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Big Baby Gandhi Lead
Over the years, the borough has given birth to some of rap’s most notable names, and in recent years, the ethnic makeup of rappers rising from Queens has proven to be more varied than it ever was. From Action Bronson to members of The World’s Fair, these children of late-‘90s and early Aughts hip-hop has made the music from the borough once again, refreshing and exciting. Coming from Flushing, Queens, Bangladeshi rapper/producer Big Baby Gandhi is part of this new breed of talents. Citing a wide array of influences from Bjork to Poor Righteous Teachers, while also referencing GZA and Benny Lava in his verses, the 22-year-old student from St. John’s, has so far only released two mixtapes, but has already caught the attention of major music media outlets including Rolling Stone. Signed to Heems’ (of Das Racist) indie imprint Greedhead, Gandhi may not yet have a radio single that’s burning the stations, but there’s no denying the critical appraisal, and quality of his eccentric sound.
XXL met up with Big Baby Gandhi, and broke down his past, present, and future.—Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)
1. Growing Up in Queens
"For my elementary school [I went to] PS 165 by Pomonack in Flushing. I got bussed out there for like a alpha progam. All the kids [in my class] were Korean. Like 25 Korean kids, me, six white girls, and that was it. I mean its cool I guess. There’s like no other smart kids, what do you want? I mean whenever we had field trips, everyone would go except me, and I would just stay back and hang out with all the other kids.
"Everybody else in my school was black. Everybody except for that one class. Like it’s mad fucked up that you have the one smart class and there’s no black kids, and then, yeah it was all Asian kids. I mean, even myself. Stereotype the Indian kid. Its really crazy to think about it now."
2. Having Immigrant Parents
"Both of my parents just worked immigrant jobs when they first came here. My dad used to sell Rolexes in Midtown on the street and shit. Now he has like a decent freelance kind of job. He works at art galleries doing framing. He got a job when I was really young, just doing framing and then I guess he just got experienced. It’s actually funny now, he used to work at Times Square; he used to work in a basement. But now he works at this art gallery in SoHo, ‘cause the company moved down there. Just funny ‘cause I have to tell people that my dad works at an art gallery in SoHo, even though he’s mad immigrant. He can barely speak English and he’s just really ignorant in general. He’s just mad old school and conservative.
"[My mother] was working a lot, too. She used to work at a 99-cents store as a cashier. She did a lot of really heavy-duty manual labor type of stuff. But she used to be a teacher in Bangladesh. Like the last 12 years, she’s been taking one course at a time. This last year she just finished her courses, and she’s going to get her Masters and hopefully within the next year, she’ll get a job as a teacher. But before that, she’s been doing substitute and paraprofessional. She’s been working really hard. My dad does a lot more manual labor stuff, ‘cause my mom is more brainy; she can pull that off.
"I told [my dad] that I do music. He’s not really interested. And I really don’t like to talk to him about it. I just tell him that I like doing music, and I’m really good at it. And he’s like, 'Yeah okay, sure you do.'"
3. Getting Exposed to Rap
"The first rap song that really took me over though was when I heard 'Dead Wrong' by Biggie. I used to listen to Z100 [New York City’s premier pop radio station] and shit, watch a bunch of different stuff, but when I was like 6 or 7, I heard 'Dead Wrong' and I was like, 'Yo, this is crazy.' And we used to live in one room; it was like a studio apartment so my brother just told me to keep it down. But I thought the music was crazy so I would put my ear next to the stereo, put the volume up, while low, and that’s how I would listen to music for a long time! Until I realized I could get headphones.
"I grew up [listening to] Hot 97. I used to stay up until 1 a.m., when they used to have freestyles from 1 to 3 a.m. I don’t really remember the rappers, I just remember the punchlines. I definitely remember the G-Unit freestyles. They had this thing with Lloyd Banks. He was like, 'Have you looking like Kelly Price before the diet.' That’s one of my favorite parts. They don’t do that ever anymore.
"I was just trying to fit in. I remember when I talk to kids from other classes, I didn’t know what they really thought of me, but I talked about rap. So I started talking about Jay-Z versus Nas, and everyone would be like, 'What do you know about Jay-Z versus Nas?' And then I would start going in. It was the go-to subculture for me."
4. Prep For Prep
"I was supposed to go to Trinity High School, which was like 25 thousand dollars a year. I had almost a full scholarship there, but my dad couldn’t afford like the 500 dollars a year we would have to pay, so I didn’t go. But even so it was dope because I learned a lot. Almost everything I know now is from that program. All the stuff I’m really into now like sociology. I read Malcolm X, I read Maya Angelou. It definitely played a factor in my music. And whenever I meet other people of color, blacks or Hispanics in Ivy Leagues, almost 80 percent of them have gone through Prep for Prep. Which is also sad because if it weren’t for that program how many people of color would be in Ivy League schools? It does a lot in New York City. There’s this dude Gordon Voidwell, he’s like electric, pop dude that is pretty cool and he was telling us how his sister was in Prep for Prep and because of his sister he got hooked up to go to private school. Homeboy Sandman was in that. A lot of really smart rap dudes from New York went through that program."
5. Starting to Rap
"High school is when I formed a lot of my personality aspect of rap. I went to Bronx Science (one of New York City’s specialized public high schools). I didn’t really get along with [my peers]. It was just these really rich white kids. They thought I was really hood. At least the white kids would. I mean it also might’ve been me at that age trying to front like I was mad hard. There were couple kids who were really sheltered that thought I was really hard. [Laughs.]
"I lived in Queens so I would take the train for like two hours everyday from the Bronx. And what I would do is just listen to beats, and freestyle to myself everyday. And that’s when I fell in love with rap and I started listening to old ‘90s shit. Like really old, obscure raps like Poor Righteous Teachers and X-Clan. I would listen to one album every two or three days and go on to another album. Absorb it and put it in my DNA. That’s the only music that ever resonated with me. KRS-One, Boot Camp Click…"
6. Five Percenter
"When I listen to Wu-Tang Clan, I know what they’re talking about. I know the difference between Five-Percent Nation and normal Islam. There is some shit I don’t agree with, mainly because they give white people too much power; like you’re whole religion is based off white people being the devil. Like white people aren’t even so special so we can’t call them the devil. But all the ideas are the same. I started reading more about Islam the past couple years, that God is within you. You know the way the Koran uses the word God; it isn’t like a big dude in the sky with a beard. God is just a placeholder of the oneness of the universe. So when the Five Percenters call someone God its like, 'What up my, man?' It’s a really deep way of saying hello. That’s why that stuff always stuck with me, but I still grew up on Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, too. Like I don’t feel like they are opposites how a lot of other people feel. Right now it’s cool to hate backpack rap, but I don’t know why. There’s good backpack rap, bad backpack rap, good mainstream shit, and bad mainstream shit. I feel like most people aren’t based off the music itself, but they’re just reacting to other people. To fans and people that they know."
"I tried to rap the first time I did shrooms, and I was thinking I was spitting crazy shit right now, but my friend was like, 'Yo, you’re not rapping you are just sitting there.'
"[Smoking weed] makes rapping easier. I stopped smoking for like the past three or four months ‘cause I’m in school right now. You know what I think it is? I think that self-criticism bar goes way down, so before you were like, 'Yo, that isn’t that good.' But when you are high that shit is amazing. Rap is all about confidence. [Weed] makes you confident that you have this ill line so it makes you spit it better."
8. Attending College
"There are a lot of cool people at St. John’s, but the pharmacy program has no black people, maybe one Hispanic girl. [It’s all Asian kids], and white kids whose dads are pharmacists. Its funny ‘cause it’s like every school I’ve attended, there are mad minorities, but I’m always stuck in a program with a bunch of Asians, and white people wherever I go."
9. Becoming a Rapper
"I always saw my self as a rapper, but that was because when I was younger being a rapper didn’t mean you had to have records out. I mean for me anyway. I really just always loved rap. I don’t remember really when I made a decision to become a rapper. I was trying to make a lot of beats. When I linked up with Heems (of Das Racist), I sent him a bunch of beats, and I was saying to myself, 'Yo, I rap way better than these dudes.' And then my first mixtape wasn’t even supposed to be out. It was just demos made for Heems, and he was like, 'Yo, this is good let’s put it out.' And that shit got a lot of love, people liked that more than [NO1 2 LOOK UP 2] that I recently put out."
10. Getting Into Production
"It takes forever, but I got really good at it, and then I got fruity loops and started to make a bunch of beats. I mean it was only a demo version, which I still use. I still can’t save my stems.
"I made 80 beats this last break. Those are the ones I didn’t even use on my mixtape ‘cause I was going to send them out to other rappers. I got one I think Childish Gambino is going to use. I think I’ll have something with Homeboy Sandman. I was trying to get a beat for Children of the Night. I’ve been to their studio and played them a bunch of shit, but I don’t know what they are going to use. I was supposed to have one on their new tape, but it didn’t get on."
11. Linking with Greedhead
12. Rap As a Full-Time Career
"Like no offense, but this rap shit isn’t hard. Smoke and stay in the studio for a couple days and I feel like I can work harder than anyone else, having that immigrant work ethic. So I am not really afraid of doing both. I’m going to put out a lot of music. I’m not afraid to do that shit.
"At the same time I will still out rap everyone else. Just because its not my main thing doesn’t mean that I won’t be making good music. It kind of helps to have that other thing because I feel it helps your creativity. If you are only focused on rap it makes it kind of stale. When I have breaks during the school year [my rap] is not as good as when I’m in school, in the middle of the week and I think of a verse, and I just write that shit down."
13. Punk Rock
"The band was called the Kicks. It was my dude Mohamed and I, and my dude Chi Wei, who writes classical symphonies and it was a shitty band to him, like a joke to him, because he was so talented. He’s a socially awkward dude, ‘cause he is such a genius. He’s like a child prodigy; he’s socially awkward but at the same time pulls mad bitches so it’s weird.
"We were doing a show and our drum machine broke and I had to do like acapella and we really didn’t have any material so I started singing 'Earth Angel' by the Penguins. It’s a doo-wop song that was in Back to the Future. It was coming out really bad so I started freestyling just to keep the crowd into it and people actually liked it. So I was like, 'Maybe I should just stick with rap ‘cause I’m way better at it.' So I went back to making beats and doing rap and shit."
14. J Dilla
"Honestly, that’s how I make my beats now. I try to compete with how Dilla used to do his shit. Only if I am doing some crazy technical stuff with it, I won’t care how it sounds. The beat for 'Stack City' on my mixtape, I was trying to do some crazy Dilla shit with that one. I try to do that with almost every beat I make now, using one snare and [using] the sample itself without the drums, chopping it up to create your own pattern with it. I mean I’ve been doing that shit a lot that’s how I have been approaching it; I don’t care how it sounds."
16. Why Big Baby Gandhi
"[My government] name is Nafis Islam. Big Baby Gandhi is like an ODB tribute. You know he’s Big Baby Jesus. I didn’t name myself Big Baby Mohammed, ‘cause when every little brown kid grows up they get called Gandhi as a joke. So its like a re-appropriation like, ‘Yeah, I am Gandhi.’ And its like whenever I use the word Gandhi in a rhyme I am speaking to brown people. The brown kid who is getting made fun of is the one who is rapping that is dropping a verse. It’s also about not ashamed of being brown.
"When I was growing up they used to call me Gandhi mandi. I have no idea where it comes from; I think they are trying to make fun of the Indian accent. But it’s mad funny everyone does the same shit. At this point, its cool if you call me Gandhi."
17. Big Fuking Baby
"I used a bunch of different [samples]. I have deeper crates than anyone and I’m only 21. I really feel that way. The shits I’m sampling vary so much. How many producers sample the same seven songs? They don’t even dig. And then when they do go to other genres they pick the corniest shit.
"I sampled Donald Byrd for the first one, that’s some jazz shit. Second one I sampled Babyface on two occasions. I changed that up for 'Free Yourself From Illusions.' One was Lisa Standfield. Then I sampled Anita Baker, but anytime you sample Anita Baker it comes out hot. Then I did Arcade Fire, and then I did this reggae cover to ‘Ring My Bell.’ Then I sampled some Indian shit obviously, and got the vinyls online."
18. No 1 To Look Up To
"[Eating money] on the album cover was my idea. I saw a thing on Tumblr, where I saw a whole collection of people eating money. It was a thing, so I just did it. A couple people didn’t like it, but its whatever. It was fun while we did it actually. I felt like kids my age would really be into that shit. I felt like I made heavy old man rap, and that’s my biggest flaw that I’m too old man. So I wanted to do some shit that other kids would like.
"[One of] my favorite lines are by Sadat X when he said, 'Who’s the clown, that didn’t paint Jesus brown? Everybody knows the man was original.' To say that shit in a rap verse to me was amazing. I always wanted to do shit like that, but I know people won’t continue to fuck with you, so what I would do is put one line in, and then start saying shit that sounds like everyone else. Just topic wise, and approach it in a different way. People always say rappers always talk about this or that. I feel like that’s bullshit. Rappers shouldn’t catch shit for that, so I spit about the same shit, but do it in a different way. I feel like the way I normally spit isn’t too crazy. I just want to have one or two lines that are just out there. You know there’s a way you see yourself rhyming and that’s not always the way you do it.
"Hot Sugar made four joints on the album. He’s a cool dude. He mastered NO1 2 LOOK UP 2. He helped me with engineering that. I didn’t know how much work goes into that. It’s mad hard. I had such shitty equipment on the first project I did everything on the first take."
19. American Experience
"I mean the way I feel about money is I definitely need to get money for my family and myself. But coming from Bangladesh, see its not like India. See India is a decent place. Even most Indians here, they come from rich backgrounds, because you do have to have money to even come here. But my parents aren’t like that. [Bangladesh] is one of the poorest countries and they came here because of political asylum. They always got some political shit over there. Whenever one party is in charge they’re trying to kill members of the other party. Then when the other one gets involved, they’re trying to get revenge.
"So my dad was getting persecuted. But, yeah, we were starving in Bangladesh. Even at St. John’s all the brown kids there are sons and daughters of doctors and shit. I don’t relate to a lot of brown people from New York, ‘cause they don’t come from where I come from. They’re not even from the ‘hood, I don’t want to use that term ‘cause every part of New York is the hood. I mean a lot of them haven’t had to struggle. They haven’t had to starve. I mean they haven’t really been through shit. They’re more like, 'Aw man, my mom is making me study. I’m like I’m so glad I don’t have to work that my parents are letting me go to school. When I was 10 years old I was selling incense in front of Caldor on Main Street in Flushing. I was there and then I saw kids in my class see me selling shit on the street. I was mad embarrassed like, 'Fuck my life.' I realized then I need to do something with my life."