Das Racist member Kool A.D. will forever be tied to a certain fast-food spot that, at least according to rap lore, exists somewhere along Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York City. But before he christened himself Kool A.D. and enjoyed the career-launching success of "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," the rapper Viktor Vasquez grew up in the Bay Area. He recently paid tribute to his local roots with the mixtape 51, named after a bus route Vasquez used to ride through East Oakland. He calls the project "something nostalgic to encapsulate how I felt when I lived there."
51 is lit up by collaborations with Bay Area rap staples: The Coup's Boots Riley, "cloud-rap" breakouts Main Attrakionz, and noted rapper/producer Trackademicks all feature heavily, and the latter recorded at least half of the mixtape at his studio. Their contributions are embellished by Vasquez, who, in characteristic talk-rapping style, issues a stream of warped pop-culture references. On "La Piñata," a vocal sample from Mister Rogers contrasts with the rapper's declaration that he's the "Jewish Mel Gibson" and the "black Bart Simpson." (Vasquez is of Indian descent.)
51 plays out much like a celebration of the best of the Bay Area's grassroots hip-hop scene, but it was actually the local punk arena that gave Vasquez his first musical opportunities."I stated out making music with a handful of people that were in a couple of punk rock bands," he says, noting that at the time he was mainly a drummer. "I was in a band called the New Earth Creeps, who I think still occasionally play shows in the bay." He was also involved with a group called The Wasted, which morphed into American Terrorists before settling into the name Fukm.
Trackademicks, who heads up the local Honor Roll Crew hip-hop collective, remembers Vasquez at that time being "very artistic but real quiet." The two attended the same after-school arts program; he says Vasquez used to draw comic books that were "real crude but pretty funny, with lots of stick figures." (Vasquez even contributed the artwork to the first mixtape curated by Trackademicks' DJ, Tap.10.)
Through those after-school sessions, Vasquez and Trackademicks considered forming a standalone group. "We never got to recording anything," recalls Vasquez, "but it was [Trackademicks'] brother and this other chick, so kinda like an R&B group that was inspired by the first N.E.R.D. album, kinda like a Kelis thing."
Instead, Vasquez left the Bay Area to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then decamped to New York City, where a lot of his friends ended up. It was there that his new group, Das Racist, formed with fellow M.C. Heems and hype-man Dapwell, began its rise. But Das Racist's considerable success — which includes recently signing a record deal with Sony — also reminded Vasquez of his roots. After touring solidly for a year, he felt the need to "kinda decompress," and so returned to the Bay Area for a monthlong spell that was part recuperation and part creative kicks.
"A lot of those days were spent running around, catching up with old friends, getting way fucked up and recording music," he says. "Being back in the bay was refreshing. It was helpful."
Listening to 51 underscores this. There's a breezy ease to the project that sets it apart from Das Racist's often abrasive sound. The collaborations with Main Attrakionz in particular come off like classic home-grown rap: "Town Business" (which also features Trackademicks) runs with a throwback '80s vibe, while "Oooh" charms with Vasquez reminiscing over local spots where he used to hang (Candlestick Park; 17th and Martin Luther King), and confessing, "My bad, I slept through the session yesterday/ But, yo, you got to admit though, that's hella bay." (Vasquez confirms that he did inadvertently nap through the first intended session with Main Attrakionz.)
While on hiatus in the Bay Area, Vasquez admits that he thought a lot about the idea of moving back, although for now he sees his immediate future in New York City due to the demands of the business side of his music career. But the area's pull on him is still strong, and he's already at work on a sequel to 51. Originally titled after the No. 63 bus route in Oakland, he's now decided to call it O in honor of the Transbay bus. "People always talk and write about me as the Indian rapper from New York," Vasquez says, "but my roots will always be in the bay. That's not gonna change."