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A cross-cultural hip-hop project by Swet Shop Boys

One contentious subject crops up regularly on Cashmere, the debut album by Swet Shop Boys, a collaboration between rappers Riz Ahmed and Heems: airport aggravation.

The opening track is T5, a reference to London Heathrow’s Terminal Five, where the transatlantic duo are often subjected to overzealous security checks.

In one memorable Ahmed lyric, a guard apologises for the intrusive search, then asks if he’s “off that film”. Even movie stars get hassled, then?

“All the time,” says the British actor and musician, who raps as Riz MC. “It’s like getting stopped and searched by a fan. I’ve had people asking for selfies while they’re searching for explosives.”

You might recognise Ahmed from his increasingly high-profile acting career, notably big recent roles in currently showing Star Wars prequel Rogue One, Jason Bourne and acclaimed HBO crime drama, The Night Of.

Given his busy filming schedule, it might seem surprising that this album ever happened. In fact, it was while researching a role that Ahmed met his bandmate.

Heems – real name Himanshu Kumar Suri – is a quick-witted rapper from Queens, New York, with a proud Indian heritage and an increasingly prominent voice in the city’s South Asian community. He initially contacted Ahmed after hearing Riz MC’s satirical track Post September 11 Blues.

“I felt we were doing similar work,” says Heems. “When he was researching in Queens for The Night Of, he asked: ‘Hey, can you show me around?’ So we hung out, then two years later started a band.”

The result is a unique collaboration between desi rappers from different backgrounds: India and Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom. Contrasting voices, kindred spirits.

“It’s a cross-cultural project in a lot of ways,” says Ahmed. “He’s Indian from New York, I’m Pakistani from London, so a lot of things flowed naturally from there.”

The album’s themes might often be intense, but the tone varies entertainingly. The chilled-out Shoes Off takes a lighter look at flying, as Heems jokes that he takes “[I take] my shoes off at the temple, my shoes off at the airport”. On the sharp electro-rap cut No Fly List, they address the “flashiness” of hip-hop, “then turn it on its head”, says Heems. “Like, ‘Yeah, I’m flying around the world but even there, I’m being oppressed’.”

Ironically, given the airport issues, Swet Shop Boys do have a “secret weapon” of sorts – their unofficial third member, Redinho, aka Tom Calvert. He provided most of those beats, as well as sourcing more traditional sounds “from particular regions of the world: South Asia, the Middle East”, the British producer explains.

What might appear to be a sample is often real. Calvert plays a custom-made harmonium on the retro-modern epic Tiger Hologram, while the Bollywood-style Aaja features a catchy choral hook from Pakistani singer Ali Sethi. He recorded and emailed it “literally the day before we were wrapping it up”, says Calvert. “Really tight.”

The whole recording process was intense. Heems wanted the trio to record together, so they found a five-day window at Ahmed’s London flat. That forced the Brits to adjust.

“Me and Tom can be a bit perfectionist,” admits Ahmed. “So it was really Heems’s approach that informed the way we worked: shoot from the hip and go with your gut.

“I actually struggled with that to begin with, but he’s like: ‘You used to freestyle battle, why don’t we do that?’ I think that’s how we were able to do something that felt so honest, so quickly.”

One track that emerged from their freestyle battling over Redinho’s dramatic score was Zayn Malik. Though named after the former One Direction star, it is anything but frivolous.

“The theme that emerges is aspiration,” says Ahmed of the track. “A lot of [South Asian] youth are looking up at radicals and terrorists and jihadists, because they’re presenting a vision of masculinity and dignity they feel is empowered – but we need to provide a counter-narrative.

“So who is that? Should they look up to pop stars? Film stars? Should they look up to, like, art-rap activists? What are we trying to bring to the table here?”

Has Malik responded to the track at all?

“He’s just heard the album this weekend,” says Ahmed. “I got a text saying that apparently he loves it.”

The duo sound keen to work with Malik, and also “if the schedule works, we’d love to go to India and Pakistan”, says Ahmed.

Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys is out now. Rogue One is now showing in cinemas

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