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Among the most common complaints about indie-rap group Das Racist is that their music is “dumb,” “silly,” “immature.” That they’re “over-privileged liberal arts college grads” who are “making a mockery of rap.” A friend recently laid out his issue with the Queens- and San Fran-born, Williamsburg-affiliated trio like this: “They have nothing to talk about. Their music doesn’t make you feel anything.” And any self-respecting listener knows that music that doesn’t make you feel anything is a moot point. Duh.
On the flip side, though, Das Racist have a pretty robust following, comprised seemingly of New York Times journalists, Pitchfork writers—they got an 8.7 and were assigned the title of “Best New Music” by P4K—and tens of thousands of fans who downloaded Sit Down, Man, the second of two free mixtapes Das Racist released online this year. In these more positive conversations, they are often described as “self-aware,” “clever,” “impressively referential.” There’s talk of their “grasp on the identity politics of young America” and their ability to “weave between worlds and genres.”
Whether you’re a fan or not (the latter is discouraged, but respected), it’s pretty easy to understand why the conversation about Das Racist still isn’t over. The band—made up of MCs Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez (Heems and Victor, respectively) and hypeman Ashok Kondabolu—is one of the most intriguing and challenging acts to come out of hip hop in years.
Along with the likes of Kanye West and, I admit begrudgingly, Nicki Minaj, Das Racist’s role in hip hop is as much to challenge its staid boundaries as it is to exist within them. Sit Down, Man is a definite upgrade from Shut Up, Dude, with better beats and more aggressive rhymes and, though still inimitably witty, is a clear step away from the joke-rap category they’ve been lumped into. The dry, matter-of-fact lyrics include commentary about everything from drugs to African politics to Bollywood stars. For instance: “I’m smokin’ ganja weed/But, dawg, what about the Janjaweed?” And: “I’m countin’ Jacksons with black friends/I’m countin’ tens in Benzes with white friends/Wonderin’ if suicide’s a largely white trend/Google it later and confirm that; aight then.”).
Das Racist are accomplishing the difficult task of saying something while seeming to say nothing. But what are they saying exactly? Something along these lines: everything is serious, and nothing is serious. Everything can be contextualized, and everything can be decontextualized. Chill out bro, but pay attention too. There is nothing wrong with duality or plurality; in fact, that’s precisely what it means to be American and of this generation.
Heems and hypeman Ashok Kondabolu are from Queens, where they were raised by Indian-born parents; Victor is a San Franciscan of mixed Afro-Cuban and Italian descent. And, as he told Deborah Solomon in one of the year’s best interviews, “I don’t know if I am neither or both.” That in itself is a starting point for a discussion about identity that’s pretty much absent in the sphere of hip hop, but necessary in the context of 21st century America.
The part that’s difficult to grasp for detractors—and I wholly understand why—is that Das Racist represent a new kind of entertainment that is as much about the music as it is about the context in which the music exists. There would have been no space for them in music or in pop culture a few years ago, and certainly not pre-Google. On what planet would a rapper challenge—and decimate—a New Yorker cartoonist to a very public cartoon-off?
Point is: there may be better rappers out there (Heems and Victor themselves would likely disagree with this), but there are few who are as interesting. Hip hop has lately tended to err on the side of safe, tiring, predictable adherence to the standards of its subgenres: offbeat drum patterns for the J Dilla-loving backpackers; glossy, slick references to pop culture for the ones who prefer Japanese denim; boastful refrains about drugs and nice cars and women for everyone else. Das Racist, though, fit into none of the existing categories of rap, while referencing all of them. That much is clear after a few days of following Heems on Twitter, where he tweets as enthusiastically about Rick Ross as he does about Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew.
And so, while Das Racist’s music might not make you “feel something,” it’s bound to make you wonder.