Swet Shop Boys Connect the Dots for Those Living Outside the Box
When Riz Ahmed, star of HBO's The Night Of, and Heems, former member of Das Racist, first met up in 2012, the former was doing research for his acting role as Nasir “Naz” Khan for the miniseries. Little did they know, the two rappers had much in common. Even though they were raised on different sides of the Atlantic, Riz (a.k.a. Riz MC) and Heems (born Himanshu Suri) both shared a love for hip-hop and were children of immigrants with a working class background who attended elite universities. They also realized they go through a lot of the same issues tied to racism and identity.
As a result, the Swet Shop Boys were born in 2014, a rap group that not only raises the visibility of South Asians in popular culture but also celebrates the global mongrel identity in an age where race-baiters and politics are telling you to pick a side. They released their first EP that same year and found a special lane to fill.
The following year, the duo linked up with producer Redinho and recorded their Cashmere album in London over the course of a week. The LP is a combination of top-tier bars and trans-Atlantic politics that touches on things such as Donald Trump, Brexit and racial profiling.
"We’re living in a time when people say you got to pick a side," Riz tells XXL on Skype. "In this time, this album is about saying fuck that. It’s about celebrating the mongrel, the fact that we’re mixed up. That’s a strength not a weakness. That mongrel identity is what we’re exploring with the Swet Shop Boys and what we’re celebrating."
Now in 2016, with Cashmere finally dropping on Oct. 14, Riz MC and Heems jumped on Skype to discuss the album, connecting diaspora dots and who has the best verse.
XXL: So tell me how did y’all first meet?
Riz MC: We met in 2012, when I was out in New York researching for The Night Of and I needed to get to know Queens. Himanshu and I were going back and forth on social media. I hit him up and said, “Yo, you’re from Queens, can you show me around and he showed me around for a little bit. That’s how I did the research for my role and got to know him and how much we had in common.”
Heems: Then about three years later, he hits me up and says, “Hey, I have this idea for a rap group, it’s called Swet Shop Boys.”
What were your first thoughts?
Riz: His first thought was, “Yo, I’m about to quit rap" [laughs]. Then I was like, “Let’s do a band.” He said, “I’m thinking of quitting rap.” I said, “Yeah, but it’s going to be called the Swet Shop Boys.” And he was like, “That’s pretty good.”
Heems, what made you want to quit rap?
Heems: This shit is exhausted, B. Just the hustle of…there is a lot of confusion I think in music right now, the music industry, so just navigating the hustle of being a musician is pretty exhausting and it changes year-to-year. Just having to reinvent yourself, each album is pretty exhausted and just on the day-to-day level touring is pretty exhausting. But when this opportunity came across to me I was basically like, When else can a project exist that’s both a British actor and American actor and also on both sides of the border of Pakistan and India? So it’s kind of hard to say no to that. So that yanked me back in to the Indian art mafia rap world.
In the early beginnings, was there difference between y’all that took getting used?
Heems: Yeah, he has a thick British accent and that’s very different from the way I speak. At first and foremost I had to be able to understand what he was saying [laughs].
Riz: [Laughs] I guess there is that. Also, the way we approach the work was different. I feel like we met in the middle now. I came from a freestyle battle background so I did a lot of freestylin’ growing up. That’s really how I made my name in London. So when I stopped doing that, I went totally opposite extreme to get away from it and I am very meticulous, drafting and redrafting lyrics. Where is Himanshu is more fast and loose with it, kind of commits what’s going on in the moment and spits it in the studio. So that was two really opposite ways of working but now by the time we made this album, in that five-day period, day two we were on the same page. We met in the middle. But it’s still closer to the way Himanshu does it. Doing the way I do it, you can’t make an album in five days. Getting on his approach on just trust your gut and rolling with it meant we could do some really good work in a short space of time.
How did y’all adapt to each other? What was the process like?
Heems: Really, our producer [Redinho], he was the spark that got everything going in this project. He was the one who started working on these beats after… Me and Riz put out an EP where we were working with other producers but one track came across us from Riz’s man Redinho who did a track with his own instrumentals and he kind of nailed the sound. It was rap but it was also Qawwali, which is a big influence on Riz and this whole album. So Red put together a bunch of beats. I worked with him once, a year ago and then Riz came in and we were sitting on an EP but we were like this really deserves special treatment.
My producer just got both of us in town at the same time. He would literally play a beat, we would think on it for 10 minutes. Some songs we would sit there and write more, some songs we would freestyle. It was definitely very organic. It wasn’t so much like this has to be the track about this, this has to be the track about that. It wasn’t preplanned in that way. It was what's on our mind at this moment, where are we right now and kind of a snapshot of where we are right now.
Where did you take Riz in Queens to do research for his role?
Heems: We met in Jackson Heights. Since his character was playing someone in Jackson Heights. We walked around there and talked about the neighborhood, talked about how it’s different from London. I spent time in London like 10 years ago, so we talked about Southall verses Jackson Heights and Queens in New York verses London. Then I brought him out to meet my family because if you want to know Queens first generation life is like, you got to meet the whole family and see if it’s any different or how it’s rooted in that same generation so how it might not be different. I felt it was important to meet the family because then it sets a similar idea to diaspora but you can also see the nuances where it is different from a British family.
Riz: It was just that thing of like, just seeing how similar he is in a lot of ways and how different he is in really key ways as well. Culturally, even though he’s from India and I’m from Pakistan, our cultures are pretty identical so this border kind of separates us in a lot of ways is real. You got different religions and stuff like that but it’s also kind of fictional one. His family is originally from where Pakistan is today. My family is originally from where India is today. So it felt good connecting like that.
That’s part of the idea with Swet Shop Boys, to join up these diaspora dots. A lot of time you grow up with one cultural background but in the West you can feel a bit confused where you fit in. But it’s only when you go and travel to places like New York or South Africa with other people just like you who kind of mixed up just like you until you realize that’s where you fit in and it’s actually a whole global community within all these cities across the world. That’s one of the major driving forces of Swet Shop Boys, just connecting all the dots for all those people who don’t necessarily fit in to one traditional box.
The project touches on issues that are happening today like Donald Trump running for president, race. Why did those topics come up? Did you have to want to diss them?
Riz: This stuff has been on our mind for a long time, since we were kids. I suffered many experiences, violent and verbal, racism and every different kind. This is a part of everyday reality of people of color. I think sometimes the news cycle focuses on it more than the other times. So right now this is a hot issue. We’re talking about xenophobia and Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, but Black Lives Matter is 400 years old. Xenophobia is as old as the crusades. These are things that we’re brought up and we always rapped about those stuff because it’s just part of our reality and we feel like it needs to make visible and needs to be represented in the culture.
Who has the toughest bars on the album?
Riz: My favorite verse on the album is Himanshu’s verse on “Din-e-Ilhai.” The very last verse on the very last track, personally, just because it felt a little different to how he wrote and delivered his other stuff. I think he took a little bit of time to think about what he wanted to say and it’s a tricky concept. That track is all about spirituality and in a way that can get cheesy but he tackled it from an angle that was cool and I really responded to that.
Heems: I say the toughest bars probably go to Riz for the Zayn Malik line. “Look, Zayn Malik got more than 80 virgins on him/There’s more than one direction to get to paradise.” That was like a slam dunk.
Riz: Kids from our community, they need stuff to look up to, they need some kind of aspiration and it’s not being offered to them in an economy that only favors the privilege and a society that doesn’t value the people of color. They are going to start looking towards radicalism and we see that, you know? We see that a lot. That’s why it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, just talking to the youth. There’s another way. There are other people that can kind of embrace their brownness but do it with dignity and make a success of themselves, you don’t have to go to Syria.
How competitive were y’all towards each other? Hip-hop is a competitive art. Were y’all trying to out rap each other?
Heems: That’s a good question. In the studio there is always like a friendly competitive tip, but I think this was a project where the way Riz writes it kind of influences me. I was thinking like, What’s the hook here or what’s the structure for this? A lot of time you get on a track with your homies it’s like doing a posse cut but with each person having a verse and you’re in your own bubble on who can write the best 16. It was like, How can both of us write the best 16 to help make the song a thing? So it wasn’t really competitive at all.
Riz: The competitive thing, for me, rather than being competitive, I think this band works so well together because me and Heems have very complementary styles. The way I would naturally attack a beat is completely different from him. So if anything, rather than competitive, just like every time [Heems] would get in first and jump on the beat, it made me look at the beat differently to how I was initially, which is nice. It’s like someone offers you a different perspective to get you out of your own head.
The album and single art is really nice. Tell us about it.
Heems: The art, we all threw a bunch of ideas in a pot basically and knew that we want to incorporate at that time Pakistani Truck Art, old Indian Persian paints, war art about drones, so we worked with this team called Buero Unfun. We went back and forth. I think the album art actually took longer than the album itself. The album art took about a month and the album took about a week and another week to tweak and add things. I truly think it’s just as important as the music and is kind of a collage in a same way as the music. It’s a bunch of different influences and references that speak about our experiences and our history and that’s exactly what the album is.
How did y’all grow as a unit since the EP dropped in 2014?
Riz: I think the main thing is that we kind of found a rhythm of working that can bring out both of our strength but feels a bit more coherent. I think when we first worked together, our approach was on different ends of the spectrum. But I think we found a space where our content met in the middle. Cashmere was a bit more humorous than my solo material and it was a bit more serious than Heems’ solo material. And the way we work, whether he writes his stuff a bit more and I write it a little less now, I think that’s the main way we glued together. Redinho is a big part of that. He’s an amazing producer and musical director and writer. That helped a lot.
Heems: The production was the main thing for me. We were kind of getting these beats and we were vaguely messing with Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern samples. But once Redinho came into the picture and another two, three years of being writers, rappers and performers and the just the maturity that comes with that, I think Redinho's production really made it something where it was like, hook, bridge, verse rather than two rappers on a beat going back to back. Like you really felt like this song deserved the right treatment. And just general things like growing a people, growing with our experiences and kind of coming together after two years. It was definitely good energy.
Riz: He’s like, I guess in a weird way, he’s like us; he doesn’t fit into a box. He’s British but spent some of his early childhood out in California. He recently went out to live in Greece for a while. Because he can do so many different things he sometimes finds it frustrating to just fit into one box. Like going to just be an EDM DJ, that won’t satisfy him, just being a producer won’t satisfy him, just being a solo artist won’t satisfy him. So he does it all. And that can be a gift and a curse because sometimes it’s easier if you can be put in one clear box but I just admire his creativity. He’s that guy that a lot of people in the scene thinks is the man.
Heems: I think he’s a warrior and I would describe him as a subtle beast.
What does the title Cashmere actually mean?
Heems: It’s a play on words and the state of Kashmir, which is a disputed territory and speaks to India and Pakistan’s long history of… Well, how would you describe India and Pakistan’s history Riz?
Heems: Yup, beefy. And it speaks to sweatshops, fabrics being Swet Shop Boys. And it also speaks to a kind of wavy-ness, a stunty-ness.
How would y’all describe each other in one word and why?
Heems: Riz has been inspiring. Seeing him and everything he’s been killing this year and seeing him in the studio. Again, I want to quit rap all the time, having him get me back into rap, he’s an inspiring dude, helping me with my work ethic. He’s a robot; either inspiring or robot.
Riz: [Laughs] I would describe Himanshu as liberating. In a sense where he just says, "Look, you don’t have to overthink things." Sometimes I can. When you are used to working really hard the whole time, sometimes you’re just giving yourself things to do. And that’s not necessarily, like, Why are you fucking rewriting that track? Just trust your gut. You already know yourself. Just be yourself.
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