The Brown Supremacy: Heems and Riz MC on Swet Shop Boys EP, artistic and ethnic identities

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.”

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.”

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 films 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.”