posted on: Thursday September 29, 2011
Tim Morris ’14/Asst. A&E Editor
Less than a decade ago, hip-hop cut American subculture down the middle. The genre became mixed up with gang violence, and soon after, two of its greatest performers—an Easterner and a Westerner—were dead before the age of 30.
Hip-hop has changed, and the presence of Das Racist is a sign of the times. For their genre, the group’s three members are unique: Himanshu Suri (Heems) and Ashok Kondabolu (Dapwell) are Indian, while Victor Vazquez (Kool AD) is of Afro-Cuban descent.
Das Racist owes its beginnings to Wesleyan University, the liberal arts college where Suri and Vazquez met in 2003. After the two friends moved to Brooklyn, they caught up with Kondabolu and added him to the group. The trio describes their early days in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Hanging out on a couch…talking about girls and Indian cinema, quoting Jay-Z and Cam’ron lyrics back and forth obsessively, and yelling at the dumb stuff they’d see on television.” The covers of their two mixtapes, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, play up this attitude; the compadres are sprawled out on a sofa with empty bottles littering a nearby coffee table. It summarizes their approach to rapping—that is, the musings of the young, college-educated, and slightly inebriated.
Das Racist’s style makes it difficult for critics to put an accurate label on its music. Back in 2008, the group sent “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” into the far reaches of cyberspace. The song saw immediate success with its catchy, repetitive hook: “I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Funny? Yes. Stupid? Not at all. Das Racist used ridiculousness as a marketing strategy, giving themselves a big enough audience for future albums. Now, their label is somewhere between comedic and cultural. Suri, Vazquez, and Kondabolu touch on everything from oxycontin to Hugo Chavez. Of course, issues of race are a common theme as well.
With listeners and critics wondering how legitimate Das Racist really is, the group delivers its response through its first official album. Dropped on Sept. 13, 2011, Relax asks the question: Does it really matter? Das Racist is more concerned with doing whatever they want than they are with legitimacy. If they want to be serious, they will. If they want to make jokes, they can do that, too. It’s not uncommon to see both attitudes on the same track.
This detachment is what makes Relax so effin’ good. Running around 50 minutes in length, the album opens up with the bass-heavy bambaataa of “Relax.” Suri does a little meditating here: “I’m not too sure if I should clue in the little kids, or if I’m too clueless to move with the bigger fish. Why it gotta be those two and not some other s***?” Fortunately, he chooses not to dumb things down. The second gem of Relax, “Brand New Dance,” makes outlandish claims: “I got a girl named Candy…She got three sisters, all lesbians. All of them do push-ups, all of them could whoop me, all of them do a hundred push-ups without even looking.” With “Girl,” Das Racist shifts the pace of its album. The track is more instrumental than anything else—think Passion Pit in the Bahamas.
The second track on the album, “Michael Jackson” is as close as the listener will get to “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Das Racist chants: “Michael Jackson! A million dollars! You feel me? Holler!” It’s just as lame as Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” and almost as tough to forget. Still, the best part about the track is its music video. Kidnapped by a Michael Jackson impersonator and his crew, Suri, Vazquez, and Kondabolu rap their way through a parody of MJ’s “Black or White” video.
For fans of Das Racist, Relax does not disappoint. The album sticks to the group’s distinct style of rapping—a mixture of humor, social issues, and nonconformity. Das Racist does not play by the rules of hip-hop, and this liberal arts dynamo is cocky enough to stay that way.