By Jamie Groovement
Riz Ahmed is finally getting his due. He’s establishing himself to the masses on talk shows on both sides of the Atlantic, he’s on your radio with his latest Swet Shop Boys single, and soon he’ll even be on your local supermarket shelves in the guise of his Star Wars rebel Bodhi Rook. Balancing his music and acting careers for the past decade plus has been no mean feat, and it seems that through timely release dates and critical acclaim rather than intricate planning, the stars have aligned to light his way into mass consciousness . As well as playing one of the key rebel crew in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Riz has seen recent roles in Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne and new HBO series The Night Of (remaking the BBC’s Criminal Justice) bring him further afield from being ‘that bloke out of Four Lions’. Musically, 2016 is already being particularly fruitful for a man who, by his own admission, has let his perfectionism be a barrier to maintaining a prolific release schedule. Surely all this actorly work breaks the creative process of focusing on music?
“I kind of feel like that. I feel like if I’d have been making music flat out, regularly, since Post-9/11 Blues ten years ago, if I had put something out every two months, maybe things would be different in terms of I wouldn’t have done as much acting. I guess the reason I don’t do that is because I’m generally a bit of a perfectionist. I’ll make stuff and sit on it for a year, then come back to it and redo it. That’s just me. What I’ve got coming this year is kind of the opposite of that approach. After four years of not putting anything out, I’ve got Englistan out, I’ve got the Swet Shop Boys album, then a solo album at the end of the year or in January. I’m all or nothing man, quiet for four years then dropping three albums this year.”
Ten years ago, Riz released the ‘controversial’ single Post-911 Blues (key lyrics: ‘Bush and Blair in a tree / K-I-L-L-I-N-G / Shave your beard if you’re brown, and you best salute the crown / Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your arse down’). A personal reaction to being brown in a post-911 society, it confronted head on the growth in prejudice against people of colour and faith that Riz actually thought might not last. If he was making that track in 2016, would the content remain the same? “Yeah it would, man. I guess I’m proud of it. One good thing about not being prolific so far is I can stand by everything I’ve done. I really took my time over it. It’s amazing, in a way, sad that’s it still relevant, that tune. And (2012’s) Sour Times (‘Now it’s post-7/7 / Why they calling it that? / They trying to link it to New York / Like we’re all under attack / from the same big bad guy but it’s taking the piss / ‘Cos the truth is Al-Qaeda doesn’t really exist…’). It’s kind of bittersweet in a way that they’re still relevant. I had hoped after the crash that maybe the bankers would be the bogeymen and everyone would forget about Muslims, but it hasn’t really worked out like that. Shout out to Goldman Sachs. I thought when I was making it, oh, this is what everyone wants to talk about this month…”
Riz has teamed up with Queens, NY lyricist Heems (ex of late-2000s crew Das Racist) and producer Redinho (of Glasgow collective, Numbers) to record the full length follow up to their 2014 Swet Shop Boys EP. The album’s called Cashmere, and provides a vitally relevant social commentary that is often found lacking in modern hip-hop, referencing Brexit and Trump where many others choose to ignore. The mixtape, Englistan, is an intensely personal project that seems to have superceded potential barriers. “It’s looking at one of the things that has defined my life, which is the issue of identity. Hence the title, Englistan. The idea is to try and stretch the flag. I’m really pleased about the response, it’s been really moving, man. I guess there really isn’t many prominent South Asian voices in rap, or in popular music right now. To talk about tracks like Double Lives, growing up in a traditional household in a modern society, or like Benaz, which is a track about an honour killing. It’s been amazing to see how it’s connected with people.
“I guess there really isn’t many prominent South Asian voices in rap, or in popular music right now.”
“It’s interesting, there’s that cliche that the more specific something is then the more universal it is. It’s crazy how true that is. When I first recorded Englistan I kind of thought, this is so specific to me, in a way is it almost too narcissistic, do people really want to hear about this? What you realise is, the more specific you are, the more it transcends that, your experience becomes universal. I’ve got messages from British soldiers, saying thank you for making this, that’s fucking moving for me, man. And yeah, people of all races, people in different countries, and that’s the thing, man. The fucking lesson you learn is like, you try and control shit, and think about how people might receive it, and ultimately it’s the shit you do without second guessing yourself, when you shoot from the hip, it comes from your heart authentically, and you just share it because you have to – that’s the shit that resonates. That’s a lesson for me, because my first signing was with (underground London label) Crosstown Rebels in 2009 – I could have put MICroscope out with them but really, I was young and immature and a control freak, and I wanted to over tweak it, they wanted to do things differently.” Riz eventually released his first full length with Tru Thoughts in 2012. “Now, in a way, if I could go back, I would be prolific rather than a perfectionist. Now I feel like I know what I’m doing and making up for lost time.
“Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis as well, so now I’m experimenting with a different way of working. I’m really proud of the work that I put out, but ultimately I feel like I’ve found a new way of working in the past two years. That’s partly from acting so much. Before I did one or two projects a year, and two months of research for each role. As you get busier and busier, you don’t have that time. You’ve got two weeks. You just get in it, boom, and go with your instincts. That has taught me to approach my music similarly, in a weird way. The danger with the music is because I’m totally responsible for it, I can go back in and reopen a can of worms. With film, I don’t have that choice, it’s done and I’ve got to move on. Now, I’ve been forced to be prolific with my acting, I approach my music like that. Boom, Englistan, bang it out, put it out. We just recorded the Swet Shop Boys album in a week, with Redinho – I’m so proud of it, it’s wicked. It’s a totally different side to me, it’s more playful, more jokey. This other album with (dubstep producer) Distance as well (the duo are known as HalfLife), we’re now completing that album. I feel like I’ve found a different way of working, I’m excited about that.”
“Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis as well, so now I’m experimenting with a different way of working.”
Riz also directed a short film, Daytimer, to expand on the themes of Englistan. “One of the good things about film is that it’s collaborative by its nature. With music, you can keep revisiting things if you want to. But, with a film, your financiers have a deadline. Your final cut has to be submitted by a certain time, so it was good in that sense. Daytimer is really autobiographical.” Does that make it easier to direct or not? “Being a director is learning to compromise from day one. You have something in your head, and from the first minute, you have to compromise. So in a way, it’s weird. With a film you have final cut and all that control, but the thing is it’s very collaborative and becomes it own thing. Enabling other people involved, like actors, to be their best, and you’re kind of like surfing a wave that they create. As much as writing and directing something is an exercise in control, it’s also an exercise in accepting the limits of your control. That opened me up, man. It’s weird, taking a break from music, because the way I work in music is quite time consuming, and doing all that acting has opened me up to that more elusive, collaborative way of working. The engineer thinks the second take of that verse is the best, maybe we should go with it. Maybe I shouldn’t go back and do it next week. I was chatting to Akala, he always goes back and re-records stuff, never takes the first session. He’ll do the first session, and come back a week or two later. That was me. I’d take that to extremes, I’d redo stuff months later. Now, I’m almost setting things up in a way where I don’t have the choice. Like a week doing the Swet Shop Boys album. Redinho likes the first take? Great. Half the tracks on the Swet Shop Boys album are edited freestyles. I can freestyle, that’s my background, so that’s what I’ve done. I would never do that (solo), so there’s something to be said for that.”
Riz has used Bandcamp to self-release Englistan, a platform that continues to expand in popularity as artists try and decipher the best ways for the public to consume music. “I had a really good experience with it, I’d never used it before. Someone told me to try it out, I really enjoyed it. I mean, people BUY music! And people who don’t, you get their email addresses, and they’re seeking you out. They’ve been supportive of the release as well, which was cool. I’m concerned about what the future is for Soundcloud. That’s a whole fucking can of worms. Streaming in general, I don’t know how I feel about it. Respect to people like Chance The Rapper, and when Radiohead put their shit out for free – but Radiohead is one in however many millions of bands, and Chance The Rapper is an anomaly.” Parallels with changes in how people watch films could be drawn. “What it’s done to the film industry is really bifurcated it into things that are available to stream, like on Netflix day of release, or event movies that force people to go to the cinema like the big franchises. That middle range film no longer exists, that’s now TV shows. Your Michael Claytons don’t exist anymore. Syriana, doesn’t exist. Good Night and Good Luck, doesn’t exist. They make TV series instead. I think there are ways of adapting that are interesting. I think what we’re gonna see going forwards is subscribing to artists directly. Kickstarter’s a kind of version zero point one of that. For me, and I think a lot of other people, they find other income streams, brand sponsorships or whatever. They ghostwrite for people. I act. I’m not sure what the future holds, but it seems there’s no rules right now, it’s a bit of a Wild West.
“Our attention spans are non-existent. How accessible it is is amazing, but it also makes it incredibly disposable. I dunno man, making money from touring and merch, I understand that as a model. But for me as an artist I don’t really tour, man. I just put my music out to get it to people, say what I want to say, and then I go and shoot films. I think you’re gonna see more and more… I was going to say death of the music industry, but this is just a shift. I just think it’s fucking weird that the biggest label out there now is a technology company. It’s just weird. And YouTube – someone said to me: people consume music with their eyes now.”
Although Riz is obviously a multi-tasker, his passion burns through every project and he’s keen to leave a legacy. “Junot Diaz (a US writer, in whose work the immigrant experience is a central theme) talks about this idea in horror stories that monsters don’t have a reflection, like vampires don’t see themselves in the mirror. If there’s anything I want to do before I leave, I want to make a couple of mirrors. For these people, who feel like, ‘What am I, a fucking monster? I don’t see myself reflected in the culture’. That analogy is a powerful one. That’s what I see my role as being, as a creative person: put a few mirrors up.”
Riz MC’s Englistan is out now at rizmc.bandcamp.com
Swet Shop Boys’ Cashmere is out October 14 on their own imprint, Customs.