Let’s be honest. You’ve probably followed the story here, and this mix tape is FREE, so it’s hard to imagine you need my recommendation to check out the current cream of indie-rap. So, to make it useful and entertaining, I guarantee this review will contain vital information on the following:
- A taxonomy of nerd subtypes and their interactions
- Das Racist analyzed as a new watershed in hip-hop self-consciousness
- Telling the group members apart
All that, plus at least two racist slips on my part, one subtle and culturally ingrained, the other overt and ignorant.
Pronunciation: As others have pointed out, it’s not “Doss Racist,” like Das Boot. It’s “Dass Racist,” as in, “That’s Racist!”, or, to probably use my ignorant racist slip too early, “Dat’s Raciss!” Especially with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” the German pronunciation made a lot of sense, suggesting an act that would be doing intentionally offensive, inconsequential satires of arch-artsy club acts. But the right pronunciation — the black American pronunciation — shows that these guys are actually both silly and serious, mocking racial sanctimony while obviously really caring about the subtle slights of everyday American life for people of color.
On Nerds: That same balance of caring and goofing runs through the music on Sit Down, Man. I think the most important word Das Racist drop again and again here is one that we as a culture have neglected for far too long: RAP. Something went really wrong with hip-hop starting in the late 90s, when too many committed fans started looking for ideological purity and consistency in the music, trying to push out all the glorification of violence, acting dumb, and (especially) fucked-up gender politics that defined super-popular gangsta rap from that period. This faction started self-righteously calling ‘their’ music hip-hop, and defining anything too fun or stupid as “just rap,” in tones suggestive of the PMRC, as if listening to this “rap” would give you chlamydia. While some of the music that came out of that push toward high art/pure politics still justifies itself (most of the Def Jux catalog), a lot of it is simply dead inside (every Talib Kweli solo record) because it doesn’t understand that hip-hop is about self-contradiction and, more importantly, fun.
Mostly, all that’s behind us, but Das Racist set fire to the remnants of the backpacker era. While they definitely have a political agenda, it never overshadows the group’s clear love of party music, having fun with words, and jamming funky beats. “They call us joke rap/ We kinda weed rap/ We just like rap, we don’t even need rap.” The production here is impeccable wall-to-wall and covers a lot of territory. Some of it is gimmicky, sampling Enya and the theme from General Hospital. But it’s all huge and head-nodding, and a lot of it’s dancefloor ready; I’m particularly psyched to drop “Rapping 2 U” and “You Can Sell Anything.” Then there are the more purely aggro tracks like “Rooftop” and “Roc Marciano Joint,” doing street menace in a way that, two years ago, you never would have guessed they could pull off.
Of course, these two guys met in the dorms at Wesleyan, so the acting here goes without saying; but at this point, I think most rap fans have figured out that their musical idols don’t necessarily live out the fantasies they describe. Without being throwbacks at all, Das Racist are a tribute to the history of hip-hop, both in the way they move between styles and in dropping constant allusions to Black Sheep and Nas and Biggie, just the kind of oblique puzzles that made hip-hop hypertext before Google (“If you find out all the reasons we the shit, then you the shit”). Their biggest lyrical reference point is more recent, though. I only caught one explicit Cam’ron mention, and considering they also get to The Doors and (at least twice) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that can’t be read as much of a flag-wave. But in a line like “Release the peace keeper/ Cheef to Pete Scheesa/ Smoke a peace pipe, ride ’em cowboy, seeya,” the Killa spirit runs through every parallel sound and choppy phrase. Sit Down, Man is full of tight interior nonsense rhymes, two-steps-removed punchlines, and references just oblique enough to reward the informed.
Das Racist replace Cam’s drug slang with indie rock and pop culture. You know you’re crossing boundaries when you reference Kanye West, Robin Harris, and All Hour Cymbals in one line: “No way way, no bay-bay/ That’s 18 years like Yea-say/ Too much to pay-pay.” Or maybe slightly more obvious, “Call me Dwight schrute the way I eat beats.” Or, “Haters mad, ’cause they got Costanza dicks/ You know, like the show, Seinfeld?” That aside is maybe the most unique thing about Das Racist lyrically. They’re like rap’s Mitch Hedberg, providing commentary on their own punchlines (“That’s kind of funny, right?”), mocking themselves when things don’t quite work (“Just like… pretend you know what I’m talking about, you know?”), and telling the audience to “Google that” when they drop a teaser they know most people won’t get. If rap used to be CNN, now it’s the internet with all comments enabled.
Telling Them Apart: You’ll notice I haven’t attributed any of the lines above to specific rappers. It’s well known that white people such as myself are bad at telling People of Color apart, and DR have already publicly complained about misattributed rhymes (yep, dat’s racist!). But it’s kind of a trap; technically there are three members of Das Racist, though as far as I can tell only two of them rap, and both of these sound less like they’re Brown than like they’re Really Laid Back. I think (think!) that Victor Vasquez is the even slower, more smoked-out of the two, with a voice that rarely rises above a low rumble. Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. Heems) is (I think!) the tighter of the two, with more of the fast and furious Cam’ron-style lines to his credit. But honestly, they don’t have hugely distinct voices, and they don’t shout themselves out often enough to help listeners really get a handle on it. So actually, I lied, I can’t offer much help with this.
If there’s any weakness to Das Racist, it’s that occasionally you can tell that they’re still working on the noble balancing act between silly and serious. As they put it, “We’re not joking/ Just joking/ We are joking/ Just joking/ We’re not joking.” Occasionally, they tip over to one side — “Fashion Party” is unsubtle and self-serious satire — or the blend just doesn’t quite work — “Julia” is a schizophrenic swing from screwface to goofy afrobeat. But those sorts of missteps are inevitable when you’re putting back together something that’s been broken for a while.