Sitting in an East Village Thai café with Himanshu “Himi” Suri and Victor Vazquez of Brooklyn-based rap duo Das Racist, it’s tempting to imagine our dining experience triggering them to pen a new song–something about how the (scalding, dangerously spicy) Tom Yum soup we’re eating jars horribly with the “world fusion” music lingering in the background and what that represents on a sociopolitical scale. After all, “exotica” and food culture kitsch are recurring motifs in Das Racist’s lyrics, which bravely tuck swift-witted cultural critique into the lexicon of a dimly observant stoner. The ironic tension of tragedy and travesty in Das Racist’s music is akin to the experience of watching a devastating newscast segue into a McDonald’s commercial. Their career hallmark to date, “Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell”, is a dichotomy of moronic brilliance–a skittering dance-rap number that shouts-out the local hybrid grease pit while lampooning the crass American consumerism it baldly represents.
When the first thing an act shares with their audience is their love/hate consumer relationship with Yum! brands, there’s a high risk of that group being labeled as “disposable” as the fast food they regularly ingest. Miraculously, most audiences were clever enough to “get it”, securing Himi and Victor membership in the nebulously formed Brooklyn art pop collective, alongside fellow Wesleyan grads MGMT and Amazing Baby. For the record, Das Racist’s similarity to those acts ends with sharing an alma mater and polemic supergroup, Boy Crisis.
Das Racist aren’t nixing the gastronomic metaphors just yet (“Chicken & Meat” is another early highlight of their nascent recording career), but while the duo may thrive on the novelty of disposable products, they are by no means a novelty act. “We‘re just two brown dudes doing shit”, Victor says of his band’s identity (or rather, refusal to adopt one). “We get labeled a comedy act, but Lil’ Wayne doesn’t? Have you heard his lyrics?”
Obviously your lyrical content is cultural commentary dressed up as stoner humor. But what topics are central to the Das Racist “message”, if one exists? Himi: Consumerism? Race relations? Poverty? It could be very easy to list, like, seven motifs present in our music. But I think if you listen to our music, what we address comes out on its own. I don’t want to put limitations on how people perceive something that’s very much open to interpretation. You make something and put it out there; sometimes people will interpret what we do in a way we agree with, sometimes not. Victor: We could be like Noam Chomsky and make it our job to catalogue all human tragedy. We could sit here and talk about how many people live below the poverty line or that most of the world’s wealth is owned by 2 percent of its population. It’s not like we haven’t read the statistics; we’ve internalized emotionally why things are wack. But we can express those feelings in a way that is natural to who we are as people, and as artists. H: But there are three or four songs we’ve just worked on, where I expend more energy talking about rockism and the nature of music criticism than discussing something far more important–or even less important, but more enjoyable.
I was just going to bring up your semi-notorious “rebuttal” to Sasha Frere-Jones’ claim that hip-hop was dead last fall. V: I think a lot of people misinterpreted our response to him as us defending rap, or us saying it isn’t actually dead. But the crux of my argument was that his argument was pointless. It was unnecessary. H: If you really want to write a piece on why Freddie Gibbs is good–which I agree with–that would be great, but why do you need to beat a dead horse and bring up that “rap isn’t what it used to be”? V: And he builds that argument upon a presupposition of what rap even is. To be honest, I think the whole thing got blown out of proportion. I don’t really read the dude. I’ve only ever read two of Frere-Jones’ pieces: the Freddie Gibbs and the infamous one that claimed Arcade Fire didn’t “swing” enough. There’s nothing wrong with investigating what tropes originated in Africa vs. Europe and how they crossover into pop music, but at least place some qualifiers on it. H: At the end of the day, he’s a very powerful voice in music journalism. He’s not an evil guy or anything. I think he has deadlines like everything else. And getting involved in his debate actually won us exposure. He even responded to our rebuttal via Twitter: “Well played”, he said.
You brought up “rockism.” What is an example of rockist critical bias in 2010? H: It’s interesting that there is more information available than ever before, thanks to music blogs, yet there are still journalists that are not well-versed in the history of rap music or our musical reference points, yet consider themselves qualified to judge it. Their “Top 100 albums of the Year” list have maybe 4 rap albums on it. It’s like, “Really? And you’re in a position to judge the music that I’ve spent my life internalizing?” V: Well, I think a lot of it goes with the territory–we’re not really making “regular rap.” The only people who are going to take notice of it, at least first, are the music geeks, most of whom are coming from an indie-rock background.
In your eyes, has the band been misunderstood or received fairly? H: Actually, the majority of critics have a favorable opinion of us! But it’s hilarious that people assume the opposite; see how many people will comment on our youtube videos and say, “I don’t care what anyone says–you guys can actually rap!” But, really, we’ve been seriously lucky to have some great things written about us. Of course, I’ll appreciate it more when that praise translates to numbers in my bank account! [laughs]
How do you afford to live in NYC? V: I was mostly living off the Boy Crisis advance until about a year and a half ago, and then I just sort of became really broke and owed my roommates a ton of rent and went into debt and shit. I do get money from shows, and–randomly–I was in a beer commercial. Well, actually, I wasn’t even in the commercial, but I got paid to show up for six hours in a costume. H: We pick up odd jobs. I got a gig writing for Fuse TV and for the Village Voice. I also manage some bands.
How has the recession affected the city’s “creative class”? H: It’s not like the bars in Williamsburg are empty by any means, you know? You can chalk that up to people coming from money–”trust fund kids”– but I think a lot of people are just on the grind, doing their thing, making ends meet. Some may come from upper middle class parents, but they are still out there, making music, and struggling. But the good thing about art in a recession–perhaps more than music, which is consumed by the general public–is that there’s always someone out there wanting to buy it, to collect it. The Brooklyn music scene is definitely an inspiring place to be at the moment. We are surrounded by people making art, independently. It’s all good.
Have you pissed off anyone lately? H: Last week, we played a Haiti relief covers show that was pretty divisive in nature. We said we were going to cover Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys. Well, we hadn’t listened to the album in a year and basically improvised it–irreverently–and it rubbed people the wrong way, especially New York Magazine. who were quick to link back to an earlier article that selectively focused on me getting kicked out of a bar. A four hour interview with the writer was edited down to that.
Does that make you feel pigeonholed? V: I think you have to hate the game, not the player. Editors have to cut out the parts where we talk about critical theories–because no one cares about them–to the part where they can mention a drunken stage incident whatever. Putting the spectacle over the content. H: The thing is that everyone wants a mission statement from a band; they want to know what you’re “about.” The media asks us questions they don’t ask other bands because we don‘t provide easy answers. To be fair, what we’re doing is far more niche, much more difficult to comprehend. But we often just do things without comprehending as we’re doing it. It won’t be til the next morning that we have the perspective to realize if something we did is “cool” or not. Not to compare what we do to Andy Warhol, but he went about his art in the same way–spontaneously creating a high/low dialogue.
A new Das Racist mixtape is released this Spring. Catch them on tour now.