Showing posts with label Desi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Desi. Show all posts

12.03.2012

Das Racist Splits up

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 they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and also some of what I found frustrating.

* * *

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 and 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, homes,
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 easier 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).

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).  


2.15.2007

MTV Desi, RIP

Back in 2005, I mentioned, with some excitement, the advent of MTV Desi, a channel geared to NRIs and Second Generation South Asian American youth. Now there are news reports that MTV Desi is getting axed, along with its sister diasporic channels MTV Chi and MTV K, as Viacom is undergoing a restructuring. Hollywood Reporter has an MTV executive making the following statement:

"Unfortunately, the premium distribution model for MTV World proved more challenging than we anticipated in this competitive environment," the company said. "As a result, MTV has decided to shut down its linear MTV World operation. However, we remain steadfast in superserving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens." (link)


Well, duh, if it's only available on premium channels on from one Satellite TV company (DirecTV), you can bet people aren't about to go out of their way to get it. I'm actually the only person I know who subscribes to the channel -- and it's only because my in-laws came to stay with us for a few months, and the channel came packaged with the channels they really wanted -- Star One, Star Plus, Star News, and NDTV. Still, I've actually spent some hours watching the channel, so it might be worth doing a mini-elegy.

First, the positive. The best thing I ever saw on MTV Desi was the following inspired rant by Parag Khanna.



There are some statements he makes that miss the mark (India isn't the poorest country in the world by the indices I've seen), but I appreciate the energy. Instead of being the embarrassed, cautious ABCD -- do we really know enough about India to comment on corruption? shouldn't we stay "positive"? -- he's taking a strong stance. (Parag Khanna might make a good blogger.) If MTV Desi is really dead, it's too bad we'll get less stuff like this.

But it should also be admitted that the channel currently plays far too much repetitious programming. The repetition factor can be especially bad when the old programs are tied in with a particular holiday -- as of last week, you would still see the occasional VJ wishing you a "Happy Diwali!" That's pretty lame, considering it's February.

Second, while I love having a TV channel that plays both cool Bollywood and Bhangra tracks and bands like Jahcoozi and M.I.A., far too many videos on the regular playlist are crass booty-shaking exploitation. I have a kid at home now, and while he's too young to understand why there are all these scantily clad blond women shaking their hips while a brown guy lip syncs about his adoration of "Paisa," it's still faintly embarrassing. In an ideal world, I would take the Kailash Khers and the sweet A.R. Rahman songs, and leave the Bollytrash out.

Third, MTV Desi has some pretty lame skits. The "F*#@ing with Eames" skit never made much sense to me -- why is it Desi? Who cares? The parody "Deep Throat" commercial was funnier, and it's too bad Viacom has had it pulled from Youtube.

Most of the music videos one finds on MTV Desi can readily be found on Youtube. And they aren't likely to be pulled for copyright reasons, since most of them derive either from Indie bands like the brilliant King Khan and BBQ Show, who actually want the potential for free publicity online, or Indian music companies, who simply haven't been putting very much effort into that sort of thing.

So really, at the current moment there isn't truly a need for a channel like MTV Desi, especially if you have to pay for something a dedicated blogger/video podcaster could do in her basement for free. Most of the music content could be aggregated, and original content (like the Parag Khanna rant above) could be generated by enterprising college students with video cameras, again for free.