3:23 PM CDT, October 13, 2011
Das Racist started as something of a lark, two former college acquaintances riffing on not fitting in.
Himanshu Suri, of Indian descent, and Victor Vazquez, who has a Cuban father and an Italian mother, met about a decade ago at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., when Vazquez was a resident advisor at Suri’s dorm. They both wound up in Brooklyn a few years later and bonded over a mutual affinity for hip-hop, especially as a means of riffing on serious issues in a not-always serious way.
Sarcastically yelling “That’s racist!” at random images on television to amuse themselves became a jumping off point for raps that blended surrealism, satire and commentary. Soon a loose-limbed hip-hop group was born.
“He was my RA and for three, four years we had our own friends in college,” Suri says. “When we moved to Brooklyn in 2007-08, he was in another band (Boy Crisis) and a lot of our mutual friends were also in bands, so it was something to do. It’s not like we were close friends at first, but we finally hit it off because we were these brown kids around a lot of white people at Wesleyan, and even in New York we were feeling outside the American discourse on race, which is so centered on black and white. We both didn’t want to be rappers -- we were 24 years old at the time, and we felt too old to be rapping. But we realized we rap about the same (stuff) and think about things in a similar way. We became friends making those first recordings.”
They recorded five songs in their first session, including “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” an absurdist song with an addictive quality, much like fast food itself. The song racked up tons of heated Internet commentary (both pro and con) and earned Das Racist comparisons to Cheech and Chong, a Dada twist on hip-hop that had “one-hit wonder” written all over it.
But the duo was just getting started. Two 2010 mix tapes, the quirky hodge-podge “Shut up, Dude” and the more accomplished “Sit Down, Man,” established their credentials as MCs with inventively loopy rhyme skills that mashed together high and low culture with deceptively laid-back assurance. A new album, “Relax” (Greedhead), Das Racist’s first official release, marks a new step in the group’s development.
“The most difference to me between the mix tapes and album is that we weren’t messing with samples as much, since I was putting the album out on my own label, so we use a lot more of our own production,” Suri says. “Going into it I had a clear idea of what kind of sound I wanted to do, along the lines of psychedelic rap or slacker rap. We did songs like ‘Brand New Dance’ and ‘Selena’ in that style, but as we got deeper into it, I wanted to incorporate more elements of Indian production. I wanted to talk about being Indian instead of referencing writers who have talked about being Indian and the diaspora, to move from talking about the post-colonial canon to being a part of it. Bring more of my experience of it.”
So the group wanted to be taken a little more seriously?
Suri laughs. “I wanted to be a little more sincere,” he acknowledges, a trait for which the group was not always recognized.
“At first, we put some music up on MySpace, it caught the attention of some people, and when it’s happening, you don’t think about whether people are going to associate you with a novelty,” he says. “You just think, ‘Holy (expletive), I’m on a (music) blog!’ ‘I’m in the (New York) Times!’ ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,’ that song still serves as a microcosm of some of our earlier music, when we played with repetition more. I don’t hate that song now. How could I? It was the Trojan Horse we used to break into music. Vic was already signed to a label for Boy Crisis, but I wasn’t making music until the five songs we did that day, and that song gave us a start.”
It’s how quickly the duo has evolved since then that is perhaps the bigger surprise. On the new album, they work with producers from the rock bands Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend to expand their sound.
“I wanted to play around with the idea of a prog-rock production aesthetic for hip hop, which is why we ran everything through a space echo,” Suri says of the new album. “We do try to experiment with perceptions of what a mix tape can be, a pop song, or a hip-hop album. It’s always about experimenting in different subgenres of rap for us, and piecing them together to create something that feels new to us.”
Suri bridles at the idea that the duo is making fun of hip-hop, even though they frequently undercut hip-hop clichés in their raps.
“There is this divide between mainstream and underground in hip-hop, which tends to lead people to assume we’re putting down the mainstream,” he says. “But I’m not making fun of rap, it’s one of the things I know best and joke about. I feel comfortable talking about it like I do race or current events. We have a sense of humor about rap, and we do call out some of the more ridiculous parts of mainstream rap, but we also call out the whack parts of underground rap, and that (expletive) is just or more annoying than some of what goes on in the mainstream.”
What’s evident is that Suri and Vasquez feel there’s more room for humor in hip-hop.
“Kanye West is a real amusing mainstream rapper,” Suri says. “He writes jokes in his raps. Overall, the humor is still there, but definitely not as much as before in hip-hop. So with us it becomes a conversation of what you want from rap. What are your expectations? We’re trying to find out what people want, and why, and how people have preconceived notions of rap and how rappers are supposed to act. Our music is a way of looking at those questions.”
Das Racist: 8 p.m. Oct. 20 at Reggie’s, 2105 S. State St., $15 and $18; ticketfly.com.
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