A key scene on Swet Shop Boys’ debut album, Cashmere, ushers the listener to a dusky 2 a.m. rendezvous on 1st Street at Avenue A, in front of the semi-subterranean Punjabi Deli. Outside, in hushed tones, two rappers recite lyrics about their suspicions of being monitored by the government. “I know they’re tapping up my camera phone/I hear weird noises when man’s at home,” says Riz Ahmed, a/k/a Riz MC. “A-yo, they infiltrate the mosque,” responds Himanshu Kumar Suri, better known as Heems.
Their clandestine conversation, which comes halfway through the album, on “Phone Tap,” is the latest chapter in a collaboration that started ten years ago. Suri had chanced across Ahmed’s song “Post 9/11 Blues,” whose dark humor (“We’re all suspects so literally, be watching your back/I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack”) prefigured the mocking rhymes Suri would later record with Das Racist. He sent Ahmed a complimentary tweet, and the two became friends; six years later Ahmed was cast as the lead in HBO’s crime drama The Night Of, which is set in Jackson Heights. He asked Suri, who grew up in Flushing, for a tour to start his research. Das Racist had just broken up and Suri had decided he was done with hip-hop. But Ahmed persuaded him to get back into the booth, and Swet Shop Boys were formed, recording Cashmere earlier this year over an intensive five-day spree at Ahmed’s flat in London.
The album uses hip-hop as a transatlantic bridge between its lyricists’ experiences of being profiled — “If you’re a brown man in 2016,” Suri tells the Voice, “there’s a lot of themes you share.” He was born in Queens to Punjabi Hindu parents; Ahmed is a Pakistani Muslim from northwest London. For both men, who are in their early thirties, the golden era of Nineties hip-hop has long been a guidepost, and it serves as the base of Cashmere. Heems sparks the song “Shottin’ ” into life by name-checking his home borough of “cop killer Queens,” a reference to 1995’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless” by South Jamaica’s Lost Boyz. “Phone Tap,” the paranoid conversation set outside the Punjabi Deli, is inspired by a 1997 track of the same name by Nas’s supergroup the Firm; that version is about three drug dealers who start to suspect, correctly, that the FBI is listening in.
The beats that glue it all together come courtesy of Swet Shop Boys’ third member, Tom Calvert, a white Englishman with flaming red hair who produces as Redinho (his bandmates joke he’s only there to appeal to the Russian market). His production across Cashmere fuses electronic-influenced hip-hop beats with subtle samples of sitars, tablas, and snatches of qawwali, a form of South Asian devotional music. Suri says the combination is so catchy that he and Ahmed can get away with anything: “People are going to fuck with [Calvert’s] beats, so I didn’t need to dumb shit down and I could talk about what I wanted to talk about.”
Which is, mostly, ruminations on how being perceived as a Muslim in 2016 is a pretty raw deal. On “Shottin’,” Suri plays an ex–drug dealer who discovers that he gets more heat from the cops at mosque than he ever did slinging: “Yankee hat with kufi on top/Still dealing with these goofy-ass cops/’Cause I like Islam they think I build bombs.” On “Phone Tap,” Ahmed casts himself as “the brown Eddie Snowden” and suggests he’s toying with blowing the whistle. But, he points out to the Voice, it’s not just him he’s worried about. “Even if I haven’t been targeted specifically, we’re all under surveillance all the time now,” he says. “It’s not just this experience of me saying, ‘Oh, shit, I’m talking as a British Muslim male.’ It’s me talking as someone who’s alive in 2016. We’re all getting phone-tapped.”
That, he says, is part of why Cashmere is “our celebration of mongrel-hood,” a modern blend of cultural identities, rather than something to be pigeonholed as “that weird brown record.” Yes, it’s both weird and brown, but it’s mostly about how that connects these rappers to more widely shared experiences. As Ahmed quips on the muggy, tabla-infused “Half Moghul Half Mowgli,” which
reflects on his upbringing, “My only heroes were black rappers.”