What with the total sanity breakdown in UK and US politics recently, you could be forgiven for overlooking the reignited tensions between Pakistan and India, over the ever-contentious Kashmir territory. Air strikes, nuclear threats; they’ve even banned Pakistani actors from appearing in Bollywood films.
Over here, a more harmonious summit has arrived at a happier creative outcome, called ‘Cashmere.’ For five days in May, Heems – short for Himanshu Kumar Suri - a pun-loving New York rapper with Indian roots, hunkered down with Riz MC - the ‘Englistani’ rapper/actor Riz Ahmed - at the latter’s London flat.
Along with Ahmed’s producer pal Redinho – Tom Calvert - the crew known as Swet Shop Boys took an old-skool approach to cranking out their debut album; the MCs freestyling live, chatting transatlantic South Asian issues over Calvert’s suitably retro-modern, east-west beats. The result is witty, powerful, and quite probably important.
Clash caught up with Riz, Heems and Tom – now back in their respective continents - via the wonders of modern communications technology. Let the conversation commence.
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Did you have lyrical themes in mind before recording the album?
Heems – I only rap about three things: race, women and being cool. I’ve been eating off that shit for years, so it’s difficult for me to change it up.
Riz – I feel like the name of the band came before anything. That touched on a lot of themes already, about identity, and exploitation, so our themes kind of came naturally. It feels like a very personal record for me, even though it’s a lot of [big] topics and themes and issues that might be discussed.
The opener, 'T5', is about the hassles you get at airports, and several other tracks reference that. It clearly happens a lot.
R – Yeah, I think I said in my [recent Guardian] essay, the airport space can be similar to the shelf space you’re allocated as a creative person of colour, where you’re marketed or placed in a certain allocated shelf space, where your race takes precedence over your individuality; that’s something that happens at airports as well. So I feel like that’s creatively quite a rich way to talk about how you’re able to cross borders, or cross over as an artist. As working class people from immigrant backgrounds, people of colour who’ve now had successful careers, creatives, and artists, you straddle these two weird worlds. But there’s something rich in that contradiction, so that’s what I wanted to talk about on the record.
Heems, I read that you had a tough time once while flying in from Switzerland?
H – We got stopped at Gatwick and then detained for 18 hours, eating bad sandwiches, in a room full of brown people, then they put us on a flight back to Switzerland, and I was like ‘how is this..?’ I think it being three brown guys might have added to it, but there was also this performance visa thing. So like, ‘wait, the taxes that would be foregone by one show, isn’t it less than the amount to fly us back to Switzerland for free?’ So I didn’t really understand.
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There’s something rich in that contradiction...
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If Trump gets elected the US will probably go bankrupt, when you think of all the deportation costs. But that paranoia is clearly increasing on the streets already?
H –Trump recently has been talking about using ‘stop and frisk’ as a national policy for the police, and it was proven not to work in New York. So it’s a scary time, and I think there is something in that: ‘oh, we can’t stop and frisk them, let’s shoot them.’
There’s a lot of dark paranoia in the track 'Phone Tap', but musically it has quite a chilled, almost G-funk vibe.
Tom – G-funk and T-funk are in my veins, so I think that’s gonna come out without thinking.
H – I would say this has been a cool experience for me because I was working with a producer that I really trusted - typically I work with an engineer who I’ve known since high school, who works with A$AP Rocky and Angel Haze and a lot of people, and I’ll be like ‘yo, what do you feel about this?’ and that’s a relationship I’ve had for ages.
But here, having a producer in the room has worked, probably for the first time I was open to going ‘what did you think when you made it?’ I’ve never asked anyone, ‘yo, what sort of cadence should I do on this?’ A lot of the time I wasn’t really writing, I was literally just pacing around, putting in words that rhymed in my head and weaving together the rest of it. A lot of that came from being there with Riz and Tom, and that’s why I prefer to do these projects in the room.
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That’s why I prefer to do these projects in the room...
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Riz, how much were they trying to get info out of you about this new Star Wars movie you’re in?
R - They couldn’t give less of a shit. I was hoping they’d start treating me differently, I was hoping they’d be on my dick a little more, I was hoping they’d be sucking up to me. I was trying to hang out with fans so I can get that ego boost, because I’m not getting it in the band. They don’t respect me.
Did you think about bringing the album out after 'Rogue One' comes out – capitalise on that exposure?
R – Nah, man, we’ve hardly planned any of this, you’re totally overestimating the amount of organisation that’s gone into it. We recorded it in five days , we thought we’d put it out in the middle of August for Indian/Pakistan independence day, then we ended up spending two months trying to get the artwork right. So yeah, this wasn’t really planned. And despite the accusations in the media, we didn’t plan Brexit or Trump either, to try to boost sales. Those rumours are unfounded.
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What was the best moment of the recording process for you guys?
T – Curries were the highlight, for sure.
H – I was cooking a lot while we were recording, going over to Tesco’s, buying some shit.
T – It was a Sainsbury’s actually, how dare you.
R – He really gets down in the kitchen. It was a natural, family vibe you know – really dysfunctional, really claustrophobic, really good food. Just like being at home.
H – And there was a smoking balcony for me, so that was cool.
Heems, were you conjuring lyrics while cooking?
H - I don’t really think about lyrics until the beat is playing, then they come quickly. Cooking, writing, painting, it’s just like a similar energy for me. But I’m trying to not rap about food as much.
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Really dysfunctional, really claustrophobic, really good food.
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Will there be more Swet Shop Boys stuff?
T – It’s guerilla tactics really. As you can tell, it comes together really quick, we’ve just gotta get everyone in a room together. But we do have a concept I think, for another record. Heems, are we revealing that shit yet?
H – No, but it continues this theme of diaspora. It starts sonically with Redinho, that’s the first step in the process: Redinho figures out the sound, then in this pretty organic fashion I ask him what he was thinking, I try to think what I was feeling, we throw it together, and weave lyrics into the sounds.
There’s an interesting Indian-sounding instrument that starts the album…
H – That was actually the sound of Tom sampling me crying before I go to sleep every night.
Fair enough. You had a pretty intense schedule.
T – They did actually come straight off the plane, and literally get in the studio and start rapping.
H – Yeah, I hadn’t rapped in, like, a year, I hadn’t recorded a body of work. So when I got in that studio with my boys, it was just kind of like, ‘boom, boom, boom, let’s go,’ and I’m used to this fast pace of recording. So as a creator this energy builds up, and when you’re in the right space with the right people it comes out.
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It was a bit of a punk vibe, almost like a live recording...
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Squeezing everything into a short space of time can work better, more energy?
T - The vibe of this record going in, it was a bit of a punk vibe, almost like a live recording, because that’s so rare these days. Most recordings are pieced together like some patchwork. Or it’s produced over the internet, various times and spaces. But this was kinda like ‘no, we’re in the same fucking space, and we’re gonna hit record and that’s gonna be the vibe and we’re not gonna edit it… that much.’
H – I’m a big fan of someone like Young Thug who recorded something like 20 songs a day, and I think coming from America with that mixtape culture, it’s a matter of quantity on top of quality, so it becomes ‘how do I record quickly?’ A lot of it is just hustle shit. I might not have enough time to pay for a studio session, so I gotta get to work.
The track ‘Zayn Malik’ is interesting, looking at positive and negative influences on modern kids, from ISIS to pop stars...
H – Yeah, it’s kind of a post facto-realisation, like, ‘alright we’re just getting in the booth and having freestyles, what’s the common bridge on it?’ As far as the name [of the track], that’s my favourite bar on the album, when Riz rhymes about “there’s more than One Direction to get to paradise” - I was like, ‘that’s a bar that needs to be highlighted!’ And actually, no irony, I’m a Zayn Malik fan, and I was like, if we call this track ‘Zayn Malik’ then my fellow Directioners will really appreciate it.
R – Yeah, wooh!
Can you see Zayn getting in touch, doing something on the next album?
H – That’s just what I need, a third person that’s better looking than me to work on music with.
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Words: Si Hawkins
Swet Shop Boys album ‘Cashmere’ is out now, on Customs Records.