Nov. 4, 2011
Better than: A typical night at Ruby Skye.
Don't blame Das Racist. The words "Ruby Skye" didn't bode well for a successful hip hop show at a club known for pedaling desensitized four-on-the-floor thump to a roomful of slithery homunculi and their glossy, well-medicated brethren. The 8 p.m. billing seemed awfully early, but any available space at the venue's entrance and box office were used to issue stern warnings that the show would be vacated by any means necessary come 10 p.m., at which time the venue's regular denizens would be taking back the place.
Initially the idea seem inspired. What better way for the sardonic trio to up the irony than play at Tiesto's usual San Francisco haunt? Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the members of Das Racist weren't in on the joke -- especially when their microphones stopped working.
Things started promisingly. Danny Brown, the lionhearted Detroit MC with an unyielding, frenetic delivery, was the highlight of the evening. He paced menacingly about the stage, sometimes halting to remove his coonskin cap haircut from his face, other times squinting to survey the crowd like a Magic Eye picture. Brown's voice will never be hindered by sound issues, and is a more captivating instrument than any beat. Enthusiasm was high, and the crowd of a hundred or so coalesced with the hopes of turning the show into a house party.
After a brief intermission, the headliners sauntered into view. Appearing almost certainly from a brilliant cloud of marijuana backstage, the trio charmed and postured before the crowd before launching into song. Or dived, as Victor Vasquez, the foreseeable gymnast of the group, did. Somehow this made me realize that Das Racist's swagger really is no bullshit. It's one thing to get up on stage in a narcotized and unfeeling haze, projecting halfway intelligible prose, but it's another thing to throw yourself off a platform with full conviction that you will be carried and celebrated.
And they definitely needed to be carried at times. Entire verses were swept from the record, and group members came to the aid with replacement mics. These, being equally defective, did nothing except give the audience the dubious pleasure of watching three or four people double-fisting microphones. No matter, because almost everyone in attendance seemed to know the words to each song, turning mime into karaoke.
The members of the group were visibly disappointed, though. Vasquez multitasked, toying with his phone while rapping. Maybe he was tweeting about the show's dysfunctions? Hypeman Ashok Kondabolu became agitated after an audience member grabbed his leg, and was quickly restrained by Vasquez from further inquiry. De facto frontman Heems played the world's tiniest air guitar, and pounced across the stage wearing a hooded sweatshirt on one shoulder. This is not an accident. He has been photographed wearing his sweater on a single shoulder throughout the tour.
Marred by technical difficulties, the group settled on filling the stage and scrapping their losses. Even if you couldn't hear what anyone was saying, it didn't seem as important anymore. If a party can ever be considered performance art, this was the moment.
It's hard to say why Das Racist, even if they're joking or not joking, don't offend more people. After all, the group hides nothing -- the race-reversal chastising is part and parcel with its humor. But the white-majority audience rejoiced in their own demonization, danced, flashed marquee sized grins, and wanted more.
Not enough people seemed to recognize Boots Riley from Oakland's The Coup. Fresh off a victorious week that saw the activist-rap legend acting as an impromptu spokesman for the Occupy Oakland movement, Boots was animated. Giving the ride-slow hook of Dr. Dre's "Xxplosive" a sense of urgency, Boots waved his knee-length naval coat like a cape, blending his trademark social commentary with, for lack of a better word, pure funk.
The recent vintage stylings of rapper/producer Trackademicks, creator of the best "Tell Me When To Go" remix anywhere and capo of the Honor Roll Crew, didn't fare as well. His microphones went dead almost as soon as he grabbed all two of them. A real shame, because a Trackademicks performance, full of personality and swagger, usually manages to usurp any headliner.
Ambiguously Caucasian rappers Lakutis and Despot were met with some confusion by members of the crowd expecting a veritable brown power rally. Frequently a white person wondered aloud who "who the white guy was." Enter the Das Racist wormhole. Overlooking their lack of melanin, both are magnetic performers, in particular Lakutis, a drugged up, absurdist Jewish casanova who in one fell swoop compared his penis to a baby's arm and chicken parmigiana.
The only expectation at a Das Racist show is that you will dance, laugh, and share an appreciation for esoteric references. In that respect, it was a complete success. What was especially evident on Friday night's show is that, despite what the group might hope for, these are still brown guys making black music for a mostly white audience. And, as the Middle Eastern, Jewish, and Indian comrades exchanging pleasantries at the urinal would later attest to, maybe there's nothing wrong with any of this.
Personal bias: I am Indian. References to either white sophistry or "demonry" are relevant to my interests.
Random detail: Aesop Rock was seen bobbing his head. No word on which side of the inevitable race war he'll join.
By the way: Ruby Skye's managers double book the place. At 10 p.m., a limousine deposited a throng of women in very short, sequined dresses. This was met with confusion and pleasure by exiting Das Racist enthusiasts.