Das Racist: Higher Learning
Das Racist aren’t for everyone, which is to say if you’re stupid, you probably won’t like them. Theirs is a stream-of-consciousness kind of rap, a balance of bong rips and biting racial commentary flooded with YouTube memes, in-jokes, shout-outs, opinion-page fodder and pop-culture detritus. They’re smart, they’re stoned, they’re brown, and they’re good at rapping.
“We just do a bunch of shit and narrow it down to stuff our friends like,” explains Victor Vazquez, one half of the Bushwick, Brooklyn-based duo. The group name-checks everyone from Stephen Hawking to Coretta Scott King, and yet somehow, their raps never seem forced. Maybe because they aren’t. “I try not to overthink [the lyrics] too much. Usually I just type it into a Gmail, record it and then forget it until we have to play it—sometimes we even listen to shit in the car on the way there,” Vazquez says.
In late 2008, Vazquez and partner Himanshu Suri scored the spotlight with the track “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” an absurdist riff on, well, nothing. The repetitive, but addictive, track had just one lyric — “I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” — and yet it was hailed as “an existential meditation on consumer identity in corporate America” by one reviewer, who was hardly the only gusher. “It’s both feverishly juvenile and somehow profound.”
High-low? Check. But profound or not, Suri and Vazquez, who play shows with hype man Ashok Kondabolu, proved they could actually rap on the 2010 mixtape Shut Up, Dude. When they weren’t waxing poetic about weed, Gchat, street meat or Dwight Schrute’s beets and cheesy ravioli, the duo culled from world politics and social theory a self-styled “Wikipedia Brown”–like approach that sent fans to the Interwebs scouring for references and lacing up lyrics pages with hyperlinks. Pitchfork blew a load, shows got bigger, and things got interesting.
The tape gained them fans and tour dates and led, eventually, to a late-2010 release entitled Sit Down, Man, featuring everyone from El-P to Despot, with production by Diplo and others. Another tour followed, and occasionally, someone would actually heed their rider request for a copy of Wesley Snipes’ Blade in the dressing room.
“What? We just like Blade,” Vazquez explains, fresh from a stint in a friend’s SoHo studio, where he had been working on a third release, tentatively titled Relax. Both Vazquez and Suri still crash in Bushwick, but it’s SoHo where they’ve been spending most of their days on the new release.
“There’s a lot of pretty European girls here, and pretty other girls that are not European,” Vazquez points out. “Pretty girls from America,” for example. And, “there’s a lot of big stores for rich people.” And, “there’s street meat close to Chinatown.”
Street meat is a recurring theme in the group’s music, and that of the Chinese variety was on Vazquez’s mind. Earlier in the winter, the group had traveled to China, where they gorged on local fare and visited an art district that reminded Vazquez of SoHo’s ragged art roots.
“An art district... is just people giving money to people they think are cool,” Vazquez said. “Any other pretense is absurd. It’s this weird netherworld between the classes that kind of is classist [itself] at the end of the day.”
At the time, patronage loomed large for the group. Vazquez and Suri hadn’t yet signed with a label, despite critical acclaim and interest, and weren’t really sure they wanted to. Do you play coy? Follow the industry maxim that the best way to get signed is to act like you don’t want to be signed? Why bother — hasn’t even playing the rebel gone mainstream?
“At this point it’s been hella codified, so what do you do with that?” Vazquez said. “Get guns and overthrow fools? I’m also trying to eat, to pay rent. We just had a song in Parenthood and I’m caking. And that’s fine. I think I had that whole Basquiat moment a year ago and have been trying to climb out if it ever since.”
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of ANTENNA.)