Mic Check

An Indian-American rapper and his crew are making serious waves in the hip hop world. Is Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri for real?


THE FIRST TIME Das Racist ever performed ‘Michael Jackson’, the first single from their much-anticipated debut album Relax, was at Columbia University’s Bacchanal Spring Concert on 30 April earlier this year. The picturesque, grassy quadrangle in the centre of campus was packed with thousands of students and walk-in concertgoers from the grittier neighbourhoods beyond the university’s walls, and the Brooklyn-based trio was notching another step on their improbable journey toward rap credibility: opening up for the west coast rap legend Snoop Dogg.

I was standing stagefront when Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri (aka ‘Heems’) announced the song; a distinct hush of anticipation fell over the crowd. Within moments, the band exploded across the stage, frenetically yelling the song’s catchphrase into their mics: “Michael Jackson! One Million Dollars! You feel me? Holler!” Just one scant minute later, the audience had taken up the refrain, and the callback spread all the way to the back of the crowd, hundreds of yards from where I stood—a few thousand people hollering, and I was doing the same.

But before they had even begun to captivate the audience with their music, and make us dance uncontrollably at their feet, Das Racist had first made sure to ruffle the feathers of the elite crowd that stood before them, filling the air with palpably awkward and uncertain murmurs. “This is the most collegiate shit I ever seen,” Heems said when he had first walked onto the stage. With an expression that made it seem as if he was smelling something putrid, he continued: “You look like a Tommy Hilfiger ad.” He proceeded to greet the Ivy Leaguers with a “shout-out” to Queens College and Stony Brook University, both decidedly public institutions. The audience was thoroughly confused, and it only got worse. A couple of minutes later, Heems tried to lead the students in a chant of “I will drop out of this demon university”. I looked around and noticed several furious faces.

But when they started to perform their music, the crowd progressively loosened up and jumped right in, shedding any sense of discomfort that might have lingered. The fact is that Das Racist is a deceptively hard-working band—they’re aggressively ironic and ostentatiously sloppy, all of which is a front for heart-pumping effort and a great deal of commitment. At Columbia that warm spring afternoon, the three young rappers criss-crossed the stage metronomically and leaned into their vocals with tremendous gusto. Their energy was infectious, and as the dancing began in earnest, I turned around to get a better look at what was happening across the vast audience.

There in front of me was a pulsating vision of American multiculturalism in the 21st century. Blacks and whites and all shades in-between heaving together rapturously. Right next to me was a short Japanese man dancing with a lanky girl in a hijab. Pressed up against the fence on the other side was a young Indian woman with an audible desi accent. I watched her listen quietly for a bit, then hitch up her flowing skirt to dance, grinding against the broad black man behind her, who kept his hands on her hips the entire time.

Hakuna matata Pumba

Por que esta es la rumba

Yeah, I’m fucking great at rapping

Das Racist, ‘Michael Jackson’

STERLING REVIEWS of Relax —their first commercial album following on the heels of Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, two highly acclaimed mixtapes released for free over the Internet in 2010—began to pile up long before the official release on 13 September. Rolling Stone hyped it up, an unusual occurrence for a debut on a brand-new independent label. And The New York Times, Maxim, Elle and many others chimed in with approval. A full fortnight before its release, Spin magazine’s influential critics had already awarded Relax eight out of 10 stars, a phenomenal score. But such accolades are no longer particularly surprising. It has been apparent for more than a year now that things have been going very right for Himanshu Suri, Victor Vasquez and Ashok Kondabolu, close friends who formed an unlikely rap group just three years ago.


Suri and Vasquez first met at Wesleyan University, an elite liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, where they had seen their classmates, Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, put together the rock band MGMT and become global chart toppers straight after graduation. Inspired by the success story, they decided to try making it as musicians as well in 2008, when Suri reached out to Kondabolu, his best friend from high school, to serve as the group’s “hypeman” (although he doesn’t record, Kondabolu performs at concerts).

From the beginning, Das Racist went at the music business with terrific brio. The band didn’t try to get signed by a major label; instead, Suri started his own. He also manages the band, and, via his Greedhead Entertainment, the young rapper now also handles the business-end of things for several other aspiring bands, all of whom seem to be friends. And so in some ways, Das Racist comes across as a collective—with Suri, Vasquez and Kondabolu at the centre of a large and growing constellation of artists, filmmakers, designers and producers. This culture of nonstop collaboration has defined Das Racist’s ouevre; Relax alone features guest-rappers Danny Brown, Lakutis, Despot and El-P, as well as tracks recorded with members of indie bands like Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer, and the neo-bhangra heartthrob Bikram Singh.

Das Racist came soaring onto the radar of music critics at the end of 2008 with the release of ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’, a mind-numbingly catchy and repetitive track (“I’m at the Pizza Hut / I’m at the Taco Bell / I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”) that soon became a viral hit on the Internet and galvanised critics: ‘Combination’ “passes from grating to absurd to hilarious to poignant to transcendent”, wrote the Village Voice. When Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker’s widely respected pop music critic, wrote about Das Racist in 2010, he dismissed ‘Combination’ as “dumb fun”, but he grouped them with Odd Future (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, or OFWGKTA), the foul-mouthed, teenage Californian crew that occupies the cutting-edge of rap music: “both are hip-hop acts as unsettling as they are entertaining”. Looking back, that signalled the moment Das Racist first started edging away from its initial reputation as hipster clowns. Now, they’re treated with considerable respect: earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle voiced an emerging consensus when it called the group “formidable, dead-serious rappers who could end up turning hip-hop on its head”.

Hip-hop got turned into hit pop,

The second a record hit number one on the Pop charts.

3rd Bass, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ (1991)

UP UNTIL 1980, rap and hip hop (technically not the same, but effectively interchangeable) constituted a subculture confined mostly to the South Bronx, a notoriously poor, crime-ridden and overwhelmingly black neighborhood in New York City. It took just three decades for its sounds and style to literally conquer the world, comprehensively replacing rock-and-roll as the preferred cultural expression of the post-boomer generations.

But there were no glimmers of anything like that happening until two soul music producers, Sylvia and Joey Robinson, decided to take a chance in late 1979 and record an unwieldy 15 minutes of friendly banter and stories rapped by the Sugarhill Gang over an irresistible bass-heavy hook from Chic’s ‘Good Times’, a big hit earlier that summer from the African-American disco and R&B band. The song that materialised, ‘Rapper’s Delight’, emerged from the hip hop scene to quickly scale the black music charts, and then went on to huge global success, selling millions of copies worldwide.  At a time when the American music scene was still extremely segregated, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ broke down several walls and allowed hip hop to climb out of the ghetto. It is the highest-selling 12-inch single in history, and still a major musical influence. A few years ago, four Spanish sisters calling themselves Las Ketchup released what would become another massive global hit based entirely on their cutesy rendition of the opening lines of ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

Das Racist’s Himanshu Suri, or ‘Heems’, (right) with hypeman and high school friend Ashok Kondabolu. COURTESY VIVEK MENEZES

But even with the introduction of major commercial stakes, the idea that hip hop would go global—that Spanish teenyboppers would eventually recite its lyrics—was utterly preposterous in the early 1980s. When the first American rappers toured Europe in 1983, audiences reacted with confusion, and occasionally anger. “I remember looking at the people and they would just sort of be looking at each other trying to figure out whether they should like it or not. They didn’t know how to react. It was so new,” recalled David Hershkowitz of the New York Daily News.

But cultural awakenings are unpredictable. By the end of the same decade, American rap crews like Public Enemy would sell out huge arenas on tours across Europe, playing to audiences who would turn up at their concerts dressed head-to-toe in authentic gear, and shout out every word of every line. By then there were already a myriad of European rappers, like the smooth, brilliant MC Solaar.

But even with the emergence of hip hop on the global scene in the 1980s, it remained a musical form with its roots planted deep in the black American experience of segregation, poverty, racism and longing. Solaar is black African, a Chadian immigrant who eventually settled in Paris. Public Enemy is an all-African-American crew, and so was the Sugarhill Gang. The same is true even now for the acclaimed Odd Future. But what about Das Racist? How can we account for the hip hop world’s embrace of two Indian Americans, Ashok Kondabolu and Himanshu Suri, who were born into the richest and best-educated ethnic minority in the US and attended one of the best high schools in the country, locking arms with Victor Vasquez (who is mixed-race, Afro-Cuban and Italian) after he met Suri on the campus of another elite institution. Are these guys for real?

Back in 1980 from Delhi to Queens

She had a pocket full of lint, He had a suitcase full of dreams.

Das Racist, ‘Relax’

A COUPLE OF DAYS after the concert at Columbia, I took the 7 Train out to Queens to meet Himanshu Suri’s parents at the Flushing Hindu Centre, which houses their local temple.

Often referred to as the “international express”, the 7 Train on the New York City Subway runs from Times Square in the heart of Manhattan to the outer reaches of Queens, running on elevated tracks above some of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the world. Nearly 50 percent of Queens residents are foreign-born; the train carries a bewildering babel of migrants from every part of the globe.

The overwhelming majority, however, are Asian. Half of all Asian immigrants in New York City live in Queens—it is home to more Koreans, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Chinese than any of the other four boroughs. More than 60 percent of desis in New York City choose to live there, and Queens has boasted the largest concentration of Indian Americans in North America for decades. Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu were born in Queens in the mid-1980s. They are children of the mother of all Little Indias.

Both of their sets of parents migrated to New York during the first significant wave of Indian immigration that poured in after 1980, at a time when Indians were still in the extreme minority, and most middle-class immigrants sought rapid assimilation into the white-dominated professional elites. After all, it was only four decades earlier, in 1946, that President Truman had signed the Luce-Celler Act into law, removing an outright ban on immigration from the Indian subcontinent. It took the unprecedented Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to permanently crack open America’s doors to the subcontinent.

With the declaration that the prevailing immigration system of preferences based on racial and national origins “violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man”, President Lyndon B Johnson signed into effect an entirely new set of preferences, based on an immigrant’s skill and education, as well as their family relationships with citizens and legal migrants already in the US.

Himanshu with his father, Girish Suri, at the Flushing Hindu Centre in Queens, New York. COURTESY VIVEK MENEZES

The results were instantaneous. The main starting points of migration shifted overnight from Europe to Asia and Latin America. And all other motivations for migration were dwarfed by the objective of family reunification, which today is the driving force behind more than two-thirds of documented migration to the US, representing more than five times the number that gets in on employment skills. By 1970, immigration had doubled.

The numbers have only gone up since then, creating huge demographic shifts, which have been particularly stark for Indians. By 1990, there were one million Indians in the US, which rapidly doubled to two million by 2000. That accelerated pace has only sped up since—according to the latest US Census, immigration from India is currently at its highest level in history. Where the overall population of the US is growing at 13 percent, the Indian-American population chugs along at 130 percent. There are now more Indians in the US than in any other place outside India, more Indian students attending American colleges than students from any other country and more Indians taking advantage of the H1B visa for “specialty occupations” than from the rest of the world combined.

All indications are that the trend is irreversible. Within the next 20 years, there will be four or even five million Indians in the US. But things looked very different when the Suri and Kondabolu families first established themselves in Queens in the 1980s. The Indian community was far from achieving a critical mass, and cultural and racial lines were still drawn taut through neighborhoods in various parts of the city. In those days, ‘black music’ was played on ‘black radio’, ‘white music’ constituted the entire mainstream, and Indians listened to cassettes imported from home. Assimilation was a one-way street into the white-dominated professional cadres. The idea that an Indian would ever become a rapper was just about as preposterous as the idea that a black man could ever become president. In those days, an Indian teen could find himself berated for simply playing basketball, ‘a black sport’, instead of something acceptable, like tennis.

MTV was restricted to white artists when it first launched in 1981—the cable network assumed there was no demand for anything else from its white teenage audience. Even Michael Jackson wasn’t played on the channel until his record company threatened a blanket ban. Record company executives learned that not only would young white girls like his music, they would also pin posters of his handsome, then-black face on their bedroom wall, and go on to make Thriller the greatest-selling album in music history.

I vividly recall that moment, because I was there. My parents had also moved to Queens at the same time as the Suris and Kondabolus (when I was 13), and it is where I grew up. It was me who was constantly criticised for falling in love with basketball instead of tennis (thank you Vijay Amritraj), and then, inevitably, falling hard for ‘black music’, especially the infectious rap that blared from boom-boxes on the basketball courts. Later, I too went to Wesleyan, though two decades earlier than Suri and Vasquez. After a friend tipped me off to Das Racist in 2008, I became fascinated by what I could already perceive as the vast differences in our respective Indian-American experiences, and earlier this year I decided to return to New York from my home in Goa to meet Suri and see if the reality could live up to the hype: could he be, as advertised, the first great Indian rapper?

Suri was born on 6 July 1985 into a close-knit, Punjabi family still struggling to find a permanent foothold in New York. In our conversation at the Hindu Centre, his father, Girish, told me, “He was god-gifted from the beginning. We knew he was special.” He was a family favourite, and by the third grade his teachers had already begun to predict a bright future for him. Mr. Host, his school principal at the time, eventually told the Suris that “Himanshu shouldn’t be here”, and assigned him to special classes for gifted children after the young rapper-to-be won both the math and spelling school competitions one year.

By the 1990s, the Indian community of Queens had become an economic and cultural force, particularly so in the run-up to the millennium, when widespread fears about the so-called Y2K crisis led to a huge surge in demand for Indian coders to stave off a worldwide computer collapse. Desis suddenly became ubiquitous in New York. Both Himanshu and his protective older sister, Shivani, grew up in a brand new Indian America that had reached a critical mass—all their close friends were second-generation immigrants from the subcontinent just like themselves, and they lived in an all-desi environment that simply had not existed a mere decade earlier.

Shivani, now 31, readily admits that this is still the case for her—she married another Punjabi American, and though she works in a mixed-race office environment at the international advertising and PR agency Ogilvy & Mather, her closest friends all share the same ethnic background.

But things were different for Himanshu, first because of Stuyvesant, the storied New York City high school that specialises in mathematics and science, and has produced four Nobel Laureates and countless other notables. Admission is granted by a rigorous entrance examination—only 3.7 percent of all New York City students who take the Specialised High School Admissions Test for entrance into eight of the city’s nine specialised high schools get in. No quotas, no set-asides, no extra credit—entrance is designed to be purely meritocratic. The results are quite revelatory. Asian Americans—just 12.5 percent of New York City’s population—today make up an amazingly disproportionate 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body.

A young Himanshu Suri playing on a drum set during a family trip to India in 1990. COURTESY HIMANSHU SURI

Stuyvesant changed Himanshu Suri. He met and immediately bonded with Ashok Kondabolu, another shy Indian American who had to commute from Queens every day to the school’s downtown location near the World Trade Centre.

On 11 September 2001, Suri and Kondabolu were at Stuyvesant when the World Trade Centre was attacked. They were just 16, still a year away from graduation. Like millions across the world, they watched the horrific scene on television, but, unlike most everyone else, they could also see the unimaginable event unfold right outside the school’s windows.

Earlier this year, Suri recounted the scene in an essay for Alternet: “On screen, above my instructor’s head, I saw what I thought was another plane about to hit the other tower, and by the time I looked out the window the collision had already occurred. Live TV is never really live. Still, in the state of confusion that precedes panic, I went to speak to a school official who informed me that they had spoken with the FBI and the safest place to be was inside the building, as there was no way the Towers would fall. AND THEN THEY FUCKING FELL!”

Three thousand two hundred teenagers were being evacuated by foot from Stuyvesant up the West Side Highway. Himanshu and his friends took particular care to organise the South Asian and Middle Eastern students into a group that would walk together for safety. It wasn’t long before a girl in their group who was wearing a hijab faced verbal abuse—“fucking Palestinian”, someone yelled, but the teenagers stuck together, walking for hours until they could find a route home to Queens. Suri told me that he sat next to exhausted passengers covered head-to-toe in the ashes from the WTC site when he finally managed to get on the Q46 bus to his home.

“I thought about the Amritsar Massacre and Jalianwala Bagh a lot that morning,” Suri wrote in the same essay. “[W]e were already sensing the racism we would face.” Stuyvesant became a triage centre the rest of the school year; their classes would be held on the campus of Brooklyn Technical High School. Immediately after relocating schools, the young rapper-to-be got up in front of an all-school assembly to speak up about what he described as “essentially, not being an asshole or beating up Muslims or those who may appear Muslim”. He writes “I wasn’t sure if there was any racial backlash, although when you’re brown you get a quick understanding of what events will lead you to feeling weirder, and what events will lead you continuing to just feeling weird. I don’t even need to know this happened to know that it happened.”

THE TEMPLE in the Flushing Hindu Centre on Kissena Boulevard sits right next to the Fukuoka Shabu Shabu Restaurant, opposite another restaurant specialising in Malaysian food, a Shaolin Temple and the Gold City Chinese Supermarket. Nothing like this existed when I was growing up in Queens, when Hindus worshiped in a storefront that was then a room rented from a Masonic Lodge, and the only Chinatown you heard people talk about was the one in downtown Manhattan.

A couple of hours before meeting Girish and Veena Suri at the Hindu Centre, I wandered into the small office of the head priest, Dr Krishna Pratap Dixit, and got drawn into an interesting chat about Indian America. He was recruited straight out of the PhD programme at Benaras Hindu University, and now lives in Queens with two daughters and a son, who are all doing extremely well in school, a cause of considerable pride for their father, like it is for most immigrant fathers.

Dixit was a very friendly man, and I was grateful for his warm reception and hospitality. At the same time, I found that he shared a great deal with those I considered “community elders” when I was growing up—a generation brimming with tremendous disapproval for the prevailing culture around them. “There are limits to freedom,” he told me, growing quite animated. “Don’t do it in the road, like animals.” Dixit keeps tight control over what his children listen to on the radio, or watch on TV, and swore he would never approve of his children dating. “When even friends are not allowed, where is the question of boyfriends,” he told me, a wide and triumphant smile lighting up his face.

Thoughts about the Pandit’s conservatively raised children were still dancing in my head while I watched the Suri family enter the temple. Himanshu looked rather conservative himself, clean-shaven and fresh-faced. His family was a picture of mutual affection and contentedness; you could see they had found their place in this very Indian corner of the US. From my discreet vantage point, I watched the young rapper make a full round of the temple deities to offer his respect, dignifiedly reaching over to touch the ground in front of each one.

The Suri family is a fine example of how hard work has paid off for Indian immigrants in the US. This is not the immigrant narrative most people talk about when they tout the Indian-American achievements of the past few decades. Theirs was a story of joint-family struggle, a large clan squeezed into small apartments. Discrimination was commonplace. Life was extremely difficult, and it was hard to find decent work. Even if you found it, wages were exploitatively low, but they stuck at it. Eventually, both Girish and Veena found steady jobs and put together a stable environment for their family.

In the meeting room of the Hindu Centre, Veena Suri told me, “We never thought of going back to India, we moved here for a better future.” But in almost the same breath, she said, “Now we are thinking that we will do it for at least half the year.” It is the first-generation migrant’s eternal plaint—in between two worlds, it is hard to give up either one for the other.

The Suris and I reminisced about the 1980s, when the first India Day Parades trickled down Madison Avenue (now, there is an annual torrent of hundreds of thousands, and the Empire State Building gets decked out in the colours of the tiranga). When we returned to the subject of Himanshu and Das Racist, it was as if we were old friends who had recognised each other from the early days, trading stories about our successful children.

I asked the same questions of Girish and Veena Suri that I did of Pandit Dixit, and the answers were extremely consequential. “We trust him,” a beaming Girish Suri told me, brimming over with pride that an Indian journalist was talking to him about his son for a story to be printed in India. “He should be happy.” A sizeable, excitable man, he was pleased to hear that I have three boys myself, and told me with a nudge, “Expectations and disappointment come when you don’t trust. You must trust.” Then he smiled his broadest smile yet, and reached over to squeeze his son’s arm. “I trust. I know wherever he feels comfort, he is going to the top.”

Young Amitabh, I’m a Don

—Das Racist, ‘Punjabi Song’

THE FIRST TIME  I met Himanshu Suri was at a bar in Greenpoint, the old Polish neighbourhood on the northern edge of Brooklyn, which has undergone rapid gentrification along with neighbouring Williamsburg. If you want to start a musical career in the US, right here is probably one of the best places to be on the planet at the moment. It’s a fact that became apparent to me over the course of two minutes, which is exactly the amount of time it took Heems to fight his way through handshakes, high-fives and embraces extended to him all the way up the block, and right up to the counter where I was waiting.

Tall, much leaner than he looks in his publicity photos, with a skein of hair flopping in front of his face, it was already obvious that this was a young man exactly in the place he wanted to be: an expansive comfort zone which I was soon to learn extends city-wide.

In conversation, Heems was witty and unexpectedly courteous. We were making plans to meet again soon, when he did something extraordinarily touching. He raised his eyes from his whiskey and ginger ale, and expressed gratitude to me and the trickle of other Indian students who had done well at Wesleyan years before, thereby “paving the way for the next generation of Indian kids like me to get admitted”. Startled by the unexpected gesture, I examined his face closely to see whether it was a joke, a set-up to calling me Uncle, or something similar. Nope, Suri was sincere. He then told me that he would never have become a musician if it weren’t for his college experience; it was our alma mater that he credited above all else.

Wesleyan remains a curious anomaly among top liberal arts colleges. It emphasises undergraduate studies, but also grants PhDs, and has always had a progressive streak. It was one of the first colleges in the US to admit women, and remains at the forefront of racial, ethnic and religious diversity in undergraduate education. Remarkably, even today, it maintains the highest percentage of first-year black students out of any of the 50 leading liberal arts colleges in the US. Illustratively, that still means that Wesleyan is overwhelmingly white: even today, Asians, African Americans and Latinos combined add up to only 25 percent of the student body.

When Himanshu arrived on campus in 2003, it was the first time he was removed from the comfort zone of Little India in Queens and the heavily Asian environment at Stuyvesant High School. Ebullient and confident, he was assigned to a new dormitory that had been arranged around a concept typically Wesleyan in nature: ‘Students of Colour for Social Justice’. His resident adviser was Victor Vasquez, a talented and artistic undergraduate from San Francisco. They immediately struck a bond; Vasquez told me, “Himanshu was definitely one of the most interesting students I encountered at Wesleyan.” Despite the differences in their backgrounds, both students shared a point of view as minorities which could be called—and which they still call—“brown”.

It’s a type of camaraderie that simply didn’t exist when I was dropped off by my own parents on the Wesleyan campus in 1986; the college was much whiter still. Though I had also been in an extreme minority in high school, at least I came home to people who looked like me. But it was extremely unsettling to be totally isolated and almost always the only minority in the small classes that characterise a Wesleyan education.

The big break came for me with the discovery that the classical dancer Bala Saraswati’s brother, Tanjore Viswanathan, taught Carnatic vocal music in the ethnomusicology department. Despite having no previous interest whatsoever, I raced to sign up, and then shoehorned at least one class with him each semester that I remained in Middletown, desperately happy just to sit cross-legged with Viswanathan and feel like myself again. Even then, I tore through my undergraduate syllabus in three years and took off as soon as I could to graduate school in England.

Himashu Suri of Das Racist performing at Columbia University’s Bachannal Spring Concert earlier this year. COURTESY VIVEK MENEZES

Himanshu Suri’s Wesleyan experience was characterised by another kind of anxiety. For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by children of extreme privilege who had benefited the most over the past two decades in an increasingly skewed America. Wesleyan specialises in admitting and cultivating dabblers and free spirits—the university has no academic requirements whatsoever. But from an Indian American’s ‘high achiever’ perspective, all that can seem like sheer frivolity, a total waste of time. So Suri took enough economics courses (Wesleyan has a particularly strong department) to major in the subject, but almost every other course reflected his abiding interest in identity politics, race and the history and culture of the subcontinent.

Musing about his course selection on the first day we met in Greenpoint, Suri laughed at the irony. “I took all those economics courses to satisfy the practical Indian immigrant inside me. It seemed a waste to pay all that money and study something like religion with all these white kids finding themselves.” On the other hand, he said, “the courses on India were something different, a spiritual need. I took them for the American side of my personality.” As we parted after that first meeting in Greenpoint, the rapper told me Wesleyan gave him “the conviction that I can do whatever I want with my life.” Again I checked if he was serious, and again he was. That was the precise moment when I started to believe.

Hip hop changed our society. The commodification of hip hop fostered a multiracial generation of young Americans brought up on a culture forged largely by black youth, and transformed the racial dynamic in the United States. The hip hop generation helped to elect our country’s first black president.

Dan Charnas, The Big Payback:

The History of the Business of Hip Hop

MOST OF Relaxwas recorded in a sprawling warehouse at 61 Franklin Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Heems invited me to sit and watch them record a song with Bikram Singh, the 30-year-old Indian-American lawyer who has become a global neo-bhangra star since entering the music business in 2003.

Singh is compact, slickly put-together and nattily dressed, another Queens boy whose family emigrated from Punjab in the early 1990s. I marveled quietly to myself as he clasped Suri into a bro-hug, bestowed loud high-fives and fist-pounds, and immediately asked the vital question, “So, where did you play ball growing up?” Two decades removed from a time when playing basketball and listening to ‘black music’ earned me parental reprimands, these Indian Americans from Queens all played basketball and listened to rap music. It was part of their identity, and no one questioned it.

I’ve sat in on recording sessions before, they can be immensely tedious. But this one came together remarkably quickly right in front of my eyes. With the backing track blasting, Singh let out a series of blood-curdling yells into his microphone, and then a searing verse about getting drunk, complete with choice Punjabi epithets. Behind him, Suri and Vasquez put down their Tecate beers and looked at each other with giddy expressions of delight. They immediately picked up their mobile phones and started composing lyrics to match.

From the beginning of their musical career, Suri and Vasquez have drawn attention for their unusually sophisticated verses. They constantly make references otherwise unknown to rap music. For example, in one early song, ‘Hugo Chavez’, they namecheck John Philip Souza, African-American writers WEB Du Bois and Maya Angelou, as well as Dinesh D’Souza and Amitav Ghosh. But their writing styles are quite different. Vasquez generally comes prepared, verses at the ready, while Suri waits until the very last minute, jotting down the final line just before he steps to the mic.

It was time for the permanently mischievous Vasquez to do his thing: he immediately accelerated the party atmosphere in the room to a near-frenzy: “Get fucked up, get drunk, just don’t leave your drink around me cause that shit’ll get drunk up.”

I started to imagine the scene that would ensue the first time this song plays for a Delhi or Mumbai crowd, rap and bhangra pounding together irresistibly. It was apparent even then that an instant classic was being recorded. And that’s before Heems himself swaggered up to the mic, adjusted his crotch, belched loudly (it shows up on the track) and, peering at his phone, took it all to another level:

Sweaty Heady Eddie Spaghetti told me to chill out

Trying to cause some fun so I pulled a bunch of bills out

The booze ain’t the problem

It’s the other shit it leads to

When it comes to wilding

Believe me I’ve no equal

Me and Bikram drunk and be wilding in Queens

Some older brothers screamed “who the fuck invited Heems”.

Uncomplicated good-time lyrics about friends hanging out. But so was ‘Rapper’s Delight’.

And, just like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ turned America on to rap, it occurred to me I might be witnessing the recording of the crossover hit that brings the real deal to the subcontinent. More so, I was now convinced Himanshu Suri is the authentic article, the greatest Indian rapper standing. It was enough and my journey was over. With the hook still playing incessantly in my head, I packed my notebook and headed towards the general direction of home.