In an era characterized by polarized political views, a record by an Indian-Pakistani rap duo couldn’t be more timely. On their debut album Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys create necessary commentary while relying on a healthy dose of humor, a combination that makes for one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.
Swet Shop Boys is composed of Heems and Riz MC. Heems, also known as Himanshu Suri, is an Indian-American rapper from Queens who found fame for his contributions to the hip-hop group Das Racist. His complement, Riz Ahmed, is a Pakistani Londoner who’s been rapping under the name Riz MC since 2006.
Heems contributes his quick-witted lyricism and laid back flow while Riz provides a more sharp, breakneck pace characteristic of the U.K. grime scene. Producer Redinho, who fuses progressive hip-hop beats with South Asian instrumentation, completes their sound. Instead of just placing beats over sitars, Redinho takes full advantage of the complexity of qawwali, bhangra and Bollywood music.
The dynamic beats by Redinho are a high point throughout the record as he finds every way to utilize South Asian sounds without sounding too kitschy. There are some shortcomings in the middle of the album when Heems’ lyrics go from sounding impressionistic to sounding thoughtless. This is forgivable because when Heems does focus, he provides some of the most humorous and poignant lyrics on the project, tackling issues of xenophobia and conflict in the South Asian region.
Swet Shop Boys’ unique perspective is seen in the album’s title, which is a possible reference to the Kashmir, a fervently disputed political region India and Pakistan have fought over since the ’40s.
The album’s first track, “T5,” is defined by a prominent shehnai sample, a South Asian woodwind instrument similar to the oboe. The political nature of the record is evident in the chorus where Heems melodramatically raps, “Oh no, we’re in trouble / TSA always wanna burst my bubble / Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.” Riz follows with a scathing critique of anti-refugee policies when he raps, “Well you know about Aeneas in the Iliad / Fled Turkey and he just founded Rome / What if he has drowned in a boat?”
Heems and Riz continue their political commentary on the song “Shottin,” where they talk about the issues of police targeting and profiling. The song features a more classic hip-hop beat with heavy 808s and synth vocals. They tell the story of a drug dealer turned devout Muslim who sees more hostility from the police for being a Muslim than he ever did for dealing.
Swet Shop Boys prove they can do more than write politically charged tracks on the song “Aaja,” a Bollywood-inspired love song featuring vibrating sitar and tabla drums. The hook, sung in Urdu by Pakistani artist Ali Sethi, translates as, “Oh, come, my lover. Oh, my heart is thirsty.” Heems shows off his crafty wordplay when rapping, “She said my phone full of girls / I said I can’t help myself / I’m a sexy mother fakir,” a reference to fakirs, Muslim ascetics who have renounced all worldly attachments.
Rather than creating further divisions, the two rappers embrace each other’s cultural differences on Cashmere, particularly on tracks like “No Fly List,” when they sample Noble Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai’s speech, “We can show the world that an Indian and a Pakistani can work together and achieve their goals.”
Cashmere triumphs when Heems and Riz MC find a shared space that allows them to confront 21st century issues with humor as a form of protest.