You should listen to Das Racist

I had not heard of until I listened to the new Das Racist album Relax, which contains the following quatrain:

Rap Genius dot com is white devil sophistry

Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees

Google ad technology is artificial karma, B

Rick Ross on the radio at the pharmacy

That’s from “The Middle of the Cake,” whose lyrics you can find interpreted on the aforesaid RG-dot-C right here. Das Racist you remember, of course, from like 40 Friday links ago, when they delivered an extremely satisfying interview to Deborah Solomon of the New York Times. They’re the band of one Punjabi guy and one Latin guy who met at Wesleyan, plus one questionably employed hype man. They had a jokey internet hit with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” in 2009, and now they have a less jokey, more hooky bunch of songs in Relax, which I personally consider the best hip hop album of 2011. You should listen to it. Song after the jump.


First of all, I think we can all agree that we should refer to both new money and high-quality marijuana as “Fran Drescher” from now on. That opening line is one of many, many obscure allusions in “Middle of the Cake,” which is so deliberately abstruse as to constitute a sort of surrealism. The second line of the couplet—”I’m straight up out of Queens but ain’t no Tec up on the dresser”—is a fairly recognizable reference to a famous Nas line, later and maybe more famously invoked by Jay-Z. We’re into third-degree allusions, now, and it’s only the third bar of the verse. The next two lines, about what is up on his dresser, are “just a bunch of dusty books and a statue of Ram / or Hanuman, a big framed poster of Veerappan.” Veerappan, as every schoolchild knows, is a famous Tamil bandit.

Here we recognize a primordial thrill of hip hop. I remember the confusion I felt when I first heard Ad Rock claim that “I got more hits than Saruhara O,” and the frisson when I learned that Saruhara O was a legendary Japanese baseball player. My reward for repeated listening—and a little research, which was a lot more difficult pre-internet—was to be in on the jokes. This process mirrors the larger experience of rap, particularly for white people. It is baffling at first, and then you start to understand it and, through it, another culture. In 1989, that culture was urban black people. In 2011, hip hop is a culture unto itself—a truth that Das Racist consistently both exploits and advocates.

Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez are not the kind of people who are supposed to rap. They met at Wesleyan and they are basically hipsters, as a Google image search will confirm. Instead of being hard-ass gangsters in the 50 Cent mold, they’re smartass kids from Queens—the kind of kids who listen to hip hop. Within the cultural conceit of rap, they are not “real.” Yet they are almost certainly more real than the swaggering caricatures who populate the ostensibly gritty world of, say, Rick Ross.

Mr. Ross, appearing on the radio in a Rite Aid near you, suffered a famously mean backlash last year when it was revealed that he worked as a corrections officer—and not as an international cocaine kingpin, as his raps had implied. It turns out he’s just a dude with a great voice who likes cars. Part of hip hop is the fun of this sort of posturing, but it comes at the expense of another important part of hip hop: the sense of party people speaking truth to power. “911 is a Joke” was a club jam about how emergency services are underfunded in historically black neighborhoods. “Wangsta” is about how 50 Cent is constantly shooting people and hanging out at the dealership.

In this context, raps about how people assume you’re Puerto Rican when you’re actually Punjabi feel bracingly honest—the real “real,” if you will. More importantly, they’re catchy as hell. In the contained frenzy over Das Racist’s cultural implications and complex lyricism, many media profiles overlook their extraordinary skill as songwriters and technical emcees. Heems probably is the second-best rapper with glasses, as he claims. Das Racist is smart in part because they remember that rap is still club music and therefore needs to be a little dumb. It’s a constraint of the form that legions of clever but boring backpack rappers have overlooked. I submit that Relax is great often because it knows when to be bad, as Victor Vazquez’s first verse in “Girl” demonstrates:


Now you have to listen to it every day.

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  1. I’ll have to give this a fresh listen. I went to a Das Racist show this spring, and couldn’t understand a single word they said; the sound was terrible. I’d blame the venue, but the group must’ve signed off on the sound check.

  2. Das Racist is surely fun. But best hip hop album of the first half of 2011? There’s a lot of good hip hop out there.

    You should listen to Talib Kweli

  3. Tim G posted, almost word-for-word, what I planned to post here.

    I will give the new album a try, but I haven’t listen to them since April 13 when they showed up about an hour late for their set and damaged my hearing permanently for thirty minutes with repeated eagle screetches. Afterward I realized they’d also stolen $20 out of my wallet, plus gas. So fuck them, at least, live.

    I’m happy to be mocked for my white skin which gives me a disease, but not for going to their shows. I am assuming they intentionally made their show bad as part of their “are we for real? You may never know” facade. Either that or they were just high and didn’t give a shit, which seems as likely. If I wanted to have a gap year after graduating Wesleyan, going on tour with my joke-rap group while being high seems like a reasonable thing to do. If I’m an asshole that is. Joke’s on whoever buys a ticket.

  4. Das Racist has some good stuff. Pizza hut taco bell is stupid.
    But there is some other good hip hop out there. New cat named L Dash has fresh ish. Songs about video games, classical artists and pulling cons. Check It

  5. Best hip hop album of 2011? That’s a pretty bold claim in a year that’s seen Goblin and Black Up, to name just a couple.

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