Das Racist wants to be taken on its own terms. Sort of. The Brooklyn-based trio consisting of Himanshu "Heems" Suri, Victor Vazquez, and hypeman/ "spiritual advisor" Ashok Kondabolu has spent more time discussing the group's motivations, identity, and place than perhaps the members like to. Hip-hop is known to have a peculiar fascination with the "authentic" -- especially if its practitioners refuse easy categorization. It's a world of blacks and whites, with little tolerance for the middle. If you fall outside of what Suri calls "money rap" -- a materialistic, braggadocio-heavy style whose reign began in the mid-'90s and continues to dominate -- the tendency is to be labeled either "underground" or a "novelty."
"People need to often convince themselves to like something," Vazquez says in response to the term "joke rap" being used to describe the group. "As long as we're getting paid, I'm not really mad at whatever people want to call it."
"Joke" and "rap" are the obvious elements of the Das Racist experience. But there's also postcolonial criticism, cultural commentary, and, of course, the occasionally salacious proposition to the opposite sex. With lyrics that include citations of neo-Marxist Frankfurt School treatises, White Castle hamburgers, Carly Simon and Carl Thomas, the line between comedy and high art is navigated with a knowing wink. What gives Das Racist vitality is its prescience. Rap enthusiasts increasingly trend towards the middle-class, and have long given up the ersatz fantasy that one can relate to music brimming with allusions to gunplay, drug dealing, and a scaled down version of class warfare. The music of Das Racist is exhilarating because it both embraces and makes fun of this divide, and acts as a kind of polestar for an audience trying to connect with a medium that struggles to find a place for them. Instead, Das Racist created such a place.
The three members have a reason to feel confident. Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal are just some of the publications that have praised this group. But some of the publicity was contentious. When it seemed like Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker's pop music critic, had prematurely eulogized hip-hop, Das Racist issued a point-by-point rebuttal on the cultural news site Flavorwire. The group argued that rap isn't one clearly understandable concept, with a definite beginning and end -- it represents the mechanics of how a couple of different generations can bear history. "Y'all know how I spit: half Internet, half high school cafeteria shit," Suri summarizes on "Power," the closest thing to a posse track on Relax, the October release that debuted at number three on the iTunes hip-hop chart.
There's no need to overstate the significance of finding your first album right alongside the ostensible successes of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV and the Kanye West and Jay-Z co-release Watch the Throne. And instead of being dismissive or weary, the group is actually pleased, even a little shocked, at the success of its debut. "It didn't feel real. It felt fake," Vazquez allows. But he's quick to muse that "it doesn't probably meaning anything anyway. Everyone will just download it, right?" He ponders this for a moment before going slightly further, wondering if Das Racist actually deserved better. "We were probably number two. I heard that a lot of people from Cash Money bought Wayne's album."
It stands to reason that the 14 tracks of the album would be more structured than the group's previous mixtapes. But that's also not immediately apparent. Even with the club potential of numbers like "Punjabi Song" or the anthemic "Michael Jackson," Suri and Vazquez are always casual, sometimes completely aloof. "First I get real smart -- then I stupid up," the latter remarks on "Rappin 2 U," a breezy, danceable track from their second mixtape, Sit Down, Man. The song also contains such winning lines as "haters mad cause they got Constanza dicks -- you know, like the show Seinfeld -- Michael Richards makes my fuckin' mind melt" and "I'm watching Gandhi till I'm charged and eating banh mi."