Swet Shop Boys At Webster Hall, Wednesday, April 12th, 2017, Reviewed
Swet Shop Boys performed a very neat trick at Webster Hall on Wednesday night, they made Pakistan cool again, and brought the 90 million odd Hindu- Punjabi Indians to the public eye. While the duo Heems -the former Das Racist, and Riz MC -best known here as an actor, are not the other, Heems notes early on, “I’m from New York, I like this town” and Riz is from Wembley, England, they are still the other, still the huge roar from the audience in response to “Is Pakistan in the house?” was a first, for sure. DJ and producer Redinho was actually scratching and the band was as down as a band who rhymes 2Pac with Pakistani ever can be.”Do you all speak Urdu? Hindi? Do you speak Punjabi?”.
Yup, they are terrific rappers and are everything you could want (except a full band) from a live show. Heems, in a dishdasha and sneakers and rockin’ the stubble, is a mix of cultures as thorough as you could ever hope for: he looks exactly like half my best friends when I was in my early 20s, multi-culti mash up, in pursuit of drugs, booze and girls. In other words, just like everybody else except wearing a dishdasha. Riz looks like an 80s B Boy with an attitude. And between them, they are as witty and clever, energetic and fun, as you could dream of. Redinho puts down what sounds like Bollywood-y tracks (actually, more Qawwali) and excellent beats and the extremely witty rappers paint a picture of Islam in the 21st Century. It is a pity that the crossover sound they were playing was mostly to the converted.
The sold out and beyond Webster Hall was the first line of defense in a New York Times op ed piece about how we are just like them. To make wide, racist, claims, the co-ed East Asian women all looked like Cleopatra before the nosejob, in Western garb and one night away from an honor killing after being caught giving head to a black dude in the back of his Toyota Camry. Back in the 60s and 70s, Indians and Pakistani’s were well hated in the UK (I assume you don’t know why but I can’t be bothered with a history lesson) but I’ve been informed Zayn Malik has ended all that, though the loathing of Eastern Europeans is just as likely a reason. At Webster Hall, Swet Shop Boys belonged to their East Asian audience and the audience responded with adoration and the Boys deserved it. When performing old songs off last year’s Cashmere (aka Kashmir aka -awwww, look up 1947 yourself), the audience had no problem taking over on terrific high energy social satire with a highly politicised edge to it rhymes, with Islam and girls on their minds. “Tiger Hologram,” is about love in the clubs and the beats make the point, “AAja” quotes a Lil Kim song while trying to deal with a hook that goes ” Aaja, oh mere jaane jaan aaja, Oh, mere mehboob aaja, Oh, mere dil hai pyaasa.” This is all sex and love with Heems as a bad boy 50 Cents character and Riz a Chuck D prophet. On stage, Heems is a charismatic fella, he has put on a coupla pounds and so has the heft to make his dance movements magnetic and the audience adores him, but while Heems is travelling between bemused and amused, Riz is a wiseguy of the order. On, debatably, their best moment, “Zayn Malik” Riz notes “Look Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him, there’s more than one direction to get to paradise.” That’s as clever as agitprop will ever get.
The evening opened with two rappers, Anik Khan is a young guy who seems to be building on a similar cultural mish mash as the headliners and Donmonique was a revelatory rapper with her eyes on guys and stereotyping. Their DJ, Nugget, was very good working with the rapper’s, solo he overstayed his welcome till they had to unplug him and, sure, take advantage of every opportunity, but not if what you are doing is spinning Drake songs. Jubilee x Dre Skull are two excellent beat masters, all freshly manufactured. They should have come on first, performing in the dark and with no interaction with the audience whatsoever, they were really excellent but if I had been down on the floor among the plebs, I’d have not been amused. Instead, I had paid an extra $150 for VIP and was in the balcony and it solved my Webster Hall problem in one fell swoop, I could finally see everything without a thousand heads in my way, relaxing on a couch with free booze and a lovely and well mannered waitress.
“Inshallah…” the first words off Swet Shop Boys breakthrough song, rang out. “You sound very British…” Heems adds, “And we’re from New York” and then some Islamic prayer blasts through the Hall and “Zayn Malik” is taken full on and there is no turning back. By the second song the audience is screaming back the hook with vehemence and excitement, “He was doing nothing wrong” Heems and Riz rap in unison and we scream back “but they shot him.” Swet Shop Boys rapped for an hour straight with lots from the album and including a handful of new songs (all great) and the set highlight, a new Riz MC song called (I would guess) “Losing My Religion” which takes on terrorism in 2017. I think he’s wrong as often as right. While it it is true that, not unlike black teenage boys joining the US Armed Forces, poverty is the operative reason for foot soldiers joining ISIS, it isn’t the reason for lone wolf outliers. And while I quite understand that, not unlike the way Christianity used spreading the word of Christ to attack Jerusalem, extremists use the words of Islam to battle the West (battle? ha), that doesn’t mean the Koran doesn’t advocate killing the non-believer. It does. Having said that, Riz has a real good way with himself and makes a powerful case well worth making. Swet Shop Boys have been making this point over and over again, in 2006 Riz wrote “Post 9-11- Blues”, not “Bush and Blair sitting in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G” ” but “fun, fun, fundamentalists,” Swet Shop Boys make jokes and write raps that stick in your craw. At their best when they are at their funniest (a line about Hindu’s with blisters on their feet is flawless), they get away with wearing their concerns on their sleeves when necessary. From phone tapping to racial profiling.
Yes, racial profiling and they end the show with “T5” -their greatest moment. The first verse is magnificent and they repeat it and play with it and the audience adore it and rap it back, and I wish it had a guitar solo so it lasted longer: this song’s first verse is so great it was picked up by protesters in LA. It is so great, the rest of the album ain’t up to the comparison, however good it might be (and it is great): “Inshallah, mashallah, hopefully no martial law” –it is simple but it says it, a bi-lingual homophone of the first order. Along with “Swish Swish” it is a huge hit at Webster Hall.
So that’s the show but here is something else. Folks think that the end of the world will begin between Iran and Israel, but it could quite easily be between India and Pakistan. Given the circumstances, having a Hindu Punjabi of Indian-American descent join his voice with a Pakistani from the UK makes the point and then some, that this is not their war at all. Swet Shop Boys are great because they are great, Riz is all staccato bullet blasts and Heems has a world class flow, while everything else is an added plus, it is still important. I wish I had em in the 1960s where they would have fit in well between Sacha Distel and Sabah, I bet they are huge in Beirut right now. They were great and they are great, they promise a new EP on Record Day and it is a must hear. It reminds you of what you know, we’re here for a good time and that is the moral of all religion and everything Swet Shop Boys do. They are you.