Culture  Trap Access

Cartel Madras Sets a High Bar for Contemporary Hip Hop

This year’s POP Montreal saw the return of Cartel Madras to Montreal, who last performed at Slut Island back in July. Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Cartel Madras is fronted by sisters Priya (Contra) and Bhagya (Eboshi), with Tristan (DJ Egglad) on sound.  The band’s name refers to the sisters’ birth town of Chennai, which was known as Madras during colonial rule. The sold-out opening show on Saturday set the bar high for Donzelle and CupcakKe, the next acts. Armed with their recently released debut EP, Trapistan (Part 1), Cartel Madras showed up with the party in hand. The expectant crowd lit up to the moody trap vibe; the song “Housey (Thirsti Thots 2 tha Front)” had half the crowd on stage.

Since January, Cartel Madras has played shows and festivals across the country, collaborated with a variety of artists including Alberta-based Too Attached, and released part of their first EP, Trapistan. In late September they released the music video for their song “Pork and Leek.” In addition to their current tour and new music releases, their Calgary-based party, “Sans Fuccs,” is a space for people to come together and party, experience trap, and “just get lit.” For them, a huge part of what they do is creating a safe space for people to access music they might otherwise be uncomfortable with.

Before the show, I sat down with Contra, Eboshi, and Egglad to chat about the year, their journey, the Calgary vibe, and why they do what they do. In our conversation they shared their thoughts around raising the bar for hip-hop and making party spaces across Canada more accessible.

“As hip-hop fans, we dream about [inclusive and accessible] parties with the underground house and trap vibe. And now we’re curating that vibe ourselves.” — Eboshi

The McGill Daily (MD): You’ve had a really big year how has it been?

EBOSHI: We had our debut as part of a festival which is a  big way to get a lot of exposure quickly, a lot of industry people and media people are there anyways. We were lucky, because after that we had a lot of people – photographers, videographers – approach us to work with us. It was cool because we were building our profile while we were building our portfolio of music.

Our mixtape dropped, and we’ve had up to thirty shows – between that we were making new stuff and finding what works best for us. The three of us are very comfortable working together and our performance style is where we want it to be.

MD: You do a lot to represent Calgary, and have put Calgary on the map in a lot of ways.  How have you found reception to your music to be in Calgary itself, and elsewhere?

EBOSHI: We were super surprised about how receptive Calgary has been. We thought we might be hip-hop artists who go digital, but the time was right. We see so many new faces at our shows. At the same time we have a lot of people who keep coming back. You aren’t just coming to support local music – you’re coming because you like it.

EGGLAD: It’s also very different than a lot else that Calgary has on offer – a lot of rap shows are more like recitations of prose or similar to slam poetry. Our shows are very different to that.

EBOSHI: Right. We’re putting on a show because that’s what we love to do and that’s what people came to see. It makes people excited to come to the party, not just come by our Soundcloud or drop by our Instagram page.

Their “straight-up” approach invites you to come for the show, stay for the party, and learn to love it. They are carving out a space for people to not only come together, but also start to question what they know about identity politics.

MD: As you get bigger, are you planning to continue repping Calgary in the future?

CONTRA: People tend to go to Toronto. We don’t want to be rappers from Toronto. It’s actually kind of opportunistic – Calgary doesn’t have this yet, so why would we abandon it?

EBOSHI: There are so many talented hip-hop artists [from Calgary] who haven’t broken that barrier yet, of being big on an international level. We rep where we’re from, which is Chennai (India), and Calgary, those things are static and don’t change, and we will always rep those. I like that look because it’s such an anomaly to come out of Alberta. And Calgary shows up for us.

EGGLAD: That said, there’s a lot we want to change about that ecosystem. Calgary isn’t off the hook.

MD: Do you mind going into that a bit more?

EBOSHI: Growing up there, it’s a pretty conservative, economically white space – there’s even a divide in the way nightlife in Calgary moves. It’s interesting to see this divide and be this group. What I find interesting is that a lot of different people come to see us. We are women, people of colour, and we’re also a part of the LGBTQ community, and those three groups of people show up for us. But also, we have hip-hop fuckboys showing up for us, and people who have never been to a hip-hop show before.

As hip-hop fans, we dream about these types of parties with the underground house and trap vibe. And now we’re curating that vibe ourselves. And if you know about [Sans Fuccs] you will probably be there; we sell out of tickets because it pops off. People are really ready for it!

It’s kind of like a crash course on partying – showing people how to party at a hip-hop show. We’re asking you to turn up, to act like you’re at a trap show. We’re trying to get you to come into a different space and convince you to become a fan of hip-hop in a way you haven’t before and maybe are uncomfortable about. We want to entice you, and that’s a larger metaphor for what we want to do.

“[We] have written so much political music, but we don’t want to spook people. We want people to have that range of content, because we have music that’s going to make you think about the things you’re already thinking about in different ways.” — Contra

MD: As a brown girl from Calgary, I listen to your music and it makes sense to me, but maybe when others listen to it, they just think it’s fun. So I think it’s really cool how the music is  kind of a gateway for people to start seeing those nuances of experience.

EBOSHI: Well, we listen to hip-hop, rappers of all types that has nothing to do with us – we have no intersection with their life, and the thing is we just like it, and it’s a way for us to wormtail into that story.  You shouldn’t just have to be a brown girl to listen to our music – you should be able to make that leap that we make for dudes all the fucking time. You should just listen to us because we sound good – like “your brand is lit, your music is lit, and you also happen to have a different perspective.”

It’s so funny to watch people react to our music. We have a lyric where we say, “all these boys have whiskey dick, imma have to stick to fucking chicks.“ And some guys are down to clown and other guys are appalled.

EBOSHI: And it’s the same issue with rappers that strictly identify as queer rappers. It’s this weird assumption that you have to be queer to listen to queer rap – why? You know how many queer people have had to listen to straight rap?

We haven’t even rolled out that desi, brown content yet. We are brown and we haven’t yet dedicated time to connecting with that community, partially because so many of them are also belong to groups we already connect with, like women, POC, and queer people. But we definitely do see a lack of brown people at our shows. Part of that is just physical accessibility in Calgary – where show venues are and where a lot of that community lives – but we are trying to move more in that direction going forward.

MD: So what’s next for you? What are your goals for the next little while?

EBOSHI: Well we released part one of  Trapistan, which will be a three part series, so we’ll release part two and part three, and just see where it goes. We have a lot of exciting opportunities and dope festivals that have invited us.

CONTRA: People are noticing us in different spaces. One thing is performing, but also we have opportunities to create more content; we might fly to some spots across Canada to shoot more music videos.

EGGLAD: And also taking more risks. We are all political people and we do want to put that in our music. We do want to show a bit more about what we think.

CONTRA: And the three of us have written so much political music, but we don’t want to spook people. We want people to have that range of content, because we have music that’s going to make you think about the things you’re already thinking about in different ways.

EBOSHI: But we don’t want it to be swept away as an attempt to unite our thoughtful voice with our trap vibe. We want to do it in a way that’s right for us.

CONTRA: So it’s a logical leap. You don’t want to be too woke too fast.  We released our new video for “Pork and Leek” and I think it’s a good example – its fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  When you’re listening to this group of two brown women who rap – you’re taking a leap, and you have to invest in them. It’s like Trojan horse-ing how different we are in to something lit.

EBOSHI: People are so excited about what we do; we thought it would be a lot harder to convince people to listen to us, but we make it easy with the brand.

“We’re trying to get you to come into a different space and convince you to become a fan of hip-hop in a way you haven’t before and maybe are uncomfortable about. We want to entice you, and that’s a larger metaphor for what we want to do.”— Eboshi

 

As the hip-hop scene in Canada grows, Cartel Madras are definitely ones to watch as they push the boundaries of what people engage with as listeners. Representing queer women of colour in the trap music scene, and coming from a stereotypically white, conservative mid-western city, they force people to reconsider their preconceived notions of every facet of their identities and of trap music. Their “straight-up” approach invites you to come for the show, stay for the party, and learn to love it. They are carving out a space for people to not only come together, but also start to question what they know about identity politics.

“People who identify with our music shouldn’t be the only ones accessing it,” the sisters explain. “Tonight will be fun, it’s like we get to entice all new people all over again.”

On the shadowy stage of the Piccolo Rialto, they each took a swig of their drinks before beginning. With sharp raps over dark beats, the trio soon had everyone dancing. Eavesdropping on the people around me following their exit, I heard, in an excited whisper, “they were so amazing.” And they are – the rappers are shifting the idea of what it means to be rappers, to be listeners, and what accessible music looks like.

 

You can follow  Cartel Madras on YouTube, SoundCloud and Instagram. Trapistan (Part I) is available on Spotify and Apple Music.  Catch them on the remainder of their current ‘Goonda Gang Recruitment Tour’ in Calgary and Halifax later this month.

This interview has been edited for brevity.