Last week in this space, I wrote that I hadn’t chosen the Swet Shop EP, the debut from the transatlantic rap duo Swet Shop Boys, only because it was too short. Well, fuck it. It’s true: Swet Shop is four songs and 13 minutes, and it doesn’t even have a proper album cover, which is why you’re looking at a music-video screengrab up there. But after a week and a half, I haven’t been able to shake it; it has more going on than most full-length tapes. Swet Shop Boys is the duo of Heems, the former Das Racist rapper, and Riz MC, the British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed. There’s something admirably cosmopolitan about the mere idea of a Pakistani/Indian rap duo, or of an American/British one. But this isn’t a stunt-casting affair; there’s a real chemistry between both rappers. And together, they have big things on their minds — specifically the way a white-dominated society has persistently otherized and alienated everyone whose skin is another color, turning them into a vast and undifferentiated Other. The Swet Shop EP is a fun piece of work, and it has punchlines and swagger and some truly excellent beats. It never preaches at you but it’s a very serious piece of work, and a vital one.
A couple of years ago, before we learned that Das Racist had broken up, Heems released the solo mixtape Nehru Jackets, a piece of snarling neo-boom bap that fit in nicely with the booming New York rap internet underground. But Nehru Jackets was an uneasy work, one that gave off the impression that things in New York were fucked up, that people were not figuring out ways to coexist and that something bad could happen at any moment. That sense persists on Swet Shop, and if anything, it’s deepened. In one stunning verse on “Benny Lava,” Heems careens from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to New York’s stop-and-frisk laws to his own chest hair to tension between Hindus and Muslims to the mental image of the Pope wearing Gucci. His voice is hoarser and rougher than it used to be, and he makes constant reference to his own apparently-excessive drinking: “He an addict and his episode tragic / He make a drink disappear like it’s magic.” He’s not as playful as he was on those two glorious Das Racist mixtapes. But his mind is still firing in all these fascinating directions, still making oblique connections, still devising its own head-spinning word games. He’s on here, and when he’s on, he’s one of the most vital rappers working.
Heems’ chemistry with Riz isn’t the same sort of thing he used to have with Kool A.D. With those guys, you got the sense that they’d spent long evening stoned and talking shit together, that they understood each other’s private languages. With Riz, it’s more of a mutual-respect thing. They don’t trade off lines; they alternate verses and sort of go in their own directions. But they complement each other nicely. Riz’s British accent is thick and flexible. He doesn’t bulldoze through tracks the way Heems sometimes does. He glides and dances, riding the beat the way grime rappers do. He can wring a whole lot of cool out of a simple phrase like “I flew to Luton.” He’s got a level of flash to him that we don’t often hear form underground rappers — presumably because he’s at least a little bit famous as an actor in his homeland. But his riffs on race and tension are often just as pointed as what Heems brings: “Now I’m on the next white vegan yogi / She wanna be Brahman, so the brown man she bone, G.” On “Benny Lava,” there’s a great bit about how the kid clutching the Xbox controller is the same one who will eventually pilot the drones. And yet he makes all that sound easy, skating into these heady topics and then skating right back out.
The four tracks on Swet Shop come from two producers whose work I know (Lushlife and Ryan Hemsworth) and two I’ve never heard of (Lynas and Trooko). They all figure out the right tone for the project, tweakig Bollywood samples (or, anyway, things that sound to my ignorant ears like Bollywood samples) and turning them into tough, tangible rap beats. (Rolling Stone India reports that Hemsworth, producing “Benny Lava,” samples a Tamil song from a goofy YouTube video that went viral; no idea where the other three producers found their sample material.) These songs all move. They give both rappers room to flex, but they have a real momentum to them, too, crashing confidently from one track to the next. And it’s true that the EP is only four tracks, but it’s four great tracks, and I’d love to hear more. In this Stereogum interview, Heems says that the EP is just a minor project that they’re throwing out there, that they might make more music if people like it and if they’re not too busy. Well, I like it. And if they end up making more music, we might really get to hear something special.