Monday, December 03, 2012

Das Racist: Shutting Up and Sitting Down

So: Das Racist has split up.

I have mixed feelings about it. As an Indian American kid raised on hip hop in the 1980s and 90s, I was for a while quite taken by the promise of a rap group with two Indian-American members suddenly becoming famous (cover of Spin! K Mart commercials!), even if they were a generation younger than me. But I was also often frustrated with their choices and actual performances (i.e., the terrible performance on Conan), and in some ways I'm not really that surprised or unhappy they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and what I also didn't like; and I end with some unsolicited "uncle-ish" advice for the Sepia-toned trio that they can take or leave.

* * *

I've been aware of Das Racist since Abhi blogged about them on Sepia Mutiny in 2009, though truth be told I didn't actually bother to click on the link & listen until Phillygrrl did her two-part interview (Part 1; Part 2) with Himanshu Suri that September.

I also saw the band perform exactly once, at the Roots Picnic in June 2010 (an event that was photographed and described a little [not by me] here). I meant to write something about my thoughts after that event but didn't. Briefly now: I thought the rise of a rap group with a strong Indian-American presence was kind of amazing, and I wanted to love them -- but the actual live performance was a little disappointing. By that point I had been enthusiastically listening to band's mixtape, "Shut Up, Dude," for a few weeks, and even knew some of the verses to songs like "Ek Shaneesh" by heart.

But at the DR show I went to the sound levels were set so high that it was impossible to hear any actual lyrics. And Heems, Kool A.D., and Dapwell just seemed to be running around the stage like maniacs--not working at all to win over the crowd or draw in potential new fans. DR was followed that afternoon by a Black Thought side project (Money Making Jam Boys), and you could instantly see the difference between Das Racist's self-referential, semi-comic "rap in quotation marks" and the serious posture and delivery style of Black Thought and his peers. Black Thought seemed to care about what he was saying and wanted the audience to hear it and understand it; to my eye, that afternoon, Das Racist did not.

Of course, Das Racist has been, from the beginning, as much interested in commenting on rap music and hip hop culture as they have been in actively participating in it. Even the band's name refers to a famous  MTV meme from 2005 (the band was clearly ahead of the curve in naming themselves after a meme that involved a Gif!). Also, their debut track, "Pizza Hut/Taco Bell," was intended as a kind of clowning version of a rap song, and several of the band's songs on "Shut Up, Dude" seemed to "do" rap more referentially than literally. (The most compelling of these efforts is of course, "Fake Patois," which is beautifully explained and decoded via crowdsourced hypertext links at Rapgenius.)

Still, you can only get so far in rap -- a medium that prizes authenticity and the singularity of the voice (even if those values are present more in the breach than in the observance) -- while performing as a kind of postmodernist simulacrum of a rap group. Either you have to start being real and aim to have an actual career in the music industry, or the joke has to end.

I don't want to suggest that Das Racist didn't write some really amazing lyrics. On their recordings they seem to take their task quite seriously, writing witty and even, sometimes, brilliant verses.

Good vibes PMA
Yeah, believe that
Listening to Three Stacks, reading Gaya spivak
Listening to KMD and feeling weird about Naipaul
Fly or Style Warz, war-style Warsaw
Listening to jams with they pops about dem batty boys
Listening to  Cam while I'm reading Arundhati Roy
Yeah, yeah my pops drove a cab, holmes,
Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home
[Again, see Rapgenius for help decoding some of the obscure references here]

Seeing the references to Gayatri Spivak, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy alongside Andre 3000, Cam'ron, and the notorious homophobia of dancehall reggae all in seven short, witty lines is pretty exhilarating. (Not to mention the element of personal biography: Himanshu's father did briefly drive a taxi when he first came to the U.S.)

In a way I am the perfect listener for this sort of song -- as a postcolonial theory scholar and old school hip hop fan, I'm exactly the kind of person who, in college and then graduate school, might have been culturally multitasking on precisely these terms. At some point, I'm pretty sure I've listened to Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang while also trying to figure out Homi Bhabha's frequently baffling Location of Culture or Spivak's even more baffling Critique of Postcolonial Reason (interestingly, both hip hop and postcolonial theory can involve readers & listeners hustling to get to the bottom of deeply obscure references).

Despite the exhilarating moments, in the end I often felt a little let down by Das Racist tracks, mainly because the political self-consciousness and desire for critique seemed to lose out to a broader enthusiasm for lazier reference points: the banalities of middle-class American consumer culture, and of course the endless references to weed and booze. The booze in particular often troubles me (I'm agnostic on the weed), especially since so many accounts of Das Racist performances in recent years have described the trio as drunk on stage (Google "Das Racist drunk" to see what I mean). From Das Racist I wanted to hear more songs like "Ek Shaneesh" and "Fake Patois" and fewer that contained verses like this one:

Finna spark an L and have myself a Big Mac Attack
Known to rock the flyest shit and and eat the best pizza
Charge that shit to Mastercard, already owe Visa
Catch me drinking lean in Italy like I was Pisa
We could eat the flyest cage-aged cheese for sheez, ma
[Rapgenius]
Pizza, big macs, mastercard, visa, the leaning tower of Pisa... Oy, vey. Can we go back to talking about Arundhati Roy, Gary Soto, and Junot Diaz again? I was feeling that more.

To his credit, Himanshu has taken an approach on his solo mixtapes that seems a little more serious. There were the amazing Punjabi tracks on Nehru Jackets, for one thing (see especially "Chakklo," track 15).  But even more than that I was impressed by the searing condemnation of police brutality and corruption in "NYC Cops" (see Rap Genius again), which suggested, for a minute anyways, that Himanshu might be growing out of the consumerist small talk.

Himanshu's second mixtape, Wild Water Kingdom, wasn't quite as strong as Nehru Jackets overall, though I did think the track "Soup Boys," which samples the viral Indian pop hit, "Why this Kolaveri Di?" and nicely mixes the postmodernist randomness of Das Racist with elements of protest and critique (drone warfare, Islamaphobia, Hinduphobia... lyrics at Rapgenius).  Much of the rest of the mixtape, unfortunately, doesn't sound too great -- on several tracks, Himanshu's voice sounds ragged and hoarse, like he's been yelling too much. (Time to give the vocal chords a little rest?)

There's another story here too, which has to do with the way the band treats its women fans. A few weeks ago, a young woman in Iowa posted a pretty horrifying account of the band visiting her town to do a show on her Tumblr blog. It's an unverified [edit: uncorroborated] account, of course, and one should probably take the specific details with a grain of salt. Still, the picture it presents, of a booze-driven group of guys aggressively hitting on (or sexually harassing) female fans suggests a band culture that is seriously out of whack.

If this is what Das Racist is really like, then I can't help but be a little glad that they're calling it quits. Time to take some time off: sit down for a little, dudes. Put down your drinks and your ells. Reconsider. Then start again. 

6 comments:

Joseph Kugelmass said...

Amardeep,

Thanks for this great post! I'm going to comment first, share second.

Re: the band's stage presence, your claims make perfect sense. I haven't seen them live, and yet, from what you describe, I kind of have, & many times at that. That's what half the bands at Coachella are like.

I disagree about the two songs you quote. I find the first one obnoxious. It's name-dropping. Is he seriously examining Spivak's definition of sub-alterity? He sure isn't! I guess we learn a little more about his attitude towards Naipaul, but that reference leaves much to be desired. There are basically two verbs, both describing passive states: "I listened to X and read Y."

In the second song, the references aren't as classy, but there's an actual narrative (or, rather, as one often gets in hip-hop, a kind of coleslaw made up of many fragmented narratives). He gives in to MacDonald's, tries to brag about it, admits he's in debt, tries to brag again, admits he's bourgeois (he knows just a little too much about foreign cheeses). It's playful and vivid, whereas Song #1 is the graduate student version of a grocery list.

Maybe Himanshu is growing out of consumerism, but there's no evidence of that in "NYC Cops," a track arguably "about" his record collection. "NYC Cops" was the song the Strokes took off "Is This It" (for a while) because of 9/11, after which insulting NYC's finest on a debut record seemed too risky. So, that's the background, and then the foreground is a sample from Jay-Z's "99 Problems," which is probably a better song, and which obeys that one old weird tip -- show, don't tell.

I'm not going to defend either their drinking or the way they treated that woman who posted on Tumblr. However, by any standard, these are infractions, not felonies -- and by rock star standards, they don't even merit a second glance. The girl was sexually assaulted, and if she pressed charges, I'd be on her side.

At the same time, she clearly had no idea what she was doing. Was her theory that they really appreciated her thoughts and dreams, and invited her to the hotel room for a group reading of e.e. cummings? She bitches and moans about everything -- if I spent the night with an awesome rock group, and they dropped me off miles from my car, I wouldn't care at all. I would actively support the use of illegal fireworks. Das Racist didn't steal her Adderall. Her claim about pretending to be dead seems over-the-top. Etc.

The Beastie Boys sang about being drunk all the time -- in "Brass Monkey," for example -- and so do the members of the Wu Tang Clan. Booze and weed might be the problem here, but we can't be sure of that merely because DR sing about using both.

Sharanya said...

Hi Amardeep, thanks for writing this. Regarding the girl's harrassment, you use the term "unverified". How is one to ever verify sexual harassment? Isn't it this idea of sysmetatically validating a trauma narrative that encourages victim-shaming and blaming? Isn't it also what makes millions of women keep their testimonies to themselves -- because they're asked to "prove", and how is one ever to prove without being absolutely humiliated or further traumatized?

Additionally, testimonies hitherto silent for the same reason emerged with respect to other bands: these experiences of young female fans being harrassed are not unique to Das Racist, but it became a big deal particularly because of the way women of colour trusted them for their presumed intersectional politics.

Just some thoughts; I of course, speak as a woman of colour who was a fan before I felt alienated and confused by the way the whole issue unravelled. Thanks again for writing this.

zack s said...

Yeah, I'm likewise disgusted and disappointed with the group for the sexual harassment account, though perhaps not surprised. Aside from the lifestyle which Amardeep describes above, it's also true that people are capable of such behavior no matter how progressive the politics they espouse.

The criticism of the seeming discrepancy between 'serious' artistic/political engagement on the one hand and nonsense, irony, and references to 'low' culture (and a certain lifestyle) on the other in different songs -- hell, even in the space of single verses -- is something that I've also had trouble with. I'm hesitant to make pronouncements, though, on one side or the other, and generally appreciate when artists create -- and don't resolve -- such tension. The issue reminds me of a debate spurred by Steve Almond's Baffler piece on irony and political humor, focusing on Stewart/Colbert in particular, taken up on the US Intellectual history blog. See in particular the post about similar criticisms leveled against Thurber and White in the 20s and 30s, and (my favorite) James Levy's follow-up.

Amardeep Singh said...

Joesph (quickly), thanks for those good points. I was ok with the namedropping in "Ek Shaneesh" and elsewhere because I saw it as evidence that DR were readers before they were rappers.

You've got me reconsidering "NYC cops." The people at Rapgenius did mention the Strokes connection, but I was seeing the musical allusions and the attempt to enumerate a series of pretty awful incidents involving the NYPD as not self-cancelling.

Also I felt it was valuable as a 'pure' and non-ironic (at least not very ironic) critique. DR and Himanshu talk about racism and white people a lot, but they don't actually make arguments about race very much. This seems important especially in the current climate -- where it's becoming harder to make the case that South Asian Americans are straightforwardly "victims" of American "racism" (we/they certainly aren't targeted and stigmatized the way African Americans historically have been, and our financial privilege makes the issue complicated.) That song was one place where Heems went in that direction.

We could actually do a lot more with interesting rhetorical moves in their lyrics -- they have a lot of brilliant moments -- but I didn't want this post to get too long...

Sharanya, I see your point and I've been torn about how to respond to this. (Maybe a better word than "verified" might be "corroborated"). As Joseph points out, if she decided to press charges for sexual assault this would be in a different category of problem. As it is, she has sort of a strange comment at the end of her post along the lines of "let's all forget I said anything" and then a follow up post where she says, "I heard from Heems, so let's all calm the f*** down." I'm really not sure what to make of those comments. Did he apologize? Is she having second doubts about making this public?

In effect, what I'd like is for the band to actually acknowledge what was said and respond to it directly. Either say, "this didn't happen the way she says it did," or "this is more or less what happened and we're sorry."

My point in saying this is not to criticize the author of that post or undermine her, but to just kind of put in the qualification that this is a semi-anonymous person on the internet who made an accusation on a blog, so my response to it is a bit measured until something further comes of it. (I have had friends accused of various things by anonymous online individuals on blogs and in blog comments over the years, so I'm wary.) Any of the following would help: 1) a statement from the band as described above, 2) a further statement from the author clarifying what she wants to allege (it sounds like sexual assault to me; is that what she intended for us to understand?), 3) a neutral report from a journalist who talked to both sides and got some corroborating statements.

Sraosby901 said...

Dr. Singh,
Thank you so much for this post. This is maybe the best explanation of the group's ethos while taking into account all of the negatives - obviously their piece in SPIN was pretty congratulatory because it was written by Dap's brother and was trying to emphasize the things that people might not get about them.
Re: the sexual assault, I hear that the guys in the group are generally alright people when they're sober. A friend who booked them for a concert at her college said they were fine until they got very drunk and then were totally unpredictable - could walk off at any moment, had no regard for others, etc. She didn't mention any sexual aggression or assault, except maybe for one of the guys repeatedly hitting on a friend of hers, but that doesn't discount the possibility. The sad truth is that they're probably men with chips on their shoulders from past injustices (real ones, probably, as men of color) who likely act badly towards women when they cannot control their inhibitions. I went to a liberal arts college and knew way too many men like that - men whose progressive politics and intellectual convictions could not trump their insecurities and their angst, and whose antagonism and anger came out when they drank or did drugs and spilled over into their often-substance-fueled sexual encounters. These men cross race barriers, because I think this is traced to so many men feeling that they have to be tough in order to be respected, but I seemed to see it the most in men of color for whatever reason.
Re: the lyrical content, I wonder why people still keep talking about them as if their lyrics are inauthentic. They are authentic, even with their posturing. I think Dap's quote from the SPIN article was telling - jokes can be deadly serious and need not just be a way of avoiding the bigger questions. Das Racist isn't going to change the world, and I'm reluctant to think that most musicians do - after all, there were tons of people who hated The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Motown and all the other artists we valorize as massive agents of change. But, maybe since I'm 23, I'm a bit naive about who much my generation actually tries to avoid hardline political commitments.

sapera said...

very small thread on last.fm's das racist page (http://www.last.fm/music/Das+Racist/+shoutbox?page=1) where I made some comments on the subject, to which there was largely stony silence, but one guy responded and the conversation went thusly:

bandoleer: More like Das Rapist. http://gabetwee.tumblr.com/post/35257019932/regarding-the-time-i-met-das-racist

bostoncrab (me): @bandoleer, who the fuck knows what actually went down, but this - http://bradofarrell.tumblr.com/post/35959045319/regarding-the-time-i-met-das-racist srsly, white privilege.

bigbigander: "@bandoleer, who the fuck knows what actually went down, but this - http://bradofarrell.tumblr.com/post/35959045319/regarding-the-time-i-met-das-racist srsly, white privilege." seriously seriously. girl groupies out on a band and gets mad when other fans act normal and try to be social and THEN gets angrier when the band does drugs and actually makes a move on her (and they didn't even end up doing anything because she said no!). that girl's just not fit to got to concerts or somethin. on top of all that: http://gabetwee.tumblr.com/post/35791822135/heems-and-i-have-exchanged-emails-so-yall-can-calm they talked it over and the girl doesn't seem bugged any more. but people are still posting the story like it matters

bostoncrab (me): just to clarify, NOT SUPPORTING rape culture at all, but as @bigbigander points out, "girl groupies out on a band and gets mad when other fans act normal and try to be social and THEN gets angrier when the band does drugs and actually makes a move on her". I mean what the hell did she think was going to happen? More thought needs to be given to how slippery "consensus" is, the seamy nature of groupie culture, etc. Honestly, I am loathe to victim blame, but can't help but blame gabetwee for making some srsly poor choices. Also can't help thinking that entitlement despite having made questionable choices, comes from a white privileged place. However, more intersectionality needs to happen. We need more women weighing in on this. I'm out.

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Unfortunately, exactly zero women (or men) weighed in on that subject. At this point, I don't even know what to think anymore, post delhi gangrape, a long round of introspection about female agency under kyriarchy, I don't have any concrete takeaways at all.