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.
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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 AttackPizza, 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.
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
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.