Das Racist

27 February 2013

An obituary of sorts by Sean Watson.

In the final days of December last year, Das Racist was scheduled to parade onto the main stage of Munich’s On3 Festival. But instead of being greeted by the irreverence of a rap trio all decked out in ironic and fluorescent sportswear, the audience were perplexed to find Heems—the group’s founding member along with Kool A.D.—come out alone to perform a solo set. By way of an explanation, he announced that not only were the rest of the band not able to join him that night, but that they were in fact calling it quits. “Das Racist is breaking up, and we’re not a band anymore.”

While this wasn’t as unexpected as it initially seemed, with both of the founding members releasing solo mixtapes earlier in the year, it still came as a palpable loss. Fans loved them for their deft rhyming abilities, outlandish sense of humour, and charismatic live performances. Critics admired them for their capacity to critique modern hipster irony and remain thoroughly entertaining while doing so. But the key to Das Racist’s success, and their importance in the industry, didn’t rest in their intelligence alone. It was that they were able to use those smarts to not only craft their wildly shambolic music but to address the current social climate, all the while remaining intensely aware of their role in it.

As their wide-ranging cultural references would eventually lead you to believe, Das Racist’s smarts were fostered by solid upbringings and formal education; Victor Vasquez (aka Kool A.D) and Himanshu Suri (aka Heems) met at Wesleyan University in New York. Suri has since worked in the city’s financial sector and owns a record label. Vasquez moonlights as a visual artist. They have both openly discussed a passion for fiction writing and postcolonial literature. With backgrounds like these it’s initially baffling to hear raps like ‘Tiny ass hamburgers / tiny ass cheeseburgers / tiny ass chicken sandwiches.’ That is, until you get the shtick.

Das Racist rose to prominence (or notoriety, depending on where you stand) with ‘Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell’, from their free 2010 mix tape Shut Up, Dude. It was chant-like in its repetition, consisting solely of Kool A.D. and Heems arguing via mobile phone over a papery, laptop beat. Later in the same year they released Sit Down, Man, again a free mixtape, with guest spots from the likes of hip-hop overlord Jay-Z. It wasn’t until 2011 however, when they released their first and final album Relax, that they reached the height of their abilities.

With Relax, you get Das Racist in their most concentrated form—without forgoing any of their wild eccentricities. From the moment Kool A.D. intones the record’s first example of linguistic pyrotechnics to the ultimately silly climax of ‘Celebration’, Relax is a no-filler record of style, groove, satire, dissonance, melody, name-checking, and reflexive social commentary. The beats shift from uncontainable electro to up-tempo R&B without warning and the vocalists are versatile enough to swing between the melodic and the monotonous concurrently. And, in a refreshing departure from the trappings of self-absorbed modern hip-hop, it retains a humorous timbre for the entirety of its duration.

While their separation may not signify the end for Kool A.D. and Heems’ respective careers, it’s difficult to imagine their solo work retaining Das Racist’s sense of intimate energy. Still, maybe there is hope that their music has sown the seeds for a more politically useful brand of hip-hop in a time when the genre is floundering for life. ‘What can I give you / that you would actually need?’ they ask at the end of Relax. Like any artist, virtually nothing. But the fact that they cared enough to ask says it all.

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