There’s a show on Netflix — you may have heard of it — called Master Of None, and it’s pretty funny. It’s funny in large part because it was conceived and written by, and stars, comedian Aziz Ansari, of Parks And Recreation fame. It’s notable because it is one of just three television shows currently airing featuring a person of South Asian descent in the lead role. That speaks both to how good Aziz is, and also unfortunately to how far TV has yet to go in the area of representation of one of the largest populations on Earth.
It’s striking, then, that in recognizing the dearth of Desi/Indian talent being given a chance to shine on television, the corresponding reflection on wider culture and subcultures in America. This is a rap blog; I think you know where I’m going with this. Where are all the Indian rappers? Is hip-hop doomed to repeat the same mistakes made by television networks? Not if the Swet Shop Boys have anything to say about it. Not by a long shot.
Comprised of rappers Riz MC (whom you may recognize from his roles in The Night Of and Rogue One) and Heems (of Das Racist fame) with producer Redinho, Swet Shop Boys released their full-length debut, Cashmere, via the duo’s imprint, Customs, last fall. Their proper follow-up release EP, Sufi La, will be available digitally everywhere today via Customs. You can pre-order the EP here. Cashmere was an indie gem, garnering impressive critical scores and glowing press on its 2016 release (Metacritic currently has it sitting on 80/100) for its themes of finding representation and celebration of the boys’ oft-overlooked cultures. Songs had zany titles like “Zayn Malik,” both sending up the current rapper trend of naming singles after pop culture figures — who have little to actually do with the topics at hand — and joining in the fun, subtly subverting the trend by inserting a name most rappers might never happen upon.
The rhymes throughout the album are clever jabs at pop culture, slyly playing off the mainstream’s unfamiliarity with Desi icons who are technically some of the most popular in the world, if you look at the numbers. After all, the subcontinent of India is one of the two most populous regions on the planet, so when they end the video to “Aja” featuring Ali Seth with a loving homage to the memory of Pakistani activist and public figure Qandeel Baloch, there were probably more people “in” on the reference than left out.
While the bars were well-constructed and expertly delivered on Cashmere, it was also a political effort, aimed at more than just establishing that the Pakistani-British (Riz) and Indian-American (Heems) MCs could rhyme as well as their non-Desi counterparts. On tracks like “No Fly List” they personalize just how demeaning it is to be demonized and profiled due to their perceived nationality. It’s their ability to tackle these tough subjects in a light-hearted and charismatic approach, dipped in unusual wordplay and hilarious punchlines, that make them so magnetic to listen to. Redhino decks out their production in traditional instruments like shehnai and sarangi, giving it a strangely homey vibe. It feels like they’re doing what more “conventional” rappers have always done: Flipping their parents’ record collections into a more modern, aggressive sound and amplifying the percussion to mutate them into a sound unique, but familiar.
The new EP departs from the lyrical formula of its predecessor while keeping the sounds intact, leaving the political to focus on the party. “Thas My Girl” is what you might get if you tossed Sugar Hill Gang into a Food Ninja with Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” and set it to whatever the highest setting is with a DVD of Chennai Express. “Birding” pays homage to the Mughal pastime of birdwatching, but it sounds a little bit like Drake’s “Portland,” with brags like, “I’m with your girl, tucked under the duvet / she very beautiful, she like a blue jay!” The Boys’ wordplay is a joy to take in; while Heems plays the laid back, not-quite class clown, Riz is all high-energy, kinetically bouncing off the metronome in all kinds of wild patterns that twist back into themselves in unexpected and intriguing ways, and all the while, he can’t quite leave the politics alone. On “Need Moor,” he snarls, “Now I’ve got more followers, more flow borrowers / ninety-nine names and call ‘em all problems / All over start, earn more stripes, but the stars and stripes have got less tolerance.”
To be honest, as a non-Desi, I felt like I should get some help identifying all the musical instruments and styles and samples Redhino piles into the beats on the project. After all, how could an outsider like me possibly catch all the intriguing little references and call backs, and easter eggs stuffed inside the production? But I think that might be the point too. After all, while hip-hop is built on samples of American rock and pop and soul records, it’s not like there’s any kind of a guidebook that comes along with them. And even when you did grow up in a home full of Marvin Gaye and the Stylistics, who’s to say that you could even recognize or differentiate artists and writers and instruments?
That’s part of the fun of hip-hop, that we are all kind of on a journey of discovery together, some playing master, and some playing Padawan, and that push and pull between teaching and learning and the mutual appreciation that we share brings us together in a quasi-mystical, metaphysical way, or at least in a social or political one. Taking the lead single, “Zombie,” as an example, the drums might be unidentifiable to any number of listeners, but they sound like an elevated heartbeat, conveying exactly the feeling the record intends: A sense of being hunted, chased, driven out, but trapped. The feeling that brown people, no matter their region of origin might feel knowing that we have all been othered by the dominant culture, which makes the world feel “white and colder than froyo.”
And so, we find ourselves with more in common than at odds. We come from different places and we speak different languages and we even listen to different music, but the bones are the same: The drums, through which every nation has its own rhythm. Heems, Riz, and Redinho may not look or sound like your typical rap group, but they’re doing what rappers have always done since the Sedgwick and Cedar: Creating something special from the raw materials at hand, talking about their lives and experiences, and remixing established art and culture into something they can own and put their names to.
If hip-hop has an unfortunate dearth of true diversity, they are carving the path to show the way to it, but it’s not new map, just a new way of looking at the old one. What’s more hip-hop than that? The Swet Shop Boys are outliers now, but hey, so was Kool Herc, once upon a time. Somewhere, a little brown kid is browsing through Youtube, looking for something, not quite knowing what, and just might stumble across a pair of rappers and a producer who look like him, sound like him, and share his voice. He just might find himself.