Ahead of the release of his first full-length solo rap album, and following the release of Blindspotting, the 2018 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated independent film in which he’s featured, Ambudkar answered some questions from The Aerogram about his craftsmanship. Ambudkar teamed up with Blindspotting writers and co-stars Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, as well as Detroit-based producers The Olympicks, to create the single “Vanity,” the title track from his upcoming album.
Here’s what he shared with us about the collaboration as well as what’s on the horizon.
What was the production process like for this single? Did you, Rafael and Daveed write and record together? When did The Olympicks come onboard?
Rafa and I sat down at a laptop in an empty apartment in Santa Monica intent on creating some potential material for the Blindspotting soundtrack. He and Diggs have been working with The Olympicks for years. He pulled up the skeleton of the beat that would become “Vanity” and the two of us wrote and recorded our verses in about 20 minutes. We sent it off to Diggs who added his remotely a few days later.
The real gift came after the song was done. Rafa and Diggs both encouraged me to use the song as my own solo record and to continue writing and recording the material that became the Vanity album.
This single represents a trans-coastal collaboration between east coast (Utkarsh from Baltimore/NYC), west coast (Rafael & Daveed from Oakland) and the Midwest (the Olympicks from Detroit). Did combining everyone’s varying regional hip hop sensibilities ever pose a challenge during production?
You’d think it might but not at all. Sometimes a group of artists get together at the right time. The floodgates open. The opportunity to be prolific arises and everyone makes each other better. This was one of those special synergistic moments.
There are not too many mainstream Desi rappers out there (yet), but who do you get inspiration from? Who are your rap heroes and/or folks you’d like to work with in the future?
My personal influences are — in no particular order — Andre 3000, Slick Rick, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Eminem, Black Thought, and maybe a little early Kanye. I’d love to work with OG greats like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Krayzie Bone (this may actually happen). Current Desi emcees/singers like Heems, Brooklyn Shanti, Monica Dogra (SHAA’IR), Raja Kumari and Kaly all inspire me to keep adding to the present Desi conversation.
How have you navigated the sometimes intersecting (and sometimes not) Hollywood and Hip-Hop industries as a multi-genre performer? Have there ever been exciting projects you’ve had to turn down to pursuit other opportunities in one or the other industry?
I think we all like to fit our entertainment into categories and as a result we want our artists to exist in neat, little boxes. “He’s a comedian.” “He’s a rapper.” “He’s a singer-songwriter.” Sometimes I wish I could adhere to that formula, but I only get one life and there’s too much to make!
That being said, Hip-Hop has greatly influenced my acting career. Despite going to acting school, both of the agents I worked with signed me based on my rapping and spoken word skills. I was cast in Pitch Perfect based on the beat-box and rap skills I developed in NYC clubs, which lead to Mindy Kaling offering me the role of her rapping brother, Rishi, on The Mindy Project. Even a movie like Barbershop: The Next Cut became possible for me because of the language and culture of Hip-Hop that I speak. I’ve never missed an opportunity, but I have made some close-call flights and shown up at the theater 15 minutes before curtain or 5 minutes before a music show.
What has been more challenging as a Desi artist? Finding footing in Hip Hop or in Hollywood? How do you see representation and inclusivity advancing in both industries?
Both worlds are changing and growing around the idea of representation and equal opportunity. My job is to keep working hard. I have a loud, stubborn voice in my head telling me not to quit. I also have a responsibility to the South Asian artists who paved the road before me to pass on that support and love to the new artists coming in.
What’s on the horizon for you? A tour? Film and/or TV appearances?
The Vanity full-length album will drop sometime end of 2018 or early 2019. I’m currently in New Zealand filming Disney’s Mulan. Blindspotting is now in theaters (94% Rotten Tomatoes) and I’m always working on new music. Thanks so much for your support and interest in my art and my journey. Big fan of you guys.
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.