Calgary's Cartel Madras tackle the world with Sub Pop release the Age of the Goonda

Contra and Eboshi, the Calgary-raised sisters who make up world-conquering hip-hop duo Cartel Madras. Photo by Oliver Maynard. Calgary

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It’s one of the first things a viewer is likely to notice when watching the entertaining video for Cartel Madras’s new single, Goonda Gold.

Guns are everywhere. There are shotguns. There are machine guns. There are automatic pistols. Is that a 357 Magnum?

According to Eboshi, who makes up the Calgary-born hip-hop duo with her sister Contra, there is both a fun answer and a deeper answer as to why the B.C.-shot video contains so much fire power.

Featuring the sisters’ dizzying wordplay and backed by an infectious, frantic beat, Goonda Gold pulls no punches with lines such as “Got guns in the air like a junta” and “I’m a sharp shootah; would you ever let a pretty thug come screw ya?”

“The fun answer is ‘We should be allowed to do it to because, hello, it’s fun,” says Eboshi.

The deeper answer?

“There’s always been this bravado and gratuitousness in hip hop and we don’t want to be excluded just because we are politicized and marginalized figures in all the spaces that we take up right now,” she says. “We also want to make it clear that we are a radical force in music and we’re aware of that. And we want everybody to know that we’re not being shy about where we’re from. We are not apologetic about who we are and we’re going to take up this space now in the way so many have before.”

Cartel Madras has certainly become one of Calgary’s biggest success stories, boasting a captivating backstory, unyielding ambition and original sound that justifies the sisters’ bold stance and proclamations. Born Bhagya and Priya Ramesh in Chennai, India, before emigrating to Calgary as children, Eboshi and Contra didn’t start performing until 2017. By 2018, they had become one of the city’s most talked-about live acts and certainly one of the most original in Canadian hip hop. A highly anticipated showcase at Sled Island caught the attention of Ishmael Butler, one-half of hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces and part of the A & R team for iconic Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop. The label eventually signed the duo and will release Age of the Goonda on Nov. 1, an exhilarating six-track EP that manages to capture all the punk-rock fury and inventive hip hop the sisters display on stage.

It’s an incredible success story and not just because of the speed with which it happened. Eboshi and Contra have stubbornly stuck to their guns, so to speak, in creating something they say is unprecedented in hip hop. Loosely translated, Goonda means “hired thug” and Cartel Madras defines its music as Goonda rap, a hip-hop sub-genre they are building from “the ground up.”

“It’s this new space we are creating for people that aren’t normally seeing themselves in hip hop and the media in general,” Eboshi says. “That includes queer people … and women, but it’s also a way for us to recognize and respect the movements and sub-genres of hip hop that have come before us. Because it’s a traditionally black art form that has all these cultivated identities in it. We have completely informed by those acts and those works.”

Hints of these strains can be found in the sturdy bedrock of Cartel Madras’ eclectic sound, from grime to gangsta rap, to trap and house. Goonda Gold, both the video and song, is meant to be a metaphorical call to arms, a defiant anthem for the LGBTQ+ community, women, people of colour and immigrants in general. Everyone involved in the video — producers, directors, editors and rappers — are from Alberta and B.C.’s Indian diaspora. But while Eboshi and Contra have maintained ties in India and have frequently returned to soak up its rich music scene, Cartel Madras’s defiant, outsider persona springs from growing up in the Calgary ‘burbs.

“Being an ethnic kid in the west, I think you grow up and you are like: ‘OK, I am desperate to find things that resemble me or resonate with me or make sense to me’ and you don’t have a whole lot because you are also trying to simultaneously fit in here,” says Contra. “What are the pop-culture references that make sense to me? I think a lot of immigrant kids gravitate to hip hop. A lot of brown kids gravitate to hip hop. I think they see a lot of themselves in it. This is music for the underdog coming up.”

While both Eboshi and Contra relocated to Toronto this summer, they still feel a connection to Calgary. They remain part of a homegrown collective known as Thot Police, which also includes hip-hop artist Jae Sterling and producer Yung Kamaji.

And they are making waves in their native country. Rolling Stone India has been writing about the duo since November of 2018, with an article that chronicled the sisters’ early recording sessions in the bathroom of their Calgary home while describing their early output as “no-f — ks-given, badass brand of trap and hip-hop.”

The final track of Age of the Goonda, Glossy Outro, comes from a collaboration Cartel Madras did with Kochi-based producer Parimal Shais for his own album. Goonda Gold was also born out of a distinctly Indian beat the sisters were sent.

“I think it’s a very different market,” says Contra. “India has always been a very music-heavy country. But India has one billion people, so there’s so many genres, so many cultures, so many languages. It’s one of those places where I think there is a lot of money in entertainment and a lot of opportunities for people trying to make different types of music. But I think typically what people define as Indian music is just a very small part of the pie.

“You see it everywhere with the rise of globalization, where kids everywhere are tapping into some of the same things. Hip hop has taken off in India, which makes sense with the climate. It’s almost like everyone knew hip hop was going to take off in India, but it’s really having it’s moment right now. In South India, there’s this rise of underground people who are mixing and mastering in their room and they are rapping. There’s so much to say there, content-wise. Compared to Canada, kids in India have so much to say and so much to think about. It seemed very natural for us to say, this is also a market for us to belong in.”

The Age of the Goonda will be released Nov. 1.