advance the Goonda Rap movement through Summer 2018 and beyond.