Music is often at its most exhilarating when it’s shoving back against an unjust, uncaring world. Think reggae artists fighting Jamaica’s oppression of Rastafarianism in the ’70s; UK and US punks venting their spleens at Thatcher and Reagan in the ’80s; or early ’90s hip hop dealing with the fallout from the LA riots. There’s no non-crass way of putting this, but suffering, oppression and agonised political discontent can make for amazing pop music.
Case in point: Swet Shop Boys, a US-UK rap supergroup (superduo?) comprising Heems, ex of disbanded alt-rap crew Das Racist, and Riz MC, better known as Riz Ahmed, star of Four Lions, Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne and HBO’s buzzed-over The Night Of, as well as the upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One. Together, the pair are marching straight into some of the most emotionally charged minefields imaginable: immigration, Islamophobia, refugees, drone attacks, shifting national identities, the mainstreaming of far-right politics… If it makes people uncomfortable, Riz and Heems are all over it.
If that sounds like a recipe for worthy, eat-your-greens music of the most tiresomely lecturing kind, be assured that Swet Shop Boys’ number one priority is producing stone-cold hip-hop bangerz – they’re competing for your attention with Drake, Danny Brown and Young Thug, not broadsheet think-pieces and socially conscious hashtags.
I’m conference-calling with Riz and Heems from their respective home cities, London and New York. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both men speak like they rap: Riz rapidly and intensely, Heems casually and often tangentially.
The pair first hooked up when Heems gave Riz a transatlantic nod of approval for his 2006 single – as Riz MC – ‘Post 9/11 Blues’. “I was playing Glastonbury, taking a s**t backstage, and Heems tweeted me about the track from the Das Racist account,” recalls Riz (TMI, BTW). “We kept in touch but didn’t link up until 2012, when I was researching [New York borough] Queens for The Night Of. Himanshu [Heems’ real name] is from Queens, so he showed me around.”
They were soon collaborating on tracks, casually at first, then more earnestly as it became clear that they were onto something. First came 2014’s feisty ‘Swet Shop’ mini-mixtape, then a triptych of rugged, confrontational singles – ‘Tiger Hologram’, ‘T5’ and ‘Zayn Malik’. Now there’s ‘Cashmere’, the Boys’ debut album, a place where hard Brooklyn beats meet giddy Bollywood funk, and the quickfire, agitated lyricism of UK rap meets the more languid flow of New York.
“We definitely do have different ways of attacking the beat, but our lyrical content is similar,” says Heems, explaining how their contrasting styles can co-exist. “The content is our middle ground, where Riz and me meet.” That content is invariably nerve-touching stuff. ‘T5’, for example, deals with Riz and Heems’ experiences of blatant racial profiling by airport security.
“With a track like ‘T5’,” says Heems, “people who can relate to it directly will appreciate it, but it’s also about explaining that experience to those who may not be familiar with it.”
Even those of us who’ve never felt singled out for having brown skin can still relate to a track like this “on a different level”, reckons Riz. “Growing up, me and my friends would idolise African-American rappers, and we just couldn’t relate to their experience. We couldn’t relate to 2Pac growing up in LA – but his feeling of having outsider status and of having the odds stacked against him, that really spoke to us. It really resonated with us, emotionally, at a thematic level.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t of South Asian descent and maybe haven’t experienced racism, but who still feel like outsiders or like they’re being forced to choose between binary identities – their sexual identity, racial identity, class identity, whatever – when their natural identity is mongrel. It’s that feeling of, ‘I don’t fit in. I’m a mongrel. F**k you and f**k your categories, I’m gonna be me.’”
Riz continues: “This record will resonate with those people as well, because the more specific you are in talking about your experience, the more universal it becomes.”
Amid all the soul-searching and anger-venting, Riz and Heems never forget to inject a few cathartic lolz into their music. “Heems put his finger on the kind of humour it is,” says Riz. “He described it as ‘laughing to stop yourself from crying’.”
Heems is, however, keen to distance his Swet Shop Boys output from his previous releases as one third of Das Racist, who treated everything – themselves included – as a valid target for mockery. “I don’t associate a lot of humour with this project,” he says.
“I’ve heard people call it a ‘funny’ or ‘sarcastic’ or ‘playful’ take on these subjects – but considering the direction I was coming from with Das Racist, which was blatantly sarcastic and humorous, this music is comparatively not playful at all. But then I guess don’t hear it in the way other people do.”
(Infinitely more serious Swet Shop Boys may be, but Heems can’t help but let the odd Das Racist-ism slip through – see the pleasingly childish lyrics of ‘Zayn Malik’: “Shout out to my sister / I miss her / Shout out to your sister / I kissed her”.)
Swet Shop Boys aren’t only unique for their willingness to gleefully wrestle with 2016’s ‘hot-button’ issues – they’re also pretty much the only rappers of South Asian descent visible within hip-hop right now. “Here in the UK,” says Riz, “a lot of South Asian communities are working class – we have ghettos, we have hoods – and MCing is a very natural way to express yourself in those contexts. And so we do have a lot of sick South Asian MCs, but they don’t get mainstream attention, partly because of the way the UK’s media landscape is organised, where you have these ghettoised ‘ethnic’ radio stations – the Asian music station and so on. You can have the white person in a band, or the black guy in a grime video, but you can’t have the brown person, from-the-hood-but-went-to-a-good-uni, and he’s rapping.
“I think we’re slow to embrace hybrids. America is better at celebrating hybrid forms, being a nation of immigrants.” Prove Riz wrong, Britain – embrace Swet Shop Boys like you’ve been waiting forever for them.