A mixture of humor and bluster. Bark and snark. Singing about White Demons and White Castle hamburgers. Cartoonish. Playing with sedition in the classic, American tradition, like a Charlie Chaplin or Abbie Hoffman. A self-referential, all-brown, Cheech and Chong meets the Three Stooges meets the Beastie Boys. Self-described “Taliban-street chic” dress-fashion mixed with brand-name corporate-titis. Can this trio, consisting of two men of Indian (like, from India) descent Himanshu Suri (The Rapper 'Heems') and Ashok Kondabolu (The Hype Man 'Dap') and one of Afro-Cuban/Italian descent, Victor Vazquez (The Rapper 'Kool A.D.'), be bought out/buy into the American Dream, perhaps at the behest of the genuine Illuminati themselves?!
(A blog about Das Racist whimsically calls itself “The Illuminati Zone.”) Maybe, maybe not. Raise the stakes; they seem to be asking the all-powerful cabal which kidnaps them within the video/production number for their new single “Michael Jackson” (Michael Jackson/A million dollar/You feel me?Holler!). Make them an offer.
“Is it parody, comedy, novelty, or scholarly?/A little bit of Column A, a little bit of Column B”
From “Don Dada” by Das Racist
They throw it all in the hopper, referencing literature, sports, religion, sex, food, film, marijuana, ethnicity, the pursuit of dinero, rock and rap idols, older songs, ethnic accents, corporations, war zones, pharmaceuticals, soap operas, racial consciousness; non-sequiturs stitched sequentially together, sometimes punctuated by silly, mouth sounds. An amalgamation of styles from thousands of miles, reflecting their love of ludicrously crude rap, World beat, pop, classic-&-alternative-&-punk rock.
Besides making fun of things, they call people - or stuff - out on stuff, holding it up to scrutiny or ridicule (e.g., they use faux Jamaican accents on their song “Fake Patois” to make fun of faux Jamaican accents in music), hence, the band’s name, which signifies their personal style of pointing out, “That’s racist!” A Band Name as Accusation. However, by combining what could otherwise be a German article (das) side-by-side with an inflammatory noun or adjective (racist), their name does cause some people to raise an eyebrow upon first encounter, wondering, perhaps, if the group’s Indian members are decked out in swastikas. When asked if their name perhaps turns some people off who haven’t explored their material, Ashok Kondabolu admits, “People freeeeeeaakkk out!”
Das Racist first assaulted consciousnesses (though, others might say “insulted intelligences”) with a ditty built on repetition over a simple, tinny, beat structure. It was called “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Heems and Kool A.D. rap, over and over, about being lost within, not being able to find each other at, the combined fast food chain. (I’m at the Pizza Hut!/I’m at the Taco Bell/I’m at the Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell!!!)
But be careful in passing it off as just a “novelty song” – a phrase used to dismiss something that might not otherwise exhibit sociopolitical heaviness and/or relevance. As Victor Vazquez, 27, explains, “When you go to a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell…the space is transformed by a corporate language from one single physical space to a number of illusory spaces. These spaces serve to expand the illusion of choice. The space has been re-contextualized. It's comparable to covering walls with mirrors to make a room appear bigger.” Holy Noam Chomsky, Kool A.D.! That’s some sophisticated thinkin’ concernin’ linguistics. The only novelty inherent in Das Racist, ultimately, is how overall novel the group truly is.
Himanshu Shuri has written, “EVERYTHING WE DO HAS A SOCIOPOLITICAL CONTEXT. THIS IS THE BURDEN OF THE MINORITY MAN.” [All caps in original.]
After distributing the two free online (where you can still find them) mix-tapes Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man - which earned them a reputation for their wordplay - they’ve just released Relax, their first pay-for-play CD.
To promote their work in the past, they’ve often flown to shows across the United States, Europe and Asia. They’ve played festivals like Bumbershoot and the Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington State, SXSW in Austin, and the Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn (where they live). But now, they’re seriously on the road touring America for the first time behind Relax, throughout October into November. In an it’s-a-small-small-world kind of way, it’s weird to note that they’ve actually played in Shanghai, China before they’ve even hit Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, for a show.
Naturally, Das Racist is trying to get as much bang-for-the-buck in terms of promotion, right now, given their new tour/CD situation. In order to speak with them, a conference call was scheduled. What I didn’t realize is that other reporters would be on the same line before and after me, allowing us to hear each others’ questions.
When I get on the line, Himanshu Shuri, the promotional brains behind the band (which is on his own label, Greedhead) and one of its lyrical wits, is speaking with a reporter whom he refers to as - but who’s more than likely based in – “Tallahassee.”
Tallahassee asks about the musical guests and producers that Das Racist worked with on Relax, a richly textured work. Suri, 26, answers, in part, “We’re playing more with more, like, I don’t know, prog-beat-noise music, noise-prog-rock and stuff with [rock and rap producer Patrick Wimberly].” Suri mentions a “hippie freak-out moment” on one of the songs. He calls producer Blood Diamonds “amazing” for his work on the song “Girl” (a track which calls to mind ‘80s synth-pop and which coulda been a summer hit, in my mind, if it had been released a couple months back, what with lyrics like “Girl, you’re really cool/Smart, that’s good at school/Pretty, you’re beautiful/And I heard you got a pool.”)
Background burbling and laughter come from the other end of the phone line.
Responding to a question about the band’s use of Twitter, Suri says, “It’s a lot of information in a condensed form. I like that.”
Then it’s Kush Magazine’s turn with Suri, who, on the track “Selena,” raps, “And believe me the herb always come ‘round/Them smart brown boys back with their dumb sound.”
Upon discovering the overreaching theme of Kush Magazine - cannabis - Suri laughs and says, “I’m going to pass this on to Victor.” The phone gets handed off like a baton.
“Hello,” he says in laconic fashion, ready if need be for confrontation. Victor Vazquez is the one who smokes a doobie within the video for the song “Ek Shaneesh”- a musical study on nationalism, corporatism, racial disparity ‘n’ unity, set to a sitar-like opening and heavy bass beat, and containing the memorable lines, following the word “Mohammad,” “I am a pickup truck/ I am America, I am America/I am a pickup truck/I am America/I am America/La la la la la la/la la la la…!”
Since Victor raps in one song, “The best rapper is B-Real/Jokes, it’s us/C’mon be real,” I ask him to, well, be real: What does Das Racist have to say about weed?
Vazquez replies: “I smoke it…Next question.”
Uh…Doesn’t he want to expand on that?
“I don’t know. What specifically would I say about weed?”
Geez, I’m a middle-aged, White Jersey Devil, transplanted at the End of the ‘70s to Colorado. I’m not Victor Vazquez.
Vazquez allows, “It occasionally works…I smoke it every day, pretty much.”
Does it help during the process of writing lyrics or editing music?
“It’s pretty good for listening to, making, recording, editing music. It’s good for…[‘Hanging out,’ Heems adds from the background]…hanging out. It’s good for smoking on the way to the store, when you want to buy music at a store. (Do people do that?) It’s good for making jokes…I don’t know, man, I don’t know why I like it so much…We’re in Burlington, Vermont right now, and they smoke a lot of weed out here, apparently.”
When Vazquez realizes that I’m “Denver,” so to speak, he says, “Colorado! They smoke a hella weed out there!”
He would know. About a year ago, Das Racist played in Denver. The bass sound in the club was idiotically loud. Loud enough to leave a tinkling after-effect in ears like shattered glass. Das Racist were a bit sloppy, loopy. They mugged. Drank champagne. Beer. Smoke got sent their way, onstage. They didn’t sing about Pizza Hut. Or Taco Bell. But, all in all, it proved to be a memorable performance for its infectious good humor mixed with its percolation of information, information, information. Or as Das Racist puts it: “repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition,” “etcetera etcetera etcetera,” “blah blah blah blah blah.”
Then Vazquez hones in with a bit of his own interrogation: “Kush Magazine, it’s just about weed?! How can you talk about weed consistently for issue after issue of this magazine?!”
If I were to get all Das Racist on him, I’d have replied that month after month there are magazines devoted to writing about niches like cats, cigars, geography, housekeeping, health, music, politics, sports, TV, and various cities, to name but a few examples. Instead, I explain that I, in particular, as a writer, focus on arts & culture. That I’ve interviewed artists, writers, and musicians, over the years, to not only get their take on marijuana and its prohibition, but to also ask them about their work.
“Oh. Ok,” he allows.
Soon enough, Vazquez passes on the phone, handing me off to Das Racist’s “hype man” Ashok Kondabolu. “I smoked weed when I was in high school up until I was about 20 years old, and now I don’t particularly care for it. But I don’t mind people who smoke weed -- and a lot of people around me smoke weed, and a lot of people around me are employed by selling weed illegally in New York State…I’ve been hanging out with people who’ve been high on weed my entire life, my entire adult life. It’s harmless..”
There’s one other subject I want to ask Das Racist about: the munchies. They don’t rap about food exclusively, by any stretch of the imagination. But food often comes up in their rhymes. And not just Pizza Hut or Taco Bell. Doritos, cookies, apple pie, Cheetos, Pringles, Slim Jims, Fritos, Kraft Singles, lentils, beluga caviar, bagels, egg rolls, lobster, steak, venison, tostadas, Gruyere, Roquefort, burgers, sushi, kettle corn, beans and rice. “What’s really food, what’s really good?” the gents rap on the song “Chicken and Meat.” They even name-checked rebel celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in one of their videos, who subsequently invited them on his holiday show, where Suri and Vazquez surrealistically appear as two eggs in a carton in Bourdain’s refrigerator, as their song “Ek Shaneesh” plays.
As Kondabolu justifies it, “food is a ritual that you have to partake in throughout the day…‘What should I rap about? What is it that consists of living my life? Well, I just ate two hours ago.’ So, at any given point, you’ve eaten or it’s always on the brain. And it’s good, too: a primal, special indulgence that you do throughout the day.”
Somehow it’s not surprising that asking Kondabolu if he’s ever tried Pink Grapefruit Perrier would turn into a socio-political diatribe. He opines, “[Perrier’s] not nearly my favorite sparkling water…Americans have horrible taste. Anything that they think is European they’ll think is nice, because they’re morons.”
How would he describe Das Racist’s outlook on things?
“We are an aggressively, anti-progressive rap outfit. We’re a totally regressive, sexually-aggressive rap outfit.”
Then, Kondobolu asks, “Can you hold on one second?”
And that proved the last I would speak with Das Racist, whose songs sometimes conclude by trailing off with a repeating, annoying electronic beat or, as on the CD Relax, with the beat dropping out altogether, and Victor and Himanshu repeating after one another, “Oh, it’s over…”
While I’m waiting for Kondabolu to return, “Providence” comes on the line, ready to begin his own interview with Das Racist.
In the background on Das Racist’s end of the phone line, someone is ordering soup. A motorcycle passes by. Someone asks for a “little, tiny salad.”
“Hello, are you guys there?” asks Providence.
A waitress inquires if Thai ginger sauce is desired. A beer gets requested. Eels over rice? Filtered or unfiltered? A Caeser salad, on the way. “And can I also get a spicy tuna roll?”
And, although it sounds, at this point, like Das Racist has totally dropped off the conference call line, Providence continues his plea, “Can you hear me? Hello?...Hello? [long drawn-out sigh]…Hello?!”