Das Racist @ The Corner – 30/01/12
Das Racist are the best rappers alive.
That’s not a joke, and I’m absolutely not employing hyperbole or some metaphorical trick, I genuinely mean that, all things considered, Das Racist are the best rappers alive. I know that’s a statement that requires a little qualification though, and truthfully it’s subjective and largely depends on what you like about hip-hop and music and popular culture in general, but here are the facts: Das Racist are smarter than you. They went to Wesleyan which is where they met. Their sometimes free-associative rhymes combine pop-cult nostalgia and personal anecdotes to examine what can be loosely described as the South Asian experience in America while transgressing race, class and gender. Das Racist have more fun than you. They live in New York City and perform on TV shows with Michael Jackson impersonators. Das Racist are better looking than you, both because confidence is sexy but also because Himanshu Suri has lost a lot of weight recently so good on him.
Yet the most salient reason that Das Racist are uniquely superior is echoed by a girl I met, having asked for my lighter, outside the Corner Hotel after the show. Laura is her name, and out of a suspicion stoked by the possibly elitist belief that the people in Australia only want to see Das Racist out of comedic curiousity than genuine appreciation, I ask her what she likes about the group. She says, “Because they’re the only group who aren’t misogynistic assholes.” This segues into a discussion about sexism in hip-hop and the sanguine hope that if this one group can chip away at the glass and make other people see the cracks in the apparent necessity of misogyny in hip-hop then in the future we’ll get more groups like Das Racist: sardonic and smart and conscious of the fact that subjugating women for the sake of self-esteem is not just offensive but lazy and uncreative when there is so much more to talk about. Because it’s true: Das Racist are conscious of who they alienate and going by their records, they’re much more interested in dismantling, if not white privilege, then at least obliviousness to it, than in putting the pussy in the sarcophagus.
Das Racist originally seemed like a duo, that being Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez aka Heems and Kool AD, but on-stage they look almost like a four-piece. Those two shoulder the lyrical weight, of course, but the rest of the stage is filled out by hypeman Dapwell (Ashok Kondabolu) and Lakutis, another rapper in DR’s extended entourage and signed to their label GREEDHEAD. The set opens with a fifteen minute medley by Lakutis featuring material from his new EP, I’m In The Forest. Rapping with a similar flow to Das Racist, Lakutis takes the commentary that the former group are ‘joke-rap’ to the extreme with anthemic chants like “Fuck your favourite anything / I’m better than everybody”, taking the nuance out of rap braggadocio, and “I am a death shark / I am a blood eagle.” He leaps around stage with his wild brown hair swinging around his black leather jacket, looking more like one of the punks that hang around the stairs at Flinders Street Station than a hip-hop pioneer, but the subversion of those stereotypes is exactly why Das Racist are the most exciting thing that’s happened to rap music in a long time. Dap stands at the back of the stage mixing beats and looking quietly bemused. Lakutis steals a hair tie and then throws it away. The crowd is sufficiently warmed-up.
For the next 45 minutes, Heems, Kool AD and Dapwell dominate the show while Lakutis stands at the back, his pasty chest reflecting the warm stage lights. True to expectations, inside jokes are quickly formed, which I will now heretically explain here: shortly after the set begins, Victor asks the crowd if anyone wants a roll of Scotch tape and decides to turn the show into a pub quiz with a question sourced from the crowd. A young girl offers the following: What’s the only food that doesn’t go bad? The tape goes to whoever shouts out “Honey!” and throughout the night its miraculous immortality gets props and shout-outs from the rappers. It’s easy to look at their performance on Conan or listen to their irreverence and hear it as genuine apathy but despite Himanshu’s insistence that “I don’t need rap / I told you / Rap need me,” they clearly love the position they’re in and their exuberance cracks through the seemingly jaded exterior frequently, most visibly in Victor’s permanent and infectious ear-to-ear grin. It’s especially surprising given that their tweets and tumbls since they touched down in Australia suggest that this is the least enjoyable tour they’ve ever done, with Heems practically despondent nightly, but maybe it’s the unexpected turnout; whenever I’ve asked anybody if they knew about Das Racist, they either shot me a blank look or started singing that fucking Taco Bell song, but the facts that so many people turned out to see them both at Big Day Out and their sideshow and knew a lot of the words to deep cuts from their various mixtapes and their debut LP Relax has to elicit some sort of positive shock.
See, there’s an incredibly compelling cult of personality surrounding Das Racist, whose wit and exclusivity and ostensible indifference give them the air of unimpressionable cool kids who therefore would be immensely gratifying to impress, which might be why, despite the band’s hidden disappointment, the crowd were so vocally enamoured. That reverence is not held up by a power structure as vacuous as one might find in the Platonic high school but by intelligence expressed via racial and economic politics couched in the memetic language of popular culture, and the reason they’re so often cited as internet-rappers or some similar neologism is because the dominant paradigm in this subculture of twentysomething tumblr kids is a combination of high and low-brow that Das Racist expertly straddle. Some artists talk a good intellectual game by dropping the right names in interviews and generally come off as pretentious because the amount those alleged inspirations impact their music is varying and intangible, but with Das Racist it’s all in the verse; in music history, who else has so seamlessly transitioned from covering fast-food to Saved by the Bell to post-structuralist philosophy to foreign policy to deceased metal legend Ronnie James Dio as they do on “Rainbow In The Dark”, which finishes the set preceding the encore and gets the loudest reception?
Not a living soul, that’s who.
by Jake Cleland