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The Brown Supremacy: Swetshop Boys

Swetshop Boys, a new rap duo formed by ex-Das Racist rapper Himanshu Suri and rapper Riz MC, is a potent multicultural music project that celebrates Asian identity

Kenneth Lobo May 20, 2014
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Heems and Riz MC (from left). Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Heems and Riz MC (from left). Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Two dons break naan, get haircuts, hang next to a giant American flag and have a risqué conversation by the beach. They sport leather jackets over kurtas, drive around the neighborhood and rant. About everything. From stop-and-frisk injustices to the National Security Agency’s data collection program, drone strikes in Afghanistan to the stereotype of brown bodies being smelly and fat. Welcome to the world of the Swetshop Boys, aired in the video to their first single “Benny Lava,” which unfolds like an extended trailer to a spy thriller.

Already the year’s most exciting rap duo, Swetshop Boys unites Heems (ex- Das Racist rapper Himanshu Suri), with Riz MC (Rizwan Ahmed, rapper and actor of The Reluctant Fundamentalist). On “Benny Lava,” the duo drops loaded rhymes over a rowdy beat sampled ”“ from Prabhu Deva’s “Kalluri Vaanil” featured on his 2000 film Pennin Manathai Thot­tu ”“ and synthesized by acclaimed Ca­nadian producer Ryan Hemsworth. Suri says, “Benny Lava is like one of these In­ternet memes that if you’re Indian, then surely some white friend’s been, like, ”˜Hey Heems, have you checked out this Benny Lava video?’” Ahmed also felt that while the video was really hilarious, it was also “kind of fucked up. It was basically, like, ”˜Ha ha, laugh at the brown people and their language’.”

With Swetshop Boys, Ahmed wanted to turn the situation on its head and re­claim this identity. “It’s something that hasn’t been done properly without any ex­oticism,” he says. “It’s not as though we’re your tour guides, but we want to do it in a way that says, ”˜You know what, we’re em­bedded in this. This is our reality. We want to rep it. It’s fresh’.”

The Swetshop Boys version of “Benny Lava” is rich with sumptuous rhymes and references. Suri, for instance, mentions the Tuskegee Experiments, where the US Public Health Service unethically stud­ied the effects of untreated syphilis on 600 rural black men, who were led to be­lieve that they were receiving free health care. Ahmed slips in former British box­ing champion Prince Naseem Hamed. “He was one of the first brown boxers to be a big champion,” says Ahmed. “And he’s just got mad swag. If you see him in inter­views, he’s, like, saying Allah ho Akbar on the microphone in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand. He was a hero for a lot of people growing up in the Nineties, for a lot of brown kids around the world.”

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Their EP, scheduled for release is June should win them a significant number of new fans, with kids and adults alike. In addition to “Benny Lava”, the other tracks include “Batalvi”, a sample by the famed Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi; “Tiger Hologram” (the central theme being girls), a cover of “Sharabi” by legendary Pak­istani qawwali singer Aziz Mian and a cover of Prabhu Deva’s 1994 hit “Urvashi” from the film Humse Hai Muqabala. “A lot of it is about is about our identi­ty, about a meeting point of the creative sweet spot and the personal fucked-up spot,” says Ahmed. “When you find your­self sometimes, your life is just on the precipice of falling apart, sometimes, it’s the most creative space. A lot of it is walk­ing that tightrope.”

And that balancing act includes mutu­al respect for their diametrically oppo­site approaches to song writing and re­cording. Suri says, “I made a joke online once where I was, like, working with Riz is cool but I had to make sure he’s always 10 feet away from me because he’s real­ly good looking. And Riz was like, work­ing with Heems was weird when he just played Punjabi poetry and Drake for five hours, then wrote and recorded a verse in five minutes.” Ahmed is far more meticu­lous compared to Suri’s spontaneity. “As an actor, I like the idea of trying things out and it’s almost like rehearsal. It’s like take 1, take 2, take 3. You just keep going,” says Ahmed. “I enjoy that process. I am quite obsessive as a personality. It stops being about trying to get something done. I like doing it and going round in circles. I’m weird like that.”

What’s even more bizarre, however, is that despite being on the same billing at events in the past, the duo only met for the first time in New York at the end of 2012. Ahmed was in New York to sign for the HBO series Criminal Justice alongside The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini before he tragically passed away. Suri says that Riz wanted to learn the Queen’s accent for his cab driver TV character and hung out with his friends, rapper Dapwell (Ashok Kond­abolu) and his comedian brother Hari. He also met with his parents at their Jack­son Heights’ home. Then, during the pre­miere of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in New York in September last year, Ahmed pulled Suri aside and told him about the idea for Swetshop Boys. “For him it’s prob­ably normal but we hung out with Kief­er Sutherland, Kate Hudson and she was showing us photos of her kids playing the drums. It was quite surreal,” says Suri. “I liked the idea of him being Pakistani from London, and me”¦ my grandparents left Pakistan. We’re like Punjabi from Pesha­war and Rawalpindi. I’ve always thought of my identity as New York and India, but now I’ve realized that one generation deeper it’s like Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh to New York. I’ve been thinking of this nar­rative a lot and it’s good to do a project that bridges that gap.”

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Ahmed says that he’s always prided him­self on being an immigrant who is dislo­cated from his heritage. “But getting to know about my past, I realized how fuck­ing amazing it is to feel rooted, and how that affects your aspirations. To feel like you’re part of some kind of unbroken chain, or even if it’s a broken chain, or a fucking rusty chain,” he says. “Just to feel part of it is a profound feeling. A lot of immigrants have that ache inside them of feeling dis­lodged from history. It’s been amazing to connect with some of that past.”

And the effort’s showing with the pos­itive feedback they’ve received all round. From Fox Searchlight f ilms to Jake Gyllenhaal (who texted Ahmed to say, “Swet Shop Boys, So Dope.”) to music producers, everyone’s digging the Swetshop Boys. “It feels good,” says Ahmed. “In a way, we did it off the cuff. We didn’t see any music selling from it, or touring because of our sched­ules. We said to ourselves this is something important, it’s something we’ve got on our chests and we want to get it off. We did it for pure reasons.”

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.

Watch the video for “Benny Lava” here

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