‘The Medium and the Message’ with Riz Ahmed’s Swet Shop Boys
Riz Ahmed is annoyed at me.
When we last spoke he assumed I was Scottish (I’m from Newcastle) and apparently made a number of references to it in our conversation which, to his dismay, I never corrected for him. As we speak on the phone a month later, he’s waiting to tell me off.
“That’s pretty snakey, Paul.”
Also joining us on the other end of the phone are former Das Racist rapper Heems and producer Redinho, who together with Riz make up Swet Shop Boys, the transatlantic rap act set to drop their debut album, ‘Cashmere’, this month.
Anybody familiar with either Riz or Heems’ past output, or with the last Swet Shop Boys EP, will have an idea of what to expect from the album lyrically. There’s talk of politics, of racism and of rebelling against having an identity forced upon you, but at the same time there’s the everyman piss-taking humour that both MCs do so well. All this is backed by an unshakeable self-belief which sees Heems declare himself “a college dorm room poster” in ‘Zayn Malik’.
Musically and aesthetically, however, it’s a departure from the ‘Swet Shop’ EP. ‘Cashmere’ draws heavily upon the heritages of Riz and Heems, who are of Pakistani and Indian descent respectively, as well as British urban music and American rap beats. Redinho uses Asian melodies, instruments, sounds and samples to illuminate his beats and create tracks which match the “mongrel” nature of the group, as Riz himself puts it.
At a time when British and American politics is fuelled by crises of identity and of fear of the impact of foreign influence, ‘Cashmere’ is something of a rallying cry; a celebration of mongrel identity, and a resistance against allowing those in power or in the media to put you into boxes or paint you with broad brushstrokes. And if you can have a laugh at yourself and others while you do it, then why not?
I caught up with Riz, Heems and Redinho to talk through the medium and the message of ‘Cashmere’, as well as UK and US rap, chirpsing and Glastonbury toilets.
How did Swet Shop Boys form?
Redinho: I know Riz, we met on Myspace nearly 10 years ago and started collaborating. Fast forward 10 years and Riz has come up with the name Swet Shop Boys and wants to do something with it. He got a tweet from Heems while he was on the toilet at a festival or something and they made a handful of beats with a variety of producers, they had one leftover so they gave me the sloppy seconds and that became Tiger Hologram.
I’d never met Heems before, he came down to my house in London and we did 5 tracks which was a whirlwind, and then later he came back and we did the rest.
Heems, am I right in thinking you got in touch with Riz after hearing ‘Post 9/11 Blues’?
Redinho: It was around that time, but actually I think it was more because of People Like People…
Heems: Nah you know what happened was I was talking to this girl who was British and had told me about ‘Post 9/11 Blues’, so I checked it out and I thought it was cool. It was political, it was funny, it was satirical, and that’s what I’d been doing with Das Racist. I tweeted at Riz while he was taking a shit at Glastonbury apparently…
Is this a scoop? Is this the first time the Glastonbury shitting story has been told?
Riz: I was taking a shit, I’ll put that on record. I stand by that.
Heems: Yeah, I take shits too, it’s true.
Riz: Yeah I’m not trying to deny that out here…
Redinho: Riz recorded the majority of his verses on this album in his toilet.
You obviously have a global sound because of your global make-up. Rap is an American genre but do you feel like you’ve brought individual British influences to the sound too? Would this link-up have been possible if it weren’t for the online nature of the world now?
Redinho: Even though we met online which is quite a modern story, we came together to record in the studio, which is a bit more old school. I think everyone did bring their flavour. Heems brought his US swag and Riz brings a UK style in a sense, but it’s such a gumbo style, a melting pot, and we could go on and on about what’s in there.
Heems: What you said about it being online is interesting because American people definitely listen to more UK rap and grime than they did 10 years ago but I’ve spent a lot of time in London and I don’t think recording it in New York would have made much difference. I don’t think about it in terms of working with British artists, I think about it as working with friends who all happen to be from different places. Maybe that’s a reflection of the globalised world we live in.
Riz: The most prominent cross-cultural element to this album is between East and West in a way. Both in lyrical content, bridging these gaps and addressing those contradictions in ourselves. Are we Londoners and New Yorkers or Pakistani and Indian? Our families are from India and Pakistan and Tom’s [Redinho] family probably oppressed all of us…
Tom really brought that element to the production in an incredible way. He could have just got a Bollywood sample and a beat but he actually researched the music and replayed instruments and represented that cross-cultural element.
Do you think it’s aided by the fact that London and New York are quite similar cities?
Riz: Yeah I think New York and London are more similar to each other than they are to any other cities in their own countries, but it’s still quite rare to see a US-UK rap collaboration. In a way I think that’s a sign of the times in itself, you know we were talking about how grime is being more influenced by trap, trap is being influenced by grime, and certain producers like Hud Mo are bridging those gaps.
I was thinking about this the other day and rap and MC culture has been at the centre of UK pop music for a much shorter time than it has in the American mainstream. Because of that, you feel like they’re in slightly different places. I was listening to Young Thug a while ago and it’s sick, it’s melodic, it’s creative and I was really getting into it. However we don’t make that kinda thing in the UK cos we’ve got a slightly younger culture here, which is still about proving you got BARS you know? We want to see lyrical dexterity; we want to see dense flows. We want to see that on display. So that demand for a certain level of lyrical showmanship, combined with the fact we still have certain expectations about masculinity and proving your hood credentials to be rated as an MC, means there isn’t much space for leftfield rappers in the UK. Whereas in the US you’ve already had Eminem if you want rhyme schemes and structure, you’ve had proper gangsta rappers; they did that, so now they’re doing something different, a little bit more leftfield. They had bands like Das Racist, they had backpack rap and conscious rap and all kinds of left field stuff. In the U.K. we’re still growing and it’s a bit more traditional in terms of what we expect from our MC’s – even though the music is so innovative here.
Tiger Hologram is an interesting one because Riz in particular gets quite rude and disrespectful on it…
Riz: Whoa whoa whoa hang on a minute Paul, how am I being disrespectful? Only to you bro for not telling me you weren’t Scottish.
Haha! The bar “you should think about having that facelift hoe. What!? I was negging you, if you’re not on it I’m not bothered and your friend’ll do” is definitely a bit disrespectful…
Riz: Haha, but that’s about a failed chirpse on a messy night. A lot of this stuff is asking whether you’re playing a character or not. I was fascinated with Pick-Up Artist culture and how that’s mainstreamed and what that does to you, and how you start viewing women. They say you might meet your wife but if you get good at chirpsing then it’s like going to the gym or something, you’ll never want to stop and you’ll just start seeing people as numbers.
If any feminists are reading then please note that bar is a criticism of Pick-Up Artist culture…
Or is that an attempted chirpse for the readers of SBTV?
Riz: Exactly. That’s my feminist chirpse. We’re trying to lock down every market here.
You used to battle rap right? Is that a side you like to bring out every now and then?
Riz: That’s actually something that Heems has inspired me to do a lot more of on this record. I used to do rap battles and then I moved very hardcore away from that and moved to these long spoken word pieces, but I aspired to be different on this record.
Heems, a lot of the criticism for Das Racist from people who didn’t really understand what you were doing was that you were a joke group, is it important to strike a balance between being too humorous and too preachy?
Heems: I’ve thought about that. My last album was a very serious affair. It dealt with 9/11 and mental health after a break up. On this album I was quite political but I tried to balance it out with storytelling and bars rather than with humour. I do always think it’s important not to be preachy though, so that’s why I tried to subvert serious commentary and let them come up with little flashes of bars.
Riz: When I’m doing stuff solo it comes out very serious, but working with Heems makes my stuff a bit more loose and playful and a bit funnier, whereas he thought working with me made his stuff a bit more structured and political. It’s interesting that we’ve rubbed off on each other that way but still had very distinct styles and voices.
Tom referred to us as yin and yang. In so many ways we’re the same, we have such similar backgrounds, values, ideas and goals, but we’re so different as people in so many ways.
Yeah, In ‘T5’ Heems starts the song off with a very laid-back and languid flow, and then Riz pops up with a rapid-fire multi-syllabic sequence…
Heems: I think it’s reflective of how we’re similar and different at the same time. We both have these sides that are serious and playful, and our topic often overlap each other too. We’re conscious of never letting anything become too much of an effort and just letting our identities flow into the work.
Redinho: Yeah that’s what I was going to say. We had a policy of not overthinking and that was pretty much inspired by Heems’ approach. He likes to get in and start having not even heard the beats. Me and Riz like to take time and we sometimes end up going down a perfectionist route where you end up stunted by your own analysis paralysis.
We tried to not think too much, so the stylistic differences are things that came out quite authentically. Going back to your previous question, when it comes to being too preachy or too humorous I’d just say do your thing, and at the end you can always back yourself.
Did working together in a group make it more playful anyway?
Heems: Having worked in a group and done solo projects, it’s best when it’s an organic friendship that has developed over time, and when you’re all getting along and laughing and joking then some of that might make it into the recording. That’s how recording works, it takes in what’s in the air too. Sometimes it can be difficult when you’re enjoying yourself to really knuckle down and write solidly for three hours but it’s different to working over email for sure.
We’ve talked about the music a lot here, do you have a message that you wanted to put forward with the album?
Riz: Not really a message, I just wanted to represent me. I know it feels like a very political album but in a way this is more personal than anything I’ve ever done. We were just talking about things on our mind, and maybe it’s this issue of identity. We’re living in this world of Brexit and Trump and rising islamophobia and India and Pakistan clashing over Kashmir and it feels like this whole world is trying to force us into binaries. You’re either in this box here or this box here. This project is my way of saying fuck you I don’t want to choose and I can’t choose, it doesn’t even make sense.
Do you feel you have an identity forced upon you rather than crafting it yourself?
Riz: Yeah and this album is a celebration of being a mongrel, but that’s not necessarily the message.
Heems: I was thinking about this and it’s pretty clear to me that Riz and I are two artists from the south Asian diaspora as well as large cities and we have similar tastes in a lot of things. The books we read and films we watch both involve immigration and diaspora too. I feel like this album really captured my interest in that subject, but in the language of rap music, which is another interest of mine. That’s why working with Riz was really cool because this is a dude who is influenced by that canon and trying to make art that is influenced by that canon and I feel that this work stands up against it.
Riz, your essay about airport security from Nikesh Shukla’s ‘The Good Immigrant’ went up on The Guardian last week. You mentioned Trump and Brexit earlier, these are both things that could make travelling even more difficult for you, could this project have come about?
Riz: The pendulum always swings both ways. Obama and then Trump. You’ve got Sadiq Khan and Nigel Farage. There always seems to be an action and then a reaction. Every time you make progress in one direction it seems to kick back in another way. After this project I think Tom’s going to go and make a Nazi skinhead punk album to balance it out.
Redinho: Yeah that’s always been a dream of mine to be honest…
Ok, so what’s next for Swet Shop Boys? Is there anything else you’d like to say before we go?
Redinho: I’d just like to say that all the lyrics were actually written by me…
Heems: Yeah I made all the beats.
Riz: I was just the muse. I was just…
Redinho: You were just on the toilet man.
Riz: Yeah they just came and looked at me in all my glory and were inspired. That’s a valid contribution…
Heems: I recorded all my verses laying down on the couch.
Riz: One thing I want to say about this is that Himanshu (Heems) is a powerful cook. He really is. He fuelled us with some next level fucking recipes that we’re going to unleash onto the world, so get ready for the Swet Shop Boys cookbook, we’re going to be bringing that out next year and that’s when people will understand.
Redinho: Yeah this record is actually a Trojan Horse for Heems’ culinary career.
Heems: Yeah that was the plan, I made them dinner every day and we’re going to talk about it in every interview.
So what’s your special recipe?
Heems: I basically make everything but Indian food…
Riz: Whoa, don’t play yourself man. We’re not going to release that. This is like the track listing on a Frank Ocean album or something. We’re not leaking that up front but when it drops you’ll know.
Well I personally can’t wait for the Swet Shop Boys pop-up restaurant to open…
Riz: Mate, you’re joking but I’m not…
‘Cashmere’ is available to buy here.