There’s not a single pop-culture meteorologist who could have predicted the strange career path of Brooklyn hip-hop crew Das Racist. The group first gained national attention in 2009 with “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell,” an irresistible, sharp pop gem camouflaged by an absurdly cloying aura thanks to its unforgettable chorus. The following year, Das Racist dropped two excellent mix-tapes—Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man—that showcased the skilled wordplay and quick-witted spitting of core duo Himanshu Suri (also known as Heems) and Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.). This year the MCs, along with hype man Ashok Kondabolu (Dap), released their official debut album, Relax, an effort that streamlines the group’s hilarious and compelling spin on race, history, pop culture, and hip-hop into a radio-friendly style.
In just a few years Das Racist has evolved into the kind of complex act every ethnomusicologist dreams of writing a book-length thesis about. Before Das Racist plays the TLA tonight, The A.V. Club asked Suri and Vazquez to reflect on their hip-hop project’s ever-changing dynamic by discussing how different outlets have described the group.
“The Rise Of The Black Hipster,” The Root, May 19, 2009: “Das Racist, a hipsterish band comprised of Queens-born Kumar and San Francisco-born Victor Vazquez, matches hyphy dance beats with lyrics about ‘the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ that could speak for the ‘hood or the nearest gated community. And why choose?”
Himanshu Suri: That one, it’s sort of interesting ’cause obviously people think we are—well, one of us is black. One of us is Indian. So it’s weird. People think we’re Arab. That was an article on black hipsters, so I just really didn’t understand why anyone was asking us anything about that.
The A.V. Club: So why did you talk to them? To clear the air?
HS: Almost any time we talk with somebody from the press, the idea is that it will lead to us making money by people buying records or that it will help make people want to buy tickets to the show. This was one where we were trying to—it was like 2008 or something; we just did it. We weren’t going to be selective. You know, when people write about you, you don’t really get to set the record straight.
But to a certain extent, yeah. People from, I wouldn’t think “’hood or gated communities,” but I would say that, yeah. I mean, it [speaks to] a bunch of different types of people, whether it’s like college kids or whatever.
“Wryly Rapping On Race (And Fast Food, Too),” The New York Times, July 23, 2009: “Das Racist formed at Wesleyan: if the Hoover administration promised a chicken in every pot, perhaps what the Obama era has to offer is a joke-rap ensemble at every liberal arts college. But Das Racist’s lack of piety has become an aesthetic of its own, with songs that are as much commentary on hip-hop as rigorous practice of it.”
HS: I think Jon [Caramanica] is a good writer, but I think the bit about the Obama administration, joke-rap at liberal arts colleges was weird. Maybe there are a lot of liberal arts college humorists that get down with rap groups. I just don’t know of any of them. It’s accurate enough. We like rap a bunch. We did it.
AVC: Why do you think that’s weird?
HS: I don’t know that there are a lot of weird college humorists. I know he’s obviously trying to not be literal, but if you want to know about what real liberal arts joke-rap kind of groups are out there, how many other ones? Maybe on other college campuses there are, but I don’t see it really.
“Das Racist: Thanks, Internet!,” The Village Voice, Jan. 19, 2010: “We were asked by Rob Harvilla, who interviewed us this summer, to write a piece about ‘how ‘Internet fame’ looks from the inside.’ At one point, he typed the following and it appeared in our Gmail: ‘rough sort of timeline of your year.’ He summarized the piece as ‘Our Year as a Meme.’”
AVC: Was that weird to be described as a meme?
Victor Vazquez: Nah, it was pretty true.
AVC: Was that a chip on your shoulder you had to work against?
VV: Nah. You can call it a meme. It is what it is. I’m not mad. It’s the reason that we’re being paid to do this right now.
AVC: You have two mix-tapes and an album now. Do you feel like you’ve surpassed the point in your career where people just see you for the small chance you might play “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell”?
VV: Occasionally people will ask for it. I don’t know…
“Das Racist: ‘We’re Not Racist, We Love White People: Ford Trucks, Apple Pies, Bald Eagles,” The Awl, Sept. 28, 2010: “I tell Himanshu that I think Das Racist is a project about race with some jokes and pop culture and internet references in orbit around the race issues, and not vice versa, and the Pitchfork review of their mixtape, which actually contains such a grave misapprehension of Das Racist’s mission that I think it is what prompted me to text Himanshu, only mentions the word “race” one time and glosses over how racially-focused their music is. I tell Himanshu that their Pitchfork review was like a 1000-word review of Silence of the Lambs where the writer only mentions the serial killer one time, or a review of The Little Mermaid that only mentions an undersea princess one time, and he thinks for a second and agrees.”
VV: I would say, yeah, that’s true.
AVC: Having released more music since then, do you think people are more aware of the racial complexities you bring up in your music?
VV: I’m not sure if I care.
AVC: Why don’t you care?
VV: I feel like, I guess I care. I get kind of tired talking about it, and that it could just be that I have a job that’s very easy and cushy.
“Order Moves In On Chaos, As Rappers Go Legit,” The New York Times, Sept. 13, 2011: “The battle between expertise and amateurism is all over ‘Relax,’ and was all over the group’s album-release concert at the Bowery Ballroom on Monday night. ‘Relax’ is their most polished work, but for an act that thrives on purposeful fumbling and ostentatious displays of lyrical density, polish is not always an advantage. The lyrics still sparkle here, but Das Racist continues to think of songs as opportunities for inside jokes and references, first; for absurdist performance, second; and as music, third.”
VV: I think that the definition of music doesn’t need to exclude the idea of an inside joke or a reference or absurd performance.
AVC: As far as making those one and the same, have you succeeded in what you were trying to do?
VV: I don’t know that we were trying to do that. We were basically trying to make an album that was kinda poppy that was us, and then also make it something that we just like. So I think we did that.
“A Brooklyn Rap Crew Defies Its Name,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13, 2011: “Although Das Racist is only now releasing its first proper album, Mr. Suri says he can imagine returning to Wall Street someday, and hinted that the group may not last much longer. ‘I imagine in the next year or so people will get bored of it and they’ll begin to hate it and we won’t get to make as much money off it,’ he said with a laugh.”
VV: Yeah, that sounds like a possibility.
AVC: Have you guys discussed disbanding?
VV: Sometimes, but I don’t know. We don’t have a plan in terms of that.
AVC: You’re all putting out solo mix-tapes soon. Do you plan on continuing music, period?
VV: Yeah, I would like to continue doing music.